The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert
by E. M. Eastick
My sister, Ro, and I fuelled the car in Keetmanshoop and continued along the edge of two formidable deserts: the Kalahari, which covers an area the size of Texas and then some, and the Namib, a coastal desert that runs for 1200 miles along the Atlantic coast.
Not for the first time, I was hit by the sensation of knowing that nobody else in the world knew where we were, and we could disappear without a soul realizing it for days, or even weeks. I stared at the endless sand and tufts of vegetation trying to grow, and saw myself as the small thing that I was, insignificant, and alone in a big, empty world.
“Want some chips?” Ro waved a packet of Simba potato chips from the passenger seat.
I looked at the sprightly picture of the baby lion on the packet, and reminded myself that perhaps we weren't as far from civilization and all it represented after all. The bag crinkled as I accepted a handful of chips and scouted the landscape, expecting to see a discarded Coke can nesting in the sand somewhere.
“You know,” said Ro, “we could die out here and nobody would even know.” I surveyed the bush for the Coke can, but there was not a speck of rubbish anywhere. My thoughts wavered between awe at the isolation and disbelief at not being able to find a Coke can.
The dusk was closing in around us. The sharp afternoon sun bounced off the hills in the distance and cast long shadows across the road stretching before us. The map showed a town four-hundred kilometres away, and I, for one, preferred not to drive the distance if I could help it.
Ro must have been as tired as I was. “What we need is a campground, right here, in the middle of nowhere.”
“I’ll look out for one,” I replied sarcastically, mentally preparing myself for a long night on the road.
And then a small sign by the roadside loomed towards us. Bold red letters and a chunky arrow pointing to the right jumped out from what must have been a white background before the dust smothered it: Beseda Christian Guesthouse and Campground.
Ro’s expression said, 'What do you know?’
My expression said, ‘How did you know?’
I slowed the car and squinted in the direction the sign was pointing. “So where is it?” We trundled on, studying the roadside until we found a strip marginally flatter and more compact than the surrounding wasteland leading into the sand. I snapped on the headlights and followed the track in the fuzzy light, wisps of dust dancing in our path as the breeze picked up. “I still don’t see anything,” I said after what seemed like miles of snail-paced driving. Ro sat quietly, scrutinizing the monotonous landscape for any signs of life. The track veered to the left, and a low, small building the color of the surrounding sand leapt into the light.
“Well, it should be quiet here,” said Ro.
I pulled into a neat gravel car park lined with impressive plants–impressive because they were there at all. A second car, another sedan but distinctly cleaner than ours, was parked near the door.
“Did these guys helicopter their car in?” said Ro, reading my thoughts.
A couple sporting the deep tan and lines of people who work in the sun greeted us warmly. They told us we could camp anywhere. “We're not exactly crowded.” The fit middle-aged man with shaggy hair and deep lines around his eyes laughed at his joke.
His wife, a graying blond, her hair pulled back in a bun, and standing as tall and fit as her husband, looked at us sympathetically. “Just ignore him,” she said. “In fact, we do have other guests tonight. Both of our rooms are occupied otherwise I would have offered you one.”
Ro waved the woman’s apologetic tone aside with a smile. “We’d prefer to camp, anyway.”
“But you are more than welcome to join us for dinner,” continued the woman while her husband stood behind her, nodding cheerfully with his hands on his hips.
“We offer a three course meal for twenty-two dollars per person.” The woman clasped her hands in front of her. “Cheese and broccoli soup; roast kudu with mashed potato and roast carrots; and crème brulee.”
My stomach tugged at the words and my mouth filled with saliva despite my usual state of semi-dehydration. Twenty-two dollars was a big chunk of my budget to spend on a single meal, and Ro knew it. “Can we let you know?” she said.
“Sure, sure,” said the man. “We’ll be here. It’s not like we're going to duck out to the store or anything, is it?” He laughed again and placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder, as if to support himself in his mirth.
The woman rolled her eyes and broke away to show us the bathroom. “And if you need to wash clothes,” she said, “there’s a tap and tub right around the back of the building near where you’ll be camping.” I instinctively stepped away from the woman, suspecting that the advice may have been triggered by my body odor.
We thanked the woman and returned to the vehicle to unload. “So what do you think about dinner?” asked Ro as she threw her backpack over her shoulder and grabbed the tent from the boot.
“My tummy was rumbling when she was talking about it.”
“So was mine.”
“You’re going to go, aren’t you?” I saw the washtub the lady told us about as we headed around to the back of the building.
“We haven’t had a decent meal since–well, since Cape Town.”
I nodded in reminiscent agreement.
Behind the main building, a single tree, not much taller than six foot but with the gnarled limbs of an old timer, jutted from the sand. The tree leaned distinctly. Did it get windy here? A low rise of craggy rocks pushed through the sand behind the tree. Spindly clumps of brown flowering grass stuck out of the rocks like a sloppy flower arrangement.
