Feed on

The Breathing Place

We’re stuck. Again. In the Kalahari Desert. No one wants to get out and push after the incident with the hitchhiking snake the other day, especially as the sun slides into the sand and the first bats of the night flit across the beam from our one remaining headlight.

“Shit!” Paul says as he rips off his wide-brimmed leather hat, rakes his fingers through his grimy curls, then plops the hat back on.

The Bitch, our topless former military Land Rover, whines in her lowest of eight gears. Moyo, Paul’s assistant, hops out to see how deep we’re buried.

“Not good, Paul,” he calls out.

Paul, our brawny guide, is cranky. Maybe he stayed up too late drinking with his buddy last night in Ghanzi, where we stopped to re-provision. Or maybe he’s tired of us—six Alaskans who’ve been under his skin for the past 12 days.

Shivering, I slip on my fleece shirt as the Kalahari begins its nightly slide from sizzling to freezing. We are headed to the sacred ground of Tsodillo Hills in northern Botswana, where the Bushmen believe all life began and the spirits of the dead return. There, on cliffs and in crevices, the ancestors painted stories whose meanings have been lost. According to ancient protocol visitors must approach the Hills with respect and reverence for the ancestors and shed no animal blood. So far, we’ve encountered no other travelers on the way to this U.N. World Heritage Site.

Paul jumps out and circles the truck.

“Shit,” he repeats, sliding back into his seat.

“Everyone out but you.” He jams his thumb back toward me.

Lacking the coordination to leap back onto a moving vehicle, I don’t have to push. A few months ago, a strange virus attacked my inner ear and wiped out my balance. Since then, after months of physical therapy, I still walk like a drunk.

The Bitch is self-contained and fully loaded: fuel and water strapped to her belly, boxes of wine beneath our seats, food in the rear, sleeping bags, tents, and the rest of our personal gear in a trailer we’re towing behind us.

“Ok, dig out the wheels, and everyone line up in the back to push.”

Moyo digs with our toilet shovel as the others scoop sand with their hands and feet. While digging ourselves out of another sand bog a few days ago, a snake slithered up the wheel well. Moyo yelled, “snake,” and we scattered like cockroaches. Paul, who had already earned our respect as a naturalist, elevated his status a few more notches by coaxing the puff adder onto a stick and gently placing it back into the brush.

“That’s good. Now let’s try to budge her.” Paul orders.

The engine coughs a low groan and the truck moves a few inches then halts with a whine.

“Ok,” Paul yells. “Unhook the trailer. We’re too heavy.”

He crawls out and I follow him. The smooth sand, still bearing the sun’s warmth, caresses my toes. Paul drops the trailer jack onto a stump, then the men wiggle the ball loose from the tongue.

Back in the driver’s seat, Paul yells, “Ready?” Colleen, Maureen, Eric and Stratto take their positions at the Bitch’s flanks. Jim and Moyo each position themselves beside a front wheel. I stand back, beside the trailer. Paul revs the engine amidst a chorus of grunts. The Land Rover inches forward as Paul gives it more gas. She creeps. Sand flies as the vehicle picks up speed.

“Jump!” Paul yells.

One by one the dark shapes of my companions haul themselves onto the back bumper or side running boards of the bouncing Bitch. Her red winking taillights grow smaller and smaller until they finally pause in the distance.

Alone, I think what if they don’t come back? For the second time on the trip I imagine how I’d make some lion an easy, but bony meal. On our first morning in the Kalahari, while camped above Sunday Pan, I ventured into the bush, shovel in hand, to find a safe place to relieve myself. It took me awhile to locate the appropriate tree without thorns and check for snakes and scorpions. Then, heading back to camp everything looked the same—flat, sandy, with scrubby thorn bushes, not the familiar textured landscape of lakes, mountains, and tundra at home. My own tracks had disappeared as had the dry lake bed we overlooked at camp. The wind stole my yells and whistles as I hoisted myself into a tree to gain perspective, slicing my hands and face in the scramble against its upturned thorns. No sign of camp. Then, between gusts of wind a faint whistle drifted by, then louder. I saw a flash of white, and at the crest of a small rise, I spotted my husband Jim. Yelling and waving I shook myself out of the tree. Grabbing his arm and embracing him, I slobbered on his neck with tears of gratitude for being rescued, 20 years of marital grievances dissolved in an instant.

