by Susan Bloch
I’m traveling into unknown territory with a man I just met.
His name is Karl, my safari guide here in Namibia, and we’re driving along a coast shaped by death and diamonds. A coast where shifting sand dunes bury secrets, mysteries, and skeletons; where for centuries, Atlantic waves smashed sails, masts, gunwales, and rudders, against treacherous rocks; where secrets drowned, and secrets were lost at sea. Where secrets skulk in rusted ships’ keels and hulls and lie camouflaged inside the bleached whale ribcages littering the beaches. The secrets of what shipwrecked sailors did to survive the torture of thirst, hunger, and exposure; secrets shared between sailors and prostitutes about buried treasure; and in the late 1930s, how Germany’s secret plan to recapture Southern Africa was smuggled to Nazi sympathizers in the region. These tales had captivated me for decades. But no secret was ever so carefully guarded as that by Karl—his family scandal. The secret I didn’t know when the two of us trekked alone into the bush.
At dawn that morning, Karl picked me up at Walvis Bay International Airport. When he met me at the terminal exit, he stared at my purple roller suitcase just long enough for me to notice his lips press together. He wiped the palm of his right hand on the back of his crumpled khaki shorts, and with his left stroked the trim beard framing his suntanned face. With the build of a rugby player, each of his thighs was as big as both of mine together, and he towered over my petite five-foot-four frame. When he leaned over to pick up my luggage, his blond curls flopped over his frown and a hunting knife attached to his leather belt came into view.
“So glad to finally meet you,” he said. “How was your flight?”
“Fine, thank you, but long. Seattle is a long way from anywhere.”
“We have a little farther to go, and then you can chill, Okay?”
Next to the unpaved curb, Karl unlocked his SUV and opened the passenger door, and I stepped up to get into the passenger seat. My foot slipped on the sidebar, and I stumbled back onto the paving.
“Here, hold onto this handle and go up with your right foot first, not your left,” Karl said.
Then he leaned forward, pressed his palms on my back to stop my wobbling, and I plopped down inside, next to the gear box. While Karl tossed my bag in the back, I turned around looking for our travel companions, but instead saw only two sleeping bags covered in plastic sheeting, occupying the empty seats behind us.
“When do the rest of the group join us?” I asked before he closed the door.
“Just you and me this time,” Karl said. “You’re the first woman to do a trip like this with me.”
I smiled to mask my nervousness but couldn’t speak. We both knew this was not the trip I signed up for. Karl had been quite clear in our pre-trip emails: a group of four people minimum—including a few experienced wildlife campers—along with Karl’s two Rhodesian Ridgebacks and a couple of .375 caliber Magnum rifles. Karl had assured me we’d be well protected against attacks by desert lions, hyenas, and elephants. While Karl walked around to the driver’s door, my mind raced ahead imagining the worst. If Karl had a heart attack, was gored by a desert elephant tusk, or was bitten by a black mamba, we’d be doomed. I’d never fired a rifle nor a gun of any sort, driven a vehicle with six gears, or used a compass.
For centuries, women have hiked across Southern Africa under the tutelage of seasoned guides, and I wasn’t breaking new ground. But I was a rookie wildlife camper who’d only traveled in luxury organized groups. It was crazy for just the two of us to drive off into the veldt on our own. After the thirty-hour flight, my head felt heavy, and I was tempted to call off the trip. Instead, I sighed, too tired to make any sensible decisions. I’d spent six months planning this trip and hoped that being close to nature would help me recover from my husband’s death. I longed to feel John’s hand over mine; longed to hear him tell me what to do; longed to hear him whisper, “You’ll be fine.” The logical thing, he’d probably tell me, would be to go back to the city and join another group. After all, this was the first trip ever I’d taken without him. This compounded my dilemma. For almost two years, I argued with myself, I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to throw off my widow’s shroud. I’d come this far and felt reluctant to give up now.
