The Bohemian Experiment

The Lighter Side of Desolation

Posted by beckert10 on October 2, 2009

Namaqualand 6

Pofadder is a well-known town in arid, sparsely populated NW South Africa. However, its particular distinction is not one that draws many visitors.   To South Africans, Pofadder is the local equivalent of Timbuktu or Kalamazoo.  That is, it represents a place that is remote and out of touch with the civilized world.  The place is in fact so desolate that I drive through without realizing it.
The only signs of a town are a reduction in speed for about 1000 meters, a few shacks and a petrol station. In this part of the world, though, a petrol station is as good as a town.
As the speed limit return to 120 I’m so puzzled by the almost complete lack of anything that I decide to go back to make sure it was actually Pofadder.
I drive past the filling station, slowing to a crawl in order to see if I can make out the name of the town anywhere. The group of people waiting for a ride start moving excitedly toward the car, thinking I’ve come back for them. I don’t see anything so I turn around to make another pass. The hitchhikers arrange themselves on my side of the road, jockeying for position. I see something written on a rock. Barely standing out in the glare of the midday African sun are black letters that read Pofadder.
I continue driving and the hitchhikers wave frantically at me. I gun the engine and check my mirrors to make sure no particularly desperate Pofadderian has attached themselves to the vehicle. As I do one man stands out. His face isn’t pleading or angry or excited. It is so barren of expression it’s as if he isn’t there at all. Perhaps living in a town that barely exists makes one’s existence particularly ethereal. I turn back to the highway, shift into fifth gear and carry on headlong into the sun.

I’m still a few hours from my destination, Springbok. I’ve come this way to see the spring wildflower bloom of Namaqualand. Being from New England, I’m especially curious to see one of the southern hemisphere’s best displays of color. Here and there I pass clusters of orange, yellow and purple flowers. Vibrant patches aside, the only similarity I can see thus far is that the two natural spectacles arouse in Caucasians the desire to drive long distances in immense vehicles to see them.
Every so often I’m passed by a truck with a trailer which likely represents more wealth than the entire town of Pofadder. They are driven by men who take pride in their ability to meet any conceivable modern comfort while camping, men who have paunches and wives who are not allowed to drive the truck but are excellent at making salads.
In my puny Toyota Corolla, bearing only basic camping supplies, I feel decidedly inept. But I’m sure to any of the poor, brown-skinned people walking on the side of the road I’m just another of the rich, white people who flock here in September and don’t stop to give them a ride.

I pull into a caravan park and proceed to the office. The man at the desk greets me with a wearily courteous smile.
“Hello sir. You want to camp?”
“Yes. Tell me, how are the flowers?”
“Good. You must go to Nababeep. There the flowers are very good.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“No, I haven’t seen them.”
“How do you know then?”
“Because it’s my job to know these things. When people come and ask about the flowers I must tell them.”
I pull around back to my assigned site of B2. I’m between two older couples. The ones to my left have a set-up that’s more elaborate than what I enjoy at home, including a full kitchen, dining area and satellite television. The site to my right hosts a couple who have just arrived in a fully stuffed Land Rover with a trailer. The men have found each other and are talkin’ trucks.
“Yeah, for me you can’t beat a Rover. I know, I know, their reputation for reliability is shaky, but this model here, would you believe it, an 81, never gives me more than minor trouble, though I must admit I’m not such a bad mechanic either.”
“It’s all about diff lock. If you haven’t got diff lock, don’t bother leaving home. You know, the other thing is most guys think they can drive but they can’t. I can drive out of mud up to the windshield if you give me a truck with diff lock.”
They look over to me, my invitation to chime in. I don’t know what diff lock is, but I’m quite certain the Corolla doesn’t have it. I nod in greeting then begin to set up camp. After I’m finished I go for a stroll around the premises. Bunches of mostly orange and yellow flowers dot the caravan park and off in the distance I can see bigger patches. Flower bloom peaks at four o’clock and by now, at five, most of them are only about half open. Despite that, they display one of their most endearing and tireless quirks: to face the sun at all times.
Dusk breaks and my neighbors begin roaring fires to make coals for a braai, which per South African standard requires massive cuts of meat. The men lay out thick steaks while the women are busy chopping and slicing for salads. I heat a can of beans over a burner then retire to the backseat of the Corolla to drink beer and consider the relationship between wealth and nature as leisure.
When I emerge an hour later I’m nowhere near a conclusion. I chuck the empty bottles next to the rubbish bin. The man from reception shuffles by in the dark and collects them for deposit money before entering the small caravan which serves as his home. I feel certain the answer to my question is contained in the fact that he wouldn’t think of what he’s doing as camping.

