Dan Sandman

43: The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction on 25/10/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Lost World of The Kalahari by Larens van der PostI found this book in a posh charity shop, part of chain that supports Save The Children, called Mary’s Living And Giving found in the heart of Primrose Hill. It stood out among the other books because it was in a nice Vintage Classics edition and appealed to my fascination with the Kalahari desert. At the time of discovery, I couldn’t recall knowing anything about Laurens van der Post but knew a fair bit about Africa from my previous reading, television viewing, friends and travels. So obviously I picked up the book, took it home for £2 and to my delight fell in love with it.

Laurens van der Post has a sprightly prose style that simply leaps off the page and comes alive inside the imagination. The stories in this book are based on his time exploring the Kalahari desert with a revolving crew of fellow adventurers. There are ten longish chapters, each chapter forming one part of the journey to discover and observe the indigenous people of Southern Africa, the bushmen, with the aim of chronicling their way of life in writing and on film. Through his remarkable book, written in 1958, Van der Post made a heartfelt appeal to preserve the bushmen’s way of life, their customs and traditions. Aggravated by the discovery of diamonds in the early nineteen eighties, the bushmen way of life, stretching back ten thousand years, has continued to remain under threat.

About halfway through the book, I begun to find interviews with Van der Post and was pleased to hear his voice which gave my reading an authentic sound. Born in 1906, before the first world war, he begun life as a farmer and writer. During the second world war, he fought for the allies in Japan where he spent three years in a prisoner of war camp. After WWII, he spent much time travelling between London and his native South Africa, organising adventurous expeditions and writing about the extraordinary experiences of his eventful life. As an environmentalist, philosopher, and political adviser to a prince and a prime minister, he was an influential voice of the twentieth century. When he died at the age of ninety in 1996, he had lived long enough to see his native South Africa become a constitutional democracy.

I found reading this travel story exciting because it took me on an adventure to another time and another place. It was educational to learn about the bushmen’s cave art and musical instruments, to read about the challenges faced by the explorers whilst camping in the harsh environment of the Kalahari. The book remains a fascinating depiction of human endeavor and how with focus, determination and enterprise, anything is possible. The bushmen of fifty years ago had established a unique society and culture by carefully managing their water supply and following a set of laws deeply rooted in their surrounding environment. In some ways, they represent humanity’s roots as a species, engineering ways to cope with survival, as well developing a relationship with the natural world. The explorers, whose story it is we follow, come from a contrasting metropolitan world where finding Land Rover vehicles and signing legal contracts to gain funding are essential to the completion of their mission. As human populations become overwhelmingly urbanised, I think it is important that we remember our origins and strive to show respect for the forces of nature.

The bushman has much to teach city dwellers.


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