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Secret World of the Desert River

The boy was anxious for a parachute. He had been told our safari to the Cunene River between Namibia and Angola would be no sedate affair for tourists but a mission into crocodile-infested creeks, raging maelstroms and a plunging abyss – into The Border.

Original publication: Sunday Times Lifestyle, 1999.

cunene river

In ancient times when the earth was flat, seafarers believed that a final border awaited them at edge of the world. There, in the wildest, most desolate regions of the sea, the waters would plunge away into a thundering abyss, into a realm known only to angels and demons.

Borders were dangerous and taboo, none more so than the final frontier; beyond it humankind ceased to exist. Those approaching this boundary would be dragged into nothingness by the tide, consumed by their discovery.

It’s a primitive myth, long laid to rest by scientific enquiry, and the last place one would expect it to resurface is in the semi-desert of Namibia. But this indeed it had – amidst the country’s infinite flatlands, its thinly wooded plains of rock and crunchy undergrowth, the talk in the tour bus heading for the Rio Cunene was of the abyss at the ocean’s end.

For the bus’s nine adult travellers, an assortment of Brits, Seychellois, South Africans and freeloading journalists, all embarked on a luxurious safari run by Felix Unite River Adventures, the myth had been revived as a matter of jest. For Benny, the party’s lone child, it was a life-or-death reality.

Beneath the brim of little Benny’s Man U cap, beneath his cavalier gum-chewing façade, one could read the anxiety in his eyes as he looked through the window at the passing landscape of thorn bush and termite heaps.

A parachute: this is what he wanted. The day before our rafting tour on the Cunene, the Seychellois waterbaby, the Creole Kid, wanted a parachute as if his ten-year-old life depended on it.

As explained to Benny, the Cunene safari would be no sedate affair for well-heeled nature lovers and bespectacled ornithologists. It would be less like The Great Gatsby than Lord of the Flies<.i>, a mission into darkness from which few would return unscathed.

Our itinerary, which had so far taken us to Etosha National Park for the weekend, would lead us to the Cunene River, bordering Namibia and Angola. For five days we would paddle its rapids and maelstroms, over-nighting on the banks, living off grubs and sleeping in shifts.

On the fifth day we’d reach the roaring waters of Epupa Falls, and with robotic single-mindedness, continue paddling headlong over the precipice.

During free fall, we’d open parachutes and glide down to canoes floating at the bottom. Survivors would then skip off hand in hand into the sunset for a teddy bears’ picnic, or whatever it was.

‘You do have a parachute, don’t you, Benny?’ asked Hannes, the stubbled and jovial woodsman who’d become the little blighter’s favourite among the four guides. In his late twenties, his khaki field dress supplemented with beads and bangles, Hannes himself would not be needing a parachute – in his childhood a sangoma had apparently taught him how to fly.

‘Duh!’ retorted Benny in mockery of this adult lunacy, but one could tell the matter secretly plagued him.

How could fate deal him such a rotten blow? How could he have missed such an obvious necessity on a river voyage as a parachute, something all the grinning adults seemingly took for granted?

So when, later that afternoon, the bus made a last stop at a petrol station near Ruacana and disgorged its passengers into Namibia’s dusty nothingness, Benny took his mother’s hand and led her into the café, where he asked at the till: Do you sell parachutes, please, sir?

Although it shames me to admit that I was an active collaborator in this deception visited on a small child, I could empathise with Benny’s disgrace at having come ill-prepared.

While the lad was hunting for a parachute, I couldn’t fail to notice – nor could the rest of the party, who jeered and laughed and pressed about me for a closer look – that my military-surplus boots, hand-me-downs from the days of Ian Smith or General Jan Smuts, were disintegrating into moccasins after I’d done nothing more vigorous in them than sit motionless in a mini-bus for eight hours.

‘Look! The boots of death!’ roared Bob, the silver-haired school teacher from Manchester and a self-confessed ‘gear-freak’. Like everybody else in our group, he kept abreast of the most modish outdoor gadgetry, and had arrived, so it appeared, with everything from water purifiers and head-lamps to solar-powered sleeping blankets that send and receive e-mail.

