Tag Archives: civilisation

The Extinct Instinct of Trust

1280px-Oryx_gazella_male_8054The Kalahari is big.

Huge.

Massive.

And – mostly – empty.

Here you can listen to the wind rustling the dry grass in the wee small hours after midnight, or hear the forlorn, far-off cry of a jackal before dawn. You can drive around for days without seeing a single other human being. And you can hold your cellphone up as high as you like – there simply isn’t any way you’d pick up a signal.

One may be excused for thinking this is a place forgotten by man and God alike, a place shunned by civilisation and society where life – as most people practice it – is impossible.

But that’s not true. Stunted plants have worked out ways to suck water from deep underground and even from the air. Animals can go days without water. And frogs hibernate for impossible lengths of time, waiting for some rain to form a puddle nearby. Somehow. Mother Nature has found ways to celebrate life in one of the most inhospitable places on the globe.

Although isolated and – to the inexperienced eye – lifeless, the Kalahari remains one of the very rare places where one can escape the madness we call civilisation. Here you head for the shade of a camelthorn tree, pick up the broken twigs and branches (carefully avoiding the vicious thorns) and build a small fire. Be careful where you pitch the tent – the ecosystem under the tree supports snakes, scorpions and rodents. Respect them, and they’ll leave you alone.

images (9)And it is here, under the spreading branches of a lonely Acacia erioloba that Vetfaan sits down to contemplate Life, Love and The Future. He had to escape the hubbub in Boggel’s Place for a while – the talk about the recent insanity in parliament, the attacks by ISIS and the shootings in Paris and Copenhagen was just too depressing to endure any longer. The pictures in The Upington Post of the hardships in Eastern Europe and the dismal performance of Escom didn’t help to lighten his mood, either.

It is not unusual for Vetfaan to escape like this. Ever since the time he served as a soldier during the Border War in the Caprivi, he has experienced – from time to time – the need to be alone. It’s as if a fog slowly builds up around him, fed by the ever-prevailing diet of bad news and political mayhem, until it becomes imperative to isolate himself from it all. And then, it is only the silence of the great Kalahari that can peel away the layers of accumulated psychological harm – layer by layer – until his mind frees itself from the shackles of despair.

On the second morning next to his fire, a movement on the horizon draws his attention. He has to squint in the harsh glare of sunlight to make out a lone Gemsbok slowly making his way towards him. It is a magnificent animal with long horns. white-socked legs and a flowing, black tail whisked this way and that by the soft breeze.

Credit: wikipedia

Credit: wikipedia

Vetfaan knows this animal should be called an Oryx, and not a Gemsbok at all. The old German term of Gemse referred to the chamois, a much smaller antelope of Europe occurring in mountainous areas. Labeling the regal Gemsbok with the name of a mere mountain goat – probably due to the facial pattern and the straightish horns – was as appropriate as the naming of the tree Vetfaan is sitting under. Camel thorn doesn’t refer to camels at all. The discarded Latin name – Acacia giraffe – was much more accurate; but to the original Dutch explorers a giraffe was a ‘camel horse’ (kameelperd) – hence the common name.

When the antelope draws nearer, Vetfaan notices the deep wounds on his flanks. Lion! This Gemsbok must have beaten off a predator with his sabre-like horns; however, he didn’t escape unscathed. Now he can see it is limping as well – a signal to the carnivores of the desert that are always on the lookout for an easy meal.

Vetfaan gets up slowly to fill a basin with water from the container on the back of his pickup and places it in an area of dense shade, as far away as possible from his chair. The Gemsbok will smell the water, but also the fire – will it be brave enough to drink? Not wanting to scare away the injured animal, Vetfaan settles down to stare at his boots. Eye contact could imply a challenge, and that might spell out death if the antelope chooses to shy away from help.

IMG_9085 camel thorn acaciaHow long did he sit there? Time has no meaning out here except for the contrast between day and night. It could have been hours – or maybe just minutes – before soft crunching makes him look up. The Gemsbok is there, barely three metres away, eating some of the camel thorn pods. This is a good sign – those pods represent one of the most nutritious sources of food in the desert.

“There’s water,” Vetfaan whispers.

The Gemsbok’s head comes up sharply to stare at him. The wounds on his flank are still fresh and obviously cause a lot of pain. The eyes are tired, exhausted, sad.

“It’s okay.” Keeping his voice low and reassuring, Vetfaan doesn’t move. “Go on.”

And so a strange bond is formed. The wild Gemsbok and the disturbed man share the shady area beneath the canopy of the tree in silence that is only broken by the crunching of pods and the slurping of water. Perhaps the Gemsbok is just too tired to care any more, or maybe it understands – instinctively – that Vetfaan has seen enough suffering and death to abhor the very thought of it. Or, possibly, the animal knows that this fire, this man, represent the lesser of the evils that threaten him right now.

During the day, Vetfaan moves around quietly, deliberately avoiding scaring the Gemsbok off. Later, when the sun starts approaching the horizon, the Gemsbok lies down behind the trunk of the tree, resting its magnificent head on the ground. Vetfaan has never seen a Gemsbok sleep before and wishes he had a camera in his kit.

The next morning, the big antelope is up before Vetfaan peeks out of his tent. The wounds seem better and are no longer oozing blood.

“You better today?”

The Gemsbok snorts, pawing the ground softly with his hoof.

Then, after locking eyes with Vetfaan for a long moment, it turns and trots off across the sand.

***

When Vetfaan returns to Rolbos, he doesn’t tell the patrons in the bar about his experience. He does, however, tell them that life is precious, love is rare, and that the madness we call civilisation is a fallacy.

“There are predators all around us, guys. Carnivores waiting to pounce. And you know what? If we don’t take a chance here and there by trusting others, we might as well lay down and die. What do we learn from the media? Hell, man, they keep on telling us what a terrible state this world is in. Look at the papers: murder, rape, war, corruption. Even our parliament is a fine example of bloody conflict.

“The media, my friends, make a living by broadcasting distrust. The news tells us that we are threatened from all sides and implies that nobody can be trusted – everybody is out to disrupt peace. Drive with your doors locked. Don’t talk to strangers. Put up burglar bars. Get a safety door. Don’t walk alone after dark. Check your bank statement. Get a new president.

“What’s the message? And what are we telling our subconscious mind on a 24/7 basis? And then we insist on being surprised that the world is in such a disarray?”

He leaves the bar deep in thought. Space. That may be the secret of the Kalahari. Out there, there are no newspapers, no television channels, no overcrowding and no crime. In the Kalahari you have to depend on your instincts and trust your judgement. That, he decides, is only possible when you cut out the noise and the clutter and allow silence to show you the way.

That’s why, he realises, that Gemsbok had more insight than most humans do. He was brave enough to trust.

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The Road Back…

images (12)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.