Let me ask you a question–if I told you that I’ve read a book written by a British South African of Afrikaner descent born in 1906 about the indigenous race of the southern tip of Africa, what would you think?
If you think it would be some kind of racist, supremacist screed, you need to check your prejudices at the door.
But that’s not what I was thinking when I picked up my copy. I actually was thinking it would be a typical “white man enters the savage wastes and tells people about it” story. I like those stories because they not only evoke simpler times that I never experienced, but also because, despite ignorance, the actual descriptions of places and people that no longer exist are usually very well done. A good case in point is the book on the White Nile I read a while back.
This one, as I said, is different. Mainly because the author is different. Van der Post was, apparently, a hippie before hippies were a thing (the book is from 1958, and he was 52 at the time). The trip into the heart of the Kalahari is a mystical experience as much as it is a geographical and anthropological one.
It makes for a weird read. He does the basic job of telling us about the Bushmen (a nearly-extinct race of lighter-skinned Africans who were the original inhabitants of the southern part of Africa before darker-skinned people immigrating from the north and Europeans settling in the south squeezed them nearly to extinction. About 100,000 of them still survive today), but he also goes mystical on you every couple of chapters, giving great significance to omens and spirits.
Normally, this would be a huge turnoff for me, but, for this book, it works. The primal nature of the African wilderness suits itself to magical thinking in ways that few other places do, and this unexpected mystical side makes Van der Post himself appear more human than just another macho explorer trekking through the veldt and hunting to eat.
Most of all, though, the author comes across as a man who utterly loves his subject, especially the Bushmen themselves, of whom he’s heard since childhood but never actually seen until the expedition. For those who might be curious, the expedition also filmed a documentary for the BBC, parts of which are on YouTube, here.
It’s a touching book, and one that is a strange departure from that genre’s more usual fare. I certainly wouldn’t want every exploration book to be like this one, but it was an interesting change of pace. The spice of life and all that.
Recommended, and I don’t even have to apply my usual disclaimer that anyone who is offended because people in the past had a different attitude about indigenous people than we do should avoid it. Anyone can read this one without being offended by it. So go ahead!
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina who, like Van der Post, is fascinated by cultures other than the usual Western fare. His book Off the Beaten Path is a collection of short science fiction and fantasy stories set in non-typical places and cultures. He thingks you’ll love it, and urges you to buy it here.