Jackal barks punctuate the low hum of night insects. Human voices rise and fall in the wind and draw closer. Footsteps scuff in the sand, and like a hyena, I rush to greet the returning pack. Paul kicks down the jack as we position ourselves around the overloaded trailer and begin the long shove back to the Land Rover.

Sweet mopane smoke drifts before the orange dots of the village fires come into view. Without clouds or moon, the stars shimmer across a bottomless black ocean. Paul downshifts as we pass livestock kraals and people silhouetted against firelight. How long had it been since visitors passed this way? According to our guidebook, these people newcomers to the area, a tribe that moved down from the north. The Bushman, the fist people of this land, have mostly moved on, forced out by dwindling resources and competition from newer settlers.

The narrow ruts we have been following give way to a tangle of vehicle tracks spreading out chaotically. Paul pauses, yanks on the emergency brake, opens his door, and steps onto the running board for a better look. Unsure of which way to go, he cuts the engine, climbs down, and walks beyond the range of the Bitch’s good eye.

A hot wind swirls the sand, blowing it into our faces. In a brief pause between gusts we hear the breathing: long throaty rasps, like a choir of asthmatics desperately sucking air in, grudgingly letting it out again.

“What is that?” Maureen asks as we scan the shadows.

“What the hell is that?” Eric echoes.

“Screech owls,” Paul calls back as he slides back behind the wheel. “They nest in the hills.”

But these breaths are not the sound of earthly owls.

Against the starlight lies the dark outline of uneven ridge. We’ve reached the first hill. Should we make an offering, say a prayer, stop and prepare ourselves? But what would we do? Paul seems in no mood for spiritual reckoning, so we carry on.

No signs mark this World Heritage site, just a sandy turn-around and a few clearings beneath the thick twisted limbs of old acacia trees. We pitch our canvas tents while Moyo builds a roaring fire. Stumbling by the light of our headlamps, we set up our portable camp table and begin preparing dinner. Colleen, Maureen, and I help Paul slice butternut squash and onions to place with the chicken in the immense cast iron pot. Stratto pops open the South African wine and fills our stained cups. With a few sips, my muscles begin to uncoil and my stomach grumbles. We have food, wine, a warm fire, a place to sleep, we are together. Paul jokes again, all is well.

The trip has been too fast, too much, and too many experiences bunched together. I long for a time to pause, write in my journal, sit still.

After dinner, I leave the warmth of the campfire and my companions and head for my tent. Stacking my smoky layers of clothing beside me, and sliding into my sleeping bag, my toes scrape against grit at the bottom. Fine, suspended sand whirls in the harsh white beam of my headlamp. Clicking off my headlamp and scratching my scalp, tiny pebbles lodge in my fingernails. Windblown sand filters through the mesh roof vent and drifts into my mouth.

Later, I awake sweating to a gust of wind that threatens to rip the tent from its tethers. Metal objects clang—pots and pans rolling in the wind, while trees click and moan. Will the force of the wind topple the tree above our tent and kill us? Is it just the wind or is the whole place trying to rid itself of us?

Then the air shifts, flashes orange, and crackles. Sparks flash across the roof vent above me.

“Fire!” I yell to the wind, yanking the zipper of the tent door and jumping outside in my bare feet.

Outside, our campfire has stolen new life from the wind, gobbling up our abandoned campstools and wood stashed for the breakfast fire. Now it licks at the leafless trees above it.

An imagined headline rushes through my head: Ashes of tourists found at the foot of sacred African hills! Then my mind shouts: Put it out! But with what? Can’t use the water. Doesn’t anyone else know? At that moment, Eric appears in his boxers wielding our folding toilet shovel.

“I smelled smoke,” he yells, heaping dirt on the flames.

Kicking sand on the flames with bare feet is too slow and dangerous, so I search for some sort of scoop, Beside the overturned table our long-handled metal cooking spoon lies in the dirt. Grabbing it, I join Eric in flinging sand upon the flames like dogs digging a hole. Then, as the dust mingles with the last puff of smoke, we stop and face each other. Sweat trickles down my belly and I realize I’m standing in my tee shirt and panties facing Eric, the person I know and like least in our group.

