There hides – in the small hours of the night, especially in the Kalahari – a particular loneliness. It’s carried in the soft night-breeze; it travels with the last tendrils of smoke from the hard-wood embers. It reaches into the vague mistiness between being awake and sliding off to sleep. Those who seek out the vastness of the semi-arid desert on purpose, do so because they need to escape the background noise of the beast we call civilisation. And some – let’s call them accidental visitors – experience this solitude as a world shrinking onto itself, until only the tormented soul and the overwhelming darkness fill the long hours before dawn. Long, cold hours; in which to hold up a mirror of doubt to inspect the deep and private recesses where we normally hate to go. Africa, in the most definite of terms, is not for everybody.
Dewald Fourie is an accidental visitor. He sits up; it’s useless to try to sleep. There’s an owl somewhere, hoo-hoo-ing every few minutes. The piercing cry of a jackal refuses silence the keys to the kingdom of stillness. And the pain in his ankle gnaws – like a diligent little rodent – at his thoughts; reminding him of the calamity he has brought on himself.
It started out innocently enough. A few beers, a group of young men, and too much testosterone – a heady and dangerous mix that may produce hilarity and tragedy with equal ease. Oh, they thought it would be funny, of course. Strange. Weird. Something exceptional.
Lets go camping, somebody said, somewhere different. Like in a desert. And we’ll play a Survivor game. They all agreed it was a wonderful idea. Somebody must scout the area for a suitable location. We’ll draw lots.
And it was he, Dewald, slightly befuddled by beer and massively cheered on by alcohol, who drew the short match and was ceremonially blessed with several toasts, to embark on a fact-finding mission. It sounded important. It even sounded adventurous. And it certainly earned him the respect of the group when he promised to set off the next morning.
The children of the so-called Idle Rich are usually seen as a bunch of ne’er-do-goods; spoilt brats with a penchant for spending money they didn’t earn. While the label might be harsh and sound uncompromising, it certainly fits the group of intoxicated young men that got into their Lamborghini’s, Jaguars and sleek BMW’s after the party. Life is a never-ending challenge to be entertained, to have a ball, and enjoy the days of sublime laziness. The money comes from mines, inheritances, drug deals and lately: clever fathers who ride the BEE-corruption wagon with amazing dexterity. They, of course, would never stoop so low as to work for a salary.
Driving around in the Kalahari is somewhat different to choosing the fastest lane in Sandton. In fact, there are no lanes. No other cars. No daring pedestrians in death-defying dashes across the road. No beggars at the traffic lights, because there are no traffic lights. The Kalahari boast many a track that has never seen any road-works at all. They develop because of necessity. At first these tracks are merely two lines of flattened dry grass, but over time they become two sandy lanes – and eventually a sandy strip of road. The evolution of roads in the desert does not require engineers and teams of idle road workers – they are self-invented and self-sustained.
That’s why the new Range Rover – one of the seven in his father’s stable – left the road. It was sandy. The mathematics are simple: one sandy curve, one tipsy driver, infinite self-confidence and too much speed. The final factor comes into reckoning then: deep sand, excessive cursing and a heavy foot on the accelerator. And Bingo! One stranded vehicle resting quietly on it’s chassis in the middle of nowhere. Dewald Fourie tried pushing and pulling the few tons of metal through the sand, failed, and kicked the vehicle in his rage and frustration. That’s how he injured his ankle. Joints used to resting on bar-stools shouldn’t be exposed to such harsh treatment. The vehicle didn’t even dent…and stayed stuck, of course.
!Ka doesn’t know much about spoilt children. In his culture, all children are equal and they all get treated the same. He’s been watching this one since the vehicle careened off the road. He saw the frustration and anger. What does it help, he wondered, to kick the stone you stumbled across? And to yell at a machine is as clever as trying to shout at the clouds dispersing in the hot sun. This young man, obviously, has no manners. In the San language, spoilt is used to describe meat that has matured too much, like carrion; it isn’t used as a description of humans. ‘Bad manners’ is as far as you can go on the scale of unacceptability in a Bushman village.
