12 July 2009

Take your 40 grand a year and shove it...

We are camped in a small gully, the low rock walls shelter us from the wind. The fire is providing heat for the blackened cast iron poki-pot that contains our supper and for us as the sun dips below the hills. All around the barren desert terrain takes on a gentle reddish glow as bright daylight passes quickly to dark night. Nige stokes the fire and sips his beer while discussing the merits of various gritstone E3s (climbing routes in north England). This is how we have spent most of our evening for the last two months. This is field week in northern Namibia, one of the most remote places on earth.

But tonight is different, because just as we settle into our evening routine a convoy of 4x4's comes over the horizon. These are the first people we had encountered in the field since we got here. We had sort of known that they were coming, but this is the days before mobile and satellite phones and there is no email. When you went to the field – you cut yourself off from everything and then emerged a couple of months later with notebooks filled with data. So we knew a group might turn but had no idea where or when.

The trip is from an oil company called Enterprise and was being lead by Dougal. Dougal had been with us since we first started working in Namibia and knows this area as well as we do. His entourage however had no place being outside an office in London. We greet them and they eye us suspiciously. We were suddenly aware of our appearance. Wearing the same clothes for 2 months, with no water to wash anything more than your teeth can make one look a bit rough and when you both smell as bad as each other, you don’t tend to notice.

As soon as the group disappeared to set up there tents Dougal lets out a tirade about how useless they were, how they drive at 10 mph on the dirt roads and how the moaned about camping. Moaned about camping! They had tents, which we never used – it doesn’t rain, why would you need a tent? They also had a cook, fresh meat, loads of water and they are only out for three nights.

A bit later they joined us by the fire and one particularly obnoxious individual sat next to me and in a loud, public school voice attempted to socialize
“So how long have you chaps been out here?”
“About two months”
“My Gawd! Bet your looking forward to getting home”
“Not really, I am quite happy here” I say, while I am thinking, what a wanker, this is one of the most amazing places on earth and he’s more worried about missing the pub on Sunday and the squash club.
“Is it just the two of you? You must be getting on each other nerves a bit”
“Actually no, we get on just fine” which was true.
“So your doing a PhD then”
“Nope, I am a lecturer and he’s a post-doc”
“Blimey!” He blustered and then continued, “I thought about being an academic but the pay was so crap! What do you earn?
I have heard similar statements before and I am always amazed by the arrogance of someone who thinks being an academic is an easy option...
“About 16 grand a year” I reply reluctantly
“Sixteen grand! That’s terrible, I earn 40,000 pounds a year”
“Good for you” I saw as I get up and go to tend the fire and make sure I don’t go back.

Fuck me, being sociable is hard work after so long in the desert. I go to chat to Paul, their cook. Paul lost a leg to a land mine in Angola, he is a good guy who understands the desert. He sees the ostrich egg bead in my earring, picked up by a 2000 year old fire place in a cave high on a mountainside and we compare notes on various San sites we have found.

We camp with them for two nights. They are not all as obnoxious as Mr 40-grand-a-year, but they are out of their depth. They fail to appreciate the beauty of the desert, focusing only on the discomfort of the spiky bushes, the dust in the food and the problems of shitting outdoors. One girl throws her socks into the bin and Paul tells me she has done that every morning. I later catch Nige, picking the socks out of the rubbish because they are so much cleaner than the pair he is wearing.

And then as quickly as they arrived, they are gone. Back to their idea of civilization, and its just Nige and I in our little camp spot. It’s wonderfully serene. While Nige cooks supper, I climb up the large volcanic plug behind the camp. Scrambling over the sharp jagged rocks is therapeutic and I focus on moving faster and faster as I race the sunset. Just below the summit I find a comfortable spot, out of the cold wind and settle down to take some photographs. As the sun starts to dip below the horizon the sky erupts into a wall of red and the entire Etendeka Plateau is bathed in it's fiery warm light. I can see for hundreds of miles and I am pretty certain that there is not another living person anywhere within my field of view. I drink the silence and contemplate what it all means.

Such sunsets are not unusual and the scenery is the same as it has been for the last two months, but tonight it’s impact is improved by the absence of our recent visitors. I smile as I think to myself, “Fuck you! Take your 40 grand a year and shove it up your arse! This is worth so much more than that and the best thing is, you’re too stupid to actually realize that". I also know at the point that I love my life, I love the places it has taken me, I love what I do and I am immensly happy. I appreciate that 3 months sleeping outside in a remote desert is not everyones idea of fun, but I swear I won't let my life change too much as I get older.

I told this story to a few friends and Gareth, who actually worked for Enterprise was able to tell me who the guy was. One time a couple of years later I called Gareth at work and he said, guess who I am sitting next to? I had no idea, even when he said Steve Kenyon-Smyth, I didn’t recognize the name. When he explained it was Mr 40-grand-a-year, I asked how he was.

Fat with two kids – Gareth replied, and that was enough.

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