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The Great Nothing, Bushmen, dreams, fathers, Makgadikgadi, Kalahari Desert, Gustave Flaubert & Mount Kilimanjaro

The Makgadikgadi, a vast and flat saltpan in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, must be what the planet looked like before humanity appeared, and what it’ll look like after we’re gone. We’re riding quad bikes, the only means of transport on the soft saltpan, and as an environmental precaution we follow a single set of tracks that trace a line into the horizon—like a seam stitching the primordial and the post-apocalyptic.

When we break to eat, Ralph Bousfield, the man who led me here, says, “Now you understand that no matter what anyone ever tells you, the world really is flat. It’s totally, completely flat, and it’s an undeniable fact, as you can see.”

The immensity is hard to take in. An urban-dweller’s mind needs signs, or trees, something to give the world measureable parts. But here, horizon to horizon, is an undifferentiated landscape, like an ancient desiccated sea of salt and minerals without any reference points other than mottled prints of shadows cast by the clouds.

“Columbus didn’t know what he was talking about,” I say.


I came to Botswana, a country in Africa’s deep south almost as large as Texas, because I craved this feeling, the exhilaration and discombobulation of awe and splendor. It’s why I travel, to see places of scale and harsh, numinous beauty, to leave the world I’m used to, for the chance to look beyond the sclera of the everyday and be reminded of bigger things.

We’re dulled by canned experiences, closed off by what we can’t see, blinkered by what we can.

Sometimes I wonder if such a quest, traveling for that feeling of wonder, is becoming more elusive. Consider how travel has changed. When the French writer Gustave Flaubert arrived at the Sphinx, he was so overcome that he wept. If anyone weeps at the Sphinx now it’s probably due to the unrelenting purveyors of postcards and camel rides there. We’re dulled by canned experiences, closed off by what we can’t see, blinkered by what we can. Light pollution prevents most of the populated world from seeing the stars. So we stop looking up and they fall out of our consciousness. Paradoxically, we see too many images of travel destinations and are overexposed before we arrive. We’ve seen it all already.

We know vaguely what we’re supposed to feel. And in some ways that’s part of the problem. On the way to the Taj Mahal last year, friends said, “Just wait to see it in person”; “Pictures can’t do it justice.” For me, the pictures were better. They were taken at times of day when the light brought out resplendent color in the mausoleum’s masonry and its long reflection pools—when there were no cornball tour guides herding crowds of people to snap their own pictures. The one thing I could not feel at the Taj Mahal was a sense of wonder, and I think that is symptomatic of a kind of modern affliction. A certain sensation is fading. For travelers, it is the death of awe.

But now, a few days into this journey, I’ve found it, alive and intact, here at the end of the world.

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In fact, it just looks like the Great Nothing.

At twenty-four thousand square miles, the Makgadikgadi (meh-CADee-CADee) is a Switzerland-sized wedge of the Kalahari Desert. In fact, it isn’t the end of everything. It’s the beginning. It was here, ten million or so years ago, that life as we know it emerged.

Nor is the expanse barren. Within the great pans are grasslands and woodlands where seeds bloom. There are palm trees and baobabs, meerkats and big cats. There are two seasons, wet and dry, and toward the end of the rainy one, thousands of zebra migrate across the plains. The entire food chain is here, including people—mainly the indigenous nomadic Bushmen and subsistence farmers, who know how to find what they need to survive. And, of course, tourists.

But not that many tourists. One of them was my friend Staci. One day she took off looking for awe and ended up on Mount Kilimanjaro, in Kenya. Then she took buses headed for South Africa. Along the way, she stopped in Botswana, and after a couple of days she couldn’t bring herself to leave. She Skyped me and talked about how being there had filled her heart. The more she spoke, the more I felt myself wanting to go. I also felt some envy that she was there and I wasn’t.

I wanted to see it. I wanted to get off the grid.

Awe isn’t just landscapes. It’s also people, especially people who have access to the essence of a place. They’re people of awe, who perceive shapes and stories in stone mountains, who hear animals speak and who gaze up to the stars for personal messages from their ancestors. As travelers, those people can be beyond reach. Instead, encounters are limited to those serving you or who want to sell you something, relationships of mutual suspicion and condescension. Most tourists are shy or simply don’t know how to ask; others are afraid to offend or look stupid. We hide behind camera lenses, aiming to capture evidence of an experience that wasn’t ever properly lived to begin with. The picture might work, it might intimate something greater, and if it doesn’t, hey, the picture can’t do it justice, right?

