Reader’s letter: No cheating on Verneukpan


Marlene Farmer writes:

“We are going to Verneukpan camp.” The words of my brother, the experienced camper.

In the weeks before the departure, I often found myself in a place of wonder. Wonder where the name comes from and whether we are going to run into a large-scale scam.

According to my research, Verneukpan is a salt pan. It is approximately 57 kilometers long and 11 kilometers wide and lies between Askham and Fraserburg. Verneukpan is reportedly very popular among extreme campers. Well, friends, I am certainly not one of them, but…

We then just as bravely took the road to the north. Our first stopover? Verneukpan, Namaqualand, Northern Cape. On the way there, we speculate widely about what it would look like there. And of course we discuss ablution and such essential matters. Well, I can assure you what we found there was nothing like what we saw with our mind’s eyes.

At the farm gate, which gives access to the pan, we bow and take pictures for posterity. We drive through to find ourselves in an area as wide as our Lord’s grace. And flat, as in flat. Where to pitch our tent? For a while we are overwhelmed by the choice, because wherever we look, we only see ourselves. Not a tree, not a bush, not a stone, not an embankment, not a patch of grass, not other campers. Nothing. Are we cheated? We’ll have to find out.

At our chosen place we get out tired and hungry. The sun is disappearing into nothingness and the mercury is dropping dangerously. But we are here for the experience and stop for a while to not only look, but to look to see. And to feel. And to listen.

Friends, we do not see a bird or an animal or an insect. And we experience the indescribable blessing of silence.

But the mercury is dropping and we have to stop the Dunghill. Soon our house is ready and the ablution block is reserved. Discreetly at the back of our stand. To a lung drop to dig, turned out not to be so easy then. The soil reminiscent of the craters on the moon is rock hard. But the need calls and the tasks must be completed by necessity.

The exclamation: “I’m going to the bathroom” is seen as a sign that no one else may move to the ablution block. Pretensions have now been left behind at the gate of the pan, but at least you still have your pride.

Wrapped in blankets, we sit in front of the campfire later that evening with a cup of peasant comfort and witness the epic scene before us.

It reminds me of a stanza from ‘night in the Namib’ by Helene Bester.

Then the sky becomes a street full of lights
And the great silence becomes silent

We are speechless because there are no words for the beauty before, above and around us.

We take pictures for later viewing and hopeful expectation that we will be able to relive the moment.

But now, speaking of photos. Of course, photos must also be taken of the ablution block as evidence that we behaved above suspicion where only the heavens and the pan could witness us. And not doing violence to the truth.

Early the next morning, shortly before dawn, each of us must find our seat on our folding throne. The vulnerable places covered with a blanket. A throne, on Verneukpan, in the early hours of the morning when the mercury is dangerously close to freezing, is not for sissies. If you are not careful… well anything is possible. Fortunately, you don’t have to be afraid of a snake in the grass catching you unawares with your pants on your knees – captured forever in a photo.

What I can recommend to prospective campers is not to put the hot ashes of your campfire in the lung drop to throw (to later cover up with sand) and then quickly walk your last turn. The combinations of certain elements may only make for a distressed scream.

Well, you’re probably wondering if there really was a cheat at the pan. For the fast drivers who were so blinded by the mirage maybe, but for us? For sure not!