SOUTHWEST NAMIBIA, 2013
Dietrich Nash tugged at the collar of his wilted shirt as a bead of sweat swam down his spine. The perspiration on his face was beginning to smear with red dust kicked up from the wheels of the jeep. The vehicle’s chassis creaked and groaned as its battered tires leapt across the grassless plains. On the sun-bleached dash, a tangle of cables, wires, and keys thrashed wildly, and Dietrich wondered with passing curiosity what might happen were their vehicle’s engine to fail here, nearly forty kilometers from the nearest town, far from the reaches of cell towers and civilization.
On the wobbling GPS unit lodged between their seats, they were no more than an insignificant red triangle swimming in a sea of featureless beige. No marked roads, no railways. Not even a gas station. A solitary blue thread winded somewhere to their south to signify the existence of a river, but Dietrich knew better; it was presently nothing more than a shallow trench of rock and sand, dried out long ago by a dam a few hundred kilometers to the north. He took a swig of tepid water from a plastic canteen and thought it tasted dusty but sweet.
“We need to fill the tank,” the driver roared over the engine. His name was Adani Ratief, a government worker from the Namibian capital who’d been selected to act as Dietrich’s escort.
“Geen probleem,” Dietrich said with an easy smile as the engine fell silent and the jeep came to rest in a cloud of dust. The driver raised an eyebrow and returned an amused look.
“It is seldom I hear a white man speak Afrikaans,” Adani said as he got out of the jeep and lifted a petrol can to the side of the vehicle, the empty tank gulping the fuel down greedily. Dietrich gave a modest nod and grinned, but offered nothing more.
“Tell me more about the colony,” he said, his gaze stretching back over the dunes at their back. Glassy curtains of heat swayed from the sand, creating shimmering pools.
“Bismarck, you mean? It is not so much of a colony nowadays. Once the mines dried up, the town vanished.”
“No one stayed behind? No businesses? No residents? Land owners?”
“No. All gone,” said the driver with a sweeping gesture. “You will understand when you see the place. There is simply nothing there. It is as dead as a bone.”
“And how long has it been like that?”
“Oh, I would say four, maybe five years. That’s when the last of the Chinese freighters left Elizabeth Bay.”
“Ja, the entire mining operation was run by the Chinese, part of a huge corporation. I do not remember the name. They purchased the mines from the Germans, who took it from the Dutch. It would seem that everyone but the Africans themselves have had a turn owning this land,” Adani remarked, lifting his chin into the air with a hearty laugh, though Dietrich thought he heard bitterness. “The Chinese probably did more for the land than any of the others before them, though. They laid the railways through the desert and the mountains all the way to the coast. Dug wells, built roads and dams…”
“And then left,” said Dietrich with a sardonic look at the man next to him, who shrugged in response.
“No one expected them to stay. They only wanted the resources deep in the earth, and in return promised to build the infrastructure the area needed. They were good on their word,” said the driver with a wag of his finger for emphasis. Dietrich nodded silently.
“So tell me, Mr. Nash, why are you interested in this land?”
“I just want to have a look. After I see it I’ll be able to determine how interested I am.”
“Yes, I suppose you will. Perhaps you will find some value from it yet. But to the eyes of a simple man like me, there is nothing here but rock and sand and death. The land has been plundered beyond healing, I’m afraid.”
“It’s a nasty habit of man, isn’t it?”
The driver nodded, the pain in his expression clear and striking. “Nearly all of Southern Africa is the same. If you were to see it from a bird’s eye, it would look as barren as the face of the moon.” Dietrich nodded in acknowledgement as a doleful look seeped into Adani’s expression. He dabbed a line of sweat from his forehead with the back of his sleeve and capped the gas tank.
“Rest assured, friend, I’m not here to bring any more harm to the land or to its people. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
The driver strapped the emptied fuel can to the back of the jeep and glanced curiously at his passenger, who grinned calmly at the dunes, and wondered.