Sunday, November 15, 2009


This morning we ventured from our lodge at Tsumkwe in search of a San village, lead by our translator and guide, Leon; a San himself. I use the word ‘search,’ since the San are by definition nomadic. Even Leon, who has an intimate knowledge of the area, cannot know for sure where they are.  

Today was about establishing a comfortable and honest rapport, and making it very clear that we are simply there to spend time with the San on their terms. We are not staging events, or worse, re-creating sound bites for a tourism advert.

I decided to bring only half the crew – no need to overwhelm the San with several new faces and extra camera gear.  


‘There,’ says Leon from the passenger seat, his voice barely above a whisper.

After a 40-minute drive on the single dirt road, we have found our village.  The round huts, 12 in all, are all roughly the same size – the diameter of an inflatable children’s wading pool. We stop the cars, peer towards the ‘village of small huts,’ and prepare our gift.

According to the Nye Nye Conservancy  (the local organization whose mission it is to preserve and protect the San way of life), it is customary to bring an offering of tea, maize, tobacco, etc, all in a large Rubbermaid tub. We are careful not to bring too much, which could disturb the balance of social and economic order.

(There is a history of white / western man believing that he is doing good when he brings a boatload of cash and gifts into tribal areas. What this white man doesn’t realize is that after he leaves, the tribes often fight over such gifts… and their own system of currency frequently collapses).

As we enter the village several faces emerge from behind trees and huts – the faces of small children. They are cautious, and curious, but not afraid. It seems they are eager to come greet us, but they must wait for something first. Permission? A signal?

Both, it turns out. Leon introduces us to a small cluster of older men and women sitting in a circle – difficult to determine their age – and right away the San kids make their way toward us.

I want to focus my attention on the conversation with the elders, as Leon translates, but I can’t help but turn to the kids. I smile and offer a small wave, which they return; yet still they are cautious in their approach. 

Through Leon, the elders assure us we are welcome to stay.  Truth be told, it is not the first time they have been visited by a small film crew; and on the whole this is a good thing. It means they are open to the experience, and willing to share their lives.

To hear San language for the first time is a truly unique experience. It consists of regular vowel sounds, punctuated by a distinct clicking and popping. It is rhythmic, percussive and hypnotic.   

To put things in perspective: modern English has a total of 34 vowel sounds. That’s it. 34. The San, on the other hand, have a whopping 131 different sounds they make in their dialect. So I ask you – which is the more developed language? The more evolved?

In his incredible and alarming book ‘The Wayfinders’ Wade Davis explains that, today, there are currently 7,000 languages being spoken on the planet. However. Entirely 50% of those languages will disappear in our lifetime. Consider the implications of this. Language is just the canary in the coalmine, for when a language is wiped out, with it goes tradition, myth, learning, art, science, stories, skills, spiritual connections…

It’s a sobering and terrifying thought, and a large part of why, I think, we are doing this series. What goes when language goes? Pretty much everything. Think of it – half the languages in the world, gone, before we die. As a word guy myself … I’m concerned.  I’m worried.

ANYhoo… On THAT happy note… Check out THE WAYFINDERS by Wade Davis – it’s the 2009 Massey Lectures book (part of the series that includes Margaret Atwood’s PAYBACK from 2008). Davis in fact isolates the San as a perfect example of a culture and language that date back over 10,000 years.  A culture that for the most part has not changed.

Until recently. But thanks to the Nye Nye Conservancy, and organizations like it, the San have a chance. They are able to sustain a decent living by selling their beautiful hand-made jewelry and artifacts through the Conservancy. And, yes, from visitors like us. We are paying them for the privilege of entering their village – as we would pay for any permit to film anywhere else in the world.

…but as I sit with the San elders around the circle, enchanted by their language and humbled by their generosity, I can’t help but feel the need to do more. To help. It’s a natural response, I suppose, my middle-class gut reaction to poverty. There’s a real danger here in romanticizing the ‘other,’ with the arrogant belief that as a white man of privilege I can do anything to improve their lives.

Luckily, as I will soon discover, there are things I can do.

But for now, on my first day in the village, it is best to simply listen, and learn.  Check my assumptions at the door. And turn off whatever tap that leads me to believe I can fix this, I can solve this.    

