As I stood bleeding on the roadside in the middle of the Namib desert, delicately plucking glass shards out of my forearm, the sun already on the last stretch of its downward arc towards the distant Naukluft mountains, my car resting on its roof and all my baggage spread across the grey gravel road, I should have been thinking how lucky I was to be still alive. Instead my only immediate concern was how to stop Paul Simon singing.
I had been doing about seventy or eighty kilometres an hour on a straight stretch of road, admiring the orange grey landscape, singing along with the cassette, thinking about how I was making good time . Thinking I would probably arrive in time to set up my tent before dark. Seemed like a week had passed since then. In fact, it was barely five minutes ago. One of the wheels on the upside down wreck was still spinning. And Paul Simon was still singing Train in the Distance. And I wanted it to stop. Right now. There was nothing more urgent in the world. If only he would shut up with the ooooh woo woo woooos maybe I could start to think more constructively about my predicament.
I got down on my hands and knees and half crawled back into the cab of the pickup. The roof was mashed down but somehow the shattered windscreen had stayed in place. The doors wouldn't open, so I had to go through the space where the window had been, cutting my hands some more in the process. But I didn't mind. I was a man with a mission. The music was driving me beserk. "Shadap, Shad Up SHUT UP," I yelled, rooting around inside the car trying to find the cassette player. Everything was upside down and I wasn't thinking too clearly. I couldn't find the damn thing. Ah fucket. I extricated myself from the wreck and set about gathering up my belongings.
My water container was burst and half its contents had already disappeared into the sand, but I was able to rescue the rest. I spent a few minutes putting my rucksack, spare wheel, tent together in a pile. I repacked the metal box containing my food and saucepans with all the other bits and pieces like books and maps and tapes that had flown off all over the place. The steel jerry can full of petrol was fine. How easily that could have exploded riddling me with metal shrapnel. The thought sobered me somewhat. I went back to the car and walked around it examining the extent of the damage. Apart from the mashed cab and a couple of bust up wheels it seemed pretty alright. The fibreglass canopy that used to cover the back of the pickup lay some ten metres away. It was broken in a few places but had all the windows still. I cleaned myself off as best I could, not wanting to waste any water. At first there had been plenty of blood, but I found that I was only bleeding from a few shallow cuts. I dabbed them with iodine and pretty soon they stopped bleeding altogether.
I was shaking. After effects of the initial adrenaline surge, but I calmed down enough that I could live with Paul Simon. At least until the end of the tape.
"...cars are cars all over the world. In a motorcade. Abandoned on a road. Cars are caaars....," he sang.
Life imitating art. I started to laugh. Once I started I couldn't stop. Real from deep down laughs, welling up from my stomach somewhere and ringing out through the cooling evening air. Release. I’m alive.
The music had stopped and a light cool breeze was blowing. I knew it would be dark and cold very soon so I changed into warmer clothes and put on my black wooly hat. I took stock of the situation. I had enough food and water for a couple of days. I had my tent and sleeping stuff. I had my gas cooker and two spare cannisters. I had just a few scrapes and cuts. Everything was going to be alright I told myself. It was quiet now that the tape had finished. The kind of vast ear ringing silence that you can only find in big empty spaces like the Namib Desert. As my ears adjusted I could hear geckos barking - a beautiful tinkling sound that could be mistaken for frogs or some kind of evening insect. It was a calming gentle noise. I closed my eyes, the breeze caressing my face and let it all lull me into a more peaceful mood.
When I opened my eyes again the sun was just sinking behind the mountains. The grey orange landscape had become red and purple. The dried out scrub grass cast long shadows and chunks of silica reflected the fading sunlight as if inspired by Venus, the evening star, who had just made her appearance in the still blue western sky. I was calm now. The softer light made the desert seem more intimate than under the stark searing light of day. The straight grey road stretched far into the distance where it disappeared into the mountains. The road I should have been following. The road I was still on. As I followed the road with my eye I could just make out a distant dust cloud. The kind of dust cloud a fast moving vehicle trails behind it on these baked dry gravel roads. And it was coming towards me.