If Karl sensed my quandary about being with him on my own, he didn’t show it. Whistling, he climbed into the driver’s seat of the six-seater safari jeep, turned the key in the ignition, and put the vehicle in gear. The back of our 4×4 was loaded with a plastic jerry can filled with drinking water; a blackened frying pan; a dented kettle with a scorched underside; potatoes; onions; butternut squash; a pack of matches; an all-in-one can and bottle opener; a chiller crammed with boerewors (South African sausage) and lamb chops; and a wooden box packed with other necessities: sliced bread, boxes of UHT milk, tea, coffee, sugar, pasta, canned beans, a bottle of canola oil, and a case of Lion lager. A rifle lay on top of my pup tent, but we had no GPS and nothing to prevent the venom of a cobra or puff adder from killing us.
“Each snake requires its own antivenom, which has to be refrigerated,” Karl revealed when I admitted my off-the-chart snake phobia. “The only thing we can do is drive like hell to the nearest clinic and hope they have the antidote.” He chuckled and rubbed a muscular forearm across his forehead. “Never happened yet in all these years I’ve been a guide. It’s unusual to get a request to camp and hike in this area, and I’m looking forward to trying this out with you.” Karl tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel.
He looked at me from the driver’s seat. His green eyes and freckled cheeks faced me full on with calmness and composure.
“First, we need to get you a pair of kudu skin Veldskoenhiking boots like mine.” Karl picked up one foot and showed me the barely worn thick-ridged sole underneath. “These have covered thousands of kilometers and are still going strong. You won’t get far in those white sneakers.”
I raised my hand and covered my mouth. I was glad Karl didn’t know I had hair mousse and a hairdryer at the bottom of my suitcase.
“Then, we drive north along these beaches. In a few days, we’ll turn east to camp and hike across the veldt to climb kopjes to the rock paintings, way off the tourist track, that you want to see.”
I tried to block out my friends’ warnings about this trip. They’d told me I should opt for a more conventional safari, where tourists drive around in air-conditioned minivans, sleep in luxury rondavels—huts with en suite bathrooms—and enjoy gourmet meals in the camp restaurant, all under the eyes of watchful rangers. Maybe I should’ve listened, but I felt the need to track game on foot through the bush and view remote rock art far away from tour groups. Twisting my wedding ring around and around, I wondered how camping in a scarcely populated country filled with snakes and silence—stretching three hundred miles between the Hoanib River in the north to the Ugab River in the south and framed by quicksand and marshlands in Kaokoland to the east—could possibly be a cure for my grief. Surely, the healing power of nature and time away from work would be that catalyst. But perhaps it wasn’t quite enough. I needed to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The impulse to heal urged me to take a step toward my new protectors: Karl, a campfire, the Southern Cross, and luck. If I am to go back into the world, surely now is the time, and this is the place.
At the outskirts of Walvis Bay, we stopped at a shoe store, filled with the familiar smell of new leather, where under Karl’s guidance I bought my Veldskoenhiking boots. The kudu skin fits snuggly around my ankles, and the thick crepe soles cushioned my feet. It’d been ages since someone helped me choose new shoes, and I smiled, my first authentic smile since landing. I strode back to the jeep, and this time there was no need for Karl to push me up. An unfamiliar sense of recklessness overwhelmed me, and with the abandon of a carefree teenager I plonked my new tan Veldskoen on the dashboard.
Our journey begins here. Tapped under a dense fog created by the clash of the icy Atlantic Ocean on our left and the broiling Namib Desert on our right, where visibility is negligible. The Skeleton Coast, an apt name for this shoreline filled with tales of ancient demons and modern disasters. Karl shifts gears when we scrape over scrub and bounce through potholes but doesn’t slow down.
“Even nowadays,” Karl says, noting my frown, “fishing boats and stupid surfers vanish in the fog and sand. We still sometimes find a human skull or thigh bones. Some centuries old, some more recent.”
Twenty-foot waves smash on the white beaches, and spray flies into the air. Drops dribble down Karl’s side window as we drive on. An involuntary shiver travels up my spine.
