Hunting with the Hadzabe
Editor’s note: Lonely Planet recently published an extraordinary collection of original tales, The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology, celebrating both the rigors and the life-changing riches of travel. The transporting story below, by author and adventurer James Michael Dorsey, is excerpted from that collection. Dorsey is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and a frequent contributor to Perceptive Travel and United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine. His most recent book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, is available on all major bookseller sites. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club.
Mdu squatted on a large bloodstained rock, his chin resting on his knees as he prodded the cooking fire with a small tree branch. His eyes held mine as he stoked the embers, studying me as he had done all day on the hunt. He was somewhat feral but with that same gleam in the eye that betrays deep intelligence.
His kinsmen stood behind me as the bloody baboon meat crackled and sizzled directly on the open flame. They waited respectfully for me to take the first bite, offered by their leader, as my mind raced with the endless mistakes I might commit as a guest in such a situation. Ancient societies live by ceremony and I was learning those of the Hadzabe in real time as I went.
I looked around at those wiry men the color of wet mud with their baggy shorts held up with braided roots and took in the trailways of veins that stood out on their whippet-thin arms and legs. These are men who can drop an elephant with arrows and shoot birds on the wing; they hit their target on the run and can run all day. I was now sitting among them, about to eat seared baboon that two hours prior might have killed me.
When I first arrived, Mdu was standing on an outcropping of granite boulders in front of a cave entrance from which issued the sweet smell of a wet wood fire. The cold granite glistened from its fine coating of rain and the mud tried to suck off my boots. His head was encircled with a halo of baboon hair that I assumed was his mantle of power as none of the others wore such decoration. He pounded his chest twice with a fist and spread his arms wide, as if to say, “This is my land,” implying the vast panorama of the Manyara highlands that enveloped us in western Tanzania. His enormous bow, slung across his thin shoulders, was taller than he was, and I could not help noticing various animal skins spread over rocks to dry in the sun. He was an impressive sight with the Great Rift Wall behind him.
I lowered my head, acknowledging his dominance, and with that he beckoned me inside the entrance where his diminutive kinsmen eyed me warily and where my attention went immediately to the enormous bush knives they were using to slice meat on the open fire. His allowing me to approach was already a personal coup, but I would also be tested. Mdu stamped out the small fire with a leathery foot and walked me through the ceremony of making a new one with two sticks, kindling, and some steel. To record this momentous occasion for prosperity I set my mini-tripod on a rock, set the camera timer, and ran back to make fire.
After three failed attempts, a tiny puff of flame sprang to life. Apparently this was sufficient because after that I was handed a carved bone pipe stuffed with local weed. Mdu lit it for me with a burning twig he took from the fire with a bare hand. I took a short draw before handing it back to him. It was potent and went straight to my head. I did not want to be stoned in this situation but it was necessary if I was to enter their society. They all laughed as I hacked and coughed.
Having no common reference points, I reminded myself that I was among people attuned to the rhythm of the earth. They lived by the cycles of nature. For them there was no division between the spiritual and material worlds and suddenly, there I was, a creature from a different planet. They did not smoke weed to get high but to reach an altered state of consciousness beyond my current comprehension, a state I was unused to entering myself. If I was to penetrate their society, I had to cast aside all preconceived ideas, think on my feet, and react to them in the moment—all of that while being jacked on local ganja.
The Hadzabe are true Bushmen who, like their Saan cousins from Namibia who became unwitting film stars in The Gods Must Be Crazy, speak the Khoisan click language. They are not just nomadic but build temporary shelters only in the most dire of weather conditions, preferring to sleep on the ground or in caves, and when they make a significant kill, the entire village will relocate to feast upon it. They use iron tools thanks to their willingness to trade meat with the local Barbaig people who are master blacksmiths, but the Hadzabe themselves have never reached that level of sophisticated tool-making. They wear beaded jewelry that they have traded for with the Maasai, warriors who surround them in this valley, outnumbering them by 3,000 to one. While most of the estimated 3,000 existing Hadzabe have assimilated into cities to live on government subsidies, this isolated pocket of hunter-gatherers, estimated to number less than 300, is barely removed from the Stone Age, and they have no desire to join the present world.
So while early man and I sat staring at each other, I felt a physical presence creeping upon me like a ground fog. Perhaps it was the collective consciousness of mankind that has permeated the land since Mdu’s forefathers sat where he was, or maybe it was just too much history and emotion for this traveler to absorb. Sitting around a fire with a clan of cave men was not just extremely cool, it was also physically intimidating and emotionally exhausting. I had removed my watch and ring before arriving to prevent them from becoming talismans or being appropriated as unwilling gifts, but Mdu was still fascinated by the buttons and zippers of my clothing. He ran his fingers over both like a blind person seeing through touch. He ran his hands over my arms and through my hair while turning to comment to his clansmen as though delivering a medical lecture about a specimen. He pointed at objects around the fire, naming them in clicks, and seemed amused when I repeated his words as though I were a quick-learning pet. The others seemed to have little or no interest in me; I was simply there and had no bearing on their lives. However, without my knowledge, I was about to play a much larger role.
Suddenly Mdu stood up, so I did too. He grabbed his bow and arrows and we exited the cave, trotting down a muddy trail into thick bush. Mdu would stop and squat, pointing out minute scratches in the soil or bent leaves that I assumed were signs of an animals passing. He watched me intently to make sure I was taking it all in. Sometimes he froze in mid-stride and sniffed the air, and at any little sound his bow was instantly nocked with an arrow.
