Anyone who’d ever travelled through the north-western part of our country will know that it is extremely barren and harsh.
This world is old, very old. About 2 billion years old. Gneiss and granite in truly spectacular formations seems to be the only things that have managed to survive centuries of nature’s stubborn forces.
But take a closer look.
“N’tumbo” is what locals called it. Welwitschia Mirabilis is how it is known today.
It seems to have no real natural enemies (other than humans), which explains why it lives for a thousand years or more. Then there are the various types of Commiphora and the Moringa. The list goes on.
Animals have adapted equally well. Nature’s biggest land mammals – the elephant and rhinoceros – adapted and live here and most plains game are found in huge numbers.
When you travel through this old, odd world make sure you have the right companion. Especially if you’re a photographer who demands frequent, unscheduled stops along the way. Then, returning to the vehicle 30 minutes later claiming that all the good light is gone, can only makes things worse.
Just like life itself, this is no casual journey and no amount of synthetic companionship will do. Someone who cannot appreciate personal and natural space and requires continuous verbal communication to avoid the embedded silence of the old world stands a good chance of being murdered along the way. By me personally, that is.
Someone who thinks the essence of life is about demanding and taking will go the same route. For in this old world you are a mere visitor, a temporary presence caught in an ancient rhythm.
It requires patience and selflessness, for here only the humble can be free.
Human impositions often fail. Hillsides are dotted with half-completed lodges inspired by dreams of grandeur and wealth. Over there is a newly-build, already-abandoned clinic, rejected by its foreign sponsors because it was built with crooked walls. Access to health care and crooked walls are incompatible in the eyes of foreign aid, or so it seems at least.
It was early afternoon when we arrived at a campsite in this old world. Looking for some shade and cover, we spotted him. A man truly at home in this old world. A prospector and poet. Sitting with his back to the river on a canvass chair and as always: surrounded by rocks .
It’s been awhile since I’d last seen him. His hair and beard has grown, covering most of what once was a young man’s proud torso. It was no longer black but grey.
“I have tried making your olive bread several times, but each time it was a fuck-up”. Such is the manner of his greeting. Handshakes are deemed superfluous …
“She does not like mosquitoes” and with a nod to the side he introduced his companion. She’s from a far away land with no real command of English. Let us call her Nom.
With sunset, our friend quietly took an electrical rice cooker and headed for the camp office. Dinner was approaching.
I watch Nom as she collected a large box from the car. In no time she’d unpacked a vast array of ingredients and containers. In a blur of chopping and mixing and over a single gas flame, she produced a number of dishes from her exotic land: stir-fried noodles with prawns, deep-fried omelets with marinated, sweet cucumbers, rice with small, pea-like aubergines and fragrant chilli sauce (nam prik). The crackers and cream cheese that concluded the meal was a special concession to us.
Later when she turned the car around so that the open back was long longer facing the river, our man from the old world explained that she’s scared of elephants too. As it turns out, her fear stems from past experience when a few of these majestic giants paid this very campsite a surprise visit.
Back home I thought a lot about our little reunion. I am sure Nom with her fear of mosquitoes and elephants will be fine in the old world, for she understands that she cannot impose herself on it. Minor precautions are the limit of what we can achieve.
On a recent episode of an American cooking show, they tried to get three chefs to cook under ‘extreme’ conditions. First, they themselves had to pick produce from a farm garden pushing a heavy wheelbarrow, thereafter, selecting cooking utensils from a table surrounded by wind machines producing thick clouds of dust. Finally, they had to milk a cow and use the fresh milk to make a dessert. During this last challenge one of cows lifted her leg. The young “gifted” chef ran for cover, fearing for his life. “That cow was going to kill me”, he proclaimed. “My life is worth more than any dessert”, and with that he informed the presenters that he will not be doing a milk dessert.
A chef who is scared of his food source … now there is a novel idea. No amount of searching brought me any clarity as to how many chefs were ever killed by cows.
Unlike Nom, our “gifted” American chef will not make it in our old world. His ego stands between him and understanding the essence of life. See things for what they really are, and make do with what you’ve got. You do not need anything more.
This dish was inspired by our spontaneous reunion in the old world and by watching Nom cook among the elephants.