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Desert Storm (Moonlight Sonata)

SOUTH AFRICA | Wednesday, 9 December 2009 | Views [1382]

The winds were fierce throughout the day, whipping tiny particles of sand around like microscopic bb-gun pellets, inexorably shaping the face of the desert dunes, yet paradoxically, in doing so, also retaining the very structure that defines them. My friend, a traditional San tracker, told me that the frenzied activity of the duisandpodes earlier that morning foreshadowed the coming rains. ("Duisandpode" literally means "thousand feet" in Afrikaans; these insects are essentially millipedes on steroids, in typical African fashion of all fauna being bigger and badder.)

Just when the sun should have been calmly bowing out and giving way to an ebony night laden with millions of diamond stars, the sky was ablaze with unusually coloured and frenetically-shaped clouds - soft but vibrant pastels tinged with a certain dangerous, hidden ferocity, not unlike the mesmerizing colours of anything poisonous drawing the awe-struck eye in closer and closer until it's within striking distance. The more innocent-looking clouds were such a nostalgic sepia that I felt like I was looking at a 19th-century photograph, but then they melted into ominously purple clouds so low that they seemed to nearly skim the tops of the corrugated aluminum roofs of Askham's ramshackle dwellings.

As the winds continued, the first flash of lightning was visible through the trees lining the sandy street. The odd rumble of still-distant thunder came from all parts of the sky like the disjointed tuning of the members of an orchestra before the symphony.

When I was driving back into Askham earlier that day with the local social worker, she had expressed her concern for the young children living with her, who were always immobilized with fear during storms. I told her to reassure them in the same way that my mother used to do for me at their age by saying that the thunder was simply "the angels bowling". I had to explain what bowling was, but then she agreed that that would likely do the trick.

A few brave children still roamed outdoors, but little else activity could be detected. Even the otherwise omnipresent throbbing of hip-hop music had mercifully been switched off for the inevitable electricity surges and cuts; I'd like to think it was also subconsciously out of respect for the natural sonic show about to take place. It was truly the calm before the storm...

Suddenly, with one gloriously loud thunderclap, the curtains rose and the show began with a troupe of lightning dancing chaotically in all directions, tickling the inner workings of the now homogeneously flat, grey cloud blanketing the sky. The entire sky seemed to be engulfed in flames chasing lines of white fuel that had been strewn about by some atmospheric Jackson Pollock. The thunder answered each flash with increasing swiftness until the light and sound followed each other in such fast succession that it was no longer possible to distinguish which came first.

The first few drops of rain splattered audibly on the earth and kicked up tiny clouds of red dust, immediately eliciting the distinct smell of damp Kalahari sand - a heady incense that simultaneously cleared my mind and transported me to another realm.

I had been reading my well-worn copy of Laurens van der Post's "The Lost World of the Kalahari", which has surely changed many eager hands since its first publication in 1958. It wasn't until I took a pause to immerse myself in the very real Kalahari right in front of me and the book came to rest on my chest that I realized how closely the smell of the damp earth resembled that of the wonderfully decrepit book. The uncannily similar smell of the rain-soaked sand to stacks of dusty books in a library evoked an equally similar feeling that I was in the midst of an omniscient repository of ancient knowledge that one can only dream of catching a glimpse into.

As the rains descended heavier and heavier, I was forced to take refuge inside and soon found myself dashing around my tiny house in the dark (the electricity had already gone off), trying in vain to contain all of the thick streams of rainwater now bursting zestfully through the flimsy ceiling. The crash of the thunder was now so near that the house shook and I actually considered for a moment how quickly I would be able to move if the visibly concave roof collapsed under the ferocious pounding of the rain.

Standing in the middle of a puddle-strewn kitchen, I pushed my hair out of my face and adjusted the elastic of the headlamp strapped to my forehead, resigning myself to at least a full day without either electricity or dry wood for cooking. I laughed out loud at the sheer power and fierce beauty of nature; one should never forget the fundamental humility of our species because, for all the advances we've made, one is still very much at the mercy of a good storm.


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