It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Only the wind

This is a story about Hendrik Mathys and how I came to meet him. Like all stories it relies on the unfolding of events in a particular sequence. Like all stories, it requires all of the events in that sequence to happen. None can be left out, neither the ones we might think of as good or lucky, nor the ones we might think of as bad or unlucky. They are all integral to the story, and to its particular end.

If the events, those two days, had unfolded differently, if any one of them had taken a different trajectory, I may never have met him. Would he have been worse off? Would I have been worse off? One cannot really say.

Hendrik Mathys is a Namaqualander. Born and bred. So are Jan Visser and his wife Nolene. But they are from very different parts of this vast, sparsely populated and intensely arid land that forms the north-western corner of our country. Hendrik is from the coast, where the cold, unfriendly Atlantic abruptly halts the spread of Namaqualand westwards. It is a bleak land, on the edge, between the scorching inland heat and the cold sea mist driven by an incessant southerly wind. From a utilitarian value perspective it has had only one redeeming feature: diamonds. Nowadays, perhaps there is a second: the southerly wind.

Jan Visser lives on a high, featureless plateau, far from the Atlantic and the diamonds. He has pretty much only the wind. And a layer of gritty, orange dust that it leaves behind.

Between Jan and Hendrik the land tumbles towards the coast in a series of large, rounded, granite lumps. That moment, when the road to Springbok has crested the edge of the plateau, and begun its descent, and I am first amongst the granite, is a moment I love. Suddenly, after miles of nothing, the land becomes enticing. To be at its best, it should be either early or late in the day, when the sun's angle is low, when the granite protrudes high above its shadows, and the light is rich enough to colour the bleakness with allure. It is more likely to be late in the day than early. For if it were still early, from where would you have travelled that day? There is very little that is close to this place.

It was in the lumpy granite landscape, outside Springbok, that I met Hendrik Mathys. But we are not yet there, in the story. First I met Jan Visser. At the time he was weighing sheep.  I tell him my problem. That I need help. He acknowledges it with a nod. Says he will make a plan. And standing there in his shorts, taking drags of a cigarette and weighing sheep, he looks like a man who will. But first he must finish weighing his sheep. I relax and shift into the shade of a wall and watch. It feels OK now to take a long slug from the water bottle I am carrying. The water has lasted long enough.

There are four men, two coloured farm labourers in blue overalls and beenies, and two white farmers in rugby shorts and caps. Each has a clear role. I watch. No one speaks, except to the sheep. And to give a single word count each time. “Three”. “Two”. Jan's cigarette stays in his mouth, gets replaced by another when it has burned out.

The two farm labourers hound sheep in batches from a holding pen into a narrow fenced passage forcing them into single file. The front one suddenly finds itself a reluctant leader with only one real option, to head down the wire corridor towards the unknown. But there is often a moment, when it catches sight, in its large, yellow, panic stricken eyes, the possibility of a different option: to back up. There are no sheep dogs around. The men are used to sheep. There is a brief pile up, then they shove and scold loudly from behind and the lead sheep surges forward through the door, which is held aloft by the second, smoking farmer, onto the caged scale.

At first I do not know that this is what they are doing. I imagine injections, something to justify the panic in the sheep's eyes, but I can see nothing actually happening to the sheep. And so it takes me a while, standing, watching, to work it all out. The man whose job it is to lift and drop the gates states the number of sheep on the scale. He lights another cigarette. Jan records something on his papers atop the upturned, green fuel drum that serves as a table. He nods. The exit gate is lifted, and the sheep tumble out to join their already freed companions on the other side.

The number of sheep on the scale is dependent on how many decide, in that moment, to rush headlong behind the leader into the cage, poking their heads out at desperate angles between the welded bars. Sometimes a sheep is only half way in, squashed up against the others, and then the labourer who is in front must either shove it in further, or drag it out backwards.