I leapt to my feet and soon I could see that it was a little grey and white minibus. The dust cloud had become a speech bubble with the word RESCUE written in rounded friendly letters.
The van pulled to a stop beside me and the window wound down. A big bloodshot bearded face breathed beer fumes into my face. "Wat is er gebuurt??" asked the face in slurred Afrikaans.
"Ongeluk gehad met mijn bakkie" I said.
"Ach, Got" he replied opening his door and climbing out. Then I could see that there was a second man in the passenger seat. He wore a walrus moustache and tousled hair and looked a little more sober than the driver.
"Wil je'n bier?" asked the first.
"Beer? Sure," I answered.
"Ja geef hem maar 'n biertje" said the second man passing an unopened bottle to his companion. He looked at the bottle clutched in his huge paw of a hand with a faint frown and then lifted it to his mouth and wrenched off the cap with his teeth and spat it out on the road. I took the beer gratefully and I swear I have never tasted a better beer in my life. I drank half of the bottle in one straight gulp and gave a satisfied sigh that raised a smile from Red Eyes. Walrus got out of the van with his own beer and two little dogs jumped out following happily behind him. They were stocky, solid men and wore shorts with long socks and were both covered in a layer of fine dust.
"You're not from here" said Walrus. It sounded more like an accusation than a question.
"No, I'm from Ireland"I answered.
"Izzit? My grandmother was an O'Malley from Cork. Well let’s have a look at the car".
We walked over and they both circled the overturned vehicle.
"En je heb niks?" asked Red Eyes.
"No, I'm fine" I replied, not deeming the few cuts I had worth mentioning.
"Yir a fecking licky bugger"
They mumbled together in Afrikaans for a moment and then seemed to reach some kind of conclusion.
"Ja, move bik a bit."
I got out of the way and they both went into a crouch beside the car. "Okay, Een, Twee, DRIEEE" and they pushed and overturned the pickup right side up. I was stunned. It wasn't a small car and I knew for a fact that it weighed more than a metric tonne. The car bounced on its suspension as it landed and raised a small cloud of dust.
We chatted a bit before deciding what to do next. Walrus was called Herbie and was originally from Cape Town and Red Eyes' name was Paul. He was a local White Namibian. They were going out to count cattle and were going to make a weekend of it.
"We have beer and meat and lots of brandy. We'll count cattle all day and then we'll light a fire and braai the meat and have some drinks. You can leave the bakkie here and come with us if you like. Lots of meat, good steak meat and lots of brandy. We'll bring you back in a few days."
For a moment I hesitated. It was a tempting offer, but I knew it would be only putting off my immediate responsibilities. Running away, abandoning the sinking ship. Besides I was half their size and would probably never measure up to their conception of hard-drinking, meat-eating manhood.
"That's very kind of you to offer but I really have to get to a phone and try to get the car to a garage."
This didn't seem to put them out one way or the other. We finished our beers and they looked at the car again, kicking tyres and tsktsking with shaking heads. I popped the bonnet and Paul stuck his head inside. Herbie brought over a torch. I wandered off feeling out of my depth and rummaged for my own torch - a head lamp. Herbie laughed when he saw me coming back.
"Look Paulie, a miner. We used to be miners, shit mon that was long ago. That's where we met each other" he paused and looked into the distance "Ja sixteen jaar ago in the uranium mines."
"Here in Namibia?" I asked. I knew there were diamond mines and even a few copper mines but I had never heard of uranium mines.
"Ja sure two,three, four hundred kilometres down that way. Biggest Uranium mine in the world." He gestured vaguely towards the south west.
I shone my light into the engine as Paul checked this and that. He drew out the oil dipstick and wiped it clean on his dusty shorts.
"Ja, olie's okay, water's okay."
