We further explored the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve just in case, found many other great camping spots, mostly deserted, but the first one prevailed. The air was thick with moisture, the ocean calm and the temperature comfortable. We pitched right on the beach, 5 meters away from a small bay. Light wind carried many ocean smells and the strange faint sound of a horde of barking dogs. We listened curiously for a while and had to go investigate; it turned out there was a huge sea lion colony upwind along the shoreline.
Having set up camp in the fog, we went back to Paternoster and had lunch at a restaurant overlooking a long sandy beach onto which dozens of colorful fishing boats had been pulled. This was also a fishing town but while Lamberts Bay had been overwhelmed by the presence of a large commercial fishing and canning company, this was more subdued and pretty. Locals were selling lobsters at street corners and we had been advised to carefully inspect their catch before buying; the poor animals imperatively had to still be alive to be considered fresh and edible.
We decided to shop at the source and went straight down to the beach, where Marie managed to score the two largest lobsters of the day off a boat just returning from sea. They cost 60 rands each or a rough total of $US 12.00, were enormous and quite alive. We took them back and started planning our supper.
Marie inherited the gruesome job of preparing the poor crustaceans and I looked around at the fog lifting slowly, delighted by how isolated we were. A small building at the park entrance could be seen in the distance, and a very bad ablutions block next to it. Apart from that, civilization was invisible. A small pick-up truck drove by slowly on the upper path in one direction, and then the other, its driver looking around either curiously or purposefully. We didn’t talk about it but it would later turn out we had both wondered what he was looking at, or for, and worried a little.
The lobsters, grilled to perfection and served with a minimalist butter and garlic sauce, were delicious. A few rain drops began to fall and forced me to improvise a tarp canopy, but we then sat and ate and stared silently at the water, happy. This was nature at its best. No one around, peace and quiet, wonderful food, wine, and the best company. We lit our candles and relaxed. Later, long after darkness had fallen, we cleaned around a bit and went to bed.
But we never fell asleep. Marie, after having bravely slept through our nights in the desert and endured the close proximity of wild animals, had finally met her Waterloo. While nature had never managed to scare her beyond reasonable limits, it was our return to civilization and the re-emerging knowledge of her country’s troubled past and crime-plagued present that overwhelmed her.
Her senses became acutely aware of every sound and movement in a kilometer radius and the relative protection of our tent’s enclosure acted as an amplifier for each potentially threatening micro-event. The sound of a nearby car driving to a campsite down the road was suddenly loaded with danger and even the irregular sea lion barking morphed into occasional human voices that seemingly converged on our location. I tried to help and get her to relax, experimenting with rolling the window screens up, then down, then half-way up, and half-way down, changing sides, explaining a noise, rationalizing a shadow. But time passed and things only deteriorated. I realized that no sleep would be achieved this way. My poor Marie was terrified. And to my complete surprise, slowly, her arguments began getting to me too.
We were quite isolated in a remote area, with no help to be found anywhere close, stuck inside a tent in pitch black darkness with no view outside. Well, I’d done that before. The park’s gate was wide open to allow returning campers through during the night. Yup, that was a concern. We could not have seen anybody come at us until it was too late. Uh-uh, annoying too. And this was South Africa. Yeah, so? There were nearby settlements but a high social fence separated us from them. Our level of wealth compared to that of locals was mind boggling. Despite the fact that we were camping, we had more with us on this trip then most of them would own in a lifetime. We must have been temptation incarnate. That was bad. And then Marie had all those hair-raising stories, real ones, and she kept current with the news, and she had grown up in troubled times. Her experience was not one I could easily dismiss. Damn.
And of course there was the recent reality of our nights in Constantia, where private armored guards patrolled the streets, where every door was shut carefully and locked and then secured with iron bars, where outside flood lights were turned on in the middle of the night when dogs started barking, where I had fumbled once for a light switch on the wall and hit a panic button by mistake – almost starting a siren that would have waken up the entire neighborhood, where garden fences lined with barbed wire had been cut and intrusion only avoided because of the dogs’ watchful presence. There were also in-family stories of break-ins and hijacks. They painted a gloomy picture. Little by little, doubt crept in. What if?
I tried to reason with myself, to put things in perspective, to bring her worries on par with the odds, and logic. But the night is a time for fear and chickens. Mankind has long fought darkness in its quest for safety and I could now see that despite all our modern arrogance, we weren’t that different from our ancestors piled up in fear at the bottom of a cave, waiting for the night to pass and hoping for a chance to live yet another day.
There was the recent reality of our nights in Constantia, where private armored guards patrolled the streets, where every door was shut carefully and locked and then secured with iron bars, where outside flood lights were turned on in the middle of the night when dogs started barking, where garden fences lined with barbed wire had been cut and intrusion only avoided because of the dogs’ watchful presence.
Finally, around 11:30 pm, I made a decision and turned over to sleepless Marie. “All right,” I said, “here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to take a watch until the morning and you, my dear, will get some sleep after all.” She fought the idea politely but I think she was relieved and I made her promise to actually get some sleep.