The cycle repeats itself. Shadows shorten as the sun climbs in the sky. Wind crosses the plains unobstructed. The number of sheep in the entrance pen gradually diminishes, as those in the exit one grow. It is probably unfair to evaluate animals in terms of human characteristics. But it does appear that sheep were not bred for their intelligence, and that the metaphorical description of following blindly, is indeed applicable. If I were to have a choice as to the life form into which I would be reincarnated, it would not be as a sheep.

Years ago, at the beginning of my career, it was the diamonds that brought me to this part of the world. Now it is the wind. I follow the wind and the sun around our country making assessments of the agricultural potential of land on which renewable energy facilities are being planned. It is work that takes me into far flung parts of our country, that few people ever go or have a need to. I love that about it.

To say this plateau is featureless, while almost true is not entirely so. It is the perspective of one who lives among mountains. When there are no mountains, the search for interest in the landscape is harder. Mostly my eyes are drawn to elevation. But in this landscape I must look to the opposite of mountains. Mountains stand out in stature and relief. But in this horizontal landscape, the only features that can stand out, distinguish themselves by being lower and even flatter than the rest. And they glisten white in the sun. Salt pans dot the landscape, providing relief from sameness, providing appeal and beauty because they stand out, because they are other.

When I have sufficiently assessed the proposed wind farm site, driven across its wide, unchanging surface, walked across its veld, scratched in its earth, I continue my journey north to another site. On the way I shred a tyre. Once you have had one puncture, you become very aware of your tyres, of the looming danger of another puncture. It is like once you've seen a snake when out walking.

I pass a salt pan close to the road and decide to walk out onto its glistening surface. I leave the car and the aircon running. The hygroscopic salt sucks all moisture from the environment towards it. It oozes just below the surface. My feet sink in a little as I walk, with a dull crunching. Visually it is not unlike a snowy landscape. But in contrast to the lightness and altitude of snow, it has an intensely sunken and weighty feel. It carries a charge of corrosiveness. I stick my finger in and taste it. Salt. Then I return to the car, check the tyres and continue.

One of the disadvantages of travelling alone along the back roads of South Africa are the gates. One must stop the car, get out, open the gate, get back in, drive through, stop the car, get out, close the gate, get back in. On a long road with many gates it becomes tedious. I have heard of a farmer who designed his gates to allow him to bump them open and drive through, after which they would swing closed behind him. I have also heard that certain bakkies have a low idle gear that allows the farmer to jump out and open the gate before the bakkie drives itself through. I am not sure if this is true. You would have to be pretty confident about getting the gate open efficiently. Many has been the time that I have struggled to figure out what system holds the chain and how to loosen it. You wouldn't want the pressure of your bakkie butting up against the gate while you figure that out. It’s bad enough when you are with the farmer, and you're trying to dispel any impression that you are a townie, ignorant about farm life. And I consider myself to be pretty proficient at gates. I have opened many in the course of my work.

At the next gate I check the tyres again. The front left one is going down. Shit! I do not know how quickly, but I decide not to waste any time. I hurry away. How far can I make it? Can I reach the junction with the bigger road?

But by the next gate it is almost completely flat. The need for any hurry evaporates into the hot, dry air. I open the gate and pull slowly through it, to the side of the road. The radio loses its station. I sit in the vast silence. I walk around. There is only the wind. After a while I notice that a second tyre is going flat.

I am not particularly stressed. There seems little point. It is easier to reach a state of acceptance, I think, when you have absolutely no choice. And when no one, including yourself, is acting against you. This is simply how it is. I have only two working tyres. I am in one of the least frequented parts of the entire country, hundreds of miles from the nearest small town. There is no cell phone signal. I am alone. Without the goodwill of another human being, I can go no further.

I think that I am somewhat comforted by this: the stories of our lives have always gone somewhere. Although Hendrik Mathys or Nolene Visser may not entirely agree with that. My story has  never left me stranded along a desolate road somewhere, for good. There has always been a next part to the story, and I think we have a sense of that. And that sense provides hope and comfort. We just don't know, in the present, in which direction that next part of our story is to be found. But of course stories also go somewhere until they don't any more. Until that is the end.