“The San, you know,” Karl continues, “are the longest surviving hunter-gatherer society in Africa, and they’ve lived here for over 70,000 years. They call this place ‘The Land God Made in Anger.’ Hard to believe that in 1487, they chased the crew of the São Cristóvão, captained by the Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, back to their caravel only with arrows.”
“Unbelievable. Against all those canons and rifles.” I shift my spine against the back of my seat and my hunched shoulders fall away from my ears.
“But let me tell you, this didn’t stop other European explorers from trying to exploit the region, even though they were terrified of being stranded here. They called this coast ‘The Gates of Hell.’”
We drive past I remember reading how, despite all the horror stories, German explorers, seduced by the lure of diamond fortunes, colonized the territory in 1884. How Namibia changed hands when, after the First World War, the League of Nations handed Namibia over to South Africa to govern. These new rulers not only imposed apartheid practices, but also siphoned off the country’s rich mineral wealth—uranium, vanadium, lithium, and tungsten, as well as diamonds. Finally, in 1990, after seventy-five years of foreign rule, Namibia gained independence. Now the Skeleton Coast is home to a few vacation fishing villages, deserted diamond mines, and three coastal cities, Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, and Luderitz, which thrive on tourism and a vibrant fishing industry.
Karl squirts the jeep’s washer fluid and turns on the wipers to clear the brown mush—a batter of moisture and dust—streaking the windscreen We drive past the barbed wire fencing that straddles Kolmanskop, once a thriving diamond-mining center and the site of drunken brawls, a hidden diamond, sex in a shack with someone else’s wife, and tormented love across the racial divide. No roads or paths lead up to this ghost town, and yet derelict trucks lie parked outside roofless, deserted buildings.
Wind whips up the sand, which blows through tiny cracks in the closed car windows.
From behind a shed, a terrified herd of springbok rush out and leap over the jeep’s hood, their hooves kicking up thick clouds of fine desert sand. Upon landing, they immediately jump up again and then again—their bodies curved, legs stiff, backs arched.
“You know,” Karl says, “they can leap twelve or thirteen feet—we call it pronking. Amazing animals.”
“And so beautiful, with that brown strip on their white faces. I love those big brown eyes.”
Just then, my own eyes begin to water, and I worry I’ve smudged my mascara. Already, my cheeks feel like paper; by the time this trip is over my skin will be dried out and I’ll look fifteen years older. Twisting around in my seat to look for my sunscreen and a bandana to tie over my nose, I notice a red first-aid kit the size of my iPad. Inside I see a packet of Band-Aids, a gauze bandage, bottle of Dettol antiseptic, a tube of antihistamine cream, and a jar of Vaseline. I’m glad I brought along a tube of antibiotic cream. Only when I rub the sun lotion into my chin do I realize my jaw is clenched tight.
An hour later, we stop in a semi-desert region near Wlotzkasbaken, a small fishing village. When I open the door, I scan the area for scorpions, snake holes, and black widow spiders. Only when I see no signs of movement do I step on the ground.
Karl stands waiting, his arms folded. Then he beckons.
“See these fields of lichens and fungi? There are over a hundred different kinds,” Karl points out. “They’re a mix between a fungus and algae, and this is the only part of the world they grow.” He leans down, picks a small piece of an apricot-colored lace-like plant covering the rocks, and squeezes a sticky liquid onto my palm.
“Gorgeous,” Karl says. “It smells like fresh strawberries.”
He takes in a deep breath and closes his eyes, but I’m still in turmoil and struggling to enter his world. I sniff the liquid on my palm, but all I can smell is my own two-day-old perspiration.
“The plant absorbs water from the fog and turns this dark color. Springboks eat it for nutrition and drinking water, otherwise they’d not be able to survive here. These plants have been around for thousands of years and are now a protected species.”
Next, Karl points out a flat plant stretching almost four feet in diameter called Welwitschia. The crown is woody and dark brown, resembling an elephant’s inverted foot.
“Feel its leaves,” he says. I stroke the unexpectedly smooth, rubbery surface. “This relic from the Jurassic period can live as long as fifteen hundred years. If weather or an animal’s hooves damage the leaves, it heals itself and lives on. The long roots suck up any moisture and stop soil erosion.”
