Discovering the extraordinary power of absolutely nothing in South Africa’s semi-desert heart.
“I hope you don’t mind quiet, because there’s buckets of it here,” chuckles Kobus Steyn.
“That’s what I’m here for,” I tell the wild-haired farm manager. It is dusk, and I’ve just arrived, travel-dazed after a day on the road, at the Sneeuberg Nature Reserve – more than 100km of gravel away from Richmond. I’m on the second leg of a journey in search of silence: to discover the power of heading deep into the Karoo and disconnecting from cellphone and internet.
The first loop of this journey was several weeks before, when I travelled to the Tankwa-Karoo National Park. This was a familiar landscape: I had been to AfrikaBurn (held on a neighbouring farm) twice before, and on both visits to this spectacular sensory experience had occasionally walked away into the quiet emptiness of the desert, seeking a brief reprieve from the bustle, the music, the dazzling lights and costumes.
The National Park is only about 300km from Cape Town. Progress to Ceres is swift, but from then on it’s onto the tyre-ripping gravel and stones of the R355. I had new tyres on my little 1-Series, but still went cautiously: there was no cell signal and few other motorists to help me if I got into trouble.
I signed in at the park’s offices, then drove up to the Elandsberg Wilderness Camp. Made with unbaked clay-and-straw bricks, my cottage was one of five crouched along a ridge. In front of them a plain unfurled, dotted with bushes and rocks, before ruffing up to mountains.
Once the car’s engine had stopped, the silence came: so overwhelming it made your ears ring, before softening as the wind rattled the big wooden front door.
I put the kettle on the gas hob (the only electrical appliance is the erratic solar-powered fridge) and yanked off the cover of the plunge pool. The water was silky and surprisingly cool, washing off the worst of a day on the road.
The memories of my time in the Tankwa melt into one another. On two of the nights the photographers for this story, David Crookes and his wife, Nicola, were staying over; we swopped stories and drank good wine by the fire as the night grew cold. We spent a day (thankfully in Crookes’s 4×4) exploring – heading up the Gannaga pass up onto the Roggeveld plateau to Middelpos, a town privately owned by the van der Westhuizen family. We had to wake up the son, sleeping in the depths of the otherwise-empty hotel, so that we could fill up with petrol.
On the way down the pass, we stopped for pictures, staring out the ancient rock plunging down into the valley below. There were no sign of animals; I longed to see a gemsbok (my favourite).
Then there is the day I spent alone, reading, writing in my journal, staring out at the mountains and the veld, watching the subtle gradations of texture and colour alter: the way the light flattened the landscape in the heat of the day; the gathering of definition as the afternoon deepened. There was the clicking of invisible insects, and little birds swooping in and out of the big open windows and drinking from the pool – constant companions with more energy and purpose than a Vogue intern on speed.
Night came slowly: the sky glowed interminably. First shades of pink and purple and blue, and then just brilliant blues, until black finally, the stars, millions of them brightening. Inside, once the Dietz storm lanterns were lit, flickers of light danced with shadows on the wall. It was difficult to read in this brassy haze, but that didn’t quite matter: the moment was enough.
Of course there are other memories – not of what is seen or heard, but what is felt – they flood in while I write now: the way time slowed, the space, the stretching of seconds and the way thoughts floated in and out.
I left early in the morning. Near the gate, to say farewell, was a gemsbok. He watched me, one horn fallen limply, and then bowed down to eat.
Back in the Sneeuberg, I’ve followed Steyn along a gravel track to Kliphuis, cursing myself (and my road-hugging car) each time I’ve had to go over a steep drainage hump (there are several).
There are some echoes of the Tankwa here: flat veld, and then mountains beyond, but these are closer and plumper, wrapping around loosely like a lover’s arm. Kliphuis, my home for another three nights, is a ruined farmhouse that has been transformed with great style and verve by Charlotte Daneel, the former owner of Grange Interiors, into a homely villa for visiting families.
Steyn lights me a fire in the lounge’s cavernous fireplace (one of several around the house) and promises to bring my dinner over a bit later. He shows me round the house. The rooms look as if they could appear in a décor magazine (which indeed they have), with their splashes of bright red, offset with greys and beige and a comfy jumble of sleek lines and antiques.
Again the days melt. My journal is lost now, but this I know: that I ran on both days – over plains where black wildebeest and eland watched and waited, before speeding away to a safer distance, stopping, once more, to watch me again. When I returned, I climbed into the bracingly cool pool – a rim of concrete encircling a mirror of clouds and sky.
The nights each had a fire; and homely fare brought in picnic baskets: roast farm chicken; gently spiced Karoo lamb stew; freshly baked bread; and the best malva pudding I’ve ever had. The mornings were surprisingly crisp, warming up to the upper twenties at lunchtime when I sat reading on the stoep at the boat-length table, or on one of the wicker chairs, watching the weaver birds swirling around nests bobbing in the willow tree.