My task is to find another human being in this desolate landscape. I have a choice: to wait for one to come to me, or to go in search of one. Scanning the road behind me and in front of me, to the distant horizons, brings little hope of one coming to me. I know that I passed an abandoned farmhouse, something that is fairly common around here, several kilometres ago. The last place that I know of, where there would likely be people, would be at the construction site of a new wind farm, but that is some seventy kilometres back. I know there is a junction of this road, with another road up ahead. Ahead seems to offer more promise.

In terms of the unfolding of our life stories, there are no wrong decisions or right decisions. One could go so far as to say there are not even good decisions or bad decisions. There are only decisions that take us down one road or down another, opening further decisions down the way. A decision can only ever be as good as the information that is available to one at the time of making it. And the information is always restricted by one’s perspective.

As I walk, the land always appears to be cresting very slightly, somewhere ahead of me, offering me a wider outlook on my predicament. It is something I crave, elevation above the flat, featureless expanse surrounding me, a high point which may even offer cell phone reception, or perhaps the sight of human habitation in the distance. But it is a tease. It never does. It stays constantly flat, curving probably only with the curvature of the earth.

Off to my right something is glinting in the setting sun, just above the earth's curve. I strain to make it out. I am sorry that I have left my binoculars in the car. How likely is it that it indicates the presence of another human? Or is it merely another abandoned farm house, or a far flung stock watering point? I decide that if I pass a turning to it, I will assess how recently or frequently a vehicle has driven towards it. It seems better to continue along the road towards the junction than to strike out across the veld. I never pass a turning to it.

In retrospect it is easy to see that my expectations of the road junction are too high. And so, yes, I am disappointed on reaching it, after about an hour's walk. There is nothing there. Nothing to distinguish it from where I have just come. It provides no increased sense of security, no increased hope. Just two desolate roads happening to cross each other, each seeking different points, somewhere in the dark beyond the distant horizon.

Being at a crossroads, I suppose I now have double the chance of someone passing by. But double zero is still zero. I also now have three choices as to which way to continue. There is very little on which to base the choice. One road has a gate and what I think is the name of a farm on it – something about dunes. The other leads to Pofadder, and in the opposite direction to Kliprand, both of which I know to be about a hundred kilometres distant. I climb over the gate and continue along the road behind it. There are vehicle tracks on it, but in a world without rain to erase tracks, it is impossible to tell how recent they are.

The dark is an advantage because any human habitation should show up as a light from miles away. But after about an hour of walking along this road, there is still no sign of any light, from horizon to horizon. I decide I must turn back. I am now also thirsty, and sorry that I have brought no water with me. I think about how much water I have in the car. It is not a lot.

Earlier in my life, being in a dark place such as this, alone, might have held a certain amount of fear. But with age I have learnt that there is little to fear in darkness, in emptiness, in solitude. I have come to feel at home in such places. These are not dangerous places. These are not the places in our lives that we need to fear.

The constancy of the landscape frees me from being anywhere in particular. The moon has set and I am completely afloat in the featureless dark, never closer to or further away from anything other than where I am. Always on the revolving crest of the earth. With just my footsteps measuring the irrelevance of time and distance. And the beauty of it is not lost on me.

But there is a human measure, other than my pace lengths, imposed on the land: the long straight lines of fences that cut across it, which along the road means gates. After some time has passed since the last gate, I become increasingly aware that the next gate will be nearing. I do not want to stumble into it in the dark. And I seem to develop a helpful sense of its being there, before, at the last moment of approach, I am able to see it.

