Stories from Botswana:

The Last Cattle Trek

By Jürgen Duenbostel

More than hundred years ago it was the great time of the cowboys driving cattle across the prairies to the slaughterhouses in St. Louis or Chicago. Until the railways made their work obsolete. But still such treks exsist today. In Botswana in southern Africa black cowboys drive cattle some 500 Mile across the Kalahari to the abatoir in Lobatse.

The campfires have shrinked to just a little flickering. Clear sky keeps the air chilled. Here, in the mids of the Kalahari desert, in the center of Botswana, the former British Betchuanaland, the galaxy and the Southern Cross are shining brighter than elsewhere. Not a single sound reaches the ear.

But suddenly one of the horses snorts startled and immediately everybody is wide-awake. Maybe the leopard is prowling around the camp. The Bushmen, who serve as cowboys and drovers for this trek, had discovered its tracks the day before. "Hay!" , "hoo!", "ha!" they shout to scare away the big cat and to calm down the cattle.

Some 500 bullocks and 300 cows belonging to farmer John Kempf - worth half a million dollar - are going on this trek. Some 500 miles in southern direction they are driven across the Kalahari desert to another farm in Bray close to the South African border. There they will be fed for a few month and then will go to the slaughterhouse in Lobatse which is the largest abatoir in Africa.

This night the cattle is kept in two kraals which the trek leader Wynand Kotze and his men made the day before from brambles. But even the most stinging thorn could not keep the beasts from stampeding if they are scared to death. "In that case", Wynand explains, "the brutes trample down everything which comes in their way and then they hurt themselves. But injured and scattered animals are an easy prey for the lions, leopards or hyenas."

In the meanwhile the Bushmen have given the fires a stire to create heavy smoke in order to outdo the stench of the predator, because nothing could keep the cows calm in case they smell it.

"The lions sometimes make use of their smell for hunting" Wynand reports, "or I better say the lionesses, because they have to do the work, the old lions are pashas and like to be served. A single lioness then approaches the kraal with the wind from behind so that the cattle can smell her. If the brutes in fear stampede out to the opposite direction the other lionesses are waiting there already to kill one or two scattered animals."
The next morning soon after leaving the kraal, despite all the precautions it almost would have happened. Suddenly the bullocks went wild and started to run like crazy. Hardly the cowboys with their horses could stop them. "A hyena has been here during the nigth!" shouts a bushman who examined the place where the cattle got frightened. "The bullocks could still smell the scant." Listen, what happened)
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"These people know the Kalahari, its vegetation, its wildlife and the tracks like nowbody else", comments Wynand Kotze, "they even know a remedy against the bite of the black mamba". The black mamba is a snake which can kill within minutes.

Wynand likes to hire Bushmen for the work during the trek. He is a Boer having grown up in Ghansi, a provincial city in the middle West of today's Botswana. For about a hundred Years Boer settlers have been living there. When Wynand was a child he used to play with the kids of the Bushmen and thus he learned their language with those many complicated click-sounds. Wynand appreciates the Bushman tradition and their skills. "Unfortunately", he says a litle said, "much of their knowledge will soon be lost forever, may be alredy in the next generation."

Listen to the San (bushmen)
talking with click-sounds
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The thumb-piano
of the San
Listen to the sound!
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needs sound-card and audio-plugin)
Today there are hardly any Bushmen left who can live according to their traditional way as normads hunting and collecting. Most of them are settled in permanent villages now, survive by occasional odd jobs or are just unemployed. Few of them can cope with the modern commercial world. Marx and Lenin however could have learned by them what pure communism means. The Bushmen share among each other whatever they posses. If you donate a shirt to one of them, you may see the next day already somebody else in that new shirt. "The other one had no shirt at all", will the first one explain, so it was natural for him to give the shirt away.

For hundreds of years the Bushmen have been subjugated by other tribes and nations. Chased away from fertile lands they had to learn how to survive in the scanty and dry Kalahari. They even lost their original name. Bushmen they are called by the Boers. In the Setswana language of Botswana they are named Basarwa, which means people of wilderness. The scientists designate them as San. When the first European arrived in Africa the Khoi-khoi-tribe who took San as servants called them by this name. Translated it means "the people who gather their food".

The San like to work as cowboys or drovers for the trek. The pay there is better than the usual and they receive always good food during the march: sorghum, corn, beans, from time to time even meat. But above all they like in the middle of the Kalahari to get away from that world which we say it is progress. In the the evenings at the camp fires they tell their ancient tales again and again and enjoy it.

Wynand Kotze too sleeps at the fire under open sky. "The fire is our home here in the Kalahari", he says.

Meanwhile the cattle got used to the routine of the trek. When it is time for the lunch break the animals stop by themselves and graze or rest. And in the evening they go into their kraal without hesitation. It was different in the first days of the trek. Then the cowboys had always to slow them down, because they tried to run ahead and then return in a large circle to their farm.

It takes more than a month before the trek arrives at its point of destination. But despite that the cattle won't go hungry. There is enough to feed on in this part of the Kalahari which resembles more a savanna than a desert. The few rains in the summer season are sufficient to keep fresh gras growing. Then the gras dries very fast in the heat and thus keeps all its proteins like very best hay.

But lack of water is always a big problem during a trek. The trek leader has to plan the daily distances very carefully, to be able to water the cattle just on time. In the days gone by treks could only leave during the rainy saison when there is always some water in small ponds throughout the Kalahari. Well, not always. It happened that the rains failed to fall at the end of a trek and then a whole herd could die by thirst.

Since several years things have become easier. The Botswana government has drilled boreholes along the trek route. Diesel engines pump up fossile water from several hundred meters below the sands. But from time to time such a pump quits its function and the borehole runs dry. With his four- wheel-drive Wynand therefore always goes ahead to check the pumps. If they don't work he has to be his own mechanic.

It's not easy to bring the thirsty cattle to the waterplace after several days of dry walk. The beasts can smell the water from a distance of several miles. They would start to run and hurt themselves in the rush to the borehole. Therefore, when the wind comes from the well, Wynand leads the cattle in a huge circle around the waterplace. Only with the wind from behind small groups of cows or bullocks one by one are brought to the water. "If I see how they drink after several days of wearisome walk I feel myself much better", Wynand says. He has learned the secrets of the trekking by his father with whom he already went as a litle boy across the Kalahari.

But soon the days of the treks will vanish. Already now most of the cattle is loaded on lorries on the farms and driven on these trucks over a dustroad to the slaughterhouses. Because of the poor road this method of transport still is more expensive than trekking the cattle. But the Botswana government has begun to pave the road with asphalt. As soon as that is finished the transport by truck will be cheaper. And then in Africa too the great time of the cowboys will have gone. Without a farewell celebration. Only after some time people will remark that there are no treks any more. May be this one already has been the very last cattle trek.

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