Karl puts his hands under the foliage, “Come and feel how cool it is underneath.”
But I step back and clasp my hands behind my back, scared I’ll get bitten or stung. Karl frowns but then his eyes soften.
“It’s okay to be cautious, but you can trust me. Come see the marks on the stones here,” Karl says, his voice animated. “A jackal has just licked off the moisture. Here is his spoor.”
Squatting next to Karl, I struggle to see the animal’s footprints in the sand but follow his index finger to focus on a desert beetle using its bumpy shell to extract water from fog-laden winds. A precious drop of liquid rolls slowly along a ridge of its protective casing into the insect’s mouth. And then another and another. Hypnotized by its determination to survive, I stretch forward to watch how long the bug will persevere. What must be a half-hour later, Karl taps me on the shoulder, takes my elbow, and helps me stand.
“We need to move on so that we’re settled before it gets dark.”
That first night, we camp on a flat stretch of firm sand near Henjies Bay, one of the few small vacation fishing villages in the area. Karl helps me set up my pup tent and rolls his sleeping bag out in the open a few yards from mine. We build a campfire, drink a couple of beers, braai lamb chops and whole onions, and nestle potatoes in the coals. We do the dishes—he washes and I dry—and I excuse myself to find a bathroom behind a bush, brush my teeth, and finally, snuggle into my sleeping bag in the tent.
After that, each evening follows a typical pattern. As dusk settles, Karl looks for a safe spot to camp, racing over boulders as if he were on a tarred highway. Then we find a flat sandy area with no lion tracks, elephant poop, or snake holes. Soon, flames rise from crackling acacia logs; a lemony-scented resin oozes from them. Sparks shoot into the onyx sky adorned with a pale crescent moon that turns over the month into a bright full moon. The African cuckoos stop their regular knocking, and the bulbuls stop warbling. Stars cluster around us, and we look for shooting stars in the clear night sky. Aromas of grilled boerewors with roasted onions, garlic, pumpkin, and cabbage, seasoned with peri-peri, a local chili powder, fill the air. I expected baked beans and cans of Campbell’s soup, but every dinner is an olfactory and culinary nirvana. It has been years since anyone cooked for me. I sink into my canvas camping chair as if I were floating on the Milky Way.
Before turning in, I fill a small plastic bowl with soapy water, scan the landscape for creepy crawlies, and step behind a nearby rock to wash away the dust from my own nooks and crannies. After a final cup of rooibos tea at the campfire, I crawl into my tent and zip the door, reluctantly locking out the Southern Cross, Taurus, Jupiter, Leo, and Orion’s Belt, but glad to know aardwolves, civets, and porcupines would have to chomp through the metal zipper to get inside. Karl unrolls his sleeping bag in the open, a few yards away from my tent, his rifle by his side. Soon, oblivious to hyena cackles and the pebbles under my thin camping mattress, I fall into a deep sleep. I can’t remember when I last slept for nine hours without tossing and turning.
In the mornings, the smell of coffee and bacon entices me to pull on my jeans, T-shirt, and socks. Then I turn my boots over and pat the soles to make sure there are no scorpions inside before slipping them on and tying the laces. Eggs poach in scooped-out orange skin. A bouquet of smoky grilled toast, orange-flavored eggs, and coffee with sweetened condensed milk fills the air.
We head off across the flat plains of Damaraland. Every night we camp in a new unenclosed area—Spitzkoppe, the Doros Crater, Burnt Mountain, and Organ Pipes, where dolerite columns line the sides of a small valley. One evening we sleep near a petrified forest filled with fossilized trees. We spend our days climbing cliffs and crags that take us through a variety of unusual rock formations over thirty feet high.
“This is a scary place,” I say. “I wouldn’t like to be here at night with these sculptures of apes, crocodiles, rhinos, and witches.”
“Ja, for sure. Remember, these shapes came after a huge volcano collapsed here some eighty million years ago,” Karl explains, letting out a low whistle. “The wind and infrequent but torrential rainstorms turned it into nature’s best art gallery.”