After the third gate I know I am nearing the car. And I am passing the place where, before sunset, I saw a reflection in the distance. I strain my eyes for a light. There is nothing. But because the reflection was from very near the horizon, sometimes above it, sometimes below it, it is difficult to know from where exactly the place may be visible again. I keep walking, my eyes willing something to appear from the darkness. There! There is something. A dim, distant light. Definitely a light. I seek the best vantage point and stare. But it is a very distant light, a slowly rising star. I walk on, searching still. And then there is another. This one is closer, brighter. Again I seek the best vantage. This light does not rise slowly into the sky. It is a confirmation, the presence of  human habitation on this vast empty plateau, hope of the help that I need. But right now I am tired. I need to sleep. In the morning I will walk across the veld towards whatever I have seen.

Because of what I have seen, I walk with my cell phone torch held high above my head, pointing towards the light. I know that in a place like this, lights moving in the veld, if seen, will send alarms of stock theft. This will bring bakkies out into the night. My aim is to bring help to me, rather than have to go and seek it. And with the same aim, once I reach it, I turn the car's headlights on and off periodically. But the veld around me remains empty.

It is not comfortable sleeping in a car. I begin in the front passenger seat, then try the back. It is cold. I start the car, leave it idling and run the heater at maximum, until the air inside warms. I am able to sleep for a while until I wake again, cold and needing to run the heater once more. At first light I am up. I want to use the cool of morning to cross the veld.

I have more information than the first time I set out. I can make better decisions. I empty my red travel bag and pack in my water, hat, GPS, binoculars, wallet, cell phone, my only warmer top and a few rusks, the only food I have. I do not know for how long I might be away.

As the distance slowly lessens to my destination, things become discernible that hold promise. The first is dust rising, proof of some movement, hopefully a vehicle, but hopefully not a departing one. The second is tall trees. If there are tall trees, it suggests a degree of establishment that holds promise. And as I get closer, the various parts of a working farmyard begin to distinguish themselves.

People's places of habitation offer a different view when approached from behind, rather than from the side that is presented to the outside world. There is no obvious point to approach. No point of welcome. Discarded things are scattered there. Old farming implements, bundles of barbed wire, a few wrecked and rusted vehicles.

There is someone moving in the sandy shade behind a building, an old man. He has not yet seen me. “Good morning”, I say in Afrikaans through the fence. He looks quizzically at me. “I am stuck. Three flat tyres. Out on the road.” I gesture behind me. He points off in the other direction. The baas van die plaas, the boss of the farm, is out there. I must speak to him.

And so this is how I meet Jan Visser, weighing sheep. He does not look particularly surprised to see me, which I find odd. Surely he cannot get many visitors here, especially out of the south, across the veld? Once my problem has been presented and acknowledged, I relax and shift into the shade of a wall and watch. It feels OK now to take a long slug from the water bottle I am carrying. The water has lasted long enough.

When the weighing of sheep is finished, I follow Jan back to his house. Coming from Stellenbosch, I recognise, sets up certain romantic expectations about the graciousness and  character of farm houses. But I have discovered that when one leaves the Boland, for the vast interior of our country, few real farm houses are like that. Most are utilitarian and ugly and have not persisted long enough to acquire any charm. Most serve as a refuge from an obligation to spend long work days in the harsh, outdoor conditions. Views are often inwards towards televisions. Makeshift practicality rules over style.

Jan and his wife don't talk much, or make particularly much of my situation. My problems, I suppose, are simply one of many problems that are a fact of life in a place like this. They share some stories of others who have suffered similarly. An elderly couple who couldn't walk for help and so waited in their car for several days until a neighbouring farmer eventually passed.

“Good thing it wasn't the summer”, Jan says. “You can't walk across the veld here in the summer.”

“Good thing it wasn't the winter either”, his wife adds. “You would have frozen through the night.”-

Jan seems incredulous that I hadn't walked to the light last night.

“If you are lucky enough to see a light out here, you must walk towards it. There are not a lot of lights out here.”

“I know there aren't”, I say.

