a solitude of open spaces

A solitude of open spaces

RICHTERSVELD

“But these queer peaks were stark and bare and of the most startling colours. In serrated lines they stretched out like the teeth of a saw, and their crumbling slopes of rotten schist were of every shade of red, of brick-red, of flaring vermillion, of bright orange-red, in fact of every red-hot gradation of colour.”

— Fred Cornell “The Glamour of Prospecting”

In the far the north-west of South Africa, the Richterseveld slumbers beneath a blazing sky, sun flaring off the parched hills folding into one another far across the border into Namibia, their summits engraved into spacious skies, the shattered rock crumbling underfoot. Through its heartlands, the Gariep River weaves between mid-channel islands, quiver trees pulsate beneath the Milky Way and Nama herders still practice a nomadic way of life unchanged for two millennia. Like many parts of this country, it has loneliness and desolation enough for a lifetime and for those drawn to the starkness, its stripped-down simplicity and the power of its open spaces inspires a potent fascination.

The morning brings low cloud and late August rains to Namaqualand. A weak sun breaks over the hills at the foot of the Anenous Pass and a bright plain is shadowed by ragged cloud; the veld charged with the premonition of spring and the freshness of a desert after rain. In a moment the horizon grows wide, there are purple flowers at the roadside and radiant hills to drive through.

From Port Nolloth the road swings north, tracing the rim of the West Coast, passing abandoned mine dumps and undulating over coastal scrub. At Alexander Bay where the Gariep River empties into the sea, it bends upriver to Sendelingsdrift, climbs through the broken hills of the Akkedis Pass, skirts a forest of halfmens trees tilting their crowns toward Namibia and comes to rest on the banks of the Gariep once more.

The Richtersveld is uncompromising in its austerity. Its bare plains, washed in sunlight, stretch to the base of broad mountains rising over a thousand meters. During the summer the sky is as clear as a mirror, the earth quaking in the grip of a heat which rises from the earth like a wall, the rocks blistering beneath the sun.

Through this emptiness the Gariep carves a wide braided valley between green ribbons of Soetdoring, wild tamarix, Cape ebony and mesquite; its waters rushing over the baked rock, smooth the hard edges of the land.  Heron, as if cast in stone, stand sentinel beside reeded banks, yellowfish rise from deep pools and cormorant pierce the luminous sky like black arrows.

Here on the banks of this river flowing out of the heart of the country, life is paired down, each task a sacrament: lighting a fire, tightening a guy rope, fetching water. When the sun burns out in the west and the heat begins to ebb, the light bleeds from the rock leaving the stillness of the river pools. A mosaic of colours – oranges, umbers, burned siennas and pale magentas – flush across the landscape each evening. Later, as the waters slip past in the darkness, fireflies flash between reeds on the river islands and stars revolve through a black sky.

Inland from the Gariep valley, bare mountains etched sharply into clear skies rise almost vertically from the bed of the Gannakouriep River, the white sands of the Secret Valley open beneath the granite dome of the Tatasberg and the Rosyntjieberg stretch endlessly across the rim of the Springbokvlakte. To stand at the edge of a crumpled canyon, on the rim of a limitless plain, is to be seized by the implacable silence and the presence of deep time.

At Kokerboomkloof, perched on a pile of boulders, a plume of granite freezes in mid-air. No leaf stirs. The dry bark of the quiver trees encase memories of drought and centuries of silence. At the head of kloof, a dark cathedral of rock is outlined against the stars. Here, a thousand years pass without register.  Cycles of heat, frost, or cataclysmic flood would leave no more than scar – a debris line in the stratigraphy of a dry river bed, a seam of yellow clay on a hillside, the  dendritic imprint of drainage lines in an open wash.