Ralph, who took me into the Makgadikgadi saltpan, has spent his life here. He has guided professionally and knows the region well. His family has lived in Botswana since the mid-1800s. Southern Africa has been a place of adventure and prosperity for him, and also of tragedy. A few years ago his 21-year-old nephew was hiking and fell off a cliff to his death. At 51, Ralph still wears his blonde hair long and uncombed, and sports moleskin pants and boots. On his right arm is a veritable museum exhibit of bangles and bracelets: Somali, Nigerian, Angolan, snakes, chameleon eyes, all with a theme of protection, representing a kind of body armor.

One day, in the late afternoon, we meet up with a group of Bushmen, the indigenous nomadic people, also known as the Khoe (qway) and the San, who have been crisscrossing the desert on their own for a long time.

Most are draped or wrapped in traditional garb, the men girded in leather of elands, the Kalahari’s largest antelope. They have on beaded headbands with bright colors and carry sticks that they use to move earth and pull up roots. They don’t normally dress like this, nor do they live this way all the time. Whether they should be dressing up or agreeing to meet visitors by arrangement is a controversy. But this is their heritage, and when they use the sticks they use to move earth and pull up buried roots, they are also getting in touch with cultural roots.

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The elder, Kgamxoo Tixhao, has a bare, hard, bulbous belly suspended over an eland thong, and it’s evident that his authority comes from his age and his knowledge of customs. One thing he doesn’t know is English; he speaks only Taa, the Khoe language of clicks. A young woman named Xushe translates for us. Xushe thinks it is important to stay connected to the ancient customs, though she knows they’re being lost. I ask what they are, and Kgamxoo, a name that is said in two clicks—making it impossible for me to pronounce—seems amused by my questions. He doesn’t know how old he is because Bushmen don’t mark time in years. He figures he’s pretty old. And he is old, though his skin is smooth and the others still admire his prowess as a hunter. With each question, he and Xushe volley a few exchanges. He says something that makes her laugh, and she returns serve, and he laughs, and so do the others. They’re having a good time. Then she gives me a very brief, sober answer that leaves me thinking something is getting lost in the transmission. Or if maybe I’m not yet worthy of complete answers.

So we walk. Xushe pulls up a plant she believes is an elixir. “If you love a boy and want him to love you back, you do this!” she says, and playfully she blows it on a man named Cobra. He is probably three times her age. His gray hair is arranged in miniaturized dreadlocks. Cobra, who speaks English, points out the “house of a scorpion.”

“He is sleeping now,” he says. “We make a fire and he will come out.”

“I think they want to stop and have a smoke,” Ralph says.

Kgamxoo, whose brother starred in The Gods Must Be Crazy, the 1980s cult film, works a stick between his palms over a nest of twigs and in a few seconds he has it smoking. Once upon a time people would have gasped to see someone throw a switch and light up a city; now I have that reaction at how fires were made for most of human history. Cobra picks up the nest and blows it so that a cloud covers his face. The fire ignites, and they use it to light hand-rolled cigarettes. The men’s faces disappear behind a cumulus of tobacco smoke.

It’s one of life’s small pleasures. But modern life doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of larger ones. Indeed, in some respects it has become downright inhospitable. The Bushmen are very poor in general, and the fear is that their way of life, their animistic beliefs and rituals, persistence hunting in which animals are chased to exhaustion, will disappear altogether. Although they’re the indigenous people, their population of 55,000 is a tiny fraction of the country’s two million citizens, and it is a very slim minority of that minority that has any connection to the life in the bush that their ancestors lived.

The Gods Must Be Crazy and Laurens van der Post novels,” Jeff Ramsey, an advisor to President Ian Khama, told me, “that’s not this country today. That really doesn’t exist anymore.”

Still, the threats they face, namely globalization and climate change, are common to tribal people all over, but they are also specific, including actions by the Botswana government such as forced evictions after the government leased large tracts of the Kalahari to diamond miners.