The previous night we had camped near Etosha Pan at Fort Namutoni, a whitewashed Foreign Legion-style fortress built in the days when Namibia was a German colony. It occurred to me that my boots would not have looked out of place alongside the rifles, heliographs and imperial bric-a-brac in the fort’s museum.

As the boots left a trail of crumbs on the service station forecourt, I had to marvel how ironic it was that they should come to grief here of all places, in the heartland of the old SADF ‘Operational Area’, a region where place names evoke memories that are as ghostly as the dust-devils skittering into life on the roads: Ondangwa, Oshakati, Ruacana.

It even seemed that the radio in the petrol attendant’s kiosk would start fading in and out through the static with voices from an older waveband: Pat Kerr, Forces’ Favourites. ‘To Boetie on the Border … come home safely …we miss you …’

My boots, Benny’s parachute: Benny is Seychellois, but one day he’ll lie down on a psychoanalyst’s couch and talk through the same Namibian legacy he shares with a generation of South Africans. Like him, they were also told as children about The Border, a mythical zone of terror to which they’d be called up to be tested, and perhaps to die.

But if certain South Africans will always regard Namibia as The Border, a place of conscription and regimentation, the vastness of the land also offers an escape from society’s workaday oppression. Borders are cages for humans; the land itself is free.

Namibia’s roadside hamlets, the isolated farms, the phone lines thatched with bird nests, the skeletal car wrecks lying abandoned on fields – all speak of a place where human structures are only tenuously rooted in the earth.

Much of Namibia has the introspective air of a tumble-weed ghost town, and as our bus pulled up on a ridge overlooking Ruacana Dam on the Angolan border, the Cunene – a mossy, serpentine green amidst the sunburned ochre of its valleys – seemed equally closed in on itself, dreaming its own thoughts.

The land is free. But for how long? Further along towards the Atlantic, near Epupa Falls, where the state has proposed the building of a controversial dam, the future of the desert river hangs in the balance.

Hardest hit by the proposed hydro-electric scheme would be the Himba, a tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists who inhabit the sandy valleys and riverine forests adjoining the Cunene. If the dam goes ahead, Himba grazing land and ancestral graves will be flooded. Their language apparently contains no swear words; one imagines they’d soon be coining some in the face of this threat.

Himba tribespeople appeared everywhere around the bus as we bumped along the dirt road to our campsite. Children naked except for leather thongs ran beside us, the sides of their heads shaved bald and the hair on their crowns woven in elaborate forms; men with fish slung over their backs waved to us, their bodies coated in ochre and animal fat, as if buffed head to toe in red shoe polish.

Once we’d arrived at the campsite on the river banks, groups of Himba continued to visit us. The women go about in metal anklets and frilly goatskin skirts; men wear loincloths and outrageous punk hair-do’s. They seemed to be as fascinated by us as we by them – after all, the guides were putting on quite a show for the customers.

At our various camps, these cats from Felix Unite didn’t exactly serve us in tuxedos or suspend candelabra from the trees above our dinner table – but with their gourmet dinners and canapés, their bushveld shower bags and tents always pre-erected for us, they came as close to this ideal as they could.

On the first morning of the river expedition it was again time for Benny, still parachuteless, to take a shock to the system. Several giggling Himba girls watched him with curiosity, and when he was laughingly told that they wanted to marry him, his look of horror midway through his breakfast was a delight to behold.

Tell a guy he’s expected to plunge over a waterfall and he’ll shrug it off; tell him he has to marry and, in the words of PG Wodehouse, he shies up like a startled Mustang.

So it was with some enthusiasm that Benny, along with the rest of us, put on helmet and life jacket, underwent a course in river safety, and took to the freedom of the waters in an inflatable two-man canoe: to hell with parachutes.

In the days ahead, whenever we paddled ashore and sloshed through the luke-warm mud to chat to a Himba goat herd resting in the shrubbery, Benny would hear the same guff: this man says he’ll give us his ragged shirt, or half a bag of tobacco, or a dead goat, if we let him keep you.

Benny, who was forever being hoisted over somebody’s shoulders like a sack of potatoes, seemed unconcerned. Nothing beats the menace of marriage; even the impending waterfall was a forgotten anxiety.