After a brisk mug of instant coffee, Jan and I go to my car. He is not the kind of guy to stand around and deliberate, and he has tools to match. In no time the car is standing on rocks and we are returning to the farm with two of my tyres that have a chance of repair. I am at pains to play a part in the action, to get down in the dust under the car and heave rocks and wheels. It would be easy to remain a bystander, but I feel a need to assert a manly competence, to prove that I am not an incapable city dweller.

I am always slightly embarrassed about and hesitant to elaborate to men like Jan, what exactly my role is on their farms. I am out here to asses this land. But I come from the Boland with its thatched, white-walled farm houses with sloping, green lawns and oak trees, with its pretty patterns of neatly pruned vines spread across rolling foothills under hazy-blue mountains. I live in a world of books and theories and pavement coffee shops. What do I know of land like this? I feel like an imposter. What I know about is how to access data and structure reports, how to satisfy bureaucratic requirements. But in truth I know very little about this land, the way that Jan does.

Is it not an irony of our society that I earn an easy livelihood from the same land that men like Jan scratch out a hard survival? Is it not an irony of our economy that it mostly services the elaborate, urban trimming we have fashioned around our existence, allowing us to pay top dollar for lightly braised lamb cutlets in red wine coulis, whose live weight was first recorded on an upturned green fuel drum under a relentless Namaqualand sun?

The tyres are wheeled into the high-roofed store, where an assortment of farming essentials, tractors and family vehicles shelter from the sun. The compressor is started. Punctures are plugged. I mostly watch, as do the two farm labourers, rolling cigarettes. A tyre fitment shop in Aggeneys, some one hundred kilometres away, is contacted. The availability of a suitable replacement tyre is confirmed.

“Do you want to risk the drive there without a spare?” Jan asks.

I do, and so him and his wife explain to me more or less where those few, isolated farmhouses are, along my route, and so in which direction I must walk, if I get another flat. When I am ready to depart, Nolene seems to suddenly become more talkative, perhaps sensing that a rare opportunity for conversation is receding. I am shown a surprising number of very new-born kittens in various corners of the room. There is a daughter at boarding school in Springbok. I learn that Nolene is from Namaqualand, but not from this part. They have only recently moved onto this farm. That explains something about the house to me. But there is a sense of something more - perhaps a reluctance to settle in this place, a grievance with the gritty, orange dust, with the drought that has persisted for six years.

I make it to Aggeneys without incident and am rewarded with a new spare tyre, assurance that the plugs Jan fitted are still good, a toasted sandwich breakfast and a coffee milkshake. The restaurant attached to the OK Grocer is air conditioned. By this time of the morning it is already hot in Aggeneys. Refreshed and re-equipped I am now good to assess a second site, and so embark on yet another long drive to nowhere, on a dirt road, with many gates.

I finish later in the day, and am relieved, at last, to turn in the direction of home. I crest the edge of the plateau and start the descent into the lumpy granite landscape towards the coast. I enjoy crossing the great landscapes of our country, I like the distance, the space. I like those parts of the land best, where its bones lie close to the skin, where there is no fat, where there is emptiness. The distance that stands between me and the comfort of home offers more than just a hindrance to overcome, it is a space in which thoughts can wander unencumbered. It is an uncomplicated time of aloneness, free of any competing demands other than the simple need to move forwards. And within its constraints, I am entirely free to do and think as I choose. Time like this allows me, unhurriedly, to make sense of things, for myself. I settle in to the journey. I have not yet met Hendrik Mathys.

He is standing across the road from me outside Springbok, a small, neatly dressed man, older than me, at a road construction stop and go. Waiting time: ten minutes. But he has waited most of the day. His white collared golf shirt says something about education, in blue letters.

