Somewhere in a Camelthorn tree an invisible leopard watches and waits. The tree is in the Erongo Mountains a huge, cracked volcanic crater at the edge of the Namib desert in the South West corner of Africa. Still little visited, it is a vast circle of granite edges and slabs punctuated by rocky outcrops that, late in the day, take on fantastical shapes in the yellow light and shadows of sunset. Burnt figures rise above the flat dish of the crater; an old hag watches down, three huge stone elephants slumber in the gathering dusk.
The crater is a wide plate of bush and scrub inhabited by one or two German Namibian farmers raising goats and growing vegetables and fruit. Tracks and river beds crisscross through the bushes, Baboons sit on the cliffs above, Buddha like, before sensing another moment and scurrying off. Black Eagles perch, waiting in considered silence. We have come to a place that contains as much unseen as seen. Things, thoughts and memories linger through the heat of the day; animals carefully watch as both the hunter and hunted.
Incongruously smart, at one corner several kilometres, away is a safari lodge manicured and ready for the rich and slightly more adventurous. But here, out in the bush, is no tourist melee – for this day, in this busy emptiness we have discovered there are more ghosts than people.
In the camp, as we tend the fire, drink the beer and prepare the evening meal, the murmur of conversation is on the paintings long unseen that we have discovered amongst the rocks and slabs behind us. On the wall overhangs and caves around us, we had found red-ochre pictures of giraffe, kudu, men and women hunting and dancing in the echoes of time. They were paintings, not of abstract symbolism or a teaching manual for hunters as some have said, but postcards from the real and visceral trance-world that the Bushmen once danced themselves into. Haunted by what we had seen, with a new friend I had gone back into the hills in the remaining light, to a cave we had found and looked with new eyes upon our own lives.
For these memories, are the embers and shadows of a vanishing people, the Bushmen of Africa and this place was once the sanctuary in which they lived. Sometimes known as the San people, or the first people of Africa they had a culture and a way of life that lasted for millennia. Something so continuous and unchanging, I was told by my German Namibean friend Werner, that they had no need of history.
But then a new people came to claim this land. People with gods and guns and horses. People who would could go to church on Sunday, eat a fine roast dinner and mount up to shoot, perfectly legally, Bushmen. Rifles, saddles, and supply lines were met with bewilderment and bows and arrows.
In a few decades a way of life born in the dawn of human time was destroyed and the people dispersed and broken to live across Southern Africa on the edges of townships and society