At the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the welcome committee is out in full force as we arrive and slowly drive along the dry Auob riverbed. We spot ostriches, herds of gemsbok and wildebeest and a bustling family of meerkats. Under a camel thorn, a black-maned lion rests and looks rather unimpressed by his newest guests.
Fortunately, the two !Xaus Lodge employees who meet us at Kumqua picnic site are much friendlier. They show us where to park our car, and we jump into their open-air game viewing vehicle.
We bounce and glide interminably along a strip of coppery sand, slicing through shimmering waves of grass-covered dunes. Splotches of cloud shift across the burnished sky. I feel drowsy. Relaxed.
Our cell signals disappear. !Xaus has no Wi-Fi and the lodge has only a satellite phone. The whole world suddenly feels a universe away.
Our digs — one of 12 thatched, earthen chalets dotted along a boardwalk — are simple and comfortable, with a deck looking out onto the terracotta-coloured pan where a distant red hartebeest idles.
I drink a Windhoek by the pool, a growing sense of gratitude replacing the shock of disconnection. I am grateful to be under the vast, darkening sky, surrounded by silence and stillness. I am grateful, too, to be witnessing the tentative signs of redress and rebirth (following decades of dispossession and persecution) that !Xaus embodies. Meaning "heart" in Nama, !Xaus sits at the meeting point of the two blocks of land awarded in 2002 to the ‡Khomani San and Mier peoples — descendants of people kicked out of the park.
The 50,000ha area still falls within the park’s boundaries, with SANParks responsible for its environmental management. The lodge is jointly owned by both communities (who supply the bulk of its staff); they receive a turnover-based rental from Transfrontier Parks Destinations, which manages it on their behalf.
The next morning, we take a short game drive to a sandy ridge. "We are in lion territory," warns our San guide, Kallie Swarts, whose late parents were both trackers.
He says we should also keep an eye out for a puff adder or Cape cobra that might be hiding in the nearby grass.
"We use the dune as our newspaper," he explains — the sand reveals which animals have come past in the night. He points out the Kori bustard’s huge claws, the overlapping back and front footprints of a caracal and the butterfly print of a spring hare’s hind legs. Swarts picks up a spiky gemsbok cucumber, which appears after the rains. The San cook it with sugar or salt and pepper. He finds us another water-rich fruit, the tsama melon, which he says can live for up to two years, remaining fresh on the inside.
After breakfast, Swarts takes us on a walk. He points out long-legged bushman grass — one of the few perennial grasses in the desert and much loved by gemsbok. There are three-thorn shrubs, which are used by the San in a concoction to cure stomach ache; the branches are also used to make walking canes or stirring sticks. A cloud of red-headed finches gusts out of a shepherd’s tree as we march past in single file. Ants scurry across the sand, collecting seeds.
Next to the pan, Swarts traces a circle around the tracks made the previous day by a male lion.
At the craft village, ‡Khomani San men, women and children hunch around a fire, making jewellery. Initially I cringe. The little village is a nostalgic pastiche of a mostly extinguished way of life, the crafters’ traditional attire (rarely worn today) a way of indulging tourists’ romantic fantasies of San life.
Then I think again. Living on the fringes of the park in desolate settlements, the Khomani working here come for a few weeks at a time to practise their craft.
They have so little, and without this opportunity to earn an income (which in nine years has earned the community almost R900,000), they would have even less.
Pastiche it may be, but this craft village is also an economic lifeline to a community sorely in need of one and a way of keeping age-old skills alive. And what skills! I’m moved by how beautiful everything is — the bracelets, necklaces and key rings made with materials gathered from the desert.
Ostrich shell shards and fire-roasted seeds have been transformed into beads (dark ones from tsama; green and yellow ones from gemsbok cucumber). Springbok and gemsbok bones are incorporated into the designs too.
Back at the lodge, the afternoon melts away in a daze of reading, writing and thinking. On our game drive that evening, metallic clouds swell overhead. Rain is smudging the horizon, singed by lightning.
A pair of black-backed jackals saunter across a pan; a lonely gemsbok munches grass; a kori bustard, Africa’s largest flying bird, stumbles into the air.
Rain — at first sporadic, then a furious spatter — comes down as we sip gin and tonic.
We speed back to the lodge like a boat at sea, rattling and straining as the wind and rain lash against us.
The blue sky returns the next day. As we skirt pans and sail over dunes, we see precious few animals, but that really doesn’t matter — we are luxuriating in space, in silence, in the complete absence of the manmade for as far as the eye allows one to see.
And there you have it.
You don’t come to !Xaus for its hit-and-miss cuisine, temperamental showers, or if you’re hoping to see a lion around every corner.
You come here to slow down, to step into the present moment, to discover the secrets of a tenacious ecosystem bristling with life, despite its incredibly harsh setting.
You come here for the stars — a glistening nocturnal tapestry — and the sense of smallness and connectedness that such a sight evokes in one.
After check-out — as we drive towards the park entrance at Twee Rivieren, towards cell signals, towards reality — I realise something has shifted. I feel different — recalibrated, reinvigorated.
"The pure stillness of a pause forms the background that lets the foreground take shape with clarity and freshness," writes clinical psychologist Tara Brach in her exquisite book, Radical Acceptance.
"In the midst of a pause, we are giving room and attention to the life that is always streaming through us, the life that is habitually overlooked."
And what a powerful pause it is. !Xaus Lodge allowed me to do just that.