Updated: May 26
The desert is a flat stretch, colour-faded.
We’re location-scouting on a road that tastes of direction.
There is beauty in all this aridity, more primal than the lush Ceres
we travelled through earlier.
Here, the sharp hills are bitten to granite bone.
Four hundred thousand square kilometres of nothingness.
We walk into a steam-punk, Tarantino movie – skulls,
weird mannequins, half a car hung from the ceiling.
Five people turn and stare at the four of us.
This, we are told, is a pudstool – desert bar.
A dry crack in the voice. But do you sell loo paper?
Silence, then an outbreak of laughter.
A shaved-head, huge as the Hulk, tattooed
like someone from the Chainsaw Massacre,
lifts a bottle, pours shots for everyone.
I’m the gate-keeper, he says, to the Karoo. I’ll let you pass
if you share this with us.
A braai chop, we discover, is a double tequila
with chasers of Worcestershire sauce and spiced salt.
On a stool, a white-vested, scraggly-beard they call Nathan.
He creates storey-high sculptures from salvage.
As we’re leaving, the sun beating down, around 40, he’s laughing.
Those townies will never make it, ringing in our ears.
Two hours later, a swift nightfall.
Like the sun, heat has plummeted.
A locked gate, another look at the map.
We’ve gone horribly wrong.
Turn around, drive into a moon and dangling dust.
And then– gduk gduk gduk. A puncture. Even worse,
we don’t have a wheel brace. No signal.
After a fruitless hour of attempts, we grab blankets, begin walking,
the chill gathering, a great shroud around us,
and we’re twitching, time-to-time,
like epileptics. It would be ecstasy,
in this cold, eerie space, wind rolling through the open eye
of the desert, to meet one of those hillbillies now.
A building, a glint. The boys climb over the barrier.
But it’s only a pane caught by the moonlight.
The place is deserted. To walk or to stay?
Either way, are we corpses?
Next thing, a headlight, and we’re standing and shouting and waving.
Up comes this diminutive figure, one of the Koi San,
babbling streams of what seems to be Afrikaans.
We can only respond with gestures.
He puts us all on his quad bike.
The wind trails us, then speeds ahead to the distance.
At his place, his daughter and wife, green-eyed, golden skin,
meercats running along shoulders and arms.
Josiah drives off into the dark, returning with Hendrik, a neighbour, an hour later.
These are the kindest rescuers, offering their whole night for us.
In the meantime, the women are consulting the gods, it would seem, for rain.
While Richard and Jimmy head off with the men to our vehicle,
Jess and I pray with them.
After some days, we return to the pudstool, hosted
this time, by long dreadlocks; skin-weathered.
He invites us to sit. We share stories.
The desert, he tells us, hasn’t seen rain in three years.
Almost nothing can grow.
As we’re talking, black clouds charge in.
All of a sudden it’s raining and this guy is in tears, and we’re dancing.
I am collecting personal stories about people's lives during, but not necessarily related to, lockdown. This poem was inspired by an adventure told to me by my niece Kalai Barlow, a film-maker, who was in the Karoo Desert recently (as socially distant as you can get). She and her team were scouting for a location for a film about the ‘iWosana’ or the chosen one from the BaKalanga tribe, whose duty it is to communicate with the god Mwali and the ancestors to bring the rains. The film is titled Rainmaker.
Photograph courtesy of Kalai Barlow.