I know the road to Springbok, the names are familiar too. Graafwater, Bitterfontein, Vonkelfontein and I recall, correctly the first quiver trees appear just after Garies. And I am travelling four days and four thousand kilometers to cover, a country that I know through books and pictures taken by others and so there is a sense of familiarity, this is what travel programs do to you, make you believe you’ve been there but you haven’t. The sky for a start tells me I don’t know it. I don’t know these restless clouds that promise much and give little and such vastness, on a scale that not only surpasses the Karoo, my heartland but the width of our TV screen at home.
There is a muchness of land stretching to the four corners of the earth, that reminds you of your finiteness and I-am-like-grass-in-the wind, status. A country where winds blow and breathe, barely hindered by rock and canyon. It is dry and terrible for its dryness and like some drunk’s vision, a cold sea runs all along its western border, that will not water the land or feed its herds and people.
And yet life is here, hidden and kept from an eye fed on greenery. Small plants, gems, encased in stonework. An eagle over the river, that divides us, a waterway that blesses this country but brings a curse with it too as I look in horror at the kilometers of diamond dumps, alluvial lands reduced to, what I call, stone cemeteries.
And the chroma of this place runs in a narrow band of burnt ochers and siennas, which creates an other-worldliness, an under-painting or cartoon for a primal landscape. And there are many places with German names, like Seeheim, a fort, now night shelter of another sort, surrounded by abandoned shards of wealth, prestige and a culture trying to tame the shifting sands. And there is Aussenkuer, where we wish to do business. Table grapes and black mountains, thatched homes of reed and high tech packing facilities.
And there are people in this Pierneef peopleless landscape. Not many though. Ovambo’s fluent in German, Nama’s whose Afrikaans is both quaint and cool at the same time. German wanderers who have got stuck, South African pioneers, still pushing the boundaries. Then there are the castanet clicks and rap of Khoekhoegowab, spoken at petrol stations and amongst staff at the lodges that remind you of the ancient ones.
We don’t make it much north of the canyon as time is limited and so the vibrance of Windhoek waits another day, the Etosha plains, surreal Swakopmund but it is the photo narrative at the canyon that make the deepest impression on me. The extermination of the Herero, the annihilation of the Nama tribes and their way of life. We drive back to our lodge in silence, through fields of poisonous Euphorbia, stopping to study donkey tracks in the sand. I struggle to make sense of our human need for greed, to take with force that which is is rightfully another’s. And I need not look further than myself. I am part of a value system that excels in extraction but fares poorly in giving back and restoring. I think of the wild horses at Aus. Once truly wild but now docile. Fenced and fed, they are allowed to roam in the confines of their camp, and it speaks to me of this country’s tragic history.
So there is much food for thought as I view my co-lodgers, suited and booted for Africa. Selma our guide takes us to the mountain top to see the sunset.
She explains to us the cultural purpose of the plants and the type of rock to be found here and her confidence and knowledge is a surprise.I study her face as others study the stone and then I delight in my own, on the mountain top insight: there is life in stone,(condensation feeds the earth and so water is rare, precious and hugely life giving.) And it is this life that is in Selma, regenerative, sustainable, uncontainable life that cannot be quenched or destroyed, through the scorching of earth and people, this life spirit will out and perhaps present differently to the way we know it and want it, but it will flower.