Today's Reading

(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores September 2019.)

1977: Prohibited Area, South West Africa

"How long, Patrick?" I asked, squinting through the back window of our Land Rover.

"Five, maybe six minutes." His keen eyes darted from side to side as we raced over the immense expanse of sand."Then, bejesus, it's on us...a frantic beast with whirling sand claws...It will blot out the sun as it beats the hell out of us."

"That's kind of a poetic description," I replied, surprised and turning toward him. He wore his white long-sleeved shirt hanging out of his jeans, as did I. White helped reflect the omnipotent sun's assault on the desolate land below. Steamy heat waves rose, quivering. We were in our adventurous twenties, agile and fit, but now worried.

My throat tightened, and the heat increased as we slid the Land Rover's windows closed. There was no room for error when the desert bowled a sandstorm. It could kill. At six foot three, I could look out the top of the boxy windshield while Patrick stared intensely out the middle and drove.

Where should we go? It was all so very empty.

Wide-brimmed hats lay on the seat next to us. Under them were rather featureless maps and a Brunton compass, the type we geologists carried. For a map to be of use, we needed topography. But there wasn't much of that out here.

Tapping sand fingertips began to play on our metal roof. Grains seeped inside through passages unknown, peppering Patrick's jet- black hair and scruffy beard, then blending with the sun-bleached strands hanging from my head. Fine particles began to work their way into our ankle boots and pants. We had been traveling some days through the Namib Desert; our luck had run out.

Within moments the darkening gray cloud behind us increased in size, rolling in a wave of fury as it sucked air and sand into its lungs. The bright desert was metamorphosing, extracting payment for our intrusion. The ungainly Land Rover plowed forward.

We were in the vast Sperrgebiet, or prohibited region, of South West Africa (which in 1990 would become Namibia), geology students illegally hunting for diamonds.

The area bordered the Atlantic Ocean, stretching north from the Orange River border of South Africa for about two hundred miles and extending some sixty miles inland. It was also known as Diamond Area 1 by then-owner Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa Ltd., which patrolled it using men with guard dogs.

As our Land Rover charged up a gently rolling rise, Patrick pointed through the haze in front of us to a long, isolated ridge of massive rock in the near distance.

"Precambrian," Patrick yelled over the increasing wind. "A billion years old. "The ridge jutted upward like the desert's spine. Maybe we could find a hole between rocks to crawl into.

We gained speed. Lances of sand struck our roof furiously as the Rover lunged and finally reached the apron of boulders strewn along the base of the rock wall.

"I'll drive along by the boulders!" Patrick yelled. "Look for a crack in the rocks, a hollow, some protection!"

The tuneless drumming increased. We inhaled wisps of the storm's desiccated, heated breath. No vehicle could keep it out. We tied our well-used bandanas around our faces and looked like the thieves we were. Moments later we could see only twenty meters ahead as the sun's rays struggled through a sand army with trillions of airborne soldiers.

A hazy black hole just big enough to squeeze through appeared in the gray granite-gneiss ridge wall we were passing. Patrick braked and maneuvered into the boulders in front of it. His clenched hands twisted the steering wheel as if to strangle it. I slid back my window to watch for angled rocks that could slit our tires.

"This okay?" he yelled anxiously, unable to see much. The motor gasped for want of air while the wind whistled eerily as it tore along the ridge and between its fallen boulders.

"Hell," I replied, bringing my head back inside, covered with sand. "No choice! Shut it off."

Securing our hats with chinstraps, we clambered out, dragging a canvas. In the frightening, enraged tempest, we hauled it over the vehicle. Like tying a handkerchief across your face, the fabric protected the Land Rover's insides, the air filter, and fuel and brake lines from fine dust and sand as well as preventing the interior from being painted in powdery gray. The brim of Patrick's hat swept upward like a sail on a boat and with one hand he pulled at his chinstrap while the other heaved at a rope looped around a bumper. My sunglasses twisted off my face. We were spitting sand.

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