Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Power of Nothingness

Thorn bushes. Rocks. Sand. Mountains. Silence...

Last weekend I went on a field trip with my Cape History class, to the Tankwa Karoo. Somehow I didn't catch the memo that we were really going to the desert, but this quickly became clear when we slipped out of Ceres and the landscape seemed to empty of its features, greenery and energy. It was somehow unnerving to be swallowed up into this desolation, which was so remote that it was almost exploding with nothingness. I didn't even notice that my cellphone signal had disappeared, not to return until we crossed over those mountains home. Like with most travelling, if you knew what you were about to experience, you may have had doubts about going (at least for me, the homebody). So maybe its better that your knowing leaves you, to be replaced by more urgent yet alive instincts, and that you are rooted and present in each moment, each hour that pulls you along with it, steady yet fragile in its continuum.

Therefore perhaps it was easier to have a quick and painless transition into the desert world. Suddenly we were on a dusty road, surrounded by shades of earth and ochre; and the emptiness. Leila, sleeping in the back, oblivious to the changing landscape and the lessening signals of civilization (later, complaining to each other but both knowing that we were actually loving getting away from it all). Brenda the department administrator next to me, checking on Leila, talking about her children, asking Nigel questions like "why are the rocks black? Did they get struck by lightening?" Abi the budding archeologist from our class, quiet and rooted and fitting into this so much more easily than Leila or I. Stuart in the front- older, quiet, strange. And Nigel the lecturer driving, making inane and hilarious comments in between sharing his expertise on this region of the world and its lost people.

The emptiness therefore weighed heavily, the silence lying on the landscape, all the more loud because of what had been forgotten here. We came to this place to look for a grave that had been found in the Roggeveld mountains, a range which stood imposingly on the edges of the flat desert plains. The grave possibly held the bones of a San person, maybe one of many who died in the trekboer commandos that decimated the indigenous peoples in these areas.

This landscape is intimidating, alien. Coetzee's Heart of the Country emerged urgently in my mind- Magda's senseless narrative as she slowly goes mad in the colonial outback made sense against this emptiness. Nothing to look at, nothing to admire, nothing to absorb the self... it is only you, there, now. You have to turn inwards and face yourself; and the imagination is forced to populate the landscape.

So we went on a hike to try find the San grave. We had photographs from when the grave was found two years ago, but beyond that there was no map, no trail, and no real idea of where we were going. We started hiking straight up amongst the thorn bushes and rocks. I felt great on the way up, strong and fit. I never run or walk with other people so it was good to see how I had built up my fitness. But I knew the way down would be a different story...

When we got to the top of the mountain part we hit a section of boulders, and I started getting a little tired and very nervous. I'm terrified of heights, and I just can't climb or walk on extreme downhills. I have memories of my dad helping me totter down Lion's Head. Since a hike in a canyon in the desert in Israel (2005), I've never hiked again. In that hike I was the last person of about 120 people to come down the side of the ravine, and since then I haven't hiked because I hate downhills and holding people back as they help me down a mountain. Anyway, on a boulder in the Tankwa Karoo, I realized I was in that situation again. I had to stick with the group, which meant I'll eventually have to climb down here. I had no idea this hike was going to be so extreme- no one did.

And the next part was extreme. We found ourselves in a ravine "kloof" area, which was rockier and greener. It felt like a sanctury in a way, and Nigel's theory about San coming here to escape, then being massacred, became more real. After all, no one would carry a body up here to be buried.

We eventually found the grave- a skull and some bones clasped by the earth wall. It was definitely worth it to witness something so historical and real. We left him/her there because of bureaucratic reasons, and there s/he would stay in the silence. Ultimately, the timeless, organic sense of nature's breath existed out there. I sit here now, picturing that skull in the quiet, as it continues within the elements.

To get out of the ravine we climbed down steep boulders, which looked like they must have once been the path of a raging riverbed. We then reached the mountain, where we walked straight down (no trail), through thorn bushes and rocks that scraped my legs with every kind of sharp, pointed plant you can think of! My legs were so red they practically radiated. I only got down that mountain because of Leila and Sandy, who helped me step by step, and talked to me about varsity and men to distract me.

So we got down from that place, and went back to our house for the night. Leila and I could hardly speak we were so exhausted! But we also felt strong and alive and proud and part of something.

Driving out of the desert, we met a guy who is cycling from Grahamstown to Cape Town through this area. Bleached hair, British accent, brown dust- he epitomized someone embedded in this landscape, embracing it. So open to the extreme elements, he demonstrated balance and peaceful acceptance of his circumstances. A living, breathing example the desert's voice if there ever was one.

The relief of leaving the Karoo could be seen and heard. As our cellphones began to beep, as buildings and people began to dot the landscape, it was like being given back reality. Yet beneath the easy welcoming of comfort, I felt grateful for the cleansing, powerful nature of that nothingness, to contrast with my own everything.