Desert Tales: Of Rustlers and Saving Refreshment

A close friend of mine once served as a policeman in Kalahari ranching country.  As happens where cattle roam arid grazing land, rustlers find opportunity to lead away valuable critters on the hoof when no one is watching.  My friend was assigned to investigate just such a case.

With a contingent of fellow officers he set out in a Landrover following the telltale trail deep into the wilderness.  Having left behind charted country, they pressed on into terra incognita, suspicious now that the culprits must surely be savvy desert San.  Who else would dare the howling waste – and with a herd of rustled cattle, no less?

That howling waste eventually bested the Landrover.  Without radio communication and far from any hope of help, they felt the full fury of the daytime furnace, laying in the shade of the disabled vehicle to escape the sun.  Several days passed. They drained the radiator of its rusty water so desperate was their thirst. It was clear now that help would not reach them. They would end up as fare for the hyenas and the vultures.

In such a moment of extremis, a lone San hunter stumbled onto the dire scene.  Recognizing that life itself was in the balances for these luckless babes in the wilderness, he led them a short distance to a gnarled old acacia.  Leaning down, he plucked a long shaft of desert grass, trimmed it deftly and inserted it through a knot hole into the tree. Then he directed them to suck on the improvised straw.  From a secret somewhere deep inside the tree, said my friend, came the coolest draught of water he has ever tasted. Life preserving rainwater collected in a hollow thorn tree.

Today, very few of the Kalahari San follow the traditional life of hunting and gathering.  But a handful of bands in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa do still preserve remnants of a vanishing way of life that depends upon knowledge of the desert’s secrets that can sustain a precarious, ingenious, and fiercely independent life.  photo credit: wikimedia commons

Though greatly reduced in strength, with the help of the hunter, my friend and his colleagues, now revived, were led out of desert straits to resume lives they had all but surrendered to misfortune.  Those lives would never seem casual or ordinary to them any longer. They were the walking dead who had cheated the vultures and a desert fate.

I never asked him about the one who showed them such timely mercy.   But I sometimes sensed he considered their rescuer to have been ‘a person of interest’.  All of that is now, well, life-giving water under the bridge. And nobody’s counting the cattle.

10 thoughts on “Desert Tales: Of Rustlers and Saving Refreshment

  1. ANOTHER AMAZING TRAIPSE, to say the least. And whether that ‘relocation of cattle’ was theft or merely a mutualizing of resources is probably counter to norms of white man’s laws, the San were the original land users and it is doubtful that the white man ever asked for access to ranch his cattle in San territory, and surely never reimbursed him for enriching himself in that local.

    One can’t help but smile a mite after the detective finds himself mercifully rescued and forever indebted to the lone San who, traipsing through the wilds for reasons no one knows finds and educates the police on ways to self=survival. One wonders if he might re-access his rules and regulations with regard to the ownership and theft presumptions in light of the events.

    Thanks for your continued Traipsing, Jonathan, I love to read your absolutely delightful and insightful stories. Keep them coming.

    Buddy (birthday mate, Remember?)


    1. Hey, there, Buddy! The wonder of our most powerful stories is just as you say – that we are sent scurrying back to the drawing boards ‘to re-assess rules and regulations’. Yes, the interface between communal life and that of private property/ownership is a bewildering one for sure! But the San and indigenous people everywhere are learning how to push back on encroachment – through protest and the courts. They’re not going down without a fight.

      Indeed, I believe that the birthday card marking our calendar kinship is tucked into the caravan baggage somewhere!


  2. An interesting survival tale, indeed. I’m still curious about what happened after the refreshing drink of water…how did they return to safety? Was the Land Rover ever recovered, and how? Was the man someone with whom they stayed in contact after the fact, or was it a short-lived acquaintance? Thanks for writing these, by the way!


    1. Hello, Bruce! The questions you ask are the launching pad for imagination. A door stands ajar for an entire novel, mon cher! I didn’t have the impression that an extended friendship was born of the desert encounter. Keep your eyes peeled for the carcass of an abandoned 4×4. It marks the spot!

      Good of you to take the time to follow the stories! JPL


  3. Jonathan, I’m so grateful to be invited to read your blog–you are a master story-teller with wisdom to share!


  4. Just recently I came across a reminder of your blog so with much enjoyment read all the episodes I’d missed! Thank you for these precious glimpses into your life in Botswana and elsewhere. Much appreciated! Having lived in Botswana when sojourns into the heart of the desert were always fraught with adventure, during our last sojourn we were able to drive from Gab. to Maun in a day, transact our business the next and return the 3rd, doing a circle trip, all on tar road!


    1. Hello, Ruth! Good of you to return and march through the accumulated material! Not unlike the cross desert trips that had the feel of expedition! Including travel by caravan in case of trouble. Not too long before that, they traveled by ox cart for weeks keeping bonfires through the night against predators! But the silence of desert nights still returns. And the stars. And the soft call of the doves. And the silhouetted thorn trees. Such gifts! JPL


  5. Such a wonderful read, every time. Brings me back to my Peace Corps, and Smallpox adventures being close to the people, trusting them and listening to them.


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