Over the years, many people have written about the heat of the desert – written, I should say, in a far more poetic and insightful way than I could attempt. The dry heat; the heat that comes at you from all directions; the pulsing and relentless nature of the desert sun that no amount of shade can offer respite nor relief. Headache-inducing heat.
And unlike the heat of a Toronto-in-July heat wave, where even the promise of a breeze can cool you down temporarily… Here, wind in the desert just makes matters worse. Hot air, whipping your face and throwing some sand in for good measure. And yet…
...And yet when you are knocked out by the beauty of everything around you, you are almost willing to look past the heat. Not that ‘will’ has much to do with it – for me it happens naturally. The quiet of the desert is unlike any other silence or stillness I’ve felt in nature. Some vistas look and sound just like, I imagine, what the moon must be like.
As with the heat, many writers have described the wind and the sand with incredible precision and poetry. One of my favourite passages in Michael Ondaatje’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT is a wonderful description of the different kinds of windstorms in the desert, and all of their exotic names.
This storm is named after knives because it cuts into you. This storm is named after the tribe who used it as camouflage, to hide from their enemy. This storm is a ‘blood’ storm, from the colour of the sand. And so on. It’s a great passage… I’ll look up the page number for you.
ONE STEP CLOSER TO THE SAN
Every society and every culture on the planet has dabbled from time to time in a little public art – we call it graffiti - and the San are no different. Today we went searching for evidence of rock paintings that the San created. And, as with the arrowhead weapons, we knew that once we found the artwork it would be difficult to determine the exact date of its’ creation without true experts on deck. A painting could have origins dating back centuries… or it could have been created ten years ago. As we would discover, the actual content of the drawings hasn't changed from generation to generation.
As remarkable as these drawings will prove to be, the journey to the actual location itself – known as Spitzkoppe – is the most stunning part of the day.
Spitzkoppe is an ominous-looking range of mountains and hilltops, curved crevices and hidden caves. Approaching this deeply spiritual land formation one could be forgiven for thinking they’d walked onto the set of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Remember that rounded cliff where the spaceship lands?
As you get closer, however, the awesome and terrifying mountain range begins to resemble ANOTHER movie set: Peter Weir’s haunting film PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, about a girls’ school day trip in New Zealand that goes horribly wrong.
In any event – all movie references aside – by the time we arrived at the foot of these mountains I was feeling humbled, and inspired, and as they say, ‘awe-struck.’ The place is deeply spiritual and (even for a semi-skeptic like me) positively humming with energy.
Up and over the first range of mountains there is another treasure waiting for us: a second range of round rock hills, a kind of inner fortress that you can’t see from the ground outside. These rocks are different – they’ve been smoothed over by thousands of years of wind erosion and have none of the sharp edges of the exterior range. Up and down, over and across, these gently rolling rocks look for all the world like a giant playground. A Disney version of Namibia.
…And this is exactly how we, the film crew, respond: unsolicited, en masse, we begin to run up and down, over and through the rock shapes like giggling children at recess. One particularly jaw-dropping section of the rock is rounded into an oval that one can literally run right through.
Once we get the giggles out of our system, it’s time to pursue the paintings created by the San. Our guide is a small boy who is in fact introduced to us as ‘Small Boy,’ but he asks us to call him Ritchie.
We follow Ritchie to an overhang (or is it underpass?) and, sure enough, we discover at least eight figures along the wall: five animals and three human forms, painted in a gentle red ink. We learn that the ink is made from one part blood, one part red dust from local flowers, and one part egg yolk from bird nests to act as a sticky fixative.
As for the animal forms, Ritchie points out that they are all facing one direction – west. This is also the direction to the closest water source. Co-incidence? Nope. In fact it is a sign, left by the San for future fellow Bushmen. So deeply embedded in the artwork is a kind of code, a language of survival; a message from one tribe to another. Water, this way. Follow the head of the lion, the elephant; the rhino.
The human forms are even more striking: they appear to be in motion, stretching up and out as if running and reaching. Ritchie explains these human forms are in fact dancing. The hunt dance. The rain dance. And most significant for us, the trance dance. If you look closely you can see that one or two of the human forms are literally escaping their own body – having an out-of-body experience, which is exactly what they experience during the three-hour long spiritual ceremony.