One afternoon, in the shadow of two towering granite mountains, Karl parks the vehicle near a boulder as high as a three-story building.
“Watch out for this,” he says, pointing at a nearby tree. “If you touch it you can die. When the San were hunter-gatherers, they used the tree’s white sap to poison the tips of their arrows.” I flinch and tuck my elbows in tight and note the shape of the leaves, while Karl strides on ahead.
“This is where we’ll see the rock paintings that most people never get to view. They’re hidden behind these crags,” Karl says. He reaches back to help me jump over a crevice that looks as wide as a city bus.
“C’mon, you can jump this,” Karl insists when I balk. He looks me up and down. “You’re so curious about everything. Now, with those new skoene, for sure you can make it. I want you to see this artwork. Man, it’s something else.”
The crevice is deep, dark, and menacing, but looking straight ahead, I leap toward Karl’s outstretched hands. He grasps my forearm and pulls me over toward him, then steadies my right ankle. The wind whispers as I crawl to the top of the kopje, where Karl finds a piece of art and history about one hundred feet wide on a wall underneath a rock that overlooks an endless escarpment.
Five or maybe even twenty thousand years ago, artists used brushes made from the tails and manes of wildebeest to paint men with spears running after a lion. A group of women holding hands in a circle stands close by. For a while, Karl and I are quiet and still, as if we were standing in a holy place. I take several deep slow breaths, savoring this divine silence. We have the world to ourselves. On cue, the breeze abates and my T-shirt stops fluttering. The longer I gaze the more shadows and etchings I see—a baby tied on a woman’s back, a baby rhino with an exaggerated long horn, and men sprinting, their legs flying in the air. Almost an hour later, Karl walks within inches of the rock face and clears his throat.
“Researchers say that the red and brown colors are made from finely ground iron oxide mixed with a binder made from animal fat or urine,” he says, pointing at the etchings on the pinkish rock face. “The paint penetrated the sandstone surfaces, which is why the paintings still look so good after thousands of years.”
Charcoal outlines of buried ostrich eggs are harder to spot. Karl explains how the San pierced the shells, sucked out the yolks and whites, filled the empty shells with water during the rainy season, and then buried them. These “eggs” served as their only water source during the long dry season.
“On the ground you can still find the hunter’s chisels and spear tips.” Karl picks up a few sculpted stones. “Luckily, very few people know this place exists, so the stones are safe for now.”
I fold my palms around the pointed stones, stroking them and trying to imagine what it must’ve been like, living so intimately with nature. I marvel at the San’s ability to thrive in what initially seemed like such a harsh landscape, but here is evidence of an ancient, durable economic organization.
“Life as a hunter-gather was not constant work as we tend to imagine, and except for extreme drought, the San had a reliable well-balanced diet until they had to share the land with white farmers,” Karl says, reading my mind. “When the Germans annexed South West Africa, now Namibia, in the 1880s, they drove the San off their land and destroyed their way of life. Their only way to survive was to farm goats or chickens or work in the diamond mines, and many struggled to make this difficult transition.”
We stay for hours, looking for and sharing stories on the stone surface before we move to the next cave, the next stone, the next cliff, and the next mountain. Karl jumps from rock to rock like a mountain goat, and often reaches for my hand and then shoulder when he sees me wobbling on a loose rock or stumbling over a boulder. My body begins to feel lighter and my footsteps more confident as Karl steers me along unmarked paths.
One morning, as we’re packing up to move to our next camp, an elephant walks within fifty feet of my tent and lifts his trunk as if to say hello. I hold my breath and raise my hand to wave back, but Karl cautions me to keep absolutely still.
“You don’t want to scare the beast,” he whispers. “He’ll run fast and, man, we won’t stand a chance.”
