A book in the sand

Minutes, hours, years
contract and expand around Time –
elastic –
binding book to hand;
pages flutter in red desert stillness
sand grains whip and slip,
burrow deep,
bonding hidden spaces
between the letters
Je suis – I am…
He speaks his phrases
into the sun-baked silence
the words whipped away
on the scorched wind
words no one hears
but him

In the desert, with a dictionary 

 

Gemsbok and Tree, Namibia, Copyright Silverleaf 2016

 

The land around Sossusvlei in Namibia is expansive, open, arid. It is a golden and fire-orange, sand-filled vision; the quintessential desert image. The odd gemsbok or springbok stand silent and still, under a tree if there is one, their distinctive stance and horns shadowed in sharp relief against the vibrant sand. A few houses dot the landscape, most small and square and hunched against the grit of the wind. The animals and houses seem to be part of the wild surroundings,unlike the walled tourist lodges that have sprung up along the main road to cash in on the attraction of the nearby dunes (the largest in the world).

Most people fly into Windhoek, drive down to Sossusvlei, take a trek out to the dunes and the dry salt pans, rest a few days in their lodge, then back to Windhoek and away again, next stop on the trip, next pin in their map. We, on the other hand, have driven here, miles and miles through deserts and towns, watching the land grow and shrink, approach and recede, shapeshifting around us.

Other than the tiny town of Sesriem, which provides essentials and fuel to those passing through, and the Sossusvlei National Park offices, which house a shop and bar, there isn’t much else out here. Just miles and miles of space. Miles and miles of sand. Openness. And, further away, jagged picture-perfect mountains shimmering above it all, their feet immersed in mirages.

This ancient nature, this stunning beauty, allows the rest of the world to fade away. It can be isolating, but it also focuses perspective and perception down to the immediate, the moment, until nothing else exists but what lies before you.

* * *

The parking area at the drop off point for the Sossusvlei dunes is simple and pristine, so perfectly in keeping with its surroundings that the vista almost swallows it completely. A few logs raised about a foot off the ground mark the outer reaches of the parking area, which is a roughly round area in the sand, full of tire tracks and shadowed by several large trees, their roots reaching through the soft ground. There is also a portable nearby with flushing toilets, something which comes as a surprise. It is clean and well-stocked, though there are no sinks for hand washing.

Thankful to have found toilets at all, and considering dirty hands to be a small sacrifice, I didn’t really think twice about the issue of washing. As I stepped back out into the sun, I looked over at the man standing against a wooden frame attached to the toilet portable. Assuming he was in charge of keeping the washrooms clean, I headed over to leave him a tip. As I reached him, he noded his head towards a 5 litre water bottle suspended upside-down from the wooden frame, hanging at eye level.

“Would you like to wash your hands?” He asked. So that was the purpose of the water bottle contraption, a simple but smart pulley system. I smiled and thanked him.

“Pleasure.”

I noticed the compact hardcover book in his hand and tilted my head to read the title: English-French, Anglais-Francais.

“Is that a French-English dictionary?”

“Yes, I’m trying to teach myself French.”

I asked if he was from the area and he told me he was from the north end of Namibia, up by the Angolan border, but that he’d been living near Sossusvlei for 5 years.

“Do many people speak French here?”

“No. But some of the tourists do. I’d like to be able to speak to them. And I thought it would be good to do something to keep myself busy, so I decided to teach myself French.”

We chatted a while longer before it was time to go. “Au revoir,” I said, “Bonne chance avec le français!” And then my family and I headed off, following the thousands of other footprints up and over the rolling waves of sand.

* * *

A month later, I’m still thinking about the man with the dictionary, out there in the sand. His days must be fairly mundane, hot, lonely. And yet, he has chosen to make the most of them, to fight the boredom, to learn.

I wonder how many tourists have stopped to talk to him, to find out about his background, his interests. I wonder how many of them speak French. I wish him well, and I hope he has a chance to practice what he’s been learning.