And it is something we ourselves will participate in, less than a week from now.
Strange to think of these rock art drawings as pure communication, no different from me typing these words. Or posting photos on the internet. It’s just another way to express ourselves, to explain our experiences, and share them with friends and family.
The final image on the rock wall is a long, striped serpent. And by long I mean eight or nine feet. It is impressive, and very life-like. Which would be chilling enough on its’ own, but then the thrill begins: moments later, Johnny our ace cameraman spots a REAL snake between two diagonal rock walls. The sight of either one snake on its’ own is not terribly alarming. But the fact that we saw a live snake just seconds after filming its’ painted double… Mwah ha ha ha...this sends chills.
By the time we emerge from the surreal and oddly spiritual double-snake pit, a full Namibian sunset is on display. It’s nature’s light show, just for us, complementing the already ‘Disney Namibia’ experience of Spitzkoppe.
A deep rouge colour appears on the opposite rock face, so I race to the top of another ridge to set up a time-lapse camera. This special device takes one picture every five seconds, and so when it runs together in the edit, it appears the sun is setting at an alarming speed. It is used primarily to suggest the passage of time – that’s fine - but I love time lapses because they just look cool. Like this:
Not for the first time, we end up staying two hours later than originally planned. We sit on the rocks and watch the light spectacle of shadow and shade and colour. We watch the sun do its thing. What it does every day. What it’s done for thousands of years before we showed up, and (hopefully) will continue to do for thousands of years after we’ve gone.
Tough to top the end to a perfect evening like the one I just described. But there is a nice coda to the visuals. A musical coda.
On the way out from Spitzkoppe, the impressive and imposing mountain range no longer looks terrifying. Just the opposite. It looks like the most peaceful place on earth. I’m sure it’s all projection, but still. What has changed? We have spent time there, and we now have a context. We have – dare I say – a relationship with this incredible stretch of rock in the middle of the desert. We’ve made friends.
I have slapped my hand against a rock document that is at once thousands of years old... and very much alive.
I have high-fived ancient African history, yo.
Not unlike the experience of holding the flint-rock arrowheads in my hand, it vibrates with something… who knows who made this? And how long ago? What is the story behind it? Everyone has a story.
(This is my favourite shot of Spitzkoppe... now my screensaver... yes I'm a nerd)
As a kid I flirted with the idea of becoming an archeologist. But, as with most fleeting kid-thoughts, it was more the idea of being an archeologist than the practical reality I fancied; rooted more in romantic notions of adventure and Hollywood and Indiana Jones.
But here we are. This is no mere idea. And since I believe that all fragments of memory and reflections of the past are, ultimately, acts of ‘archeology’… It’s an interesting perspective.
More to the point: we are not just digging up ancient relics, to be labeled and stuffed and put on display in a museum. We are putting together a living puzzle, here in the middle of the desert, from artifacts we can hold in our hands. The rest we fill in with information… and imagination.
But about that musical coda…
It is dark now, and we’re riding our caravan back to the main road. On the edge of the gates to Spitzkoppe several Namibian families have set up homes. It is, in fact, a full village; but we can’t see that just yet.
We stop the vehicles and get out to meet ‘n greet the local residents. Always best to introduce the camera slowly, gently; always ask permission. The best way I find is to flip the viewfinder towards them so they can see themselves and enjoy the novelty.
The Namibians are without guile, and without pretense. They’re just present. They love to play games and sing songs, and sing they do: a group of four children start to sing a simple and sweet melodic line… and the tune ends with a bit of harmony.
A woman – their mother? – rushes over when she sees us filming. Were we in North America she would scold us for filming her kids without permission. Here, in a remote Namibian village, she simply joins in the song. And not just any song – it turns out to be the Namibian national anthem.
It is two hours to our next rest stop. We’re tired but happy. We climb into our vehicles and ride into the night, and we begin to sing our OWN national anthem - also known as The Tragically Hip:
‘They shot a movie once in my hometown
Everybody was in it, from miles around…’