Well, he’ll just have to do his fatherly duty and talk to the young man. How else will he see the wrong in his ways, if an elder did not tell him how to act? Surely his parents must be dead, or away, or very ill – otherwise they would have taught him the right way. No, he can’t walk by and ignore this man. It isn’t the way to respect Life. Would he, as the oldest of his tribe, not have done the same for anybody in his family? This man, he decides, needs help.
He’ll wait for the moon to rise. The fire the young man had made is a pathetic example of how to go about it. The few twigs scarcely give enough light to see his face. If !Ka tried to approach him now, the man will most probably attack him. No, he’ll wait for enough light, and then hail the man from a distance, the way it should be done. The correct way. He’ll tell him he need not fear, as he simply wants to tell him about the correct way to handle his life.
Dewald Fourie watches the flames die down. He thought the twigs would have lasted longer… Glancing fearfully around, he decides the Range Rover is the warmer, safer place to spend the night.
When the door clunks closed, !Ka gets up. If a man has closed his shelter for the night, you do not disturb him. It is not done. That is bad manners.
Sometimes, !Ka decides, it is the solitude that has the loudest voice. Maybe, if that young man listens to it long enough, he’ll hear the words… He settles on a soft patch of sand. Tomorrow he’ll try again.
It is one of those nights you only get in Africa. The stars are brighter. The wind is softer. The distant roars, grunts, squeals, snorts, scuffles and plods are nearer. The orchestra of crickets is in full swing tonight, and the cicada choir joins in with gusto. The sounds soothe !Ka into a happy dream, filled with antelopes and trees, with white clouds promising rain. Dewald, on the other hand, cannot sleep. The dragons and vampires and serial killers are out there, waiting to feed him to the cannibals. Electronic robots, controlled by dirty little men in blood-stained white coats, want to rip his eyes out the moment he falls asleep. They use them to open secret doors, just like on TV.
When the dawn settles the shadows in their rightful places, !Ka walks to the vehicle and sits down a few yards from the door. When the man appears, he must see he has a visitor.
The walk back to Vetfaan’s farm takes two days. The first day is spent in silence. Not even !Ka’s broken English seems to penetrate the shell of misery surrounding the young man. What promised to be an adventure – an episode to impress his friends – has turned into a nightmare. The grass hat !Ka has fashioned doesn’t stop him from turning an unhealthy red in the heat of the sun. He has to suck a vile-tasting tuber of sorts to quench his thirst. And the termites !Ka heated up on a rock next to the fire…it’ll take him a long time to get over that!
Then, on day two, !Ka decides he doesn’t care if the young man doesn’t want to talk. He’ll tell him anyway. Manners are important, no matter who you are. And what better way to make the time pass quickly, than to talk? So he does.
Back in the mansion overlooking the sprawling city of Johannesburg, the parents watch their son brooding on the patio.
“Ever since he came back from that stupid trip, he hasn’t been himself. Look at him! Just sitting there, staring into the distance. Maybe he must see my psychologist – she’s very good.”
“Cheer up, man. As soon as that sunburn has settled, he’ll be his old self again. “
“I hope so… Last night he said he wants to become a game ranger! Can you imagine him spending days in the veld? That’s ridiculous! I told him he had too much sun.”
“You’re right.” She sits back, studying her son through the window.”I know what to do. I’ll phone those friends of his. What he needs now, is a proper party. We’ll get that band he likes so much, and the caterers will make all his favourite snacks. That is exactly what he needs to get back on track.”
“Good idea.” The man gets up, stretches. “I’ll check the booze. We can’t let them run dry, can we now?”
There hides – in the small hours of the night, especially in the wild city-parties – a particular loneliness. It’s carried on the off-key notes of screaming electric guitars; it travels with the last tendrils of smoke from the hubbly-bubbly in the corner. It reaches into the vague mistiness between being awake and sliding off into drunken oblivion. Those who seek out the emptiness of this pseudo-existence on purpose, do so because they imagine the need to embrace the background noise of the beast we call civilisation.
It is sad.
Or, as !Ka would put it: ill-mannered.
But even !Ka would have applauded the bad manners of the young man walking away from the party that night. Sometimes, he’ll admit, being bad-mannered takes a lot of courage. Or loneliness. Or maybe both.