The elephant turns and moves on—only then do I let out my breath. On another day, I crouch behind a bush watching a tower of giraffe saunter around thorny acacia trees and strip the leaves but not the thorns, their long tongues wrapping the foliage as if they were rolling cigarettes. Wildebeests, with their wrinkled necks, graze among herds of zebras and springbok and look up anxiously as we approach. A flock of lemony-yellow weaverbirds construct their intricate nests; nearby, a female ostrich sprints away from her group.
“She looks like my Aunt Flora clinging to her shopping bag and running for the bus,” I say.
“Ja,” Karl says laughing. “And that one behind her looks like my neighbor Jan when he goes jogging. He’s chasing her now. I think he fancies her.”
“And she’s pecking at his neck to stay away.”
Vultures ignore us when we kneel to watch them picking at a sable antelope carcass. By the time they hop off, barely able to fly because of their distended bellies, no blood or meat remains on the antelope skeleton. I spend an hour inspired by the courage of a dung beetle rolling a ball of elephant poop twenty times its size up a hill, and even appreciate the putrid stench of a rotting kudu carcass as hyenas crunch the bones. Defiant brittlebush shrubs sprout out of crevices, enticing me to hike miles every day. My legs seem to fly across boulders, my back feels straighter, my neck looser, and I haven’t had to take a headache pill for days. In a dusty village, we stop to refuel the jeep, fill the jerry can with water, and buy a cup of Nescafé from a tin shack. Karl chats with shop owners in Khoisan, the local dialect, which is unusual for a white man.
“Toxoba, thank you,” I say, struggling to click my tongue on the “x.”
In the evenings, shelling and nibbling on peanuts and swigging beer by the campfire, Karl and I discuss the problems of refugees fleeing to Europe, Brexit, the rise of terrorism, and the consequences of climate change. He is surprisingly well informed for someone who’s never left the region.
“I guide about twenty safari groups a year,” Karl tells me, stoking the embers with a stick. “I’m so lucky, man. People come here from all over the world. And I learn so much from them all.”
Near the end of our trip, I confide in Karl about John’s illness and the death sentence it cast upon us. He listens patiently.
“You know,” I say, as I pull the tab on my third can of lager, “John actually rowed a marathon two weeks before he started feeling breathless. Only then, after a scan, we were told he was riddled with asbestos. No cure, nothing to do; only morphine for the pain.”
“Ja, such is life, I’m afraid. Shame. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
It has been a while since I talked with anyone about this painful time, but now I don’t cry or choke. I’m in a strange mood entering the anticlimax of this journey’s end, wishing I could stay on camping with Karl for another few weeks. We stare into the dying flames, silent, and I toss a few more logs onto the fire. It’s past midnight before we turn in.
On our last day, we walk through the dunes near another abandoned mine before we exit the park at the remote Ugab police station. A sudden squall grabs our travel permit from Karl’s hand, and we chase it, sinking up to our knees in the dunes, laughing as we flop near a shed with no door and sand almost up to the ceiling. The paper is nowhere to be seen when we stand up trying to steady ourselves.
“We might have to stay here forever if they don’t let us out,” Karl says.
I shake the dust off my head, put my cap back on, and laugh. If only.
Near the exit, we lean against the jeep, pull off our boots and bang out the sand. I open an iron gate displaying a sign with a skull and crossbones. Karl drives through, and I close it behind us. A border policeman stamps another piece of paper, takes a note from Karl, and hands me a T-shirt with “Skeleton Coast” in bold blue letters on a brown background. The wind whips around my calves as we walk back to the jeep and my feet sink into the fine sand. I step onto a human skull and scream. Karl turns, reaches for my forearm, and steadies me just before I’m about to fall over. Decades, or maybe centuries ago, this other soul hadn’t made it. We have.
A few hours later, we drive into Swakopmund, a town built by German settlers, and stop for lunch at a café that resembles a timber-framed cottage in the Black Forest. As we tuck into juicy peri-peri chicken liver sandwiches, Karl leans toward me and says, “A while back we were well-off here. My grandparents emigrated from Germany, and we had a five-hundred-acre sheep farm. My Ma, aach, a lovely woman, gave a German neighbor some diamonds to sell. When she went to collect her cash a few weeks later, this lady denied all knowledge of the stones.”
