The Karoo is a vast area in the southwestern part of South Africa about the size of France or Germany. There really isn’t anything here at all. Literally. It’s an open, empty, flat and featureless expanse, with perhaps a rolling hill, and on the distant horizons the dull shapes of faded blue-coloured mountain ranges.

It is hot and dusty with hardly a tree in sight for miles. Scrub brush somehow finds purchase and clings on in the harsh environment, defying the persistent, shrill winds that periodically roll through. The relentless sun beats down, shimmering heat haze forming mirages on the distant road. The heat is oppressive and seems to increase with every minute of the day.

You get up early around these parts. You rise just at the break of dawn and with the sun cresting the distant horizon.

You have already been awake for quite a while, listening to the excited chattering of birds. A lonely rooster announcing his rise from slumber, and a donkey laughing wholeheartedly at something. Maybe it’s laughing at you, as you rub your eyes and squint into the morning sun.

Somehow you tune out the bird calls in the background, and the silence creeps in. There is no wind this morning, just the rustle of a breeze through the eucalyptus leaves, a creaky door hinge and the kettle’s whistle declaring that the water is ready for your tea. The clink of a teaspoon in an enamel cup, the smoky steam rising into the cool air, the creak of the old wooden chair on the covered terrace. You sit down and stare into the distance, nothing to interrupt your view except for the massive gum trees and a rattling wind pump, slowly working to bring the water of life from the depths below.

Beyond the rickety animal fences, a cluster of cows trails each other towards the little water dam, aiming to drink their fill before venturing into the emptiness in search of sustenance from the scrub brush. An imaginary tumbleweed rolls through the widescreen in your mind.

A lonely and difficult trail

In the deafening silence, your mind turns back two centuries, trying to imagine how the locals used to carve out an existence. The history of South Africa doesn’t go back nearly as far as Europe or the Far East, but it has an equal attraction parallel to the Wild West – if you’re into your Western cowboy movies.

Rugged individuals heading into the sunset in search of a better life. All their belongings were strapped to the wagon drawn by a brace of oxen. They turn their back on the Cape of Good Hope. A hope that had been lost to them, and they hope for a better future further inland.

It is a lonely and difficult trail. There is, in fact, no trail. New tracks are being pioneered, building out animal trails and local farmers’ footpaths. The countryside is harsh and foreboding. Progress is slow, each unyielding metre hard-fought, unyielding and unforgiving.

A week of hard work, by man and beast, searching for life-giving water and hunting for survival brings some relief in the form of a clutch of trees. It has been brutal in the searing sun, the dry conditions doing their best to break down the will and strength of the brave little group. The oxen are ‘uitgespan’ – unyoked from their burden – to graze and rest in the hills. A stream trickling through with clear, fresh, cool water and the shade from the trees helps to form a decision to chill here for a couple of days. Rest and recuperate. Maybe stay a couple of weeks, or perhaps a couple of years…

Harsh and empty

Perhaps the tough individuals are searching for some space. Some room in which to expand, in a literal and metaphorical sense. Maybe escape the crowded city centre, the rush and bustle, and the crush of the masses. Maybe to find a simpler way of life. Certainly not an easier one, but one stripped of the superficial fluff and stripped back to basics: food, water and shelter. And then let’s do that in the harshest environment we can find!

All this goes through your mind as you sit there and contemplate the empty and open vista before you. The sun is already warming the air and the earth. It is hardly seven a.m. and a trickle of sweat beads on the brow. Another thought enters your head: why did you even look at your watch? Out here it is like time has stood still. The only movement is the barely imperceptible creeping of the sun over the horizon. A breeze moves through the leaves, the donkey brays once again, and you wonder at the punchline. A private joke to be sure.

The dust swirls up, and the rusty wind pump speeds up, not that much – blades threatening to fall – but the clanking beat raises its tempo for a couple of seconds and then returns to a lazy rise and fall, the rasp of the rusty parts defying the lack of maintenance.

You reminisce about the burning red sky from last night’s sunset. A furious fire engulfing the whole skyline and spread across the heavens as the sun angrily refused to go down without a fight.

The multi-coloured carpet

Wildflowers choose to grow at random in the driest, most rough environment. Whole hillsides are covered in a tapestry of oranges, yellows, whites and purples, standing in stark contrast to the dull green and beige of the khaki-coloured veld. These bright floorcoverings are untouched by man, the seeds having been sewn by nature’s hand in a vivid display disregarding the unforgiving environment. A postcard to itself.

You rise from your chair and take a sweep of the horizon. Thinking back to that long, arrow-straight road that brought you here. Ahead and behind, nothing but black-top, not a soul in sight. Black-top becomes a dirt road and the roostertail of dust hangs in the air far longer than you expect. The shell of a broken-down tractor, a couple of horses playing around in the distance. Rusty fences sagging in the heat and hardy shrubs line the road, not a tree in sight, the heat is oppressive. Silhouetted on the horizon is a fellow dust cloud from a ploughing tractor kilometres away, the only other sign of life. What are they farming to survive out here?

Solitude

You’re all alone, the nearest neighbour is over ten miles away, in Wild West terms, almost half a day’s ride by horseback. You seek the coolness of the interior of the old house. A classic farmhouse with a small Cape-style gable, tall ceilings, wooden floors and a hundred stories to tell. The furnishings are basic, functional and wearing a century of patina. A faded black-and-white photo depicts the house from a long time ago when the trees were shorter, and the wind pump wasn’t there but the veld looks just as unforgiving.

The kettle is filled for a second cup, match flaring to the gas. An old Aga oven stands proudly in the centre of the room, now cold, but ready to warm the house on those cold winter nights. You catch yourself in a half smile at the pleasing simplicity of the room. A room that has perhaps remained unchanged since the house was built. There’s no rush, no pressing engagements, no soul-crushing board meeting to attend. The most urgent business is to rustle up breakfast, and then take a long hike in the relatively cooler morning temperatures.

just sit back, take a breath

Most of all, feel the emptiness, the silence, the energy. Lean into the space around you. Breathe the dusty air. Clear, fresh, dusty air. Marvel at the huge expanse of a cloudless sky. Hear the leaves whispering softly, a pigeon call, a bird of prey circling up high on motionless wings. The cows have wandered off in search of grazing, the donkey stands forlornly watching the ground in his tiny lean-to, the joke long forgotten, bracing for another scorching day. The clank of the wind pump reminds you of the remoteness. Yes, there is nothing here, but that’s exactly the point.