Thursday, April 16, 2015

The surprise of deserts

Michael and I have just returned from a trip to the Kalahari desert, where we had research to do for the Detective Kubu mystery that we are currently writing.  (It is still without title.)

Ever since I visited a desert for the first time, over forty years ago, I have been fascinated by them and the things, flora and fauna, that live in there.  A trip to a desert is always the time for a surprise. 

In fact, our Detective Kubu would never have become a detective had his childhood friend, the Bushman Khumanego, not taken him into the Kalahari and exposed the hidden worlds that live there.  The following excerpt from A CARRION DEATH tells that story.

Kubu owed the Bushmen a debt of gratitude.  His childhood Bushman friend, Khumanego, had shown him how the desert was alive, not dead as he had thought.  He remembered vividly how in one school holiday Khumanego had taken him sweltering kilometres into the arid landscape and drawn a circle in the sand a few metres in diameter.

“What do you see?” Khumanego had asked him.

“Sand, stones, and some dry grass.  That’s all,” he had replied.

Khumanego shook his head gently.  “Black men!” he chided.  “Look again.”

“I see sand and stones, some small and others a little bigger.  Also some dry grass.”

An hour later the world had changed for Kubu.  Khumanego had shown him how to look beyond the obvious, how to explore below the surface, to notice what no one else would see.  In that small circle thrived a teeming world - ants, plants that looked like stones (lithops, he found out later), beetles, and spiders.  He loved the lithops – desert plants cunningly disguised as rocks, almost impossible to distinguish from the real things.  They blended into their surroundings, pretending to be what they were not. 

The trapdoor spider also impressed him.  When he looked carefully at the sand, almost imperceptible traces of activity clustered around one area.  On his knees, Khumanego pointed to the barely visible crescent in the sand.  He gestured to Kubu to pick up a twig and pry the trapdoor open.  Kubu complied, nervous of what he would find.  The open trapdoor revealed a tunnel, the size and length of a pencil, made from grains of sand and some substance holding them together.  Khumanego tapped the tube.  A small white spider scurried out and stopped on the hot sand.

“This spider,” Khumanego whispered, “knows the desert.  He digs a hole and makes walls of sand with his web.  He makes his home under the sand where it is not so hot.  He listens and listens, and when he hears footsteps on the sand, he opens the door, jumps out, catches his meal, and brings it back to his home – appearing and disappearing before the insect knows what is happening.  Very clever spider.  You don’t know that he is there, but he is very dangerous.”

Kubu thought that the spider and the lithops survived in the same way – avoiding attention by blending into the background.

It was the experience of seeing so much when there was so little to see that had the greatest impact.  Khumanego had taught him to open his eyes and see what was in front of him.  “Black people don’t see,” Khumanego had said.  “White people don’t want to.”  Kubu returned home that afternoon and vowed he would never be blind again.  From that day, Kubu had trained himself to be observant, to see what others did not and to look beyond the obvious. 

[As an aside, I am not known for my green thumb.  When I first saw lithops, I recognized their potential.  So I smuggled some into the States, planted them on a bed of stones in my home in Illinois, and proudly showed them off to my friends, who were suitably impressed.  When the lithops inevitably joined all my previous plants in flora heaven, I continued to display the planter of stones, and my friends continued to be impressed.]

Southern Africa has two deserts: the Kalahari, covering much of Botswana and stretching into northern South Africa and eastern Namibia; and the Namib, which covers most of western Namibia, along the Atlantic Ocean.  I’ve been fortunate to visit both in the last month.

In general, these two deserts are quite different.  The Kalahari comprises vast areas of sand, low scrub, and a few trees, whereas the Namib often fits the more traditional view of deserts, with even sparser vegetation and sand, sand, and more sand.



Sossusvlei dunes in the Namib

If you want to drive in the Namib, you'd better know how!

The oryx (gemsbok) needs little water to survive.