He melted into the surroundings, silently, as much a part of the forest as the trees or animals, and he pointed at things in branches I could not see until I realized that he was talking to me like a teacher to a small child. Why else would I have approached him if not to learn? I was happy to be his student.
He would squat there in the dirt staring at me, unmoving as I tried to enter his mind. I lost track of time and miles as I walked by his side, conscious of passing through an age before recorded history. Hundreds of generations of Hadzabe had walked that trail but I may very well have been the first white man. Language was not necessary as Mgu passed on to me a sense of complete merging with both the spiritual and natural environments. In his presence I reached a mental state I have rarely achieved on my own. I wondered if I really was the end product that men like him would evolve into over the next thousand years.
He clicked away as we walked, seemingly oblivious to what I may or not have understood. I pointed out a contrail in the overhead sky and wondered if it meant anything to him other than a bird or spirit. At that point he gave a great sigh as though I was just not getting it and began a lengthy oration of clicks mixed with words that I found fascinating. He gestured all about him throughout this grand lesson, then finished with a foot stomp to emphasize all that he had said was final. With that he turned and walked away. I thought perhaps I had just heard the Big Bang Theory from someone whose oral histories began with it.
He would disappear into thick brush then pop back out and beckon me to follow. I always found him crouched, observing a small creature that was unaware of his presence and unworthy of his arrow. One of those times I lost him for several minutes and he did not reappear. It was then that I thought I heard him coming through the undergrowth and was surprised at how much noise he was suddenly making. I froze in place just as a large and very enraged baboon broke cover no more than 20 feet from me. It was shrieking and stomping its foot, its hands balled into tight fists. I knew that baboons are fierce predators who will not hesitate to attack a man. I also knew they are the main diet of the Hadzabe and react accordingly when approached.
The next few seconds are recalled as if in a dream because I froze in the moment and retain only flashes of memory. Before I could move I heard the dull thud as the points of two arrows pierced the animal’s neck. Suddenly the baboon that moments before was poised to rip me to shreds, lay before me twitching from the neurotoxin on the arrows that were ending its life. Both were clean kill shots. Mdu stood to one side while one of his men was on my other; both already had another arrow nocked in their bows. I had not heard either one of them nor was I aware they were that close.
Mdu’s man had trailed us without me realizing it and Mdu had used me as bait to draw the baboon out. They had me covered the entire time and had demonstrated a perfect example of a coordinated hunt. The realization that he had used me like a tool was slowly being tattooed on my memory.
With adrenalin pulsing, I had no time to be angry at what might have cost me my life. At the same time the writer in me was already thinking, “What a story! Who will believe this? I WAS THE BAIT!” I watched in stunned silence as Mdu pulled his knife and severed the animal’s head, then gutted its innards with deft strokes, while his wingman shouldered the dead beast like a backpack and took off down the trail. Mdu approached and streaked my cheeks with the creature’s blood, acknowledging my part in the hunt, then knelt to spread the dirt until no sign of the kill was left in evidence. He handed me his bow to carry on the long walk back to the cave and I considered that an honor. That night the baboon skull would hang in a tree with the bow suspended from it in order to take the animal’s power for the next hunt.
I felt tears through the drying blood on my cheeks as emotion took over, not only from the wild animal attack and my dramatic rescue, but from my acceptance by this hunter-gatherer clan. My day had been an avalanche of emotion, from expectation to anxiety, to camaraderie, fear, and pure joy, and after we climbed the small rise back to the cave entrance, I slumped to the ground in a heap, spent in body and spirit. I reached for a notebook to record my thoughts but found my hands shaking too much to write anything.
Sleep took me briefly, but I awoke to the smell of burning meat and the sight of Mdu kneeling before me, holding a sizzling piece of seared baboon. He was about to hand it to me, but first, he leaned in and touched his forehead to mine. At that moment I felt connected to all of human existence.
Since that day I have thought about Mdu often. I imagine him sitting under a silver moon, stoking a fire, smoking his ganja, telling tales of days on the hunt. His life seemed quite simple compared to mine, but then I am sure that even a bushman, unencumbered by material goods, has his own burdens. I have thought long and hard about what my life would be like had I been born an African Bushmen because the circumstances of our birth, something that none of us can control, are really all that separate any of us. I believe I would be happy.
It was only after my return home that I came upon a long-term DNA study of the Hadzabe conducted by Stanford University. Their paper declared in 2003 that the Hadzabe are one of three distinct primary genetic groups from which all of mankind has descended. If that is correct, I had met my own ancestors—as the bait on a baboon hunt.
Has this story impacted my life? Oh yes.
More than once I have awakened in a cold sweat a second before an angry baboon sank its fangs into my throat, and one time I exited a dream while washing imaginary blood from my face. Other times I simply relive sitting by a fire eating seared meat with cave men in animal skins, and I smile. The romantic in me has imagined the dinner conversations that my death would have inspired: “Did you hear? He was torn apart by a wild animal in Africa!” For good or bad, such an experience is never far from recollection. Travel by definition gifts us with unique moments, moments that become memories, memories that turn into stories—and in Africa especially, stories become history.
The Hadzabe gave me this story. And I like to think that somewhere in the Manyara highlands, a man with a halo of baboon hair is captivating an audience around a campfire with the tale of the large white man who unwittingly helped them kill a baboon.
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