On January 1, 2014, the country also banned hunting in national parks. It’s ostensibly a conservation measure, but opponents say it threatens to catch the Bushmen, whose culture is tied to hunting. A tribal-rights advocacy group, Survival International, has gone so far as to call for a boycott of Botswana tourism until the law is struck down. The group says that even as the government uses images romanticizing the Bushmen to sell tourism, its policies and actions will kill them off. The government says that except for a relative handful of Khoe, the group has left nomadic life behind and that the U.K.-based advocacy group and others are ginning up a non-issue.

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Cobra returns to the scorpion and digs out a dust-covered yellow creature the length of his palm, with a long curling tail and claws like a hard-shell crab. He quickly subdues it, then stuffs it in his mouth and starts working his mandible in a chewing motion. He isn’t eating it. He’s rinsing the creature with his saliva so we can seem him better. When he takes it out, the scorpion is bright yellow, with a black chest and huge black eyes on a tiny, eerily expressive black face. I don’t know if it’s really enraged or that’s just something I assume.

Cobra lets it pinch his finger.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I ask.

He shrugs no. I recall that the measure of a Bushman is the ability to take pain. Suffering, Kgamxoo told me, is how the ancestors decide if a person is worthy of crossing the portal into other worlds and visiting them. Cobra is an elevated individual. He is also, I think, a bit of a performer.

For his final trick, Cobra puts the scorpion into a trance. He holds his palm flat and rigid, so the creature, which has been flailing, probably intent on revenge, has nothing to grip and gives in. It looks like it’s sleeping with its eyes open.

He quickly subdues the scorpion, then stuffs it in his mouth.

The sun sits on the edge of the horizon, spraying saffron and pink light, then it rolls off into the night, leaving us in darkness. What comes next is either mysterious or an astonishing and convincing piece of performance art. As an outsider, it’s hard to know.

The Bushmen prepare to visit their ancestors by piling heavy pieces of wood and making two fires. They draw a circle on the ground around one. The women sit shoulder to shoulder and begin to clap and sing; I sit with them. The men tie rattles around their legs and march in short, hard steps, stomping the earth a half step at a time, circling the seated women clockwise like second hands.

At first the mood is lighthearted. They laugh. The singing is cheerful. I’m told the lyrics are not words but sounds. The desert is so profoundly quiet that when there’s sound it seems almost to bounce back off the walls of the surrounding darkness. The song, clapping, stomping and rattling, and the rising voices, the pitch getting higher until the rising intensity makes it like a lamentation, layers of song and pleading that is meant to be felt through one’s whole being. The fire’s intensity also grows, the flames crackling in a kind of dance of their own. Seated with the women, I can feel its heat on my hands and face.

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Kgamxoo’s body glistens from sweat. His face is changed. It’s etched and furrowed like an ironwood carving. His eyes are distant and haunted. I’m sure there is a rational explanation, maybe the exertion, the heat. Whatever it is, he is here yet not here. In the bush I had asked him if communicating with ancestors was with words or something you just understood, and I’d asked if the ancestors were people you knew yourself, like a mother or a father, or just people from the past. The only answer I had been able to make sense of was his belief that the portal to other worlds was hard to get through, and that the ancestors sent sickness and pain to test a person’s worthiness to enter.

He staggers, walking with his knees bent, listing forward. He makes high-pitched shrieks into the night. He steps toward the fire. It’s not quite right to say he walks on the burning embers because he moves so slowly it’s almost as if he’s standing on them. He’s not withstanding pain; he doesn’t even notice it. Now he buckles forward toward the flames. The other men grab him. He stands upright, sags, regains his balance. He squats and gathers fistfuls of dust and wipes his face and begins walking behind each of us, putting his hands on our heads. I feel the grit of dirt on my hair as he recites an incantation and moves on to each of the others.

The bestowing of blessings winds things down. The fire goes out, the air feels like cold breath.

The place opens you up. The absence of external barriers breaks down the internal ones.

Ralph tried to glide the plane between two trees, but the wing caught one and spun the fuselage as they crashed.

We talk about our fathers. Mine, who was always happy for me to go out and pursue dreams he didn’t really relate to, is bedridden. He’s sick from his demented head to his cadaverous toes, trapped in a bad dream, desperately wanting to be released. It has been dragging on and on, depleting him and me both, and after debating the matter of whether to come to Botswana, I had decided it would be a chance to clear my head.