I wipe my mouth with my paper napkin, wondering where his story is going.
“So, the next day, my brother went with Ma to pressure the woman. They had a few drinks, smoked some dagga, and drove off with my rifle, only to scare her. They argued and mistakenly shot this lady—she died.”
Normally I drink unsweetened coffee, but now I rip open a packet of sugar and scatter its contents into my coffee cup. With a trembling arm, I refill my cup with the strong brew, add more sugar, and gulp it down. As Karl barrels on, all I think about is that I’ve been alone in the veldt with a man from a family of murderers.
“That was a very bad time for me,” Karl continues. “My Pa didn’t want to be involved in this scandal, so he abandoned us and went to live in Cape Town.” He pushes his chair away from the table and rocks on its back legs. His eyes fill with tears. Karl’s voice fades to a whisper when he describes how he was reviled by the white community.
“The Blacks in the townships let me sleep in their shanties. Finally, I found a lawyer who agreed to represent us and spent a fortune on legal fees,” Karl mutters, dropping his forehead into his upturned palms. “But it didn’t help. Ma died in jail, and my brother, he’s out now. Tonight, he will join us for dinner.”
I shift toward the edge of my chair. Stoked on caffeine, sugar, and Linzer torte, I clamp my hands on my thighs and rub my knees. I’ve never met a murderer before, and my stomach clenches. Maybe his pa did the right thing by leaving town, but I couldn’t bolt. My forefinger circles the rim of my coffee cup as my mind flies to dark places. Selfishly, I’m glad I didn’t know this before we set out into the bush. Scorpions and snakes would’ve been the least of my concerns. I would’ve watched his every move. The sharp butcher knife he used to chop vegetables and slice lamb chops would’ve haunted me; the rifle would have terrorized me; my friends’ voices would have taunted me with their smug “I told you so’s.”
Then my head sinks into my shoulders; the shame is all mine. I shiver, and yet I feel at odds with myself for judging him—for contaminating him with his family’s sins when we’d just spent such meaningful time alone together in the wild. He’d gone out of his way to show me rock paintings that most tourists and even locals knew nothing about; he’d cooked for me and pushed and pulled me up cliffs, and not once did I feel abandoned or threatened. For a fortnight, I’d trusted Karl with my life. How could I dismiss him now for a crime he did not commit? Banishing uncharitable thoughts, I feel his grief and imagine how tough it must have been for him to organize his mother’s funeral, how hard it must have been to mourn her. I lean forward and lay my palms on his sinewy forearms. His head slumps onto my hands. For almost two weeks we’d cooked together, slept a few feet away from each other, and trekked for miles in the wild, rarely seeing another soul. Now, surrounded by other diners in the only café in town, he is finally trusting me with his secret.
A chair scrapes, the ceiling fan whirrs, and a cell phone rings. Chilled, I pull my long-sleeved shirt on over my T-shirt and excuse myself to go to the bathroom. A tanned face I hadn’t seen for two weeks stares back at me. No longer gaunt and pale, I look ten years younger. The furrows above my brow are not quite so deep, and the crow’s feet around my eyes look less pronounced. This time on my own has brought me back into the world, and I smile at what I see. Outside, his eyes still moist, Karl leans against the dusty jeep. I touch his shoulder, and we climb in without speaking. The morning fog has cleared, and icy Atlantic waves smack the bleached white sand. Seagulls flutter, squawk, and screech as they swoop and dive into the navy ocean. We carry on silently along the coastal road back to Walvis Bay. Tucking my left leg underneath me I turn to face him.
“Thanks for sharing your family story with me. I’m glad that things have settled down okay and that your brother is back in your life. I look forward to our dinner this evening before I fly out.”
Karl nods, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down a few times as he wipes his cheek.
“In the meantime,” I continue, “I’m up for another trip. How about organizing a camping trip to Botswana’s Okavango Swamps next year?”
© 2018 Susan Bloch All rights reserved.
“Strangers in the Bush” was originally published in Entropy, May 2018