by Tobias Thornes
It was with some regret that I set out again to sea, and left the magical island and its comforting solidarity in exchange for days and nights sliding across the empty waves. This time, though, my journey was to be much shorter than before, and it wasn’t long I had to wait for the hazy coast of Africa proper to shimmer onto my horizon, bright and new, and slowly but surely to magnify from tentative image to undeniable reality. So I came, at length, to the continent from which we all descended, to the mysterious land that caps the Old World’s southern tip, to the sweltering sun-baked coast of South Africa.
I didn’t stay long in the port of Durban, whose ugly urban architecture, archetypical of the modern age, I need not describe again to you who have heard me complain of so many similar cities. Africa’s most advanced railway network soon had me chugging away from the shore, content not to see the sea again for a little while. And the prospect of almost an entire continent unexplored lured me onwards, not so much into the ‘Heart of Darkness’ as into the heart of the human story, with all its beauty and all its painful weaknesses. For if there was an Eden, was it not here? If once there was perfection in human existence, did it not sound as a note amidst the harmony of these other wonders of Nature, the first to be named? Such was the promise of Africa, whose southernmost slopes now slid past my window, whose roads and rails could carry me to so many cultures and peoples of whom I knew not. The way home lay over a land less familiar to me than any other, about as far from England as it is possible to be and yet stamped with marks of British interference almost everywhere I looked.
Before heading north, I turned south, briefly, to cross a wide open veldt that hosted animals I’d only imagined, through diverse districts of peoples, each with their own tongues and traditions. The joy of Slow Travel was that I could see them all, albeit briefly. The cities may have been westernised, or more accurately colonised by capitalism, but the rural parts still hosted many traditional dwellers. A large proportion of the country’s twenty percent who didn’t profess to be Christian could be found here, still holding to their ancient beliefs, born out of the very soil of Africa, and I saw them enact their rituals, spilling the blood of animals to bring ancestral blessings. Such practices saddened me, certainly, but could I really claim the right to contradict a way of life and system of beliefs that had evolved here over the course of ten thousand years? At least these people were thankful for and careful with their meat, which was alas the mainstay of most South African meals, unlike those in the modern towns where it was an off-the-shelf commodity given little thought. To these people it was precious, to be eaten sparingly alongside grains and wild nuts and fruits. And it was not in the traditional villages that an imminent water shortage was big news, where water has always been gratefully received and carefully managed, but in Cape Town where rumours that the taps might run dry had sent the owners of golf courses, luxury swimming pools and flushing toilets into a panic.
There was one place in particular I could not resist visiting, though it took some time to find somebody able to take me there. The Karoo plains hosted little life and few, scattered farms, high in the north-west and as far away from the noise and the lights of the city as one could be on dry land. There the days are scorching, and nights can be bitter cold, not blanketed by cloud. There I found an utter peace, natural and primordial, in the silent evening beneath the waking stars. And there they shone, not spoiled in their celestial show by any foul orange oozes that mankind spills over other skies. No computers, no confounded machinations such as mobile telephones or petrol cars could be brought there: nothing that could disturb the inky blackness, the utter silence in which it was possible to listen and to dream – and to hear even the whispers of unseen distant worlds, with the right equipment.
This was the South African part of the Square Kilometre Array, a huge expanse of radio receivers split across the Southern Hemisphere, and intended to tune in eventually to signals fifty times less powerful that any other radio telescope could detect. Looking for life in the void beyond the heavens; peering out from one of the most lifeless expanses on Earth. When I saw it, the telescope wasn’t yet complete, and I admit to mixed emotions regarding its construction. This was a project to pile nearly two hundred huge metal dishes into an area that had known the quiet of endless ages, and in the process would inevitably endanger the habitat of those few species that did still there wander through the dark. Radio quiet seemed refreshing indeed in those days when all the world was filling up with noise and endless gossip charging back and forth along invisible channels that one could not escape. But it was being imposed so that this telescope, when operational, could gather more information per second than that carried by all the traffic of the world wide web, stored on supercomputers sitting isolated in their underground Faraday cages and gobbling up megawatts of power in a country that still derived four-fifths of its energy from coal.
The local people, though perhaps they’d benefited from a little extra science funding in their schools, expressed worries about the collapse of the agriculture that clung on amidst the sparsity and the cutting off of their communities from global communications networks. The government-endorsed land-grab from white sheep farmers was painfully reminiscent of the policies of post-colonial Zimbabwe nearby. The nub of the matter for me was this though, speaking as a physicist and one-time astronomer myself: was listening so carefully to the stars for answers to the big questions posed by theoreticians and philosophers in their steel towers far away really worth invading this huge expanse of unique countryside? We’ve only got one Earth, as we all so bitterly know now. Why waste all its resources looking up for something else?
Yet I must admit that the astronomers’ impact was like the erecting of a mole-hill next to a mountain when set against the damage done by other big colonialist industries in Africa. It began with the Europeans and their ‘enlightened’ culture; it hadn’t gone away with the arrival of the capitalist empire. The raping of Africa for its jewels went on apace in South Africa, still more so than in Madagascar: here iron, coal, gold and diamonds were being ripped in vast quantities from deep and dangerous mines where only the poorest in their desperation risked their lives to labour. And what for, all this plunder? Only trinkets and trivialities next to Nature’s universally unmatchable splendour.