The two men sat on the earth, passing a chillum (hash pipe) back and forth. They were totally absorbed in the act, inhaling deeply, oblivious to us - camera-wielding tourists - that they had agreed to allow into their midst, for one morning. Marijuana and tobacco are among the few items the Hadzabe actually buy, predominantly living off hunting and food gathering. The marijuana was supposed to help them focus attention during the forthcoming hunt. (The women were not smoking.)

Nearby, was a rough, woven, reed lean-to - home to one of the hunters. The Hadzabe were nomadic in the past and though their range is now severely restricted, they still move as they need, to procure food.

Near the hut a woman made a fire with sticks. Instead of matches, the Hadzabe use wooden rods, which they roll rapidly between their hands, one end resting on a wooden board with holes, till voila, a spark appears. We had naively thought of bringing them matches as a gift, but they seemed comfortable with this ancient way of making fire.

We had bumped along a very rough, dusty road for hours, the day before, to camp near Lake Eyasi, in order to meet with the Hadzabe that morning. "This is how all the roads here used to be in the past," we were told cheerfully by our excellent driver and guide, GoodLuck, as we got off a Japanese-built highway and on to the natural roller coaster, as Marc-Antoine put it.

Lake Eyasi had remained tantalisingly in a distance. The landscape - dry, dusty, at times rocky, dominated by thorny bushes and trees, with a huge blue sky and scattered villages - was wild and fascinating. Even in this seemingly inhospitable terrain we had climbed an escarpment and stopped at a fair-sized village, the night before, to contact a local guide who would take us to the Hadzabe.

Here we were firmly in a depression in the Great Rift Valley, a geological phenomenon that occurred because of the shifting of the Earth's tectonic plates 30 million years ago. The Rift Valley stretches over 6600 km from Lebanon to Mozambique. In this part of Tanzania, the Valley contains three lakes — Natron, a soda lake further North, Eyasi and Manyara to the South. Along the edges of Manyara, is fertile farmland and a wildlife park, which we visited later in our journey.

Back in Hadzabe land, the men, fortified by the drug, were ready for some target practice with their simple-looking bows and arrows. We tried them out as well, with varying success. Then off we all went to hunt — the two hunters and a few women and men. While it is a man's task to hunt, it is the woman's to drag the booty home.

We had been warned not to expect any big game. In the last 40 years, at least 80 percent of the land of the Hadzabe has been taken over by farmers or pastoralists. We ran into a herd of goats being grazed on Hadzabe land, which upset the people, though not overtly.

The group stopped, and clustered around a hole in the ground. There was an excited exchange: there was a small desert rat down that hole. The people followed the hole above ground and dug a channel, a few yards long, in the dust. Then they poked the hole with a stick, causing the rat to run along the channel and out of the earth, where the waiting hunter grabbed him. The whole exercise was casual, almost lazy. There seemed to an absence of anxiety, or goal setting, of the kind we have in modern life.

Another rat was caught and a bird shot down with the insubstantial looking bow and arrow. The bird was small, half hidden in the bushes. It was a good shot. All along, one of the men had been pointing out plants that the Hadzabe use for medicine — this one was for a bad stomach, this one for cuts, that one for malaria.

We reached the base of a huge baobab tree with a hollow in the trunk. This was their "temple" where they came to pray. And it was a place to shelter from the rain. (We were also told that the Hadzabe bathed only when it rained!) We were invited to step in. Wooden planks had been set inside the tree to enable climbing.

Outside, the women had found a few roots. A small, smoky fire sprung up and the roots, and the skinned bird were roasted and quickly consumed. We were offered the roots, which were very juicy and earthy to taste. Indeed, their water content was precious in so dry a land.

I tried to find out the age of the people present and the answers were “don't know — oh, she was born during the heavy rains.” One of the hunters had had over a dozen children, but most of them had been taken away by the government and put into boarding schools.

Polygamy is not uncommon; a good hunter can have many wives. One of the women had married a non-Hadzabe, but came home sometimes to visit. She seemed very content sitting there, eating her roots, chatting and laughing with her family members.

The Hadzabe language, which is the only click language in East Africa, “suggests that they were once part of a unified group of hunter-gatherer cultures that covered much of southern and eastern Africa until they were dispersed, annihilated or assimilated by the Bantu-speaking tribes who arrived two to three thousand years ago.” (Source, The Rough Guide to Tanzania, 2003).

Geneticists from Stanford University who have studied the DNA of the Hadzabe found them to have an extremely ancient lineage, which can be traced back more directly to early homo sapiens. It is also theorized that their click-based language may be close to the mother tongue of these early humans. Are we, modern humans, about to annihilate our “living ancestors” then? It certainly seems that way.

The marginalization of the Hadzabe began 1000s of years ago, but their way of life was really threatened in the last 100 years or so. Their population today has shrunk to 1000-2000. Till the 1950s, the Hadzabe survived entirely through hunting gathering. Even today, a newly wed couple enacts a month-long ritual, walking to the Ngorongoro region, killing a buffalo there and bringing home the meat — dried and smoked for the community. Sadly, the pastoral masaai, who live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, are also granted less and less access to grazing land.

“They share everything equally among themselves, including with the children,” said our local guide who had lived with the Hadzabe for a few years. We were told that sharing a wife too was permissible in this communal way of life.

The Hadzabe have a different concept of possessions, time and geography, than us. They have no chiefs or formal political organization. This, and the fact that their small numbers are scattered, has made it very hard for them to organize in their own defence, even though a NGO called the Hadzabe Survival Council has now been registered. (Source: Welcome pack of Tanzania Journeys who organized our safari.)

Resting under the baobab, the questions which I would normally ask a new ethnic group I encounter — questions about creation myths, belief systems, how they feel about government policies, how they view their future, all fell away from me.

The Hadzabe way of life was there to see. They had laid it bare for us in just a few hours. Their spontaneity, ease and relaxation, their frequent smiles, their unity with the landscape and with nature, were palpable.

I am not romanticizing their situation, which is absolutely brutal. These people may be no more in a few decades or a century. Then again, they have survived for 10s of 1000s of years. And given a little land to roam and hunt, a little leeway, they could easily survive many more.

We talked about them later among ourselves. There was little doubt in our minds that these people were survivors of a high order. Their self-sufficiency and quiet self-assurance were humbling. They had earned our respect and admiration.

We were led back to our 4-wheel drive through another path in the bush country, which the Hadzabe know like the back of their hand. We bought some simple but lovely Hadzabe jewellery made of reeds and beads. And bid them adieu, in the physical sense. Even that brief glimpse has left an indelible impression.

Hadzabe huts
Hadzabe country
Target practice
Rat trapping
Hunter with bird
Baobab - temple
Enjoying food hunted and gathered

Encounter with the Hadzabe

Ultimate Safari Encounter with the Hadzabe