adrift on a sea of grass

Adrift on a sea of grass


"There was hardly a face that was not torn, pock-marked, pitted, and wrinkled as if with incredible suffering and struggling. Everywhere greater fragments had broken away to lie in massive splinters in the sand at the base, or to balance precariously on the edge of an abyss."

— Laurens van der Post "Lost World of the Kalahari"

Forty kilometers west of Ncamasere and the Okavango panhandle, Tsodilo Hills drift like a petrified Armada on a sea of grass. They hold out the promise of high ground, but little else, drawing power from their solitude on the wide plains, as if they waited for the return of the rains, the nomad herds, or the small bands of hunters that once inhabited them.

For miles there’s nothing to draw the eye – no rise or fall of land, no valley, no ridgeline, just broad-shouldered Kalahari horizons stretching as far as the eye can see. The roads run straight, without hesitation across a landscape as level as a billiard board, the hills erupting with little warning, as if a wave had risen from the savannah and frozen in mid-flight – the last egress of an ancient landmass long hidden beneath the desert sands. The Hambukushu call them simply Monna, Mosadi, Ngwana and Ngwana-wa-ngwana – Male, Female, Child and Grandchild.

A low sun casts slanting pathways of light over yellow ankle-high grasses and the male hill begins to smoulder like a burning coal over the thornveld scrub. From nearby, the muted sounds of a village drift toward the campsite — the cry of a baby, the call of a nightjar, cattle pacing slowly through the low bush — as if the veld murmured a lullaby to itself. A slow breeze breaks the stillness of the evening and the perfume of woodsmoke and dry dust rises into the warm air over Botswana.

A group of Ju/’Haonsi emerge from the bush – two older women, a small dirty child and a young girl of eleven or twelve. The girl is blind in one eye. She offers ostrich-eggshell beads and an assortment of traditional adornments for sale. I spend a few Pula on a makalani nut with a miniature cameo engraved into the bark – an elephant, a bird in a leafless tree and a bent bushman on walking sticks.

From the dusty museum at the foot of the hills we follow Petolo, a Hambukushu guide, along the Rhino trail. Tracing the spoor of the first animals into the hills, placing boots in the indentations made by their hooves in the rock, crumbling shards of ochre and specularite between our fingers and taking in the wide savannah expanding to infinity every direction.

Against the side of the female hill, a broad slab of sandstone rises into a sky flecked by white clouds. The painted eland of the 'van der Post panel' watches over the plains like an emissary from another time – as fresh as the day it was painted – as if it could leap off the side of the cliff and transform into the rainbull once more, as if it could summon the rain’s feet, cause ancient rivers to flood, lake beds to fill and the wide plains to brim with game as they once had in an Africa long before it was swept into the tides of history.

In the morning the hills are sombre under a mackerel sky. There'd been wind all night; shaking the tent.  Back on the trans-Kalahari highway vultures circle over ever-receding horizons edged by tall cumulus that draw the car on until somewhere past Ghanzi where a late afternoon thunderstorm breaks and rain pelts the windscreen like bullets. As the storm passes, a coolness grabs the air, the tyres bite into the red earth along the northern rim of Mabuasehube and the machine begins to growl and tremble between rows of yellow-blonde grass

Inside the park, a leopard is framed by the light of a low sun, brown hyena scavenge beneath the stars and the feral perfume of woodsmoke hangs in the still air over the campsite once more.