I stood by looking on. Mechanics is not my strong point and I was more than happy to let them both play doctor to the car.
"Die wiel is kapot - hij moet weg" muttered Paul to Herbie. Herbie went back to the van and pulled out his spare wheel.
"Maybe if we get this on you can get going," he said to me.
"Get going?" I hadn't imagined that the car would still run.
"Ja, she's fine. Yer axels are straight, yer engine's a bit off but she should run. You got the keys?"
I instinctively patted my pockets but of course they weren't there
"I think they're still in the ignition," I said, only now realizing that I could have silenced Paul Simon by simply removing the keys. Hindsight.
"Well, start her up and we'll see."
The driver's door was still jammed shut but the passenger door opened. I ducked my head to accommodate my new low-look roof and slid across the seat to sit behind the wheel. Paul pulled his head out from under the bonnet and walked off to a safe distance. I visualized the car exploding as soon as I turned the key in the ignition like a booby trapped car in a mafia movie. Instead the engine purred into life, running as smoothly as if nothing had happened.
"Take a look" said Herbie.
I climbed out and peered at the engine as if I knew something about engines while Herbie held the torch for me.
"She's off. One of your engine mounting blocks slipped but it will hold. Try your gears without the engine."
I did as I was told, cutting my hands a bit more on the shards of glass that covered the seat as I manouvered myself back into the driving seat. I had all the gears except fifth and reverse.
Meanwhile Paul was busy taking off the most damaged wheel.
"It’s a blow out. That must have given you the accident. Blow out no good on a dirt road," he said in his heavy Afrikaans accent.
Herbie's spare wheel wouldn't fit by just a millimetre. Paul had already replaced another wheel with my spare. Then he took off another wheel that was burst too.
"There's a garage about ten or fifteen kay up the road," explained Herbie. "Paul will drive there with your wheel and get it fixed then we'll put it back on and you'll be able to go."
Paul wandered back to the van carrying my spare wheel in one hand as if it weighed nothing. He started up the van, rose a dust cloud making a noisy U-turn and headed off in the direction he had initially come from.
By now it was completely dark and the moon hadn't yet risen. The geckos barked all the louder and the two dogs, which I had forgotten about, got up and started to prowl. Herbie opened a bottle of beer using another bottle as a lever, a useful trick I have never managed to master, and then used part of the mangled car door to prise the cap off the second bottle. He handed one to me.
"Cheers," I said and we clinked bottles "Listen I don't know how to thank you guys for all the help. I don't know what I would have done if you guys hadn't come along." It was over an hour since they had arrived and no one else had passed by in all that time.
"It's nothing mon. I rolled my own bakkie just last year. I mean really rolled it. Over and over and over. I thought it would never stop. It’s a fucking scary thing so believe me I know how you feel. You're lucky you're okay, nothing broken, no injuries. Forget the car, it's only a machine. You can get a new one. That cab is bust bad. You could have died."
I nodded slowly and silently. We were both leaning our forearms against the back of the pickup.
After a while he said "I broke my arm you know. Metal in there now," patting his meaty forearm. I could just make out the faintest trace of a scar.
"I know what it's like and I'm glad I'm alive and I'm glad we could help you.” He paused for a moment. “It's like giving something back. I don't know how to explain it really." Another silence while he turned the beer bottle in his hands. I noticed that I had picked the label off mine and torn it to shreds. He started up again. "It was only a year ago, but you forget. You probably think that's crazy now, but you do forget. Seeing your bakkie on its roof reminded me again. Sometimes it’s good to remember the bad things. It makes life sweeter. You're lucky, and you'll be fine, but it will change you. A bad fright like that always changes a man. Doesn't matter how tough he thinks he is." Here was a man who knew what he was talking about. I sipped my beer and listened on in silence.