Indeed, far from the urgent rhythms of city life, the days were blurring into one another. Every morning Bob, the man from Manchester, would shout in John Wayne accent, ‘We’re burning daylight! Let’s move these cattle on to Texas!’

And off we’d go, racing over flurries of white water, thrusting ourselves through S-bend rapids, or merely holding onto each other’s canoes to form a single raft and drifting for hours along a sun-dazzled river as green and still as the jungle walls lining its shores. The sun’s reflection on the water, intense and cruciform, seemed to rise up from something diamond-like deep below.

At one point I went ashore to say hello to a Himba guy parking off at the water’s edge. Using a combination of English, hand signals, facial expressions, and backward somersaults, I struck up a conversation with him. He liked my sunglasses; I offered him a cigarette.

Chuckling in mutual incomprehension, we traipsed past his topless wife shading herself beneath a rondavel and stepped through a palisade of logs and brambles that sheltered his crops.

Although we were from different worlds, it turned out we could rely on the international language of lad-culture.

‘Cigarettes,’ he laughed, pointing to a tobacco patch as if to say: Buddy, you’re bringing coals to Newcastle if you think I need your smokes.

Then this stick figure in a goat skirt trumped me.

Shaking his arms in pretended ecstasy, he stopped beside a reed bed and gestured as though taking a hit of a bottleneck pipe. ‘Ganja!’ he said, grinning. Beat that, Bwana!

Topless women, tobacco and dope; sex, drugs, and rock `roll. So this was the way to Paradise, then, the key to a life innocently attuned to nature. I stood humbled by enlightenment.

Over the river lay Angola, and many were the times I visited the shores of this war-torn country free as a bird to relieve myself behind a tree. The fact that I was violating an international border didn’t seem to matter. Borders are human conventions; in the thick of nature they appeared irrelevant.

It takes violence, human violence, even a hint of it, to restore borders to their full reality. One day my paddle-mate and I insisted on going into Angola to inspect the only brick building we’d seen during the expedition, a ruin from the SADF war. Its roof tiles lay scattered on floors. The wall fronting Namibia was gouged in bullet holes. A lizard sunned itself on the debris.

The two of us suddenly felt watched, aware of ourselves as trespassers in this ambiguous Eden. The bushveld, shrilling with cicadas, was electrified with danger. We fled to the river, which would soon begin narrowing into networks of mangrove creeks and channels that oozed past small islands.

On the last day, when we reached Epupa Falls, the crocodiles appeared, crashing through tangled bush and vanishing underwater. Until now they had been scarce: on this part of the Cunene, crocodiles were decimated in the war. Beyond Epupa they are legion: they will, and do, attack humans.

Wrapped in a kayak, Mark, the expedition manager, was leading us to the end of the 100km trip. He and I got talking. He pointed to a heron on an islet. In the blink of an eye, with a twisting spring-release action, a form low on the rock blurred into the river. Silence.

A second slithery crash followed close by. A little later, a third crocodile briefly raised its eyes and snout above the surface a paddle-length from me.

The river seemed to tremble with secret life.

We paddled on. What happens, happens.

Up ahead was the spray of Epupa Falls. A final paddle almost to its edge and we clambered up banks dense with fan palms, where Himba tribespeople and European tourists were out in force to greet us.

At the edge of the abyss, Benny hadn’t needed a parachute to guide him into the unknown where maps end. What he needed was the courage to return to the known world: to face the loss of this borderless place and go home, back to duties and demands.

Smiling while tears poured down his face, he hugged everybody goodbye the next day, ten years old for one golden moment and not one more. When he would see us again, we would appear from the remote frontiers of his memory, figures in a dream of freedom.

At Epupa Falls a baobab tree perches on a cliff above the foaming gorge. The roots are visible, cross-sectioned off on the sheer walls. Deeper and deeper the roots penetrate the rock, evolving in myriad shapes: tentacles, mummified faces, and at bottom, a shape not unlike a human buried upright.

The tree’s branches twist skywards, dreamy emanations from the land’s secret sleeper.


* Names have been changed.


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