Fishers of Men

If you looked east-west, there was a definite line – the land ended, the sea began. But north-south it was all just the same, mile after mile. Interchangeable sand dunes on one side, moving waves on the other. It was possible to drive for hours without any visible proof that you have moved at all, except, if you looked back, the slowly settling cloud of dust kicked up by your four wheel drive. Nothing else goes through the Namib sands. Once, in colonial times, there was a German who thought a steam tractor could be used to pull a wagon train across the desert to Windhoek. He didn’t get far. You could still see the rusted remains of the tractor, if you drive inland from the port at Swakopmund. A monument to a failed enterprise.

The place where Nic’s father used to fish was marked in a more humble way – a pile of stones about as high as a man, brought from who knows where. It gave the place a name, Kriese’s Beacon. Maybe for that very reason it attracted people. “I’m going to Kriese’s Beacon,” you’d hear an angler say. Not just “up the coast”, but to an identifiable place, a real destination, however arbitrary. There was no proof that the fishing here was any better or worse than anywhere else. It was simply the place where someone called Kriese, presumably, had stacked some stones.

As to who or what this Kriese may have been, Nic had no idea. He had never thought to ask. He couldn’t remember anyone ever referring to Kriese as a person and not a place. Perhaps there was an archive somewhere that would detail an expedition up the coast of German West Africa, especially if Kriese had been one of the Kaiser’s soldiers. If he had been a prospector, there may have been a claim lodged. But if he had been an ordinary citizen or madman, the records would show nothing of his travels in the Namib. There was just the pile of stones in a sea of shifting sand.

Nic shifted the Land Rover into second, and turned left at the beacon, which was almost completely buried in the sand. It happened from time to time. Someone invariably stopped to clear the sand away. The beacon was too important a feature to be sacrificed to the desert. Without it, how would people know where to fish? As the vehicle turned, the urn with his father’s ashes rolled across the seat and bounced against Nic’s thigh. Nic grabbed the bottle by the neck and jammed it between the backrest and the bench. He didn’t want his father’s ashes spilled all over the car. Some funeral that would be. It’s not what he had in mind.

His father had died suddenly, in his mid-sixties. He hadn’t been ill. From all accounts, he had been sitting in an armchair on a weekday afternoon, reading the newspaper, and he died. Expired. His heart had given out without warning. If there had been pain, it didn’t last long.

After the ambulance men had gone and there was only the family, Nic’s mother read and reread the newspaper as if it might contain some special clue, something that might have triggered her husband’s death. Or perhaps she was just trying to reconstruct in her mind what his last thoughts may have been. Nic let her do it, though he didn’t see the sense in it. As far as he knew, nothing his father ever thought was profound. Why it would’ve been any different in the moment of death, he couldn’t guess.

His father had been a practical man. He was responsible. Worked hard. Provided for the family. He had a son and a daughter. The daughter married a doctor and moved to Canada. At this moment she was snowed in in Saskatchewan. But she is with them “in spirit”, she told her brother over a crackling phone line. He told her he understood, and he did. One can only do so much and no more. You cannot move mountains, or tons of snow. It would have been nice to have Alice around, but Nic would probably have handled the whole funeral thing anyway. His sister could have helped to comfort his mother. If the old lady didn’t bear up so well, Nic may have postponed things so Alice could still try to come. As it turned out, his mother was doing as well as could be expected, and becoming something of an expert on Middle East peace talks as well. She kept the paper. Someday, when she dies, Nic expected to find it among her things. She was given to sentiment, liked movies and music. Her husband’s sole concession to impracticality was his fishing. He spent hours with a fishing rod in his hand. And if he didn’t catch anything, he didn’t complain. Catching fish may not have been the point of the exercise.

Nic looked in the rear-view mirror. There was the second 4×4, just far enough behind not to drive in his dust. His wife, mother and daughter were in Nic’s own vehicle – three generations of women. They could all have fitted into one car quite easily, but Nic wanted to come out here in his father’s beat-up Landy, which was not all that reliable. The old man could coax anything out of the vehicle, but Nic wasn’t that confident. His five-year-old came with him, asleep on the back seat. The women were to pick them up if they broke down. For his part, he kept an eye on them, though he didn’t expect any problems. The road wasn’t much more than a glorified dirt track, but it was reasonably hard and, of course, dry.

This part of the world gets less than two centimetres of precipitation per year, almost exclusively in the form of morning mist. It is the world’s driest desert. But the cold sea stream that causes it to be so dry also brings an abundance of fish from the South Atlantic. In the old days there were whales too. The town of Walvis Bay, where his parents lived, was originally a whaling station, walvis meaning whale. Later on, the port became a useful gateway to Windhoek and the Namibian interior, especially when the railway was built – no more steam tractors stuck in the sand. The neighbouring harbour of Swakopmund became a holiday resort and base for uranium mining. Every natural resource in the Namib is either below the surface or in the sea. It was not a place of obvious charm, yet people learned to love the stark blue sky and wind-swept dunes.