Maybe there is nothing to be fixed, or solved.


The rest of the day was spent getting to know the San, as a people and as individuals.

By noon the sun was high and hot, and so we retired to one of the 12 huts. The women started to make intricate beaded jewelry from crushed ostrich eggs, and the men made  tentative plans for the next couple of days -- collecting honey, hunting for small game, a dance ritual… and music. Always music.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Day Four - Tsumkwe Lodge

We are deep into the Kalahari Desert now, and settled in at our final destination: Tsumkwe Lodge, in the heart of Bushman land. It is the only place to stay for 300 miles in any direction, and as such there is a certain rustic charm to the place.

The road into the lodge is a single lane, dust-covered route that becomes treacherous when it rains. So that’s maybe twice a year. We live in cabins with wooden frames and canvas walls, just like summer camp. The main lodge has a thatched roof, two dining areas and a bar/lounge area.  It is where we will end up spending most of our ‘group’ time together.

It is hot – what else is new? – so the entire company is having a siesta right now. It is virtually impossible to get anything done between 1 and 3pm here, which may present a challenge for us: the San are no doubt inured to the climate, and we are here to be with them on their schedule, and not ‘stage’ anything.

The last leg of the drive was quiet. And not because we’d turned off the radio, or stopped singing Tragically Hip songs at the tops of our lungs… My sense was, we were all thinking in our own way about the San. Expectations and assumptions. Hopes and fears, about how it would all turn out. A sobering thought: at core, we really had no idea how ‘it’ would go.

The drive was essentially a long, dry afternoon, broken up only by the occasional check point. These were unintentionally funny, since the guards were unarmed and they had no radios nor walkie-talkies (jealous?) …and we’re still not sure what it was they were checking for.

Funnier still, I don’t think they know what they were checking for. After all, our caravan of four vehicles is stacked with film gear in black hard-shell cases. In other words, we look like we’re carrying enough illegal guns and drugs to outfit a small military coup. But no-one stops to ask us ‘whatcha got in there?’ We just smile and wave. They wave back, and let us through.

The only other diversion is a tortoise, obviously in no hurry; perhaps happy to receive this sudden attention from the Canadian crew.

...and this termite hill, ALSO very happy to see us. If you get my meaning. And I think you do.

Lunch is a picnic under a giant Bilbao tree.... 

Next to the Bilbao is another enormous beast of trunks and branches, which is without doubt every tree-climbers’ dream. And as with the rock range at Spitzkoppe, the entire crew reverts to pre-adolescent glee: let the jungle gym begin.

On the far side of the giant Bilbao tree is another, slightly smaller tree, which looks like the inspiration to several Dr. Seuss books. I will not eat it on the sea; I will not eat it in a tree; I will not eat green eggs and ham!

So, yes, lunch is finished and we are settled in to our new digs. The Tsumkwe lodge will be our home for the next five days, and tomorrow begins our time with the San.  We will meet our guide, Leon, who is San himself; but who currently lives in Windhoek. Leon has one foot placed in both worlds, the old and the new. One world is a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers who live at the mercy of the elements, but who somehow manage to survive and thrive. The other world is an accelerated culture, an Africa eager to plug in, go on-line, and stay connected with rented Voda phones.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Over the years, many people have written about the heat of the desert – written, I should say, in a far more poetic and insightful way than I could attempt. The dry heat; the heat that comes at you from all directions; the pulsing and relentless nature of the desert sun that no amount of shade can offer respite nor relief.  Headache-inducing heat.

And unlike the heat of a Toronto-in-July heat wave, where even the promise of a breeze can cool you down temporarily…  Here, wind in the desert just makes matters worse. Hot air, whipping your face and throwing some sand in for good measure. And yet…

...And yet when you are knocked out by the beauty of everything around you, you are almost willing to look past the heat. Not that ‘will’ has much to do with it – for me it happens naturally.  The quiet of the desert is unlike any other silence or stillness I’ve felt in nature. Some vistas look and sound just like, I imagine, what the moon must be like.

As with the heat, many writers have described the wind and the sand with incredible precision and poetry. One of my favourite passages in Michael Ondaatje’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT is a wonderful description of the different kinds of windstorms in the desert, and all of their exotic names.