Hendrik, I learn, also worked once, like I did, in the diamond mines at Kleinzee. Perhaps we once even stood one behind the other in the queue to exit the mining area. De Beers held tightly to their diamonds, with a security dominated culture that I found uncomfortable. Once entered, nothing but personnel could exit the mining area, ever again. The risk of diamonds hidden beyond security's control was too high. All personnel went through security on the way in and security on the way out. You were channelled in the exit queue down a passageway, a little like sheep to the scale, with observing eyes concealed behind one-way glass, and with the niggling fear that arises in such impersonally accusatory environments: what if a diamond has somehow found its way into my pocket? At the end of the passage you were directed by way of lights and some indiscriminate algorithm within the security machinery, which decided, irrespective of your station in life and on the mine, to send you  through the X-ray or not. If you wanted to smuggle diamonds out you had to gamble with the chance afforded by the health requirement that personnel could not be subjected to X-rays every time they exited the mine. Maybe Hendrik and I passed through there together, and were assessed, one after the other, by those lights, which registered no difference between us.

Now he is asking me for a lift. There are a few things that are triggered for me when faced with the choice to pick up a hitch-hiker. The first is probably safety. There is an element of risk, letting a stranger into your vehicle. Who are they? What might they want to take, other than a ride? Hendrik is small. I reckon I could overpower him if it came to that.

When I was younger I hitched a lot. I traversed long distances across the country with relative ease.  And so it appeals to me to pay that forward. Hitch-hiking makes complete social sense. It contributes to a better world. I have something that can easily be shared with someone who needs it, at very little cost to me. From that perspective, it is a no brainer.

There is however a relatively small cost, and part of my reluctance to pick up people definitely relates to it. I probably use danger as an excuse, when it is really this cost that often puts me off. A passenger will impose on my unencumbered freedom of thought. I will be forced to make conversation. In my hitching days, people giving me a lift often justified it with the remark that it would provide someone to talk to on the long road. That is not a motivation I relate to.

Of course the risk can be real. For both Sandra and I this choice never fails to surface the memory of the hitch-hiker to whom we gave a lift one night from Ceres. That time I realised too late that the untidy blue marks on his arms were jail gang tattoos. We were both completely spooked, driving along dark deserted roads with him working his way further and further through from the back of the bakkie into the cab. Luckily the sliding window between us was a small one. We grabbed the first opportunity we had to off-load him in a well-lit and peopled place, at the tunnel toll gate. It felt like a lucky escape. All he had managed thus far was to rifle through our bags in the load bed and pocket a few items.

When I WhatsApp Sandra to fill her in on my homeward progress, I add that I have a hitch-hiker with me. She responds with:

“Yay. Can't wait to see you. Send photo of hitch-hiker so if he a serial killer I have a photo of who to go after.” And then she adds, “Remember the guy we picked up in Ceres?”

I reply: “Indeed. This one very different. I hope!”

But I send her a photo, just in case.

All of these considerations probably run through my head in the few seconds I have to respond to Hendrik's request. I rely on my gut to process them accurately. Or maybe it is simply that he asks me directly. And so how could I, with empty seats next to me and behind me, refuse him.

“Sure”, I say. “Get in.”

He had asked me if I were going to Vanrhynsdorp, about half of the way to Cape Town.

“That's not too bad”, I think.  “I will still have half the drive to myself.”

But it turns out he is actually going all the way to Cape Town. To hospital. I am still checking him out. Not committing myself further than I am already committed. There is always a hospital involved, I think. Or a funeral.

He explains that he just did not want to get a lift less than half way. He left Port Nolloth early this morning with an organised lift in a delivery vehicle that regularly does the trip north from Cape Town. But after it had done a delivery detour there had been a mix up at the stop and go. The single lane traffic through the roadworks prevented it from being able to stop and pick him up again. He has waited there most of the day. And in fact was about to give up and head back to Port Nolloth, to perhaps try his luck another day.

He has two children. One works for Coca Cola marketing in Upington. One works as a tour guide in Namibia. Hendrik worked for De Beers, during the time I was there. Then for customs control at Vioolsdrift, and has also spent time driving blood samples down this road for analysis in Cape Town. He knows by heart, the distances between each town. When I stop and check Google Maps to determine if I need to fill up with fuel in this town or the next, he informs me with confidence that it is only 23 kilometres to Klawer. Google Maps agrees.