"Shooting star" said Herbie pointing it out for me. I just caught a tiny glimpse of the shining streak before it extinguished itself. "That's Scorpio up there." He showed me the curve of the tail and the stinger at the end of it and from there I could work it out for myself. It was a clear cloudless night. The Milky Way stretched out across the night like a long misty cloud and everywhere, everywhere were stars. I could hardly find a totally black patch of sky.
"You can't see stars like this in Europe" I told him.
"No. Too much pollution, too much light from towns and cities. Sometimes in the mountains you can see a lot of stars but never like this." My neck was starting to hurt from looking upwards.
"You live in Europe? I thought you was staying in Botswana."
I smiled. He had obviously gathered this from the registration plate on the bakkie. "No, its my brother's car. He lives in Botswana. I live in France, I'm just out here for the summer."
"Sorry, I keep forgetting it’s your winter now. We could never get hot days like this in winter."
"So you're just travelling around?"
"Yeah, just travelling 'round.... Actually my brother is getting married next month so I came out this side for the wedding."
"He getting married in Botswana?"
"No, in Zambia. His girlfriend is from there."
"Jeez you guys move around. He like it there in Botswana? What's he do?"
"He's a teacher. I guess he likes it, he's been there for five years now and I couldn't imagine him moving back home."
"Home is Ireland?"
"Well I haven't lived there in more than ten years, but my folks still live there so I suppose you could call it home."
The truth was that it didn't seem like home to me at all. I returned rarely and whenever I did I felt this uneasy sense of disorientation. I would seek out my old haunts from my student days in Dublin and find them gone or changed. Ireland had changed beyond recognition in the last ten years and I felt more like a foreigner there than anything else. My perspective had shifted and now I was an outsider looking in. I had lost contact with almost anyone I ever knew there and apart from my own immediate family I felt no real attachment to the place.
"My grandmother O'Malley used to tell me about the place. She never went back. She came out after your war on a boat to Cape Town. She said Cape Town was heaven on earth and she loved the sunshine. It rains a lot in Ireland?"
"It rains too much in Ireland. You can't live an outdoor life unless you don't mind getting wet all the time.... So you're from Cape Town"
"Ja," he answered, bending down to grab another couple of beers. He handed me an open one. "Ja, Cape Town. You know what they're calling it these days?" he asked fixing me in the eyes. I shook my head. "Rape Town. Can you imagine? Ach mon its all fucked down there now. They're killing each other in the streets. Let'em. They wanted their own country, well let them have it, let them fuck it up and kill each other. I'm not going back." He shook his head and spat on the ground. "Most beautiful country in the world.... I'll stay here now, in the desert. You can be yourself in the desert. No one fucking with you pointing a gun at you give me your money and then shooting you anyway. Easier that way. No witnesses. Ach..." He trailed off into silence lost in his own thoughts.
"When did you move up this side" I asked.
"I came up with the army, you know military service. This was still South Africa then. They called it South West Africa like it was another country or something but we were still running the place. Then after the army I just stayed. Never went back. Just once to visit. I like it here, got married, had kids......" His voice trailed away and we both sipped our beers in silence.
"How many kids?" I asked after a while.
"Was two..... but one died."
"I'm sorry to hear that. A boy or a girl?"
"Boy. Was two boys. This one was the eldest. Sixteen."
After a short while he stared up again speaking slowly with long pauses between each sentence.
"You know those buggies? Dune buggies? Ones with the big wheels on'em? He was driving one of them. First time too. With some friends and they were always going on about it, how great it was. They were on a kind of circuit, all laid out special with bumps and curves and obstacles. One of his friends was shouting to him from another buggy. They're shouting back and forth having a good time. Young guys driving having a laugh. Anyway he's looking over at this other guy and doesn't see this big pole coming up in front of him. Crashed into the pole full speed no seatbelt and hit the pole his self with his head. Dead before the ambulance got there. My wife was real bad after that. Took her years to get over it. Still can't watch the buggy racing. Can't blame her can you? Ach, he was a good boy and all. Didn't drink, well not much anyway, didn't smoke, good at school......"