On one of the mornings, Steyn took me to inspect the horses on another part of the farm, but otherwise I was left alone: more reading and writing and thinking. I was mostly content. Still – melancholy sometimes seeped in: with its camping chairs around the braai out front, and its long sofas and big kitchen, this was a house to be shared.
3G in Nieu Bethesda, 35 long gravel kilometres away, came as a shock. I spent a few hours answering emails at a coffee shop, wishing I really were on holiday, wishing I really were back at Kliphuis watching the sky change, and the poplars turn yellow. Real life, modern life had intruded once more, bursting its way onto my laptop screen with its demands for responses. Then I breathed, shut my laptop. It was OK. It was all going to be OK.
After a two nights in Graaff-Reinet, I was back searching for silence again, my city car licking up the tarred bliss of the N9. Maybe it was a hangover, or being on the move again, but I felt a little bit unsettled. As the road edged past Noupoort, the clouds, heavy and brooding, spat rain at the black specks surrounding a grave. Three kilometres away from Colesburg, I turned onto gravel, juddering past outbuildings, past sheep, over a cattle-grid. And there – at the foot of a koppie, a peach-coloured house, outbuildings, trees. I had reached Poplar Grove. Antony Osler came out to shake my hand, told me to drive round to the cottage next to the shed.
Osler is many things: a lawyer, a farmer, a former monk, and the author of Stoep Zen and Zen Dust. With exquisite poetry and gentle wisdom, these two books capture the rhythms of a life of living mindfully – a life of Zen – in the Karoo. He and his wife Margie have been hosting silent retreats at Poplar Grove since the late 1980s. Later, he will show me around – we’ll inspect the treehouse he built, the sculptures made of rusting implements, and the various cosy rooms to accommodate visitors, some of them carved into hillside. But in the meantime he heads off for an afternoon nap, leaving me to settle in.
I try to sleep too, but the wind is roaring through the poplars outside like an ocean battering an island, and I can’t. I go for a run – curving round the farmhouse, towards the grove of poplars. I scramble up a hill, bouncing from coppery boulder to boulder. This is Zen, I think: looking to make sure you do not trip. I look up: sheep stare back at me, horrified, swarming away.
We meet at the zendo – the meditation hall – at six. The rain has gone; the clouds have retreated; the sun is washing in through the window onto the golden wooden boards.
There are two others staying over tonight; the five of us sit cross-legged as Antony explains the meditation. He tells us to first focus on your body: noticing your buttocks on the floor, the length of your spine, your breath. Then he tells us to let our attention travel beyond the body, to the outer world: to the crackling of the roof as it cools; the whine of the windpump. If the mind wanders, if it becomes snagged on thoughts, he suggests bringing it back to focusing on the body, before travelling outwards once more.
That is all: it’s that simple. For a sublime half-hour we sit there, listening to the silence: listening to the tiny sounds that make up a tapestry we don’t normally hear.
Something has shifted. The drive’s fretting has faded, crumbling into calm. We sit on the stoep drinking whiskey, watching the sunlight blazing over the poplars, burnishing the koppie, then dying away. When it is dark, Margie lures us into the fragrant kitchen for ratatouille and steak. I sleep well that night.
After morning meditation, I make Osler a cup of tea. We sit down for a chat at the table on the cottage’s stoep.
“Silence never means an escape of any kind: it actually means quite the opposite – it means coming right into this moment fully and giving the moment a chance to speak for itself,” he explains. It is listening to wind in the trees; feeling the sun on your neck. Instead of simply being an absence of sound, “it’s really a kind of paying attention”.
A silent retreat – where much of the time is devoted to meditation – “is not a self-development course,” he emphasises. “We don’t come here to gain anything; we come here to let go and let things be – to find a very natural simplicity of each moment. And then we explore that; we almost develop the feeling of it in our nervous system; we develop a certain muscle of attention, almost.”
Away from the “quantity and variety of input” found in our urban lives, “a farm environment gives us a certain spaciousness and relief; it’s part of a natural balancing out of this life,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you don’t pay attention to things as if it’s some vacant space; it actually then takes you back into paying attention in a very concrete way, but still, there’s a softness and a spaciousness in the way you do it.”
By focusing on the present moment, spaciousness is created. “What I mean by spaciousness is that we’re not so dragged around by the habitual dramas that we have. Normally we get dragged around by our thoughts because we get caught in the content of the thought – the storyline or the argument.”
But this kind of “churning thinking” is unhelpful, he says. Meditation develops another, more open kind of thinking – by enhancing attention, “the thinking that happens then is profoundly efficient; it comes and goes and it doesn’t have a sticky, tacky quality about it.”
The thoughts tend to have greater clarity, and are “also more likely to be aware of the whole of the situation rather than just my role or reaction to it”.
This is obviously incredibly useful in highly active lives, in which “often great discernment and immediacy is required of us in the way we plan and decide”.
