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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

One Night I Drive Across the Karoo with a Girl

Two kids, really teens, we make our way south from Johannesburg, Jo’burg, eGoli, City of Gold, south past Bloemfontein, south along the N-1, the destination is Cape Town. I don’t remember why. ‘Why’ is not that important when you're 18. We have a car, an old Morris-Minor station wagon. We have guitars. We have a tube of Smarties candy. What else do you need on a drive through the Karoo?

The drive is the point. I’m still young, but the years ahead always deliver the same desire. I want to move. I want to drive. I want to see things.

The seeing things becomes an addiction, become the whole point. I take a job if it promises seeing things. It doesn’t matter if the work is drudgery. The work is secondary. I travel to places.

It goes farther as I grow older. The travel itself is the charge. If my flight is at ten, I arrive at six. Sitting on airport concourses and watching people walk by is a purpose, a fulfillment.

That is all in front of me, but here, in this little car, with this girl, the thrill of movement.

We play a game. How long can you take to eat a single Smartie? Not long. But it’s a distraction.

The road ahead is straight. The car plods along at fifty. Fifty will do it. And it never bothers me to move through the world. There’s always an expectation of a new thing, a new vista, a new stranger to pass.

The girl next to me is a friend. She likes the adventure.

Freedom for teenagers is a road and no place to go. It feels that way.

Africa is an empty road. Once you leave the cities there are vast plains to the west, mountains to the east. The road cuts a line across the edge of the Karoo.

There are herds of springbok in the desert, gemsbok, zebra, jackal, ostriches, even lions. We see none of that. The sun sets and we drive on.

I feel the spirit of things in Africa. The world is alive in ways I’ve felt no place else. The night sky over the desert is a galaxy. I roll down the window. The air is sharp, tastes like tiny crystals, races into my lungs. There’s life out there. Eyes watch us as we pass.

The headlights of the car are aged, dim light on the road ahead. Only the occasional car passes. We’re alone on the humming tarmac, but by the side road, eyes, creatures, spirits, ghosts.

Drive through the night. That’s the choice. I settle back in the seat, keep a light touch on the wheel, try to position my foot so it doesn't cramp. The white line of the road is a trance. The steady percussion of cylinders.

She tries the radio. Bursts of static. She works her way slowly across the dial. We get a wisp of township. Two guitars in melody, a Zulu woman singing, then it fades aways. More static, then a hint of country music, a steel guitar. Then nothing. Left to right, an empty radio band.

In the distance, I see several lights. Who lives out here in the darkness? What does life become when your days are in this vast, empty desert?

I’ve lived traveling through the world since I was a child. Born to wanderlust. Captive to experience. My mother called me her golden child. My parents gave me gifts. Freedom to think, to choose, to follow my heart. I look back now at a lifetime of following my heart.

I turned my Catholic upbringing into an acceptance of spirit no matter how it appears. I feel it in the air. I sense sacred places, or I create a sacredness in places. I don’t know which. Sometimes it drives me to my knees. Buddha, Christ, a bush shaman, it’s all the same to me.

I write acres of poetry on this quest. I have boxes for it. Sometimes I leaf through the verses. It surprises me how deep it drove me to go after things from such an early age.

She asks me do I believe in reincarnation? It’s a long drive through the desert. Our conversation stretches across the miles. I tell her about Mozart. How does a child come to us with such gifts in hand? Reincarnation is one explanation that works for me. Mozart arrived after perfecting his skills in another life, so his genius is not unique, but a result of a prior lifetime of practice.

I can’t figure it out any other way. It makes no sense a child could arrive and begin immediately crafting melodies for the ages. Mozart left the world at thirty-five years old. He simply arrives, burns hot, and goes. We’re left to understand. And there’s no understanding.

She mentions Shakespeare. Her theory is Shakespeare was more than a single person. How could a single person write so many words? There’s genius, I say, don’t discount genius. She asks do I think genius is a gift from God? I never see God as an entity that bothers with our affairs. Reincarnation makes more sense to me. Like God set up this giant existential engine then went off on a trek across the universe.

Like we’re driving across the Karoo, she says.


I pull the car over to the shoulder. We get out to walk across the stars. That’s the way it feels in the desert sometimes. We follow my lantern along a path until we come to a boulder and scramble to the top.

I feel something fly past my head.

Are we safe out here? I ask.

She’s a child of Africa. She knows things about the bush, the ways and the mores. I’m from the Bronx.

That’s a devil bat, probably, she says. They’ll miss you as long as you don’t move your head too fast.

I lock my head down tight.

I put my arm around her shoulders and pull her toward me. We stare out into a darkness lit by stars.

Back in the car, we put the seat down and climb through the rear door. It’s tight. If we leave the rear door open we can stretch out, but the dark has spooked me. My feet hanging outside the car are too much. Africa. Something might come and eat me. I can’t get it out of my head. Maybe a snake crawls onto the roof and drops on my feet. I reach down and pull the door shut. No cars pass.

This girl has been my friend forever. Just that. Friends. It’s hot inside our little car. I reach across and kiss her. I’m a shy boy. It’s a hesitant kiss. I’m ready to bolt at the first sign of resistance. Her mouth is soft. My hand trails down her neck, brushes her breasts, small breasts, farther down between her legs, slips beneath her panties. She is wet and welcomes me.

This is all new to me. I examine her and she seems willing to let my eyes, my touch, take her in. I ask her to show me her mons, to place my hand there, and slowly she rises under my touch, grasping in the air for something, asking, seeking. We are young, not practiced lovers, and awkward. The years between us as friends rush away and lead us to a new place where we devour our bodies.

I wake with her scent flowing over me. I slip out the back door and stand by the road and piss. I can see a soft light edge over the mountain peaks in the distance. Dawn is coming.

I slip behind the wheel and drive. I float along the desert road. The map tells me we’re about 250 miles from the Cape. We could be there in the afternoon if we make good time.

To the west is a range of mountains heading due south. Their peaks are round, in good order as they march toward the sea.

A streak of bright green, almost fluorescent light, streaks down the range. I’m not sure I even saw the light, but it was intense, causing me to flinch. One flashing streak along the peaks and it’s gone.

As I drive, she crawls over the front seat and drops down beside me. Things have changed between us, but it’s a welcome change.

I’m hungry, she says. She peers through the windshield. Up ahead she sees a light by the road.

Is that a cafe? We could stop and get breakfast.

I agree. I’m starving.

As we get close, we see it’s not a cafe, but a fire. My first thought is someone is camping and made a fire. As we get closer, we see it’s not a bonfire but a car on fire. We haven’t seen a car in hours. Nothing in either direction. I slow down as we pass. The car engulfed in flame. I can see there’s no one inside, just the blaze and a trail of acrid smoke. Most of the interior burned away, black metal frame edged in yellow and red spark.

I don’t stop.

Should we stop? I ask.

There’s no one around, she says.

How can that be? A car burning here in the desert with no one around.

I don’t know. Keep driving, she says.

I hear the edge in her voice. It doesn’t matter. I had no intention of stopping. I watch the burning car fall behind in my rear-view mirror; the flames curl around the frame, become smaller as we pull away.

The road is straight and flat and I check my mirror every few seconds until the burning car is out of sight.


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