South Africa


Perhaps what we fear in solitude is merely solitude itself

Perhaps what we fear in solitude is merely solitude itself
Cederberg rock formations. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Sitting high above the valley, I’m drawn away from my outer life, loosened from its cultural moorings. Between the silence and the birdsong something else is hovering, needing words, just off the edge of perception. ‘Nature’s text’, the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton called it.

Not sure why I am here, now that I’m here. As city traffic swirled round and phones rang, the idea of spending time alone in a tent in the wild was alluring, so I gave myself good reasons. I had days to spare and needed wilderness detail for a book I’m writing. The area is beautiful and empty. The weather was holding.

But sitting here as the sun hauls down the day and alien, old-gold rocks loom monstrously about, I’m no longer so sure. What was it, exactly, that I was pursuing?

The silence, but for the occasional zip of a prowling fly, is utter. Is that crickets or just the sound of empty ears? Warmth is being leeched out of the air and the little blue tent looks unbelievably lonely against the towering cliff wall. My head’s throbbing from the four-hour drive and the heat of the day – not yet a headache, but pressure that could become one. I’ve no inclination to do anything, which is vaguely disturbing.

Earlier, a baboon barked. Just round the corner are painted caves that must have been used by the /Xam – the southern San – for thousands of years. They brood and seem to want understanding, but I cannot fathom their message.

The baboon barks again, closer. I hope he shows himself. It’s curious how we calibrate our life by doing. I’m sitting thinking “what is about to happen?” Waiting for it. My eyes scan the rocks and fynbos for movement and my ears strain for sound. But here, there’s nothing to do and no continuous sound. Heat’s legacy has rendered even reverie an effort. I’m just being, a point of view in this rock jumble, waiting.

Slowly, alarmingly, the co-ordinates of my self-perception begin collapsing and I grasp at sensual minutiae. Small things – the prrp of a bird’s bounding flight as it cuts across my vision, too fast to identify; a small yellow butterfly doing service among the spiky restio flowers; the slight bending of the grass as a zephyr drifts through and dies; the slow lengthening of a shadow as the earth turns. As organised thought deserts me, an assurance insinuates itself: this place is ancient, gentle, incorporating and tolerant. Where did that come from? I have no idea.

Perhaps what we fear in solitude is merely solitude itself; of being turned inside out because we rely on others to create our boundaries. We are herd animals. Alone, we were easy meat. The /Xam say the mind is outside the body, that we are merely the place where thought expresses itself. Here, it’s not difficult to imagine that as being true. In the wilderness, the mind leaks.

Supper is less than interesting. The Cadac stove also leaks as I screw in the new tank – angrily hissing away all its gas while I try to figure out what’s wrong. I eat cold soya mush with tomatoes and rye bread. And some garlic to keep away unfriendly spirits. Not too bad, really. The baboon troop shows up while I prepare it: A magnificent male, still in his winter coat, with a sizeable community, including a yammer of youngsters. He warns me of his approach with a resonating bahoo, then, after a few minutes of surveillance, leads his family to their cave somewhere up the valley. Brown movement.

The evening has become beautiful beyond measure. I watch the shadow of a distant mountain, sundialing up the nearby cliffs, swallowing the gold and unrolling sandy brown below it. The heat has gone, but the ground’s still warm and the rocks reflect the psychedelic underside of ruddy, roiling clouds against a polarising sky. A sunbird is making gentle nesting noises – the only sound.

To celebrate, I break open a succulent nectarine and eat each yellow smile slowly, savouring the pale sweetness and the soft pop as the sap sacks break. As the sky turns milky, a confiding dove takes over from the peeping sunbird, an altogether more appropriate sound in the cusp of night. Then a pair of Egyptian geese hiss and quack across the glowing western rim of a rapidly light-emptying sky.

The first stars appear, too eager to wait for night: the Pointers hauling a reluctant, madly angled Southern Cross up from the rock-ragged horizon. A waxing moon is going to ensure they don’t steal the sky show for long, though. When Earth’s gleaming satellite appears, the surrounding cliffs assume fantastic shapes: Long cubist faces and drop-jawed nightmare beasts picked out from adamantine shadow.

An insect chitters incessantly until my ears cancel it out in desperation; then it stops suddenly, tearing a startling hole in the fabric of its cacophony. A nightjar begins calling “Poor Will,” a poignant sound which is batted between the rock walls in ever softer, but perfect replication: Poor Will… poor Will… poor Will. 

In the dead hours, I ease myself out of my bag to recycle nutrients. The moon has set and the sky is a jewelled wonder – a magnificent tumult of stars with the Magellanic Clouds shimmering in their solitude. The horizon is glowing strangely, backlighting the granulated circular frame of the surrounding mountains. So much going on in such utter silence.

Our instinctive need for quick movement deludes us into seeing stillness as immobility. How wrong, I realise. Countless stars are flaming into life or collapsing, exhausted. All around, the rocks are being corroded by the acid water of a recent rainstorm – mountains being dismembered grain by grain. Thirsty plants are thrusting downwards into the sand of melted mountains and reaching up, capturing life-giving carbon leaf by leaf. Trillions of beetles, worms and small reptiles are skittering to and fro, terra-forming surfaces and turning fallen leaves into soil.