The single purpose of our trip was to visit a village in the central Kalahari called New Xade, near to which a Bushman called Kabbo, in our sixth novel, was found dead on the side of the road.  An autopsy revealed three surprising things: he was probably well over a hundred years old, closer to one hundred and fifty; his internal organs were the same as a man of forty; and third, a bullet was lodged in an abdominal muscle, but there was no entry wound.

We wanted to visit the area to ensure what we wrote about where Kabbo lived and roamed was accurate.  And we wanted to see if we could find what Kabbo had been eating that made him live so long.

We were also eager to visit New Xade because it is the focal point of a great deal of antagonism between the Bushmen and the Botswana government.  The government argues that it has a constitutional requirement to provide education and healthcare to all of the citizens of Botswana, but it is impossible to do this if the Bushmen maintain their nomadic lifestyle.  So it resettled many Bushmen from their traditional areas around the village of Xade in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to the village of New Xade, seventy kilometers to the west.  New Xade, the government claims, provides the required schooling and healthcare, and is a far better place to be in contrast with roaming the desert, not knowing where or when food and water would be found.

Initially, we drove the five hours from Johannesburg to Gaborone, where we spent the night.  Then we took the paved, Trans-Kalahari Highway for seven hours, avoiding the cows, donkey, horses, goats and sheep that favour the firm footing afforded by a paved surface and the lush grass that grows at its edge to the safer pastures away from the road.  Obviously some drivers were not nimble in avoiding animals, as we saw cattle carcasses and a few abandoned vehicles.  Eventually we reached Ghanzi, not far from the Namibian border, and over-nighted there.  Finally, the next day, we drove the 100 kilometres on a white, calcite sand road to New Xade.

Donkeys are better
This probably hit a cow at night
Fortunately the ostriches preferred the bush.

The road to New Xade

And true to form, the desert provided some surprises.

First, instead of being dry, parched, and inhospitable, the Kalahari was green and lush as far as the eye could see, with grass growing tall on the side of the road and fields of yellow flowers adorning the landscape.  In many places, pools of water lay next to the road, extending back into the bush.  We were told that the area had received two-thirds of its annual rainfall in two days the previous week – over 200 mm (8 inches) in thirty-six hours.  Villages had been flooded; and rivers flowed that were normally sandy courses meandering through the scrub.

The Kalahari desert!
Kalahari desert 2
Flooded village

Suddenly there were flowers

New Xade was also a surprise, but not a pleasant one.  To call it a dump would be paying it a compliment.  The only things that may have been working were the school – but we couldn’t really tell, as it was school holidays – and the clinic.  But all the other buildings of substance stood empty and derelict.  Most of the homes were in poor repair, and people were sitting around doing nothing (alcoholism is reputed to be rife).  We saw no shops, and the bill-boarded craft shop didn’t look as though it had been opened in ages.  The government may have met its constitutional requirement, but it doesn’t seem to be interested in the welfare of the people it has moved there.  Michael and I were both bummed out - and sad, very sad, at what we'd seen.

New Xade craft shop - looked unused

New Xade pedestrian

New Xade children at play

New Xade residence

Top-of-the-line New Xade residence

Another top-of-the-line New Xade residence - there were only a few

Not top-of-the-lineNew Xade residence
Another not top-of-the-line New Xade residence

Traffic warning

Overall, our research trip was a success, even though we didn’t find Kabbo’s secret plant.  We learned something new; we didn’t hit an animal on the road; and we saw the Kalahari in a once-in-our-lifetime finery.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Stan, I am struck by the complex knowledge you and Michael have in order to safely take such a trip. Thank you for taking us along. Even vicariously, it's marvelous, just marvelous.

  2. Wonderful report, Stan! Thanks for the trip, and I loved the lithops, had never heard of them before. Nature is endlessly amazing. Unfortunately, governments rarely fail to be endlessly stupid.

  3. I am so jealous! Thanks for the trip.

  4. Compared to your life, Stan, I feel like a lithop stuck for eternity in a planter on a balcony in Illinois.