Herbie finished his beer and tossed the bottle away. "See how lucky you are now."
I nodded in silent agreement. The geckos were still singing their song and it had gotten much colder now. I pulled my collar up around my neck and finished my beer too.
"How far did you say that garage was?" I asked.
"Ten or fifteen. Wonder what's keeping Paulie. He's gone a while now isn't he?"
"Over an hour anyway," I reckoned. In fact I had no real idea. It could have been three hours for all I knew. Time seemed to have stopped for me.
"Ja, maybes problems with your wheel or they haven't got the right tube. Hope he didn't get into a fight. He's a good guy Paul, best friend in the world, but he's had it hard and sometimes he gets rowdy. We stopped at the place on the way here. It’s a kind of a hotel with bar and petrol and all. We bought some beer and when the guy tells us the price Paul goes kind of crazy and starts shouting "I don't want to buy the fickin’ hotel I just want beers." and stuff like that. Anyway we pay and leave with the beers but Paul is still a bit mad about the price and curses the guy all the way until we see you. Hope he didn't get into a fight. He can get mean in a fight. I've known him sixteen years now and we used to work in the mines together. You get to know a man and what he's like."
We busied ourselves for a while lifting the broken canopy into the back of the bakkie and then weighed it down with all my luggage. I gathered up the stray dead bottles and threw them in the back too. That done and all the beer gone Herbie kicked dust a bit and then started to pace up and down. The dogs reappeared at his heels.
"Going to take the dogs for a walk. Maybe he had a problem on the road." He turned and headed off in the direction Paul had gone. I could hear his footsteps crunch in the gravel long after I lost sight of him.
I sat into the cab of the bakkie trying to sweep away the shards of glass as best I could using a broken tape box. It was cold, so I went and dug out my sleeping bag and wrapped it around my shoulders. The moon had started to come up now, and though it wasn't quite full yet, its pale glow illuminated the landscape very clearly. I could make out the pockmarked craters and thought how similar it must be up there to this dry dusty corner of the world. The same eerie silent mountain ranges, the vast empty plains, no sign of life anywhere.
After about twenty minutes I heard Herbie shout in the distance. "Here he comes."
Then nothing but silence broken only by the geckos. I must have dozed off because when I opened my eyes the moon was much higher. Almost overhead in fact. My hands were frozen and my neck ached. There was still no sign of either Paul or Herbie. How long had I slept? A couple of hours at least. Something was definitely wrong. I started to worry about what had happened to Paul. After all he seemed to have had a lot to drink and I knew from all too recent experience how treacherous these roads could be.
I got up and walked around, flapping my arms trying to keep warm. I decided I may as well set up my tent and bed down. I smoothed out a patch of ground, kicking away stones and gravel and soon I was bedded down, cosy, fully clothed in my sleeping bag. About ten minutes later I heard the sound of a distant motor. I unzipped my bag and put my sandals back on and scrambled out of my tent. I was relieved to see the minibus, still trailing its moonlit dust cloud.
Herbie told me the story. Paul had got the wheel fixed and was driving back to meet us when the van suddenly shuddered to a halt. He couldn't find out what was wrong. Herbie had found him about ten kilometres up the road and they finally managed to track down the problem. A tiny piece of rust had somehow got stuck in the fuel line. They managed to get it out and the engine started up again.
Paul was looking a little worse for wear than when he had left us and I could tell that Herbie had had another beer or two since he had left me. Nonetheless they quickly manouvered the wheel into place, checked the air pressure in all the tyres and pumped one up a bit more. It was losing air and it would have to be replaced but it would get me as far as the garage. Within ten minutes of returning they pronounced the car fit to drive. In the mean time I had taken down my tent and threw it in the back with the rest of my baggage. We shook hands and I thanked them profusely and then slid back into the driving seat. The engine started fine. I did a U turn and lumbered back onto the road and shouted goodbyes and thanks out into the night.