“And it is 444 kilometres to Cape Town”, he says. Around the corner we pass a sign reading, Cape Town 444 km.

He is travelling to hospital in Cape Town, not because he is currently ill, but because he requires official proof of a previous medical intervention and his related condition, for the purposes of a medical cover claim.  It seems like a long trip for an old man to make, hitch-hiking, simply to get an official document.  But it is probably not simple. And I am sure the associated money is of sufficient importance to him to be worth it.

Hendrik's wife died last year of asthma. “I am sorry”, I say, and then add, “I also have asthma.” But I am thinking to myself, “I am unlikely to die of it.”

I am taking a greater and greater liking to Hendrik. I buy him supper in Klawer. He eats some of it. Folds the rest into a Wimpy serviette for later.

The more I learn of Hendrik's life, the more I recognise something. I recognise the similarity of his situation, when I met him  alongside the N7, to the situation I was in, only this morning. Perhaps an intuitive sense of this, influenced my gut assessment. The more we talk, the more pleased I am that I picked him up.

There is a similarity in the two situations, but there is also an important difference. I am white. Hendrik is coloured. That difference is still important in South Africa. And there is another closely related difference. I am well-off. Hendrik is poor.

What I learn most from the hours I spend with Hendrik is this: my wealth, my whiteness, its education, afford me an air-conditioned bubble in which to comfortably traverse the mostly harsh terrain of our land. Hendrik's whole life, and that of many others like him, is comparable to my recent experience. There is no air-conditioned bubble of comfort. Survival depends entirely on the offer of another's good will. But whereas my discomfort lasted less than twenty four hours, it is the ongoing reality of people like Hendrik's life, every day. I know also that I would have approached Jan Visser's farm house, from the back across the veld, with much greater trepidation, were I not white.

From the time I first saw him standing on the N7, there is something about Hendrik that makes me think of Nelson Mandela. There is a similar look, perhaps something in the way he talks, even perhaps in the way he listens. I am most aware of it when, at the end of our journey together, he takes my arm to steady himself, and walks stiffly, holding it, into the restaurant at the Winelands Engen One Stop, on the outskirts of the city. The long journey has been hard on his hip. As we walk he tells me, that as a Namaqualander, what he would really like now is a pot of black Rooibos tea.

At this late hour, no one else is in the restaurant, except the staff. The pot of tea will allow Hendrik to wait here inside, where it feels safer and is warmer. He plans to try and reach the hospital first thing in the morning, before it opens. If he can be done there early, he can start back home to Port Nolloth before it is too late in the day. I pay for the tea and we say our farewells. I look back at him through the glass as I get into my vehicle, expecting to catch his eye. But he has lifted the lid of the teapot, and is looking down into it, stirring slowly.

Later, back in the comfort of my normal life, I tell a friend about my unwanted adventure of being stranded with three flat tyres in the middle of nowhere. His response is:  “What a privilege. To be in such a place.” And you know what? He is right. Four kilometres along the turning off the Kliprand Pofadder road, towards Dikpenswerke. Out of my bubble of comfort.

The constancy of the landscape frees me from being anywhere in particular. The moon has set and I am completely afloat in the featureless dark, never closer to or further away from anything other than where I am. Always on the revolving crest of the earth. With just my footsteps measuring the irrelevance of time and distance. Free from any illusion of being independent, of being in control. And the beauty of it, of all of it, is not lost on me.


  1. Beautifully written Johan. Completely relate to this story in every way.

  2. Wow. A gifted writer. Looking forward to further chapters in the book on SA landscapes.

  3. This is quite beguiling. Thanks Johan. And I had no idea you worked in Kleinzee.

  4. Captivating, insightful and beautifully written. I'm sorry it has take me so long to get to reading it.