The next morning I’m up quite early and eager to see flowers. I wander through the park and watch their folded faces align with the rising sun like one groggy with sleep begrudgingly getting up for work.
The back road to Nababeep is bumpy and dusty. I’m not sure if it will help, but I find myself longing for diff lock.
After about twenty minutes the flowers start to appear in heavy patches. At the first of these I stop and get out of the car to have a closer look. I joyfully prance through the bushes then flop down in a bed of flowers that by now are fully awake and assiduously keeping their faces turned towards their provider. I lay with my own aligned with theirs under the blue sky.
From there it’s another thirty minutes to Nababeep. Even from a distance the orange carpets of Namaqua daisies are distinct. I drive into town, find a shady spot to park under and set out on foot with my camera slung over my shoulder. I come upon a particularly thick patch of daisies with a perfect low, crumbling Northern Cape mountain in the background. A group of men are working in the field in front of me, making it difficult to frame the shot. I look through the viewfinder and shuffle along the ground on my knees. The men look at me curiously. I zoom in and depress the shutter button.

Namibia 161

After that I stroll lazily through town, observing how the flowers turn the ordinary into the divine. The simplest scene of laundry hanging on a line, a dilapidated car on blocks, is picturesque. But while I scuttle around with my camera trying to document the perfect beauty, life here in Nababeep moves on: in the fields, in the homes, in the yards. In the streets.
“Sir, some small change please.”
I pretend to be busy with photography and not hear him. As I get closer to the center of town there are more tourists and more men asking the same question.
“Please sir. Please madam. Some change, please. Just for bread. I’m very hungry.”
Their expressions are sheer humility. There is not a trace of self-confidence. This, contrasted with the satisfied grins of the tourists who lean up against their vehicles, joke, pose with big smiles in front of patches of flowers. Worlds are colliding in Nababeep all because the seeds of colorful plants happened to settle here. On the one side are people struggling to eat; on the other side those struggling to know what to do with themselves once they’ve eaten.

I arrive back at the caravan park a little past four. My neighbors are sitting in the shade of a tree, the men with cans of beer, the women with glasses of wine. They take an obvious interest in me as I get out of the car. The owner of the massive camper waves and I nod in return. I sit down to read a bit in the day’s remaining light and he calls me over. I’d rather not but I’m sure I can score some free beer so I oblige.
“Have a seat,” he says. “Care for a beer?”
“Please.”
“Where did you go today?” he asks.
“Nababeep.”
“Ah, we went there yesterday. Pretty, but nothing compared to what we saw today.”
“And where is that?”
“Skilpadvlei.”
“If you want to see some flowers, that’s where you go,” adds the man with the Land Rover. The women give warm sighs of agreement. I pray the conversation doesn’t turn to four wheel drive or internal combustion engines. It doesn’t, though stories about how the couples met are scarcely better.
Darkness sets in and I’m invited for dinner. It’s a hard offer to pass up but I manage to, excusing myself to my site to read. The truth is I can’t listen to them for another minute. No amount of free beer could make stories about their children, who in all likelihood are also dullards, interesting.
Sitting in the tent I look back through my photos from the day. In general I’m quite pleased but one of the best shots is ruined by a worker in the field. I zoom in to see if I can edit him out and something about his face captivates me. I magnify the image further and see that he’s looking into the camera, giving the appearance that now that he’s staring straight at me. It’s unnerving. There’s something else, though. I see in his expression that same modesty I saw in the beggar’s earlier. They wear the faces of people brought down to size.