So I got dressed and took both headlamps with me outside, along with a small pepper spray we’d bought before the trip not knowing what to expect in terms of madmen or mad cows. I also had my two pocket knives, of which the Swiss Army knife was the fiercest weapon, able to inflict cork-screw eye wounds and tooth pick punctures of an incredible magnitude. I zipped the tent up carefully behind me as the night was getting chilly and peering through the obscurity, took a deep breath and wondered how Rambo would have negotiated this.
Our campsite was protected on two sides by the frigid ocean. Nothing more than a mad sea lion could have come at us from that direction. To the north stretched the narrow access road, deeply sandy and curving sharply right into a blind corner. It only led to our site where it ended in a circular cul-de-sac. Beyond it were only boulders and the water but a walking path continued to the next campsite, out of sight behind a low outcropping, a strange and creepy group of corrugated iron shacks covered with fishing nets and used as dormitories.
I figured these two directions were our position’s weak flanks and decided to set up my perimeter accordingly. Marie had earlier blocked the access road with a row of improvised landmines (stones), preventing vehicles from direct access unless the stones were removed. I spun the Landcruiser around that way, providing easy illumination of the road if needed and readying it for an escape. I then placed a LED headlamp on the hood and shone it towards the path. At the rear of the car, I placed our single gas lantern on the ground behind a tire opposite the tent, so that it wouldn’t blind me but still lit up the footpath and surrounding bushes. Then I positioned myself next to the tent, between the car and the lights, with a convenient view in all four directions, the tent only blocking a section of shoreline. I decided not to sit down to avoid falling asleep and began my watch by making a thermos of coffee on the gas burner.
The weather was very unsettled. The wind had picked up and was blowing hard to sea, bringing in low patches of thick rainy clouds and then tearing them up in no time. Stars began to shine at intervals, bright and crisp and cold, and soon hidden again in light rain. I tried to keep quiet, not to worry Marie or wake her up, and had to constantly refrain from looking at my watch. Time flowed by very lazily.
I considered hiding my face with war paint but decided against it. I’d gotten the axe out of the car and kept it handy, but my plan’s strength resided in dissuasion rather than force. I intended to keep some light up all night and make it clear that someone was awake and watchful. If the man in the pick-up had indeed been scouting possible targets, he’d have to account for not so passive resistance. But I did wish I had an AK-47 or a light saber.
The first false alarm was caused by a gust of wind that knocked dishes down and threw me into serious tachycardia and hyperventilation. I used the sudden flow of adrenaline to valiantly pick-up the dishes and re-arranged them neatly on our camping table.
Around 2:30 am, the gas lantern began to weaken faster and soon died. My southern flank was left exposed. I grabbed the second headlamp I had been saving for recon’ missions outside the perimeter, aimed it at the footpath and went back to my station. I still hadn’t sat down once. I’d been occupying myself with the stars when they shone and the prospect of a good breakfast when they flinched.
About an hour later, the first headlamp failed. These LED lights are good for many hours but we had been using them the entire trip. I switched the second lamp to the front of the car and used a candle to create some light towards the footpath. As long as I avoided looking at any strong light source, my eyes had greatly adjusted to the dark and I could see pretty well around me. I placed a second candle in a wind protector behind the tent to prevent any attempts at a beach landing. With a bit of luck, dawn wouldn’t be long now, and the need for light would drop along with the threat level.
By 4:30 am, I began to shiver a little. I had been standing at attention for almost 5 hours.
The second false alarm was the result of too many readings of The Lord of the Rings. I caught in my peripheral vision a silhouette sneaking by just beyond the perimeter. I immediately drew Dart and noticing its blade glowed with a bluish flame, I deducted it must have been an Orc. Whatever it was, it never came back.
By 4:30 am, I began to shiver a little. I had been standing at attention for almost 5 hours. My standards lowered by a stronger need, I reached for the blanket protecting the rear seat of the Landcruiser. It smelled strongly of dogs and was covered in their hair, but it brought me a sense of warmth and comfort. I wrapped it around me tightly and finally sat down on a camping chair, alertness blunted by fatigue and senses numbed by the cold. “How can I be cold in Africa?” I wondered distractedly.
At last, around 5:00 or 6:00 am, the night gave up its fight and let light prevail over darkness. My watch was over. Danger had not come close. We had made it through one more adventure – one that, I decided, I would never tell anyone about. (I guess I changed my mind. I enjoy making a fool of myself retrospectively.)
I woke Marie up and reported that we were safe from human monsters and Co. Then I admitted I was a little tired and would take a short nap. She got up and bravely assumed the watch despite the terrifying daylight now surrounding her. I was out for 3 hours. When I woke up, still cold and groggy, fresh coffee was waiting for me and breakfast was served. We looked at each other and burst in laughter, embarrassed and relieved. This one would go down in the annals.
“There is no such thing as fearless people, only fearless moments.”
«Roasted in the Namib» Series
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