Day 1: But first, you must leave your excess baggage

By the time we were on the road, 6 hours of trailer and caravan packing had lumbered by. At first, structured and methodical, everything in its tetris-esque place. Then haphazard and chased by time — “just chuck it in”.

The longer we humans are at something, it seems the less intentional we become in our execution. No more dotting i’s and crossing t’s. It’s just ‘going through the motions’ until the job is done. Do we do this in our relationships too? Our dedications to the ones we love or the dreams of our heart?

I was travelling with a group of relative strangers, now acquainted through two genuine, work-forged connections. The nucleus of the larger group who were driving up for the full duration, consisted of 3 long time burners, experienced guys, already wisened to the ways of the desert, one eager, newly converted sibling and myself.

Hours of slow convoy driving passed — three of us in the double-cab towing the caravan, tailing a stubborn, short-wheel base Land Rover, called Thirsty. She had been burdened with the heroic task of towing the 2-ton trailer loaded with an 18-person strong group of theme-camp paraphernalia. The journey was creeping, frustratingly slow. Amid incessant brain-scrambling, low base trance and the warm breath of the Karoo blowing down my neck, I was beginning to feel lumpy, like curdled milk, thinking wistfully of the air strip into the Burn. My mind felt loaded, my usually calm, floating constitution now an unstable, luke-warm mire. Uneasy, heavy and intolerant. This wasn’t car sickness. It felt bigger and twistier.

As much as we tried, we couldn’t go quite as slow as the Landi pulling the trailer. She was chewing her way up the pass at barely 40km per hour.

We pulled over at the Ceres turn off for much-needed leg stretching and some more waiting. An uneasiness in me was building. As kind and inquiring as my two newly acquainted travellers were, for this introvert, the small talk was exhausting. The lingering backseat cigarette smoke and my unwisely purchased road trip coke were not helping. I peeled myself off and out of the front seat, grabbed my beat-up, straw cowboy hat and ventured down the road toward the piercing blue clarity of the Karoo. There was only sun. Sun and over-baked, cracked earth. Ambling towards the only available shelter, I sunk downward into the shade strip of a 120 km/h speed sign, a distorted lollipop melting onto the ground. Once I’d readjusted my physical body, my lids dropped shut, allowing me to turn inward. I just needed a few minutes. In the time it took a Land Rover to crawl up a pass surely I could find what was causing this emotional bulking and knead out the blockage?

If you sit in the desert long enough, her silence begins to hum. Have you ever noticed that? Softly, gently — part cricket call, part the sizzle of moisture evaporating out of porous rock and not-yet-cracked-earth into the thick heat. I’m not sure how long I was sitting there. It must have been just long enough to be charmed by the irony that if you need it, you can even find your place of quiet, your moment of slowing down in the shade of a speed sign. You can either listen to the blaring trucker hooters or you can succumb to the far-off distance and her piercing bird call.

I wasn’t there long enough to ease out the whole knot or find its cause, but this shard of insight was enough to begin to make me feel like she was listening to me. She? The desert. Who else?

After 7 collective hours of excruciatingly slow travel, we made our final rest stop before the last stretch. There, where the tar road met her bitter end and that which lay ahead promised to eat tires for breakfast, we pulled over to take one last deep breath of civilisation. Even connectivity’s far reaching arms would not find enough to grasp onto beyond this point. Last goodbyes and then phones crackled into silence. The boys all cajoled each other, cracking open cold beers, in a sort of bolstering, manly psyching up for what lay ahead. I didn’t know what lay ahead and I wasn’t thirsty. I walked off again, up an embankment into the barren otherness.

To the right the sky was desaturating in colour, the face of heaven — ghostly pale at his imminent demise. To the left he burned in valiant defiance of his bitter end, stabbing final shafts of gold onto the oddly angular mountain ranges. His crimson reach left everything else a lifeless grey — flat, two dimensional and void of their sculptural allure.

My head was now throbbing, tearing at its seams. I’d never experienced a cluster headache before but it felt like the inside of my face was descending down into the pit of my stomach. What a way to begin an epic adventure? My heart, too, sank at my own physical disappointment.

The first eager star pierced through the ashen blue evening sky. In an instant I thought of him — as I had done every time since our last shared life breath. The reality of disconnect began to set in. I hadn’t shared audible words with my father in decades and yet I always found connection to him in that first rising star, just where he said he would be. So, why was my inability to hold onto those still on this Earth as I headed into the desert manifesting so tangibly within me? Just then a gust of wind swept tumbleweeds and unhinged some karoo matter around me, a softly conducted desert symphony. As though someone had pulled the plug from an air mattress, I began to feel the tension release.

The last 5 months had been my own personal crawling mountain pass of a journey, with too many twists and turns. A pace, sometimes an agonising uphill, other times a terrifying down hill with no breaks and then again at times the longest, straightest dusty roads, those ones you think will never end. At every turn there was a deadline, an urgency, an expectation of deliverance and all the while the tick-tock of my heart repeating mantras of connection to a far-away friend I was unable to truly connect with.

My emotional sponge was saturated to the point of plummeting to irretrievable depths. I turned to walk back to the cars and fellow travellers, with a slightly brittle apprehension.

“Are you okay?” — “Is it a headache?” — “Do you want Myprodol?” — “What about water?”

They were all so kind and well meaning and in their unknowing way, and mine, scratching open at the minuscule, deflating leak in the mattress.

“I’m fine — I just need…” My feet pivoted me towards the sinking sun, a pulling pendant on a ouija board. As his red rage grew louder and louder, and finally; crestfallen, he let go and submerged completely behind the horizon, he sucked all of what was curdling inside me down with him — I could almost hear the gurgle of the plug hole.

Heavy, slick tears streaked down my face, writing all their farewells of forgiveness and finality over the dust, red of my cheeks.

“You did the best you can. You loved with all your might. Now let go. Let them both go,” said the soothing whisper on the wind.

There on that roadside I did let everything go. I let go of expectation. I let go of desperation to connect and somehow trusted she would show me how to connect to the only thing I could ever be sure of, my self.

She? The desert. Who else?

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