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"D" Is For Desert

It had been a long day on the road. Kimberley to Springbok. 770km and 9 hours heading west towards that special part of our country: Namaqualand. A trip like this usually starts way too early the morning after a much too short night, but who notices? As soon as the driver points the car towards the destination, that familiar anticipation grabs a hold of you and time ceases to matter. The thrill of the road trip puts you into a different state of mind and your thoughts become vapour as you gaze through the window at the landscape.

First, the darkness enfolds us. Two beams of light pierces through it to light the way. Soon one of my favourite parts of the day arrives as shades of black turn to abyss-blue before the contrasts start to shape the landscape. Some people call it the blue hour. In Central South Africa there is no such thing as an hour to marvel at these colours. It appears and changes and lightens so fast that you’re forced to drink it in moment by moment for fear of missing it altogether.

As the sky grows lighter, the plains are filled with the Northern Cape colour palette. All the colours brown that reminds me of a poem by Antjie Krog my aunt used to teach us:

“rietbruin, sandklipbruin, dassiebruin en winterbruin.”

(“reed brown, sandstone brown, rock hyrax brown and winter brown.”)

There are some greens and yellows and the sky is blue, with layers of pink which soon fade away as the sun traverses higher in the sky. By noon it feels as if the sky is pure white and you squint your eyes against the glare, but the changing landscape holds too much wonder and you continue to look out for the next landmark. Grass and thorn trees make way for lush plantations of mostly grapes as your draw closer to Upington and beyond that town a thoughtless tractor driver almost sends himself with us to eternity. The expanse of vineyards is mind-boggling in an otherwise dry, dusty, rocky landscape. You ponder the power water holds to give life in a dry land, and then you’re reminded that it also destroys with indescribable force in times of flooding. Water can bring life or death.

After an hour or so the scenery changes again to vast dry plains of nothing in particular. Your soul starts to breathe. So much space and so few people. Here you can truly hear your thoughts again. But this part of the road might seem to stretch into the horizon with no end in sight. It takes a few hours before you can start counting down the kilo’s to Springbok, the capital of Namaqualand, and while the sun is still bright, you turn in at the gate of your friends’ home for the night.

While we were driving westward, clouds had been gathering to the east, only visible to the people in the front seats with access to mirrors. As we stretched our legs and carried our luggage to our rooms, i knew that one of my favourite photo days had arrived. As the sun would be setting soon in the west, it would cast its light straight into the clouds in the east. To add to the drama that was about to enfold, our hosts’ home was right on the edge of town, with a whole quiver tree forest on their doorstep. As soon as i could courteously excuse myself from the group, the camera bag was over my shoulder and i set off to see what photos were waiting for me.

Sure enough, the afternoon did not disappoint. The sunset rays shone unobstructed towards the clouds and even thought the trees and hills were illuminated brilliantly, it did not receive direct light, which meant no harsh shadows to mar the picture. A strange, unearthly light settled on the veld and brought out colours in the quiver trees that i hadn’t realised were possible, seeing as i had never before come this close to these odd plants before and had never encountered such light before. The dark, foreboding greys and blues of the cloud bases contrasted with brilliant patches of white where the cloud cover was thinner, and the trees stood centre-stage, waiting simply to show off what had already been there for ages before this sublime afternoon.

i turned around and sauntered back, my mind filled to the brim with colours, light, textures, sounds, smells and the lingering touch of the breeze on my bare arms. This memory is as clear in my mind today as if i was still standing among the quiver trees. Oh, how blessed i am.

Other stories in this series include:

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