The Kalahari is big.
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.
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.
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.
How 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.