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Rated: E · Fiction · Personal · #2259394
A tale about my experiences as an anthropologist working in a remote desert region.

Lilo du Toit

Fiction/creative writing sample

September 2021


The Upsides of Working in a Desert



Since childhood, my need to explain things was only exceeded by my desire to learn everything there is to know. This tendency has led me to study the sciences in adulthood, which ultimately led me to study the social sciences. My primary interest has always been human beings: creatures who defy understanding, think and act irrationally, and constantly challenge established methods of finding the truth.

Thus, I became an anthropologist who worked in the Karoo region of South Africa studying the indigenous Nam people before their society completely disappeared. It is called the Murderer's Karoo due to the daily struggle for survival all its inhabitants face. Plants, animals, and people alike are constantly tested by the desolation, the heat, and the intense competition for scarce water resources. For thousands of years, the Nam people have thrived in this unforgiving environment. Known as the original inhabitants of this region, this group has been fighting a losing battle against the modern world for the last three hundred years. They are dying out, leaving no trace of a language and an oral tradition that goes back several generations. As I studied these gentle people, I was acutely aware of the burden that rested upon me: to learn their language and ways, and to record the precious stories passed down from generation to generation.

I often had to travel between Sutherland and Matjiesfontein on the R356, an impossibly long and lonely tarred road that crosses the Roggeveld mountains before levelling out in the desert. Just outside of Matjiesfontein, I stayed on the farm of a retired army general and his wife--the McClures--who welcomed me with hospitality and grace unlike anything I have experienced before or since. My experience living in a starkly beautiful landscape with friendly and gracious people, where rainstorms could take my breath away, has made me realize that a part of me will always remain in this desert kingdom. I would feel the need to escape my native urban home, a thousand miles away to the northeast, for the rest of my life.

It was on one afternoon that I decided to brave the long drive home to my temporary lodgings, even though I knew that the night would soon envelop me and my little car on a deserted stretch of road. I bid farewell to my interpreter for the Nam language, Kleinklaas, and turned on my car's engine before aiming its nose in the direction of the main road. After following bumpy country roads for 30 minutes, I turned onto smooth tar and headed towards the mountains, fighting the urge to fall asleep on the endless road that always lulled me into a trance-like state.

During this afternoon in 2006, I came upon the lifeless expanse of the Valley of Desolation with relief. The barren, dusty brown of the scene removed any doubts I may have had about how it came by its appropriate moniker. With a sigh I allowed myself to relax a little as I stopped the car on an elevated spot, midway along the sharp bends and sheer drops of the final mountain pass: soon I would be able to open the can of Coke I had stashed in a cooler bag on the back seat. The kick of sugar and caffeine delivered by the first few gulps drew my attention away from the sprawling desert plain for a moment before I noticed a profound stillness in the air around me. So intense in fact, that I became convinced that the air was as dead and desolate as the valley below which carried a sense of utter isolation in its very name. The atmosphere had taken on a gentle orange quality which I remembered was referred to colloquially as "oranjelucht".

The beautiful tableau mounted by nature before my eyes lasted for less than half an hour as the sun set to my left, before being extinguished by a darkness that revealed a clear sky. Surrounded by a multitude of bright stars, normally hidden by the polluted air in the city, the milky way splashed a broad sweep across the evening sky. Watching this, I understood the minuteness of my existence in a vast universe, a universe of which I could see only a tiny glimpse from my vantage point on the northern side of a mountain in the desert. The feeling was as overwhelming as the never-ending stretch of flat desert sprawled beneath, where any sound, any movement was drowned out by the sheer amount of space. It was with this humbling realization that I started the engine of my little borrowed car again, and completed the long drive back to the McClure's farm where a dinner of venison, salad greens, fresh farmhouse bread, and slices of sweet potato gently cooked in a sugary base until almost transparent, awaited me.

With the comforting sense of satisfaction one gets after a delicious meal, I climbed into my bed three hours later as the deep desert night firmly established its hold on the landscape and all within it. I knew I would never again experience something akin to what I witnessed that day, and the realization filled me with a sense of profound sadness. Eventually, this sadness transformed into a sense of great joy: the joy of knowing that I am one of the very few to have seen the astounding beauty rarely revealed by the Karoo desert. It is, to this day, hard for me to imagine a greater privilege.




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