On the way to Skilpadvlei the next morning I consider that I’ve driven 1000 kilometers to see a bunch of weeds that happen to make pretty colors. Nature doesn’t intend to be beautiful. The wonder of the spectacle is made possible by something inside me, but it’s hard to say what subjective impulse is satisfied by the flowers.
The view at Skilpadvlei is as advertised. The flowers form a cover that is only interrupted by the gravel road that winds through the meadows. Everywhere is a mass of orange softened by streaks of purple, yellow and white. It is, to be sure, the pinnacle of flower-viewing. This is the postcard moment.

Namibia 166

I take a few photos but quickly lose the desire. It feels disingenuous to try and capture the scope of the display. Even driving through it doesn’t feel right. I want to walk.
I leave the car at the park entrance and set out. My feet can barely keep up with my desire to put one in front of the other. I have, to be sure, what an old bluesman would call ‘them walkin’ blues’.
I walk down highways and gravel roads, over trails and fields. I feel not so much the need for movement but the need to feel the size of the earth.
There are flowers everywhere: in small patches, in large patches, in patches too big and full to be believed. Some stand alone, looking sad but proud without any companions. But all have their colorful faces trained on the sun, somehow knowing everything depends on this one simple fact.
After untold hours of walking my feet ache and I stop for a rest in a meadow. As I’m sitting there in the grass, surrounded by wildflowers and sounds of life, the reason for coming to Namaqualand becomes apparent. I’ve driven all this way not for beauty, but to be brought down to size. Nature on a grand scale tends to make one feel as if they barely exist. This is a good thing, as it reduces the burdens of existence.
I set back the way I came, not sure how far it is but knowing I need to make haste if I’m to be back by nightfall. After a couple of hours the sun is low in the sky and its light begins to withdraw from the land. I make an arc eastward, trying to stay in the rays as long as they last. Like the flowers, I too am trying to keep my face to the light. In the end, all anything is doing is following the sun.

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6 Responses to “The Lighter Side of Desolation”

  1. Marcus said

    Hey Man. Loving the journey. Great writing. I grabbed this quote to come up as one of the random ones on my own homepage, I liked it so much:

    “On the one side are people struggling to eat; on the other side those struggling to know what to do with themselves once they’ve eaten.”

    -Brian Eckert

    Keep us posted, and peace.

    Marcus

  2. ning said

    “Pofadder is used by South Africans to refer to a place that nobody would ever want to be from” – to be more precise, we tend to refer to Pofadder in the same way people elsewhere talk about Timbuctu or the “boondocks”: somewhere really remote. And it is. 🙂

    Great photographs. Stumbled across your blog when it was featured on the wordpress home page.

    • beckert10 said

      You know, I had a debate over the precise meaning of Pofadder with my girlfriend. She said it represented a total shithole, while I maintained it was on par with Timbuktu. Perhaps I will change the wording. Where are you from? Thanks for the feedback and please stay tuned for more.

  3. rantingcynic said

    These pictures really remind me that no matter the human condition, nature is still more powerfull, it can shine through human uglyness.

  4. AB said

    !gaitses Beckert10

    This was a good read, and really interesting how you perceived the people, the flowers, and ultimately the reason why you went to Namaqualand – And of course the tourists as well!.
    I tend to agree with your realisation, still do every time I go home.

    Keep on coming to Namaqualand, even in summer. Maybe next time you will see how the majesty of our land brings joy and pride to our faces. You just have to aim your camera in the right direction 😉

    cheers,
    AB

    • beckert10 said

      Hey…thanks for reading and commenting. Namaqualand is truly one of the most beautiful places on Earth…if I am lucky, I will get to come back someday. Even though the flowers were spectacular I realized it is also a beautiful place anyway…so many nice plants, animals, mountains and big sky. Cheers my friend.

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