"Bring the water bottles!" I mouthed, pointing to the back door while standing on the wide rear bumper and gripping a corner of the billowing canvas with one hand. The sand pelted my face as I stretched up to grope for the shovels on the roof rack with the flapping tarp pulling me in the other direction. Throwing the spades to the ground and jumping down, we roped the reluctant last corner of the cover to the bumper. Pausing to look, we realized there was no question about staying inside the Land Rover and eventually falling asleep. The doors could be blocked with drifting sand, and it would become our tomb.
Bent over and bulldozing our way through surging sand, we hobbled for the black breach. It had been shaped when massive pieces of rock had fallen against one another, leaving a space within. Over thousands of years, additional rocks had tumbled from above, sealing and enlarging what was probably an elongated cavity. We squeezed through, away from the rage. It whistled hysterically as if calling us back, gusts of hot, prickling sand arms trying to find us in the dark.
"Did you bring the flashlight?" Patrick asked.
"Oh shit...something else could be in here."
"Matches..." I jiggled a plastic vial I carried. Immobile as possible and concentrating on the darkness, I struck one. A whiff of sulfur and the match flickered. Nothing moved in front of us—we inched hesitantly away from the crack. Patrick lit another. The glows ranged surprisingly far in the pitch black. We were in a room-sized cavern and there, in the middle, were the silver and black ash remains of many old campfires. A refuge that had protected Bushmen travelers for perhaps thousands of years! They were the only people in the huge region capable of living under such conditions. "Whew," I whispered, "we got lucky."
"It's relative at the moment; have to check everywhere," he replied. The worsening storm quickly darkened the entrance. Patrick moved forward, another match held in front of him, peering around the sand floor, looking for things like snakes and scorpions seeking shelter as we were. Something could be silently sulking in a corner, like a hyena or cat; but it seemed likely they would have already issued a warning. We searched carefully. Only blurred remains of human and animal prints lay in the packed sand, their presence recorded as if in a book. Relieved, Patrick began looking at the walls more closely. On a large, flat surface, there was something, an image of some sort.
We inched closer, still wary, and very wide-eyed as we focused. Suddenly, a painted herd of fleeing elands emerged from the wall. In the simplest, most expressive sweeping lines and bold colors, the animals were at full gallop. Caught in midair, some leaping gracefully, their four hooves pointed backward, their heads held high, and their eyes burning with terror of the small men pursuing them. With buttocks as pronounced as watermelons and erections like upright elephant trunks, the hunters were alive with purpose.
I knew that in many places in southern Africa, hunter-gatherer Bushmen, or San, the world's best hunters, painted with great skill and loving care the animals they pursued. But I had never seen any such paintings.
In some way, the Bushmen saw themselves in the animals they killed. They shared the same freedom of the endless desert and endured the same thirst and starvation. They burned in the same heat and suffered when gritty gusts tore at their wrinkled skin. When they were too old to keep up with their band, they were abandoned and then died.
To the Bushmen, the hunter and hunted were two soldiers who eventually would meet in combat, and one must die so the other can survive. From these deep emotional connections emerged the Bushmen's fervent desire to pay tribute, and perhaps a debt, to the hunted animal.
Heat driven by the tempest accumulated in our shelter as night approached. We lay on the cave floor beyond the reach of the groping sand that struggled to fill our refuge. The storm pounded and swirled, raced through rock cavities, whistling to trumpet its presence and torment our sleep, until sometime near daybreak a blade of church-like sunlight thrust its way inside. It was magic.
The sensation wrought then by the desert's sudden, utter stillness was otherworldly. We hesitated for a moment as if a heavy weight had been lifted.
Squeezing out of the crack, stiff and disoriented, we stared. Sand—everything was covered in flowing and graceful drapes of pristine sand. Not one blemish.
"Seems a shame to pee on it, Patrick," I commented, unzipping myself.
"Maybe something will grow," he replied, adjusting himself and then bending backward to stretch and spit.
I instinctively kicked some sand in front of me. "Let's check the Rover."