Gaborone - We were dwarfed by a baobab tree in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve of south-eastern Botswana. I stretched out my arms against the trunk, then walked slowly around it and measured the circumference, which came to about 20 metres.
“This one is just a baby,” my guide and instructor, Okwa Sarefo, laughed. Age and size, it turns out, are decidedly relative in the African bush. “It’s probably only 1 000 years old,” Okwa explained.
Hold on, only 1 000 years old?
“Baobab trees are the oldest living things in Africa,” Okwa told us. “Some really big specimens with circumferences of 40 metres could be more than 3 000 years old.”
Okwa is based at EcoTraining’s camp in Mashatu Game Reserve, a 30 000-hectare property within Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Golden sandstone koppies stand above mopane woodland, grassland and – yip – baobab trees.
Intersecting rivers are fringed by the deep shade of nyala trees. Zebra, wildebeest, impala, elephants, lions and leopards wander freely across an old land, largely untouched by modern man.
The EcoTraining camp on the banks of the remote Matloutse River offers a variety of hands-on nature training courses. I’d joined an essentially crash course in zoology, botany, herpetology, ecology and wilderness philosophy, all rolled into one. I’d come here to understand better Africa’s natural heritage, to learn about things large and small, from dung beetles to baobabs. In the process, I inadvertently unlearnt a few things I’d been taught in class.
Needless to say, after a few days, I’d been impressed – and sometimes overwhelmed – by Okwa’s knowledge. A member of the Bayei tribe, also known as the water Bushmen, in the Okavango Delta, Okwa has been living and working in Botswana’s wilderness all his life.
As a young boy he went to school, but his real education, he said, was the natural world of the Delta; hunting, fishing, wandering and admiring his wild neighbourhood.
He learnt to read and write quickly, and at 12 he started poling a mokoro through the myriad channels, dodging hippos and crocodiles, and developing an uncanny sense of direction. By 20 he was guiding foreign tourists deep into the wildest areas.
Today, at 38, he’s a veteran of the bush, and knows almost everything (by his own admission, you can never know everything about Africa’s natural world). But he does know every bird, every tree, every mammal, every reptile, and almost every insect… and he knows how they all fit together.
And he’s seen it all. Charged by elephant? Many times. Tossed out of a canoe by a hippo? A couple of times. Witnessed a leopard pulling an impala out of a python’s mouth? Once. Ever had to shoot an animal? Never.
Okwa hardly ever carries a rifle. His understanding of animals is innate, and his identity is tied into the land, the sky, trees and animals.
“I grew up in the bush, I live in the bush, and I will die in the bush. This is my home. I can’t be anywhere else.
“I tried working in an office for a few years. I hated it.
“I am happiest here among the wild animals.”
As we learnt from Okwa, everything here is intricate and complex, from a simple blade of grass to a large bull elephant. And everything is connected to everything else.
“Tell me,” Okwa asked our group of students as we spotted dung beetles rolling elephant dung along the road, “what’s the role of these insects in the bushveld? Besides cleaning up the dung of course.”
Dung beetles, it turns out, are important dispersal agents, collecting manure into a ball, laying their eggs inside, and rolling the ball into a hole in the ground where the larvae of the beetle can hatch. In the process, the seeds of grass and trees in the dung are also buried.
I had never considered that an ancient, regal baobab tree could have originated from the breeding habits of a poo-loving beetle 4 000 years ago. But there you have it – they’re connected in some way.
“Without a dung beetle, perhaps this baobab tree would never have grown here,” Okwa said.
“But without water, without oxygen, without soil and without sunshine, nothing of what you see here would exist. Everything is in relationship to everything else. Nothing survives without the help of other things. Even man.”
This was the big lesson. For sure, on the EcoTraining course you’ll learn how to identify the birds, grasses, reptiles, mammals and trees. But what struck me most about Okwa was the lessons the African bushveld could teach people of the “modern” world.
And here’s the thing: it all works. Year after year, century after century,Africa’s natural ecosystem supports itself, and keeps sprouting new species, of which man is a fairly recent addition.
Everything is in balance, and everything is harmonious. And guess what? There isn’t a professor, scientist or industrialist for 300km in all directions.
Confronted by the African bushveld, we may realise that despite our remarkable achievements, humans are not the only impressive life forces.
That title also belongs to any number of other living things: the baobab tree, the elephant, the flooding river and the roaring lion.
Or what about the humble dung beetle? While doing his work, he happens to sow the seed of the mighty baobab tree.