Not bothering with pegs, useless in the sand anyway, we erected the tent under one of the outstretched branches and discussed taking advantage of the washtub.
“It would be better to do some washing tonight so it can dry overnight,” said Ro. “Maybe before dinner?” She drew out the word in an innocent appeal to my hunger.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “My stomach’s conspiring against me on this one. I give in.”
Ro stopped unpacking her laundry and stood up abruptly. “I’ll go tell them.”
She returned an instant later, a dark shadow in the disappearing light. “Damn, it gets dark quick here.”
“So what’s the story?”
“Dinner at eight. We better grab our torches.”
“Eight? We’re usually in bed by then.”
Ro rummaged in her daypack and pulled out her Maglite. “Yeah, well tonight’s our night out.”
I watched her walk with an armload of clothes to the washtub, and thought about the days. Well, I’ll be darned, I thought, it’s Friday night.
Contentedly, I joined Ro at the tub. Excited by the prospect of roast kudu and mashed potatoes filling our bellies, we scrubbed our clothes by torchlight, and then returned with our sodden lumps to the tent. The craggy old tree made the perfect clothesline.
At five minutes to eight, we arrived at the cozy dining room, hoping that a change into a less sweaty t-shirt made for acceptable dining attire. The man seated us, his big, smiling eyes pleading for us to enjoy our meal.
A man and woman, not much older than Ro and I, sat close together at a table in the corner of the room. I guessed they wanted privacy; we wouldn't be making new friends that night. Everybody’s friend, the man of the house, arrived with our soup. It was superb, even if our table manners were not. The soup disappeared in an instant.
The roast kudu was worthy of an appearance in a silver-service restaurant. The meat was tender and the gravy thick and rich. The mashed potato melted in my mouth, and I could feel my body drawing good things from the carrots. Even if the meat was rubbery and overcooked, I wouldn't have cared, but the food was exceptional.
“I think my stomach’s shrunk.” I moaned.
“Mine too. ” Ro leaned back. “I’m not sure I can fit in dessert.”
But then the crème brulee arrived, and it looked so good I just had to taste it. I tasted it again and again until the ramekin was suddenly empty. “Now I feel like I’m going to explode.”
With a pained but happy expression, Ro finished her dessert as well. We thanked the owners, the two of them having finished serving and taken seats in the dining area should their guests wish to consult them. They appeared pleased with our discomfort and cheerily wished us good night.
The thin beams of our Maglites led us back to the old tree dressed in our soggy apparel, and we crawled inside the tent, hurriedly brushed our teeth with bottled water, and collapsed into our sleeping bags.
“I ate too much,” groaned Ro.
“Me too,” I groaned back.
“You’ve got to admit though, that was worth twenty-two bucks, was it not?”
I lay in the dark and listened to the wind creep around us. “It’s getting a bit windy.”
“At least our clothes should dry.”
“Good point.” I rolled over and tried to sleep, but the wind began to howl.
After an hour of listening to the whirring and whistling, I whispered, loud enough to be heard over the wind, “Are you awake?” Silence. She always slept better than I did. I shuffled around to alleviate the pressure on my hip bone, closed my eyes, and let the wind sweep me into sleep.
I awoke to the sound of birds, some sort of babblers judging by the racket. “You’ve got to be joking,” I mumbled to myself. Enviously, I watched Ro for any sign of life and contemplated accidently waking her up as I checked my watch: 5.43. That was too early to be up after a big night out. Unfortunately, my conscience wouldn't allow me to wake my sister, so I lay back and waited for the sun to invade the tent.
And then I remembered the wind. Curious to see if our garments were still on the tree clothesline, I opened the zipper slowly and stepped into the cool morning air. The tree was practically naked. A t-shirt hugged the trunk and a knot of underpants clung to an exposed root, but the rest of the clothes had travelled. As I wondered whether to collect the clothes or leave them scattered over the desert for Ro to see, I heard the buzz of the zipper. My sister poked her head through the flaps. “Check this out,” I said waving to the clothes.
Ro crawled from the tent and stood with hands on her hips to survey the wind's havoc. She cocked her head. “I'm sure that's not where we pitched the tent last night.”
“Did we seriously move three feet while we were sleeping?” I asked, laughing.
“Now that’s a strong wind.”
We wandered around the area known as the campground and reclaimed our t-shirts, shorts and underpants. As clean as they may have been, I was not eager to pull on sandy undies, and I shook them frantically before throwing them back into the tent.
“I can’t believe that wind,” I said as I packed my clothes away.
“Imagine where we may have ended up if we hadn’t eaten too much.”
Where indeed. Still laughing, I considered the endless sand, smooth and flat, all traces of the previous day’s activity completely erased.
|Australian-born E. M. Eastick worked as an environmental professional in Britain, Ireland, and the Middle East before moving to Colorado. Her creative efforts are often inspired by her travel experiences and can be found in the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Skipping Stones, and a number of anthologies.|