* * *

Namibia has eight recognized languages in addition to English, which is the official language. French isn’t one of them.

Travel that Road

The road lets slip its secrets
in whispers
lends its solitude
to ours
wraps us in knots
invisible.

Alone together, we live this
experience,
build and crumble bridges,
argue, laugh –
things only we can understand –
and come away
no matter how fraught
closer, changed;
this road,
impossible to forget.

 

The title comes from a Walt Whitman line, “Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you.” How true.

Into the Great Unknown

IMG_1417

Road to Eksteenfontein, South Africa, Copyright Silverleaf 2016

Though it’s always pitch black when the alarm goes off, though I know we will be in the truck again for most of the day, a special feeling accompanies each waking. It’s hard to put into words…

Curious, excited, expectant;

Warm, maybe, from both the gentle morning heat of the desert and the fond attachment to place that one can cultivate surprisingly quickly;

Sweet, from the scent of the plants and the earth;

Content.

Or perhaps it is best left undefined.

Knowing this is the only way to cover the miles, to see everything there is to see in the time we have available, I jump up without lingering, my body screaming defiance, my mind too sluggish to do anything about it. Propelled by what is becoming habit, and an underlying eagerness, I launch myself into the routine: toilet, shower, brush teeth, dress, gather the remaining items and pack them into the truck. It doesn’t matter that the accommodations change almost nightly. The routine is what anchors us.

I wake my sleepy son, the boy who can never be woken mid-sleep, and he joins us with groans and screeches, somehow equally ready for the next adventure. Even at this hour.

My husband makes coffee before we go and I pour it into myself gratefully, feeling a touch more human. At somewhere between 4 and 5 am, I don’t want food but I pack my trusty bag of granola, a soy milk drinking box, and a banana in the front door of the truck, at the ready.

We leave the key on the table, pull the door shut. Another destination awaits.

The fun lies in climbing into the truck, pulling out, heading off, wondering what we’ll see this time, waiting for the sun to rise over the vast, dramatic land, to see what it will reveal on today’s stretch of road.

Most of our drives are 6 to 10 hours, some are longer. All of them afford us majestic views, breathtaking terrain, and sometimes animals. We record the birds we see in a book, compete to see who can spot a new animal first, remark on mountain ranges, stop to capture some small part of the moment in the camera’s aperture, though that doesn’t do it justice – only standing in it, being there, taking it in with the naked eye, breathing in the molecules and holding them briefly as part of ourselves, only that can really do any of it justice. Sometimes I imagine spreading my arms wide to embrace it all.

This was how we explored 4500 km of Southern Africa over 11 days in early 2016. A family on the move. Exploring, learning. The world both stretched in empty vastness around us but also shrank down to just the three of us, to the confines of our truck.

Despite taking 1000 pictures, the moments I didn’t capture on film are the ones that keep coming back to me, weeks later. That early morning stop in an Upington petrol station, for example. It was still dark outside, the stars splashed across the night, but the petrol station was buzzing; a hub for those of us up early, whatever the reason. I paused as I was gathering enamel bowls and plastic cups and looked around, taking in the vibe. A truck driver and the somewhat grizzled woman at the till were engaged in a conversation in Afrikaans. Two younger men were chatting at the automatic coffee machine. It was nothing special, and yet it was all special.

There were also the times we almost ran into serious problems – a pothole we hit too hard just after crossing into Namibia, a washed out stretch of abandoned road we navigated early one morning in the silent mountains near Eksteenfontein, the time we actually did get stuck in the sand – but it was specifically because we embarked on this adventure alone, without a group, without a guide, without any safety nets, that it was so momentous.

The place became part of us. And for a time, we became part of it.

 

 

 

Worship

I came down to the water
with the wave worshippers
sun worshippers
and watched the sun set
across the heaving sea
let its cold wash over me
breathed deeply
until my mind cooled;
together, we, strangers
grew drunk on the magic
bowed to the power of nature
its swirling poetry
then withdrew, one by one,
into the verdure of the hills.