Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews
Image: Karl Rogers

Not long after my arrival at !Xaus, a lodge in a remote corner of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, I discovered there was no cellphone or internet coverage. The idea of being truly disconnected for the next three days initially filled me with alarm — because I hadn’t been forewarned, I felt woefully unprepared. The most I could do was call a loved one on the lodge’s satellite phone to say I would be in touch again only when I was back in signal range.

Once I had made that call I was on my own. The discomfort gradually faded, and the ensuing digital silence ushered in a glorious calm. Goodness knows, I needed it. My preceding weeks were packed full of meetings, catch-ups with friends, research, and travel, lots of travel — Maputo, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Kruger. Here, in the Kalahari, aside from the odd bumpy game drive over golden, grass-covered dunes, I was still.

The churn of travel, the rhythm and noise of urban life, the constant checking of my phone, and the deluge of information that the internet supplies had all shrunk my attention span. In spite of daily meditation and exercise, my focus in recent weeks had been flighty and fickle. This was most apparent in my reading — of course, I was reading all the time (messages, emails, articles), but things that required greater concentration often got side-lined. I went to bed too tired; I’d watch something silly on Showmax instead of picking up a book. Progress on the book I was reading — Bill Nasson’s brilliant History Matters — had become painfully slow. This certainly wasn’t a reflection on his prose (which offers vibrant and cuttingly humorous reflections on South African history), but rather indicative of my own overwhelmed, over-stimulated incapacity to appreciate it.

The Kalahari has been a way of hitting the reading reset button. The sharp reduction of stimuli meant much less distraction. I began reading What Dawid Knew, Patricia Glyn’s account of travelling with Dawid Kruiper, the late Khomani San leader, through the park in search of various heritage sites. The book had a particular resonance: !Xaus is owned by the Khomani and Mier communities, who both had part of the park returned to them in a 1999 land claim (SANParks still manages this land for conservation purposes).

As I read, there was no pinging phone to disturb me. I couldn’t google something I wanted to learn more about — and risk descending into the internet rabbit hole, where, jumping from link to link, one can lose hours.

I found myself riveted. Not only is Glyn’s book powerfully evocative, skilfully capturing some of the contrasts and contradictions, the pain and perseverance of one of the most persecuted — and, paradoxically, most researched — peoples on the planet, but I was in a place where I could actually appreciate the book, where I could properly soak it up. While I loved being out with Kallie Swarts, our guide, discovering tracks made by all manner of animals the night before, or skirting a jackal-studded pan under an ocean of sky, I also found myself looking forward to bedtime, or the free hours before and after lunch, when I could read. And this reading, in the absence of distraction, came easily, the pages turning quickly.

Antony Osler, who along with his wife Margie runs silent meditation retreats at Poplar Grove farm near Colesberg, describes us as having a “muscle of attention”. The longer we spend in manic urban environments, the more it tends to weaken; a way of strengthening it is to be immersed in environments where, Osler says, there’s a certain spaciousness and relief. “What I mean by spaciousness is that we’re not so dragged around by the habitual dramas that we have,” he told me. “Normally we get dragged around by our thoughts.”

This very much applies to reading. It’s difficult to read a book when you’ve just looked at a surly email from Cathy in accounts, or you’re thinking about the items you forgot to put on your shopping list, or trying to remember whether you put the bins out for rubbish collection. Spending time in a place of quiet, of emptiness, doesn’t make those urban trivialities disappear, but it can help us relate to them in a different way. It can inspire us to create our own moments of silence, so we can read in a fuller and more conscious way, strengthening that muscle of attention, so that we become “reading fit”. The first step could be as simple as switching your phone off for an hour.

In the age of fake news and viral videos, where so much of what we read (typically online or on our phones) is superfluous and insubstantial, reading books is more important than ever. Whether fact or fiction, books are bridges to deeper understanding, to vibrant reimagining, to connecting with ideas and people and situations that could be far removed from our own. To live on autopilot, too distracted to absorb the richness they offer, is to deprive ourselves of the opportunity to connect with others, to travel beyond ourselves.

I’m back in the land of 3G now, but since I’ve left !Xaus, I’ve managed, so far, to carry a bit of it with me. The silence and spaciousness is there. So is the desire for a few more pages of What Dawid Knew before bedtime. The Kalahari gave me the most majestic gemsboks, the most exquisite sunsets, the most dazzling stars. I’m grateful that it gave reading back to me too.

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