7 March 2008

CAMPFIRES … primitive peoples use them as a means of survival; heating, cooking and fending off potentially dangerous animals. Modern man makes use of a campfire for the odd bit of enjoyment; a weekend braai or winter warmth accompanied with a glass of red wine. I prefer to think of them as a way to interact with people from all walks of life. Unlike other public places where groups of people socialize, a complete stranger will be accepted in the hospitality of the flames. It is in such warm environments that I have met some indescribably interesting people who have left a lifelong impression on me. However, due to a desire I have to share with others just how beautiful a moment can be, I shall attempt to expand on a few of these personalities and occasions.

I began reminiscing a few minutes ago when I made myself a cup of tea from the last of the tea leaves in my camping box. Now, this is not just any tea … it was given to me by a particularly eccentric character I met around a campfire one memorable night while living in Namibia. I realized that I have met some of the most interesting people around the fire. One in particular happens to be this gentleman, Fredrik. I had heard about him from some colleagues and his peculiar reputation intrigued me. Being a vegetarian, almost unheard of in a meat-eating society, he travels around with a huge basket full of fresh fruit and vegetables in the back of his Land Rover. Apparently, his vehicle can be easily identified in the desert by the trail of fruit-flies in his wake, not the average dust cloud which follows others. Having spent an evening in his company around the campfire at Puros, north-west Namibia, I feel privileged to have met him. Not only because he gave me a container of his tea concoction, but because he has the ability to give off part of his endless energy, to enlighten all who listen to the wonders of nature and to make one realize how grateful we should be for this gift of life.

It was by accident that Fredrik ended up camping with us that night. The Hoarusib River near Puros had been in flood for a few days, obstructing the track which ran through the normally dry river bed. The options during the rainy season are to attempt a river crossing further upstream, which took a few days due to the route, or to wait in the hope that the water would subside to a crossable level. After the excitement of someone getting stuck in the river and almost having their vehicle washed away with the current, Frederick decided to wait it out. His Land Rover, along with another two heavy-weight vehicles, came in handy for the rescue operation which took place to pull the submerged 4X4 from the muddy torrent. The fruit-flies, however, missed the whole show as the basket had been offloaded before the action began.

Once everyone and all vehicles were safe, we retired to the campsite alongside the river. Under the cover of Acacias we made a fire and the kettle was immediately placed next to a cozy flame. Before thoughts about what tin should be opened to flavour the staple pap, Frederik was fluttering about the fire place with a one litre tin mug. I approached the fire, my own humble-sized mug in hand, and asked if the water was boiling; to which he tossed a teaspoon of what looked like dried herbs and sticks into my mug, topped it up with steaming water from the spout of a singing kettle, and smiled a triumphant voila. This, he informed me, was his own brew made from different local plants and spices. I sipped the flavoured water through gritted teeth to sieve the insoluble pieces floating around in my mug, of which there were many. I was skeptical, but first impressions aside, it was one of the most delicious warm beverages I have tasted to this day (and this is coming from someone with an adventurous pallet).

The star-filled evening continued until eyes had to be rested. We had touched on topics which were beyond one’s average campfire conversations. Every time Frederik spoke, even if he was voicing a humble opinion, his audience was captivated by his enthusiasm and passion. The tea leaves never quite settled on the firmness of the mug bottom as mugs were continuously being topped up. If I were that kettle I would have taken a well deserved retirement package after the tea-soaked conversations we enjoyed. I finally had to lay my mug to rest after I had stayed up long after the others gazing at the remaining glow of the fire, content.

The river had subsided during the night, making it passable for 4X4 vehicles. Frederik was off at first light, taking his loveable ambiance and basket of fruit-flies with him. I was not to see him again, but he had left me an old jam bottle filled to the brim with his tea. Even as the last of my tea supply dies, the memory of that night around the campfire will live on.

On a more primeval encounter, there have been the many faces and names I cannot pronounce of the Himba people whose fires I have shared in north-west Namibia. Not being able to communicate on a verbal level presented an interesting challenge, one which embellished humility upon my life.