Curious, he probably crept into the area where the Khoikhoi worked. Perhaps he did that as they slept in the bright moonlight that reflected off the sand-white desert floor. His unusually keen eyesight would have picked out the tiny, glasslike objects among the Precambrian rocks and windblown sand. I imagined him later shattering them gently with a rock to expose fresh surfaces and crystal faces that flashed colors at him when held up to the strong African sun.
Inquisitive, as artists are, he would have studied them closely and discovered the light was shattered into the rainbow hues of the spectrum. Red as bright as a severed artery, green as grass after a rain, the violet in a rare thunderstorm. As an artist, he would have been mystified, if not overwhelmed, by it. With this magic, the Bushman was able to compare the richest hues of the firestones to those he coveted for his rock paintings.
We speculated on how he died.
Perhaps the day came when he was too old to keep up with his band and was benevolently left on his own to die. Traditionally he would have received an ostrich eggshell filled with water as a canteen and whatever bits of food his small band could spare. This, together with his bow and arrows, the diamond-bearing pouch, a skin bag containing the eggshell, and his paint pots were all the possessions he had. The withered little man could have hobbled off, wearing some red fabric a Khoikhoi had left unattended. (Bushmen believed no one owned anything.) Deep into the desert, he looked for a place to die with dignity, as he knew his time had come.
What of the charred tortoiseshell we had found with his body? Surely his will to survive made him search for food. He would have been ecstatic to see a row of small, sand-filled indentations partially exposed. He knew from the tracks that the reptile was crawling fast and, like him, must rest soon. A short time later, the hunter-artist likely located the tortoise near the front of a soaring dune.
Our Bushman had now found food. Rotating a stick among a small pile of dry wisps of grass, he created a modest fire. Soon the reptile simmered in its own shell, overturned. It was his last meal. Perhaps as he sat beside the fire, he decided he would never leave the dune. In a night or two the hyenas would find him and rip him to pieces. Thinking of that, he became aware of the soft showers of sand as they welcomed him into the desert's womb. Perhaps they would bury him? Perhaps someone else would come along and bury him?
After drinking and eating from the charred shell, the hunter-artist slowly and painfully climbed the three-hundred-foot-high dune and waited on the crest for the gust of wind to find him. He faced the day of death, the day of the hyena, as he soared off? the dune with the stones we let him keep forever.
1975: Into Apartheid Africa
The sight of corrugated-tin shacks dotting barren, flat, sandy gravel startled me. They stood bundled together in loose groups, separated by barriers of old automobiles, driftwood, doors, broken chairs, and tangled rusty wire, carelessly linked together. Woodsmoke genies puffing from chimneys disappeared like hope. A twirling dust devil leaped from the trodden earth, lifting up a newspaper page a hundred feet. It looked like the flailing wings of a startled seagull. I watched it collapse as quickly as it had formed. Behind it were ungainly outhouses, propped up in trampled areas where a few chickens pecked and a goat scratched.This was the Cape Flats, a dumping ground for apartheid, a home of segregated townships, and an ill-advised attempt to mold the country into divisions probably as secure as the barriers I saw.
We drove slowly along the N-2, Settler's Way. A driver from the University of Cape Town (UCT) had picked me up from the Metropolitan Airport. I was there to study geology in the Precambrian Research Unit (PRU), a part of the UCT geology department. My aim was to obtain the last and highest degree—a doctorate in science, or a PhD. I had four degrees now, two from American universities and two from the University of Helsinki, Finland, where I'd just come from. I was fascinated by knowledge, one of those people who follow their dreams.
"Separation between white and black," my "colored" UCT driver stoically explained to me. He was a descendant of interracial sexual unions between Western European males who coupled with Khoisan, Bantu, and Asians in the early seventeenth century. Rounding off the mix, female slaves from the Dutch East Indies were also brought into the Cape Colony. The resulting people were simply called "colored." I wondered if I would be stepping back into the American South. Would this experience be like living history?
My hometown is Buffalo, in western New York. I left it behind when I was seventeen, slipping away into what I believed was a gilded tomorrow—the world of adventure and imagination, of the smell of summer grass and wild things hidden in tall trees and secret burrows. My heroes were men like James Fenimore Cooper, Jules Verne, David Livingstone, Mark Twain, and Sven Hedin. These were the stepping-stones I trod on, the glorious wonders and innocence of youth that had brought me here.
I would soon learn that Africa was a land of unusual extremes with often no middle ground; it could be an ethereal place where life and death rose as naturally as the sun. Now, however, my thoughts were simpler: What would I find at the university?
The PRU's director, Dr. Manfred, was in his mid-thirties, tall, handsome, charismatic, and a classic effcient German. He had invited me to join him a year earlier. I was given a separate room to work in and introduced to six other graduate students from Britain, Ireland, Holland, and Rhodesia. Basically everything was new to us and we relied on Manfred for orientation. Unfortunately, he was mostly concerned with his own research and accordingly rather impassive about students. Still, he did provide assistance to the point our British colleague was able, in stiff upper lip, to declare, "We will benefit from whatever he casts off."
This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardcover edition.