Nic found that it did something to him, the stillness. It occurred to him that it was as if you could feel the spirit of God moving in the desert. Then more wryly: The Supreme Being was probably hurrying to get somewhere else, where plants grow and water flows. Some people call this The Land God Made in Anger. Still, people live here. And die.

The nose of the Land Rover dipped as Nic hit the beach, a strip of firm sand that sloped down to the water. Otherwise it was hardly different than what could be found further inland, the Namib was like a beach fifty miles wide. Nic pulled over to the side, switched off the engine and got out. He left the door open, so the car wouldn’t get too hot. His son was still asleep.

You could hear the sea listlessly slapping the beach. If there had once been a battle between land and water, it had long reached a deadlock. The water moved. The sand blew. The line between them didn’t shift.

Then the second vehicle pulled up next to him, idling. His wife rolled down the window. He could feel the cool, air-conditioned air in the hair on his forearm. “Which way shall we go?” he asked.

“It’s all the same, isn’t it?”

He turned around, hands on his hips. Some way to the north a campsite was visible. “Let’s go south.”

“You go, I’ll follow.”

He lingered. “Everything still all right here?”

His 11-year-old daughter shouted from the back. “Can we just get there now?”

Nic nodded and went back to the Land Rover. Once it had been a grey and white affair, but now it was all one colour, like bleached bone.

As he got in, his son stirred. “Are we there yet?”


He drove another few hundred metres and turned to face the sea. His wife parked at right angles to him. For the next couple of minutes, they unpacked – a picnic blanket, a sun shade, a deck chair for his mother, some food and drink. Then he got the fishing tackle from the Land Rover and readied two rods.

“When do you want to… do it?” his wife asked.

Nic’s mother hadn’t mentioned the purpose of their outing at all.

He looked up, meaning to look at the sky, as if there would be an indication for him. But the light was so bright that he had to close his eyes and look down. “Just give me a moment,” he muttered and went to the back of the Land Rover. He leaned inside, without anything to do there.

He didn’t even have to buy fresh bait; his father had some in the freezer. The old man had planned to come fishing this week, it should have been him out here. Perhaps he was here, in some mystic sense. Nic could certainly imagine him, coming round the edge of the door, muttering under his breath.

“I didn’t catch that,” Nic said, carried away.

“I didn’t say anything.” It was his son. “When do we start fishing?”

“Soon.” Nic turned to the women. “We may as well go down to the water now.” He went to collect the urn of ashes from the front seat.

They crossed the beach like a band of Bushmen, five pairs of footprints. At the waters edge, Nic stopped and looked at his mother. “Do you want to say anything?”

She shook her head.    

“Do you want me to?”

Same reaction.

This is it then, he thought, and took the top off the urn. First he shook some of the grey powder into his mother’s cupped hand, then he did the same for the others before pouring the remainder into his own hand.

A wave crashed, followed by a boom that seemed to come from everywhere at once.

Nic stepped into the painfully cold water and sowed the ashes of his father into the rushing foam. He was vaguely aware that the others were doing the same. The grey ash got churned into the water and disappeared as the wave pulled back. Nic watched, but there was nothing to be seen. He bent down and rinsed his hand, feeling the water flow between his fingers. He had a sudden memory of himself as a boy, holding his father’s hand in the shallow water, maybe at this very place. He wanted to concentrate on it, remember more, but that was all, just a snapshot in his memory.

When he turned around, only his mother was still there. He put his hand in the small of her back and they walked back to the others.

His wife had already started to put sandwiches on paper plates. His daughter sat with her back against the wheel and toyed with her hair. His son had a fishing rod out and complained from afar, “Da-had.”

Nic signalled for the boy to wait and took a sandwich from his wife. “I’m going to take him now, see if we get a bite.”

He beckoned to the boy, took his rod and walked towards the water, chewing. Nic turned to his son. “Let me cast yours first.” He put his rod down, got the feel of the boy’s lighter one and cast the sinker way behind the break of the waves. Then he did the same with his rod. They made shallow hollows for themselves in the sand and sat down next to each other, elbows on knees and fishing rods in the wind. Before them, waves folded in on themselves, bucking and rolling. Sand got stirred up and smeared down.

Later, Nic realised his son wasn’t their any more. The boy’s rod was planted in a hole in the sand. The line blew in the wind, crossing and recrossing Nic’s own. Someone moved by his side. At first, he thought it was his son who had somehow grown up. (How long had he been sitting there, lost in thought?)

Then he saw an older man – shorts, bristly beard and floppy hat. In his one hand he carried a fishing rod, a bucket in the other. The man was talking to him, but Nic couldn’t hear above the noise of the sea. He watched the man’s mouth and had to think about what he heard before it made sense: “Just what is it you’re trying to catch here?”

Copyright Zirk van den Berg 2008