In a hundred years, the space between the rocks will have widened perhaps a centimetre, in a million, the pieces of the cliff will stand apart like the well-worn molars of a pensioned carthorse. We are too brief to perceive such movement. Years, days, hours and minutes are calibrations too minute to measure a mountain dismount or a river fill a valley with its granulated bones.

I snuggle back into my sleeping bag and notice a rumble, soft and at the very edge of hearing like a faraway Boeing taking off endlessly. I realise it has been there since I arrived. Is it the turning of the Earth or the blood in my veins? George Eliot termed it “the roar which lies on the other side of silence”. In Middlemarch, she wrote that it was like hearing the grass grow or a squirrel’s heartbeat, but our ears generally don’t pick it up because we walk about “well-wadded in stupidity”.

The stars fade to a feather-soft dawn. Suddenly, between one minute and the next, the clear sky is sprinkled with clouds, each with a bright pink glow along its eastern rim. Cotton-wooled morning. I drag on some clothes and go looking for signs. A black-backed jackal passed only metres from the tent; a bat-eared fox hunted near the track, digging out tasty insects detected by its over-sized ears. A mongoose inspected my food box and up the track are the human-like footprints of last night’s troop.

The Egyptian geese do a return flypast and a love-sick clapper lark begins his aerobatics – flying vertically, clapping his wings then dropping suddenly with a drawn-out peeeeuw. A pair of showy bulbuls skitters in to compete noisily with some Cape canaries feeding in the bush beside the tent – to be screeched at from the cliff-top by some irritable redwing starlings.

The sandstone cliffs are stratified horizontally and split vertically, giving them an urban orderliness, but for the rubble of their constant collapse. The ruin looks precarious, as though their maker shouted “freeze” in mid-earthquake. I undress and wash myself with a facecloth from a cup – water is scarce here – and see no reason to re-dress. I go exploring the caves, wondering what someone seeing me would make of a man wearing nothing but boots.

There are paintings on the cave walls – a herd of eland, stretched figures, some with antelope heads, a row of dancers, a bulbous red rain animal and webs of black trance lines and dots. As I clamber past rock pillars and into smaller caves, each obvious handhold is shiny from thousands of years of use, like the worn handrails of a lost city. There’s a long tunnel – I think of a birthing canal – its floor polished and slippery, but I back away from it. Sitting high above the valley, I’m drawn away from my outer life, loosened from its cultural moorings. Between the silence and the birdsong, something else is hovering, needing words, just off the edge of perception. “Nature’s text,” the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton called it, and complained that “the roughness of human speech cannot tell it”.

The wind is sighing fitfully through the bushes and fluting through the pocked rocks, booming softly. If wind is air moving from high to low pressure, why does it rise and fall so? In the heat of the afternoon, I pull my mattress under a tree with branches curving to the ground, forming a bower, and sleep. I feel no guilt, have left no tasks undone. My noisy neighbours, the bulbuls, provide the alarm clock for cold supper.

On the second day, I climb up onto a high, cool ledge offering a fine view over the jumbled frisson of rocky outcrops. This distresses a pair of swallows building their nest in a niche above my head. They do several urgent chittering flypasts before I realise what the problem is, then they cling to the cliff a little along and scold me soundly. After a while, they decide I’m not threatening and continue building, one mud spitball at a time.

Two starlings must have a nest nearby. Each time a raptor drifts overhead, they mob it raucously, launching themselves from their watchtower, chukking angrily. The tactic is to dive at the intruder in a pincer movement from above and behind. A hawk fares badly and is hit. It weaves desperately and, when it’s out of range, screeches angrily. Crows are much smarter. They flip upside down with a woosh of wings and lash at the starlings with claws and beak, forcing them to pull up. The raptors are all eventually routed through sheer persistence, though, and the starlings whistle in triumph and return to their watchtower.

I detect a nagging sentiment, like an itch you forget you’re scratching until it hurts. It’s the tunnel. Its entrance is on a high ledge behind the cave near me and it ends in a hole about 10m above the cave floor – an extraordinary piece of natural architecture. I push myself into the entrance face down, but slide back alarmingly on the glassy floor. Then I try on my back, bracing my feet against the roof and pushing. My hips jam temporarily and I taste ancient mammalian panic in my mouth. Air! Life! Who would find me here if I became stuck? Then I’m through. I turn over and peer out the hole. The view is glorious.

In the dawn of the last morning, I sit reflecting again on why I came here. The reasons I told myself before are not what I found. Those were merely what logic offered up to excuse a more visceral, inarticulate desire. Something deeper and more simple happened here.

I slowed down to wind and rock speed, gazed aimlessly and listened to birdsong. I watched the moon rise, marvelled at our galaxy, slept at ground level, walked naked, felt the wind and heard the Earth spinning. I pushed myself through a birth canal and saw the world from a different perspective. And I wrote this down so I’d remember it.

As I dismantle my tent, it comes to me in one of those flashes you have to hold onto or they disappear like dreams in the morning: The wilderness is where our souls go to live when we forget. DM


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