This is what happened to Ralph’s friend, Jack. In 1992, Ralph, who was almost 30, was piloting a small plane out of the Okavango Delta, the massive wetlands in the north, with his girlfriend, Catherine, and Jack, who was just shy of 70. Shortly after takeoff, they had a mechanical failure. Ralph tried to glide the plane between two trees, but the wing caught one and spun the fuselage as they crashed. The propeller took off part of Ralph’s quadriceps and sliced Jack’s forehead. Ralph and Catherine got out, but Jack was trapped. Jet fuel spilled and ignited. Ralph plunged into the fire as Jack shouted at him to get away and let him die. The flames tore into their skin like teeth, and by the time Ralph had pulled Jack out, he’d suffered burns on forty-five percent of his body, some flaying flesh to the bone. Jack, burned on eighty-five percent of his body, died two days later. Ralph spent four months in an intensive-care unit in South Africa, trapped in the hell of his own body. The massive nerve damage and skin problems are why he wears the moleskin pants and the boots.

As we walk back to our camp, inadvertently kicking stones on the crusty, rocky desert floor, stars shoot across the dark horizon. It’s not exactly silent, and the earth itself seems to vibrate. It’s the rising hum of insects and nocturnal creatures beginning to move, the diurnal ones. Then a sound tears the curtain of dark, a pride of lions roaring in the night.

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The next day, we’re deep in the Great Nothing. We cross horseshoe-shaped dunes, ancient riverbeds and dried-up lakes at the bottom of the Great African Rift. We cross the grassland next. The saltpan starts in a chain of islands in a sea of crusty sand. A light wind comes up. The only sound is the low hum of the quad bikes, the only vehicle that can cross the pan.

Little white cones of dust in the distance gather into a sandstorm that turns down the wattage of the sun. My head is wrapped in a kikoi and I have on sunglasses, but it all gets in anyway. I taste dirty salt, ingesting what must be a multiple of the recommended daily allowance, and my eyes feel like someone is trying to strike a sulfur match on them. I want to close my eyes and stop, but we need to get through it. I squint at the ground and keep rolling, warm tears running down my cheeks.

The world is definitely coming to an end, but we push on. Finally we find our way to a grove of baobab trees. Baobabs have elephantine trunks and twisting, gnarled branches. They are the iconic trees of southern Africa. They are enchanting. They can live for 5,000 years, but when they die they deteriorate in short order, leaving just a sunken patch in the earth and no visible evidence they were ever there.

We settle in, and eat, and have a drink as night falls. Then we turn in, each to his patch.

The Bushmen say that when you die you become part of the stars.

A profusion of stars perforates the black cosmos. Venus blazes; the Southern Cross looks like silver studs. The Milky Way, visible through the bare branches of the baobab, spills across the heavens. I look to the right and left and down at my feet, and everywhere I see stars. It’s so quiet and too dark to see anything else. I’m sure I’m the only person on the planet.

The Bushmen say that when you die you become part of the stars. They say that during the day the ancestors put out the star fire to go hunting.

Awe points you back into yourself. It’s a portal to revelation. “[I]f you gaze for long into an abyss,” wrote the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “the abyss gazes also into you.”

Eventually I fall asleep, and in this cool, pure air, my dreams are vivid. Along comes my father. He’s in a hospital bed. He’s on the phone. A nurse wants him to hang up. “It’s a call from Greece!” he thunders at her. “It’s my friend, Levitsky!” I bawl with laughter because I know he has no friend in Greece named Levitsky. He wants to know what’s funny. “I wish they’d just stop bothering me,” he says. “Why are you so grumpy?” I tell him I’m not grumpy, I’m just sad that he’s dying. “Okay, you can go now,” he says, grumpily, and adds, “I love you. Don’t I tell you that every day?”

These are things my father would say and do, but in the dream I understand his meaning: it’s not that I can go now, but that I need to let him go.

When I wake up, I look at the dawn sky through the thick-boned branches of a baobab. The residue of the dream lies upon me like morning dew, and it occurs to me that perhaps this is why Kgamxoo, the Bushman elder, didn’t answer my question about communicating across worlds. It occurs to me that maybe this is what awe is, coming into landscapes that are vast and peculiar, where the absence of external barriers breaks down the internal ones, and you feel something, grasping for some intimation of meaning, but it stays beyond the reach of words.

Todd Pitock has written for The Atlantic, National Geographic Traveler and the New York Times, and has had work anthologized in Best American Science and Nature Writing, Best Travel Writing and others.

All photographs by the author.

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