“Well, I guess we did it,” Eric says.

“Yeah. What about the others?”

“Too much wine.”

I nod. “Thanks, Eric.”

“Yeah. Good thing we woke up.”

“Right.” I set the filthy spoon against the table and turn toward my tent. I glance back at Eric. Smiling and waving, he looks different—boy-like and gentle.

In the cool dawn of the next morning our camp is nestled against the thigh of the Male Hill. The table sits upright with pots and pans stacked neatly on top and thick black coffee steaming in the French press. Grabbing my upside down metal cup on the table I wipe out grit with my shirt and fill it with coffee. Was last night a dream? Moyo, stirring the fire, smiles and points to the charred skeleton of a camp stool.

“Fire,” he says.

Slowly, the others empty their tents one by one, muttering in dull, hung-over tones. Over breakfast Eric and I tell our story. No one thanks us for appeasing the ancestors last night.

Above us, the men’s voices tumble down the rocks as the women climb the Male Hill together. Colleen leads, with me in the middle and Maureen close behind in case I fall or freeze in place. A normal reasonably fit person would scramble up these vibrantly striated boulders in not time. Unsure of my connection to the earth, I crawl up the surface, planting each sweaty palm and each shaky footstep with care. Determined to reach the top to see the landscape we have traveled for so many days, this is a test I must pass to prove I can recover my balance. Out on the exposed rock, the sun bakes my back and sweat drips down from beneath my hat band and into my eyes. A few breaths from freezing in place, I cannot stop thinking about falling.

Finally, relinquishing my pride, I beg, “Maureen, could you spot me here?”


Maureen perches below me as I inch up the hill. Soon we reach a clump of acacia brush offering firm but prickly handholds near the top of the hill.

“Thanks for helping me,” I gasp as I feel the whisper of a breeze cooling my face.

“No problem,” Maureen replies.

Air rushes over the top of the hill, cooling the insect bites on my legs, raising bumps on my arms, causing me to shiver, from the breeze, from the effort, from the exhilaration of reaching the top. The sky, brushed with faint wisps of white, stretches out to meet the flat red plains below. Clumps of dusty green bushes scatter an utterly flat earth as far as our eyes can see. Behind us, out of sight, like the Female Hill, the Child, and the lonely first wife.

Now, we follow a path through a gap in the Female Hill, scrambling over rocks, descending to the sandy floor of a narrow valley, sprigs of lush green brushing against our calves, air thick with the scent of wet earth. Deeper into the valley, the walls open, the sky expands, and we reach a murky pool at the bottom of a wide, muddy depression undulating with hundreds of butterflies—turquoise, gold, white, brown—and wasps with iridescent green wings. Giggles pop out of our mouths, as Maureen whispers a long “ooohhh.” Jim clicks his shutter and a flicker of multi-colored wings erupts like a toss of confetti, then scatters around us, falling back to the earth to settle once more into a collective slurp of the damp ground. Each click of Jim’s camera renews the winged dance of the dizzying life swirling around us. Suddenly, a flock of quelea, tiny brown birds that fly as one like a school of fish, circle us, like a twittering cloud of dust, then vanish behind the rocks.

Paul motions us closer to him, stoops to the mud, and whispers the names of animals that have left their tracks near the dark water. As we band around him, faint murmurings of other voices spill from the rocks, crescendoing into two young men in shorts and broad-brimmed hats coming our way. The fluttering display repeats as they halt their steps in silence. Paul stands up, nods to the newcomers and leads off back to camp, leaving them to marvel at the stirring of so much life. Walking beside Jim, I list a bit to the left, correcting, steering straight, straying, correcting, and finally easing into a slow, lop-sided rhythm, soles of my feet thumping against the damp earth.

-Susan Pope, a lifelong Alaskan, explores wild places ranging from the woods behind her house, to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Kalahari Desert, and the dunes of Namibia.  She has published essays in Pilgrimage, Alaska Woman Magazine, and the upcoming anthology Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment.