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12 September, 2014

In the far west of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, lies an area of the Kalahari Desert thought to have some of the darkest skies on earth. The forthcoming designation of the !Ae!Hai Heritage Park, as South Africa’s first international dark-sky protected area, will conserve a critical element of true wildness – primeval, deepest darkness – and will help protect both cultural heritage and natural ecological processes.
I chatted to Jan Oorg who, I’d been told, is one of the greatest living gemsbok hunters among the ‡Khomani San. He was born under a camel thorn tree in 1960, in what is today part of the South African section of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This was before the ‡Khomani San were “cleared” from the park, so he honed his hunting skills in what sounds like another aeon.

Top: A bushman demonstrates hunting with a bow and arrow. ©!Xaus Lodge
Bottom: !XausLodge as seen from the pan. ©!Xaus Lodge
(Header image: The milky way. ©Dave Young)

Jan understands what it is like to live in balance with nature – it’s not just a marketing slogan to the people also known as Bushmen. And living off the land was tough back then, so a son who couldn’t hunt would be a burden. Jan’s family didn’t undertake extended pursuits like some other ‡Khomani San communities, but relied on the accuracy of throwing spears after briefly stalking their quarry. Jan told me how, on his first childhood hunting trip, his father calmly pointed to a gemsbok and said, ‘that one’. He followed it up with the chilling warning: ‘If you don’t kill the gemsbok with one spear, you are dead.’

In !Ae!Hai Heritage Park, it is possible to escape camp lights and cell phone reception

Jan’s spear did kill the gemsbok, so he lived to tell the tale – and, nearly half a century later, we met. We sat a couple of kilometres east of the place he was born, at today’s Twee Riverien Camp, where a shop, petrol station and swimming pool are an age away from the Kalahari Jan grew up in. But if you head North West, to the !Ae!Hai Heritage Park, it is still possible to escape camp lights and cell phone reception – a partial step back in time.

Kalagadi. iXaus Lodge & SurroundsSunset-!xaus-lodgeHeritage-park-at-nightCropped_From_Entire_Earth_Image)
Top: A local family gathered around a fire ©Max Bastard
Middle: One of the chalets at !Xaus Lodge. ©!Xaus Lodge

Jan related how, in 2002, !Ae!Hai was restored to the ‡Khomani San and the Mier in a settlement with the South African government and SANParks. These two local indigenous communities benefit from revenue generated at !Xaus Lodge, the only tourism infrastructure within the heritage park, and retain legal title to the land, which SANParks leases from them.
The status of !Ae!Hai as community-owned land, its almost entirely undeveloped nature, and its gloriously dark night skies mean it is set to become South Africa’s first protected dark-sky area, as designated by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Joining the likes of Death Valley National Park in the United States, it will become one of a scattering of wilderness areas treasured for their inky skies and bright constellations – and there are stringent requirements to keep them that way.


The IDA works with communities, astronomers, ecologists, and lighting professionals to raise awareness about the adverse effects of light pollution, and the value of keeping the night sky natural. For instance, part of !Ae!Hai’s lighting management plan requires !Xaus Lodge, the only light source in !Ae!Hai, to ensure its few external lights are fully shielded. This handful of lights in the 50,000-hectare land mass are all directed downwards, minimising light pollution. Other IDA requirements include an outreach program to educate and celebrate night sky custodianship as well as measures to encourage the growing astro-tourism industry.
!Xaus Lodge has offered guided walks by Mier and Bushmen trackers since its inception. But, since they started working with the IDA they have also installed a telescope for night-time astrology and cultural talks so that both the ‡Khomani San and the Mier can share their own distinct sky lore with lodge guests.

©Hannes Lochner
Light pollution could be a factor in the global decline in amphibian numbers

Protection from light pollution clearly benefits our educational and cultural well-being but it goes further. Light pollution can damage entire ecosystems. Who has not heard the sound of a moth repeatedly smashing into a light bulb while circling it until exhaustion? Brightly lit towers can confuse migrating birds and cause collisions, and artificial lighting reduces the ability of some species, like fireflies and glow worms, to communicate using bioluminescent flashes to attract mates. These examples are easy to understand because they either lead to mortality, or involve species that create their own light, but there are likely other more subtle impacts. For example, the reproductive activities of many species of amphibian are nocturnal. Light pollution, it has been suggested, could be a factor in the global decline in amphibian numbers. It is hard to fully comprehend the historic ecological impact of light pollution because it is only recently that people have started studying the phenomenon, and so few genuinely dark places remain.

A local Bushman looks to the skies.
©Max Bastard

Gruckie is a ‡Khomani San tracker working at !Xaus. He is a generation younger than Jan, and accepts there is no realistic chance that his people will live in the park as they did in times past. He believes IDA designation is one way to encourage pride in ‡Khomani San heritage, encourage astro-tourism and ensure !Xaus is not seen as just another wildlife-focussed lodge. As well as sharing some of his traditional knowledge of tracking and medicinal plants, Gruckie told me stories of how his ancestors would dance at full moon, and how the ‡Khomani San believe the stars in the Orion constellation to be eland.
When I told Jan that light pollution in many cities means few, if any, stars can be seen from them he looked saddened and said, ‘The heart of these cities and the hearts of their people must be in turmoil.’

If we lose darkness we lose the best way to appreciate how insignificant we are

In the !Ae!Hai I could see the streak of the Milky Way silently slicing the night in two. If we lose darkness we lose the best way to fully appreciate how insignificant we are, and the fleeting nature of our own existence. International Dark-Sky designation will preserve natural ecological behaviours and cultural knowledge, raise awareness of the impacts of our ubiquitous lighting systems, and encourage the development of the fledgling astro-tourism industry in a region with a unique cultural history.
I remember Jan’s words as clearly as I could distinguish the constellations in the !Ae!Hai sky. ‘Look tonight, the stars will be closer. You will see a lot of clarity [and] remember that old Bushman you met.’ In Jan’s lifetime the Kalahari and the meaning of wilderness has changed markedly, but the darkness the IDA seek to conserve is surely one element of wilderness we must not relinquish so

Bushmen or San?
The ‡Khomani San is the name given to San in the southern Kalahari, but many so-called San prefer the term “Bushmen”. Jan told me he prefers Bushman because, ‘if you are a Bushman, you are a Bushmen. If you are not proud of [your heritage] that doesn’t help. I have no pain in being called Bushman.’ Younger San/Bushmen seem less concerned by the distinction.

The Mier are a predominantly agricultural “coloured” community, descended from those who fled British rule in the Cape in the 1860s. The Mier share a similarly tragic history of land dispossession with the Bushmen, and have their own cultures and sky lore, but lack the sometimes romanticised perceptions of the Bushmen. The designation of !Ae!Hai will hopefully raise their prominence.


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  • Banivory

    the only time I saw that many stars was at the top of the Los Padres National Park in California. A site never forgotten. I am glad to know IDA exists and will find out more about them. Thank you.

  • S.w. Tsang

    The Darkness of the African sky blanketed by the stars is one image I will not forget ! It did humble us if we shut up our mouth & open our eyes & mind

  • Delancey

    Highly recommend that you learn more about IDA and join, or otherwise support, their agenda. I’ve been a member for many years and am very grateful for the work they do. The !Ae!Hai initiative is a beautiful thing.

  • raymondschep

    Yes even he Karoo has some amazing night sky, I remember one night when i was driving from Kimberley to Upington, but two amazing views I remember also was from a campsite in the Mojave National Park about ten miles south of Baker, California and then also one nigh I was camping just inside the gate of the Kern River Preserve 120 miles north of Los Angeles.

    • Delancey

      I spent a bunch of time at Ft. Irwin — north of Baker. Beautiful night skies there. Death Valley too.

  • MaxsterBaxsterBailey

    Awe inspiring and breathtaking. Wonderful words to go with the pictures. Quite incredible pictures and article.

  • engemi ferreira

    I grew up in unspoilt South West Africa, where even the town we lived in went dark at night. We would drive out to the ‘Kalkveld’ and build a fire to keep us warm and predators away, but turning our backs on the fire we could still immagine we were the only people on earth. Those velvet skies will always stay alive in my memory. So too our game of hitting the white stones together to make loveley natural sparklers. I will definitely join IDA in this special agenda of treasuring our Dark Skies. Thanks for making me aware once more