And speaking of stars… let me tell you another story.
Back when I was a grad student at the University of Cape Town, a bunch of us from the department set out from Cape Town to Some Other Place Which I No Longer Remember for an academic event of some sort (Which I No Longer Recall). Suffice it to say that somehow a handful of us ended up at this isolated house in the middle of the Karoo one night, as a layover on our journey.
The Karoo… let me tell you a little bit about the Karoo.
At the very southern tip of the African continent you will find the city of Cape Town – a verdant jewel in the African crown, edged by bluest oceans, surrounded by mountain slopes covered with proteas and vineyards, a paradise on earth. Take the road that leads out of Cape Town and through the ring of mountains that rear around it like a shield against the harshness and the cruelty of the outside world… and you will find yourself in the Karoo.
The Karoo is this:
It is an endless road that goes endlessly on through a barren landscape – sometimes, after a particuluarly good spring rain, you can find them carpeted by opportunistic wild flowers that rear their colourful heads to greet the water but more often than not it’s just… more of the same. It’s miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles, wide, brown, empty. In the Old South Africa the landowners around these parts tended to have huge – and I mean HUGE – ranches out here, thousands of acres. When the New South Africa came onto the world stage the new powers that be considered this eminently unfair, and proposed to carve up these ranches into hundreds if not thousands of smaller landholdings for the dispossessed of Africa to settle and farm.
The ranches were huge not simply and solely because the owners were greedy for land. They were huge because quite often the entire enormous landholding contained one – or maybe two if they were very lucky – reliable sources of water. And without water, nothing grows – not corn, not cattle, only the occasional seasonal bounty of wildflowers drunk on the rains.
So the Karoo… remained the Karoo. Vast, and empty, and, at night, dark dark dark dark.
At night, when the sun goes down and the night mantles the heavens, the stars come out over the Karoo. And the veil between the worlds doesn’t get so much gently moved aside as shredded out of the way – because these stars, they are like none other than you have ever seen in a night sky. They are closer, brighter, more numerous, than you can imagine, than you can believe. If you reached out your hand, it seems, you could touch them, cut yourself on them, bleed. The Karoo skies are quite simply beyond this world.
How do I know? Well, behind this house that we were staying in, the crowd of people had gathered around the fire where a barbeque (a “braai”, in local parlance) was in full swing – the back yard was full of people talking, of lights, of trays full of meat about to be put on the grill or just removed from it, a cooler full of beer and lemonade, a social whirl full of laughter and chatter and good food and friends and colleagues letting their hair down at an impromptu party.
But being who I am, this was my scene for only so long – and after a while I abandoned the party and meandered around the corner of the house.
As soon as the bulk of the building hid the lights and the bonfire from me, I was plunged into a visceral darkness the like of which I had rarely experienced before. Standing there alone in the empty night, I might have been the only living thing in the world – I had passed through the Veil, and was well and truly standing on the other side.
And the way I knew this, that I was certain of this, was because I looked up, and saw this.
I remember that I literally held my breath, and that, after, the tears came, crowding the back of my eyes, prickling hot and impatient, blurring my vision of the glory above me as I dashed them away with the back of my hand.
There it was. My galaxy. Stretched out across the length and breadth of the sky.
It was a memory that I carried with me for twenty years or more – because that was the last time I saw the Milky Way like this, naked and raw in the heavens, until I looked up at the skies above Wyoming in 2008 when I went to the Launchpad workshop hosted by Mike Brotherton in Laramie. That was the image that I hoarded and treasured in my memory for two decades, the possibility of miracles, the vision of light, the sense that I and those stars were one, that their fires ran in my own veins and that they sometimes dreamed the dreams that ran through my own head.
This was not the place I would have liked to answer for, come Judgment Day. Because under these stars nothing but truth was possible, and nothing but eternity existed. I don’t know how long I was out there, alone, gazing into the night – but for all I know I might be out there still, right now, because it just never seemed to stop. It was as though I wasn’t standing on the ground at all but floating out there amongst those pinpricks of light, one of them, eternally, lost and hanging above the empty desert plains of the Karoo.
Africa can play tricks with light, like that. Another time, flying back home from a short stay at a brand-new hotel near the famous Namibian game park of Etosha, I happened to look out of my airplane window. It was night, and the night was very clear, and out there in the midnight sky hung the biggest, fullest, whitest full moon you could ever imagine, its light bright enough to read by if you so chose, casting the kind of shadow you can slice yourself open on if you aren’t careful where you step. And underneath us at this moment, bathed in this bone-white light and etched in light and shadow, was THIS
I cannot find the kind of image that’s etched into my own mind, so you just have to imagine it – leach out ALL colour from those photographs, it’s ONLY black and white, ONLY light and shadow, nothing else – and the white dunes are etched sharp against the shadows, with the black ocean breaking into white waves at their feet, and the great white moon hanging over it all, a coin you might use to pay the ferryman to take you over the river Styx.
Once again, I found myself holding my breath, literally holding my breath for a long, long moment, in which it seemed likely that I would never breathe again. That I would never need to. That the light and shadow outside this window would be enough to sustain me for an eternity if only I could gaze upon it. It was elemental, completely otherworldly, the aptly named Skeleton Coast of South West Africa – tamed now, oh yes, like every corner of the Earth had been tamed until nothing wild and wonderful and unexpected like this had any right to remain, to fight for its existence, its survival.
But the Veil is capricious, and the Veil lifts sometimes, and beyond the Veil… this is what it looks like. A world full of light, and shadows, and magic, and the quiet roar of lions in the night.
Let me go back to Karen Blixen for a moment, because she speaks of day, and night, and dreams:
“At times I believe that my feet have been set upon a road which I shall go on following, and that slowly the centre of gravity of my being will shift over from the world of day, from the domain of organizing and regulating universal powers, into the world of Imagination. Already now I feel, as when at the age of twenty I was going to a ball in the evening, that day is a space of time without meaning, and that it is with the coming of dusk, with the lighting of the first star and the first candle, that things will become what they really are, and will come forth to meet me.”
Things will become what they really are. The sacred terror of the lion’s roar. The holy truth under the imperious arm of the Milky Way. The raw beauty of light and shadow playing on sea and sand and bone on the coast of Africa.
I did not have a farm in Africa, and I do not know the Ngong Hills the way Karen Blixen did, nor love them in the way that she did. But oh, I have a dream of Africa – the Africa from beyond the Veil, the place that I carry deep inside of me. The place where I first learned that all things are possible, that there can be beauty in stark terror and terror hiding in the face of beauty, the place where I learned about sound and colour and texture and the scent that lingers after the first rains have laid down the dust of the thirsty and barren ground. Beyond the Veil, all senses are sharper, all memories are more vivid, all dreams are more true – and I have walked that world.