This storm is named after knives because it cuts into you. This storm is named after the tribe who used it as camouflage, to hide from their enemy. This storm is a ‘blood’ storm, from the colour of the sand. And so on. It’s a great passage… I’ll look up the page number for you.


Every society and every culture on the planet has dabbled from time to time in a little public art – we call it graffiti - and the San are no different.  Today we went searching for evidence of rock paintings that the San created. And, as with the arrowhead weapons, we knew that once we found the artwork it would be difficult to determine the exact date of its’ creation without true experts on deck. A painting could have origins dating back centuries… or it could have been created ten years ago. As we would discover, the actual content of the drawings hasn't changed from generation to generation.

As remarkable as these drawings will prove to be, the journey to the actual location itself – known as Spitzkoppe – is the most stunning part of the day. 

Spitzkoppe is an ominous-looking range of mountains and hilltops, curved crevices and hidden caves. Approaching this deeply spiritual land formation one could be forgiven for thinking they’d walked onto the set of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Remember that rounded cliff where the spaceship lands?

As you get closer, however, the awesome and terrifying mountain range begins to resemble ANOTHER movie set: Peter Weir’s haunting film PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, about a girls’ school day trip in New Zealand that goes horribly wrong.  

In any event – all movie references aside – by the time we arrived at the foot of these mountains I was feeling humbled, and inspired, and as they say, ‘awe-struck.’  The place is deeply spiritual and (even for a semi-skeptic like me) positively humming with energy.

Up and over the first range of mountains there is another treasure waiting for us: a second range of round rock hills, a kind of inner fortress that you can’t see from the ground outside. These rocks are different – they’ve been smoothed over by thousands of years of wind erosion and have none of the sharp edges of the exterior range. Up and down, over and across, these gently rolling rocks look for all the world like a giant playground. A Disney version of Namibia.

…And this is exactly how we, the film crew, respond: unsolicited, en masse, we begin to run up and down, over and through the rock shapes like giggling children at recess. One particularly jaw-dropping section of the rock is rounded into an oval that one can literally run right through.

Once we get the giggles out of our system, it’s time to pursue the paintings created by the San. Our guide is a small boy who is in fact introduced to us as ‘Small Boy,’ but he asks us to call him Ritchie.

We follow Ritchie to an overhang (or is it underpass?) and, sure enough, we discover at least eight figures along the wall: five animals and three human forms, painted in a gentle red ink.  We learn that the ink is made from one part blood, one part red dust from local flowers, and one part egg yolk from bird nests to act as a sticky fixative.

As for the animal forms, Ritchie points out that they are all facing one direction – west.  This is also the direction to the closest water source.  Co-incidence? Nope. In fact it is a sign, left by the San for future fellow Bushmen. So deeply embedded in the artwork is a kind of code, a language of survival; a message from one tribe to another. Water, this way. Follow the head of the lion, the elephant; the rhino.

The human forms are even more striking: they appear to be in motion, stretching up and out as if running and reaching. Ritchie explains these human forms are in fact dancing. The hunt dance. The rain dance. And most significant for us, the trance dance.  If you look closely you can see that one or two of the human forms are literally escaping their own body – having an out-of-body experience, which is exactly what they experience during the three-hour long spiritual ceremony.

And it is something we ourselves will participate in, less than a week from now.

Strange to think of these rock art drawings as pure communication, no different from me typing these words. Or posting photos on the internet. It’s just another way to express ourselves, to explain our experiences, and share them with friends and family. 

The final image on the rock wall is a long, striped serpent. And by long I mean eight or nine feet. It is impressive, and very life-like. Which would be chilling enough on its’ own, but then the thrill begins: moments later, Johnny our ace cameraman spots a REAL snake between two diagonal rock walls. The sight of either one snake on its’ own is not terribly alarming. But the fact that we saw a live snake just seconds after filming its’ painted double… Mwah ha ha ha...this sends chills.



By the time we emerge from the surreal and oddly spiritual double-snake pit, a full Namibian sunset is on display. It’s nature’s light show, just for us, complementing the already ‘Disney Namibia’ experience of Spitzkoppe. 