Because the roof was crushed down I had to drive with my face almost behind the steering wheel and because the windscreen was mostly shattered I had to lean my head to one side to see out through the only clear piece of glass left. I drove slowly hovering around the thirty kilometre an hour mark my heart pounding fast. I was still shaken and driving was the last thing I wanted to be doing. It was cold and windy without any side windows and I was glad to have brought my hat and gloves with me to Africa. I slowly followed the road across the lunar landscape occasionally sticking my head out the window to spit out the dust that was slowly covering me.
After about half an hour I reached a T junction. My headlights picked out a hand painted sign. SOLITAIRE it announced. I pulled into the forecourt beside the petrol pumps. There wasn't a light anywhere and the only sound was that of the wind which had grown stronger now. Somewhere in the near distance a dog barked. Then a few more joined in. A swaying lamp appeared and moved its way towards me.
"So here you are at last. What kept you? I was expecting you hours ago," boomed a big friendly voice. He introduced himself as Moose and my hand felt tiny as his huge paw wrapped around it. He was a big man with a shiny bald head and an enormous bushy beard. We made our way towards a low building which he unlocked.
“ Sorry, there's no lights. I just turned off the generator an hour ago. I knew you'd be coming through. One of my boys fixed your wheel, so I waited up. You'll be needing something to eat. What about a drink?" I took a beer. "How about some cake? I just baked it fresh myself today."
I took a plate of his cake and very good it was too. We sat and chatted a little by the light of his oil lamp. He was a white Zambian he told me. "I've been here seven years now. I've seen a lot of accidents on that road. A lot of people roll on these gravel roads. Not many who do are as lucky as you. Seven years and more than four hundred accidents."
"That's more than one a week!" I exclaimed, a piece of cake escaping from my mouth at the same time.
"You better believe it. And most of them come through here. That's a bad, bad road. Couple of weeks back this guy came in. He was walking. Blood all over him. We cleaned him up gave him a bed. He was okay, talking with us, he even had a few beers. Anyway he goes off to bed and next morning he's still not up. Needs his sleep I thought, but I'll just check him all the same. He was dead. Died during the night..... Later the doctor said that it was an internal puncture. He had broken his ribs slamming into the steering wheel and they had gone back inside of him. Talking and drinking beers in the evening and dead a few hours later. He rolled his bakkie on the same stretch of road where you did."
"Here, take a look at this" he said standing up from the table and moving across the room. I followed him.
"See?" he said pointing to two curved strips of red painted wood that had been nailed to the bar. They had writing on them written with a thick felt tip marker.
"What are they?" I asked.
"Propellors from a microlite. You know, those little things with the lawnmower engines that buzz around. This was a guy flying around here and he crashed. Crash landed. He was a bit beat up but otherwise he was fine. The microlite was a mess. I saw him crash. I was watching him flying around and down he came off over there," he pointed out into the night. "I got up on a horse and went out to him. Like I say, he was fine. He went out to the wreck the next day and came back with these. Wrote a dedication on there and asked us to hang them up somewhere. Stayed around for a few days after that. Hell of a nice guy."
"Do you have somewhere I can set up my tent?"
"Sure. Come out and I'll show you. You can drive up to it." He locked the door behind us and said he would take a closer look at the car in the morning, showed me where I could camp and bade me good night.
It was a nice sandy spot to pitch my tent, but the wind made it difficult to put up. I used the car as a windbreak and for the second time that night climbed into my sleeping bag and snuggled down using my rolled up jacket as a pillow.
I lay there listening to the wind. It blew sand against the flysheet of my tent and the sound it made was like someone searching for something in one of those cheap crinkly plastic bags you get in a supermarket. I couldn't sleep now, my mind was too busy - working at high speed and running through the recent past. The images of the two weeks since my arrival ran through my head in no specific order. A crazy chopping of scenes, random images, faces, places, suitcases, shoelaces, open spaces, mixed races, different paces .....
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