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Richard de Nooy

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Land That Drinks Your Piss

The German author Karl May (1842-1912) wrote a series of highly successful novels about the Old West, but he only visited America long after the books were published. He had two very good excuses – he spent eight years of his life in jail and cheap air travel was hard to come by in his day.

I have no such excuses, which is why I’m heading off to Namibia for some post-publication research. Let’s hope the facts live up to the fiction. Here’s an excerpt from Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot, set in the early 1980s. I’ll give you the ‘facts’ when I get back.

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We had driven all the way up to Windhoek in Mom’s orange Beetle to meet him. If you drew a straight line from Johannesburg to Tsumeb, it passed straight through the heart of Botswana. “You might as well take your clothes off and walk into Soweto,” was Dad’s assessment of this travel option. “Follow the main road west, and when you get past Botswana, turn right.”

So we stuck to the main road, which was long and straight and red on the map, and passed through the driest bits of bushveld we had ever seen.

We took turns sitting up front and lighting Mom’s cigarettes. And we played Car Cricket (oncoming car = 1 run; Merc or BMW = 4 runs; sports car = 6 runs; any bakkie = out). Between Vryburg and Kuruman, a 150-kilometer stretch, we scored a total of seven runs (three singles and a four), and we were ‘out’ once each.

We stopped for petrol and cigarettes in Kuruman. We asked the man at the garage if he had Fanta Grape. He looked at us as if we were from another planet, then pointed to the fridge and mumbled,

“Kott orrintch.”

We could hardly contain ourselves. We stumbled to the fridge, sniggering. Rem drank Fanta Orange for the rest of the trip, and whenever he did he would hold up his bottle triumphantly and say, “Kott orrintch,” which stopped being funny after about the seventh time but became one of our longest-running gags.

Mom had booked us into a hotel in Upington, 265 kilometres down the drag, on the Orange River. The Oranje Hotel was a three-star establishment, which meant it had those little salted-butter twirls on a small, stainless-steel saucer, as well as lots and lots of waiters, who raced to get your plate as soon as you put down your cutlery. Mom spent most of the meal raising her eyebrows at us, and we responded with a barrage of thank-yous.

There was a double and a single bed. We flipped for it. I won and Rem had to sleep with Mom in Upington.

The following morning we left the Dried-Fruit Capital of the Northern Cape and picked up the barbed-wire trail where we left off.

The world gradually went from drier to driest. The heat made you want to puke. If you stopped moving, it would kill you. The sun was everywhere, just waiting to engulf you, choke you, melt you. We had crossed the border into South West Africa, which the locals call Namibia, meaning The Land That Drinks Your Piss, according to Dad.

I could feel its vast, humming magnet straining to drag me down into the dust. My precious sweat gushed from every pore, my spit was sucked from my throat, turning my tongue to sand and my head to stone, and my fresh, wet blood gathered in the throbbing reservoirs of my feet, just waiting to burst out to be drawn into the parched earth’s sponge. It was terrifying, mesmerising. My mother was driving in her bra.

“Don’t stare, Ysbrand,” she said, gathering her blouse, which was immediately reopened by the desert’s horny breath rushing in through the open window.

I sat staring out across the landscape, trying to move as little as possible. Our Beetle was an orange coal rolling across the white-hot desert. I imagined being incinerated as my foot touched the ground.

Then the front tyre blew, like a pistol shot.

Mom screamed as the car swerved onto the wrong side of the road. She wrestled with the wheel and brought the car to a halt at the side of the road. We stared at each other, both trying to conceal the rising panic. Rem stirred in the back seat.

“Why have we stopped?”

“We had a blow-out. And Mom can’t fix it.”

“Nonsense, Ysbrand!” She buttoned up her blouse and got out of the car.

The three of us stood staring at the silver hubcap.

“You’ve never changed a tyre before.”

“No, but it can’t be that hard!”

“Dad can’t even get those nuts off sometimes!”

“What nuts?”

Rem and I glanced at each other quickly.

“We’ll just wait here. Someone will come along.”

“We’ll be Kentucky Fried by the time anyone gets here,” said Rem.

“No we won’t,” said Mom. “This is the main road.”

We glanced at each other again.

Rem walked out into the middle of the road.

“Remco! Get back here! Do you want to get run over?!”

He turned and looked up the road, shielding his eyes like a cowboy.

“Remco!”

Then he turned and looked down the road, shielding his eyes again.

“Reckon we’re gunna die out here, pardner,” he drawled.

“Remco! Stop that nonsense and get in the car.”

“Race you to that tree.” He pointed to a slim silhouette that could have been 50, 500 or 5000 metres away.

“Remco! Get in the car!”

“It’s boiling in there,” I said.

“What would a Bedouin do?” asked Mom, trying to cheer us up.

“Kill his camel and drink its hump,” said Rem.

Mom and I laughed. You could just imagine it. He was good at that.

“Come on. We’ll open the doors.”

I got in the back. Mom asked me to pass her one of the sleeping bags. She unzipped it and draped it over the back window. I was impressed.

“There, that’s …” was all she could say before a sudden gust of wind carried the sleeping bag off into the desert. Rem ran after it. It eventually got caught on the barbed wire. He pulled it off a little too roughly. A flurry of snow whipped across the sand. Rem shook the bag again. Another flurry.

“Remco!”

“It’s quite cool over here,” he shouted. Then he draped the sleeping bag around his shoulders and walked back the car, snow blowing off his back.

“Just wait till I tell your father!”

“Car!” he shouted, pointing down the road.

When the bakkie eventually pulled up, we wished it hadn’t.

 

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