A deep rouge colour appears on the opposite rock face, so I race to the top of another ridge to set up a time-lapse camera. This special device takes one picture every five seconds, and so when it runs together in the edit, it appears the sun is setting at an alarming speed. It is used primarily to suggest the passage of time – that’s fine - but I love time lapses because they just look cool. Like this: 

Not for the first time, we end up staying two hours later than originally planned. We sit on the rocks and watch the light spectacle of shadow and shade and colour. We watch the sun do its thing. What it does every day. What it’s done for thousands of years before we showed up, and (hopefully) will continue to do for thousands of years after we’ve gone. 



Tough to top the end to a perfect evening like the one I just described.  But there is a nice coda to the visuals. A musical coda. 

On the way out from Spitzkoppe, the impressive and imposing mountain range no longer looks terrifying. Just the opposite. It looks like the most peaceful place on earth. I’m sure it’s all projection, but still. What has changed? We have spent time there, and we now have a context. We have – dare I say – a relationship with this incredible stretch of rock in the middle of the desert. We’ve made friends.

I have slapped my hand against a rock document that is at once thousands of years old... and very much alive.

I have high-fived ancient African history, yo.

Not unlike the experience of holding the flint-rock arrowheads in my hand, it vibrates with something… who knows who made this? And how long ago?  What is the story behind it? Everyone has a story.

(This is my favourite shot of Spitzkoppe... now my screensaver... yes I'm a nerd)

As a kid I flirted with the idea of becoming an archeologist. But, as with most fleeting kid-thoughts, it was more the idea of being an archeologist than the practical reality I fancied; rooted more in romantic notions of adventure and Hollywood and Indiana Jones.

But here we are. This is no mere idea. And since I believe that all fragments of memory and reflections of the past are, ultimately, acts of ‘archeology’…  It’s an interesting perspective.

More to the point: we are not just digging up ancient relics, to be labeled and stuffed and put on display in a museum. We are putting together a living puzzle, here in the middle of the desert, from artifacts we can hold in our hands. The rest we fill in with information… and imagination.

But about that musical coda… 

It is dark now, and we’re riding our caravan back to the main road. On the edge of the gates to Spitzkoppe several Namibian families have set up homes. It is, in fact, a full village; but we can’t see that just yet.  

We stop the vehicles and get out to meet ‘n greet the local residents.  Always best to introduce the camera slowly, gently; always ask permission. The best way I find is to flip the viewfinder towards them so they can see themselves and enjoy the novelty.

The Namibians are without guile, and without pretense. They’re just present. They love to play games and sing songs, and sing they do: a group of four children start to sing a simple and sweet melodic line… and the tune ends with a bit of harmony.

A woman – their mother? – rushes over when she sees us filming. Were we in North America she would scold us for filming her kids without permission. Here, in a remote Namibian village, she simply joins in the song. And not just any song – it turns out to be the Namibian national anthem. 


It is two hours to our next rest stop. We’re tired but happy. We climb into our vehicles and ride into the night, and we begin to sing our OWN national anthem - also known as The Tragically Hip: 

            ‘They shot a movie once in my hometown

            Everybody was in it, from miles around…’


Saturday, November 7, 2009


Today began our long drive into the Kalahari Desert: the start of two full days of travel in our caravan, getting closer and closer to the San people… and further away from ‘civilization.’ Along the way we will search for evidence of the San having lived here, in some cases, thousands of years ago. We are excited to leave the capital – not that there’s anything wrong with Windhoek, but it feels odd to create a documentary about disappearing cultures when the view from your hotel window looks like this--

What will we find? What challenges? The land itself has not changed much, so our trek might very well feature the same challenges the San faced centuries ago, as they made their migratory trek across the harsh and beautiful and otherworldly terrain.

As it turns out our first challenge is likely not something the San faced: just 20 minutes into the desert and the lead vehicle overheats. Oh, jeepers, the fun begins now. And although I am a ‘creative’ producer who loves to solve problems… I elect to let the others solve this particular creative gem.


Turns out the problem is easily fixed… by our Fixer, naturally. The lead car should not have been pulling a trailer. So we switch up… and we’re off. From there we travel up, across and over the winding roads, through desert canyons, into an area called Kuiseb. The walls of this canyon are massive, curving, and colourful. 