How can city slickers take back some of the Karoo silence into the urban realm, I ask. Meditation is one tool to use, he suggests because it helps you to pay attention; it helps you to give yourself fully to every moment – whether that be when chairing a board meeting, catching up with friends, or soaking in the bath. In being truly present, there is “a sense of spaciousness, appreciation and respect” for the people we encounter.
A few weeks later I head to Cape Town’s northern suburbs for an early-morning coffee with Jan Meintjies, a fund manager at SIM Unconstrained – a subsidiary of Sanlam Investment Management that looks after about R11 billion in assets, including the SIM Value Fund.
In 2006 he bought 2500 hectares of land 50km from Touws River – once part of large farm that had lain fallow since the early 1980s. There is no cellphone reception, no power. He has built a house, and – with the help of some friends – a shed.
“Once you’re there you’re totally isolated. And it actually feels as if you’re doubling up on time away.” A weekend feels like four days away, he tells me. “Time goes slowly. Very seldom are you forced to do something now – you can take it hour by hour. When you’re there you absolutely get back to basics; the things that concern you are water, the sun, the weather, the mountains, the plants. It is so basic as opposed to what we do in the city.”
He swipes through pictures on his iPad: there are flowers, paw-prints encrusted in mud; motion sensor cameras have captured aardwolf and leopard.
“When you’re there you can literally just sit and drink in the simplicity of it all,” he says, recalling being absorbed once, for a whole hour, as he watched Comet McNaught flaring its way across the night sky. “You’ve actually got the time to actually just enjoy it for what it is, because nothing else is that is taking up your attention.”
Going to this patch of the Karoo “clears the mind and it gives you the space [to think]”. Returning to work, he often finds he has a clearer – or different – perspective when approaching things.
I give psychologist Dr Helgo Schomer, a ring. Schomer, formerly a senior academic at the University of Cape Town, is a fierce proponent both of nature and exercise to combat stress and nourish mental wellbeing.
“We are surrounded with noise constantly now,” he says. When humans are deprived of one of the senses, the others become more acute, he says. Research about this phenomenon has led to the understanding that when you occasionally switch one of the senses off – when you stop bombarding it with stimuli – the others become more effective and the one that you’ve “switched off” recovers what Schomer calls “neural load” – brain capacity. The shedding of this neural load “is like a reset button”.
After silence, when you’re exposed to sound again, you listen with greater sensitivity: you absorb messages, nuances and detail more effectively, instead of being overwhelmed by constant noise.
Constant connection, he says, forces us to perform – it keeps us hooked into our primal fight or flee reflex. When we disconnect, there are fewer stress products such as cortisol and epinephrine being released into our brains. And so, while it can initially be disconcerting, unplugging facilitates calm.
“In a state of calmness, we have access to nine different information processing capacities per second instead of seven when we get anxious, five when we get panicky and one or two when we’re depressed,” he says.
Schomer says that neuroscience shows that “your brain functions best not under tense energy but under calm energy” – when you let your auditory, visual or touch senses recover by occasionally giving them a break from performing.
The Karoo landscape, he says, also allows us the space to reconnect with ourselves.
“In town, driving, on the cellphone or with your computer you don’t hear your own heartbeat, you don’t hear yourself breathe, you don’t feel yourself walk,” Schomer says. “In the Karoo you can go back to those natural slow rhythms of the self. That moment of less distraction allows all the senses to go to the core concerns of your being. You can focus much more on what is really essentially important and bothering you.”
Schomer says that for the time-pressed, a long weekend is the most ideal duration. He suggests planning in advance where you’re going and whom you’re going to stay with, so you don’t have to worry about these logistics.
Take some natural vegetation with you when you return home and let it dry out. Before you go to bed, inhale from it with your eyes closed, and visualise the landscape you’ve recently experienced. “That immediately brings the stress relief to the brain,” he says.
So what about me – Test Case A? How do I feel after these recent Karoo sojourns? Pretty darn good, actually.
2015, so far, has been among the busiest, most complicated, complex periods of my life. And yet it’s also been among the happiest and least anxious. Which isn’t too say I don’t get the occasional spasm of worry – it’s just that I’m no longer overwhelmed by it; I’m not held hostage by stress; I seem to be able to step back from it, to focus on what really matters and to not hold too tightly onto things that don’t.
A few days in the Karoo has done all that? Well, not quite. But its quietness has taught me: it has helped me commit to searching for silence in my everyday urban life. It requires dedication and time – but it’s there if you make the effort. I find it when I’m pounding up the slopes of Signal Hill, or swimming in Sea Point pool or when I’m meditating on my bed each morning. This silence has increased my “muscle of attention”, making me more present – or, as Osler would say, better able to give myself up to each moment so that I’m able live life as richly as I can.
At Poplar Grove, self-catering accommodation is available to guests throughout the year; silent retreats are held several times a year. Osler’s three books – Stoep Zest, Zen Dust and the newly released Mzansi Zen – are all published by Jacana.