Every so often we stop to observe various creatures along the way. A stubborn little desert tortoise brings the entire brigade to a halt. 

     Scram, you! Vamoose!

Or this tree filled with giant bird nests – but nests the size of a Smart Car, mind you, and they house several families living together. Remarkable. Everyone gets along, like a hippy bird commune. But we know to be careful as we approach the nests, as King Cobras are fond of slinking up the tree bark to steal away baby birds’ eggs.

On the creature front I have also seen: Ostrich, Antelope, Hornbills, and something really cute called a ‘Dassie.’ About the size of a Groundhog, these rock-dwelling creatures are in fact most closely related to the Elephant. Only these guys are mini-me sized.



As for Elephants, I am making it my mission to see at least one this trip, in their natural habitat. Other wish list animals include: Scorpions, Lemurs, and any member of the Monkey family. Uncle Orangutan, Brother Baboon, Auntie Ape. Any Chimp will do, even a chump chimp. 

At other times we stop to observe a curiosity, or unintentional sight gag. My favourite is the road sign that breathlessly warns: ‘Caution! SAND!!!’

Really? Sand? In the desert? Shut up get out! Wow, thanks for the heads up. I musta missed it, the first four and half hours.

 And you see what happens when I get smart-alecky? A flat tire. I feel that this is somehow my fault, Karmically speaking, for making fun of their road sings.

Yes it’s not even lunch time and so far we’ve overheated one vehicle and flattened the tire of another. I know that comedy works in threes, so I decide to keep my hilarious comments about Namibian road work to myself…

…but I can’t help myself. Right then an enormous cargo truck passes us, and what do you thing its load is?

Coke bottles.

Seems THE GODS ARE NOT SO CRAZY after all.  Either that, or they’ve figured out how to make a killing on the soft drink market.



On the other side of Kuiseb we arrive at an even larger and more impressive gaping canyon in the earth. About 2/3rds the size of the Grand Canyon, this is also a prime location to look for evidence of stone weapons the San people made from rocks and stones. Specifically, sharpened flint-like rocks in the shape of an arrowhead. Shaped that way, because they ARE arrowheads.

Turns out the San used to follow the route of the game during hunting season. And the game followed the trail to water. During rainy season (rainy season? What’s that, like, 7 minutes in February?) small pools develop at the bottom of the canyon, and  mid-sized game go down for a drink while the San sit in wait.

What makes the search for these items all the more exciting is the fact that any one of the arrowheads could have been fashioned 2 months ago… or 2,000 years ago. The tradition has not changed because it works.

…and since comedy really does work in threes, I find three separate arrowheads in about 10 minutes. A tingling goes through in my hand, and travels to the rest of my body, as I clutch a piece of history and ‘civilization.’ I’m one step closer, to a culture and a tribe who have in fact moved away from ‘civilization.’ 

And we are following them.


Here’s another example of San ingenuity; another clue as to how they think (smart) and how they’ve managed to survive for so long in the desert: according to Rick our fixer, the San would catch a monkey - not an easy task - and bring that monkey to a termite hill or ant hill. The San would dig a hole right in the ant hill, just big enough for the curious monkey to thrust his paw in. But the hole is NOT big enough for the monkey to get his hand OUT. So little Curious George is stuck there, tethered to an ant hill.

I know what you are thinking: this seems cruel and unusual, and nothing to do with ‘survival’ at all!  In fact the San are extremely humane – they let the monkey go after only one day. And since the poor monkey is thirsty, he or she will scramble to the nearest watering hole in about 5 seconds flat – with the San in hot pursuit.

All anthill. No Monkey. 

You see? SMART. Who figures this stuff out? Genius.

The closer I get to the San the more intrigued I become, and more anxious – in a good way – to meet them face-to-face. I am developing an extreme respect for the San, given that I am experiencing first-hand what they’ve suffered through and endured with nothing more than desert smarts, and each other (and, as I will later learn, an incredible sense of humour and playfulness).

Funny. Despite all of our modern technology and conveniences, we are still taking a beating from the elements. What with the overheated cars and flat tires, it seems comical that we are losing a battle against nature that the San have mastered for thousands of years.