Story - N14 to Olifantshoek
Updated: Jan 26
The N14 into Olifantshoek is the longest segment of straight roadway in South Africa - 100 kilometers of laser-straight, single-lane highway. On the north side of the road, the Kalahari rolls away to the horizon. Anywhere on that 100-kilometer strip, you could aim your camera in any direction and snap a postcard-perfect image of its diminutive, parched trees dotting the grassy plain. To the south, the same landscape stretches to just shy of infinity – the grass and trees fade into the feet of the Lange mountains, so distant they look more like storm clouds than a geologic feature.
I had set out to reach Vryburg before dark, but I had at least 50 kilometers to go until Olifantshoek and already the shadow of my bakkie spilled across the opposite lane and flickered on the grassy shoulder. If I was lucky, I'd make it to Kuruman before I lost the light. Because of my haste, when I first saw the Hunger, three kilometers ahead of me, my first reaction was annoyance – whatever was happening on the road was no-doubt going to cause further delay.
From three kilometers back, I could tell something was in the road. Another two kilometers and the indistinct blob resolved itself into a mess of cars, backed up in both directions and parked on the shoulders. Some vehicles were completely off the road, in the scrub. Was it an accident? A sobriety checkpoint?
I got closer still and saw that it was neither. No flashing lights. No orange triangles or cones. But the oddest bit was that there were no people. Usually, in any sort of whole-roadway-closing incident, everyone gets out of the vehicles. They gawk. They chat. They stretch. Take a piss on the shoulder. But not here. Whatever this was, fifty kilometers deep in the desert, people weren't acting like people act. If anyone was here at all.
I rolled to a stop behind the last car in the jam-up, and still saw nobody. There must have been 100 cars involved. Fifty or so parked in their lanes, another twenty or thirty on the shoulder, and the rest stuck off the road in the brush and scrub on the north side of the highway. The vehicles that had departed from the road were facing north, as if their drivers had decided to drive straight into the Kalahari. A collection of Camrys, Polos, and Etios were abandoned within fifty meters of tarred roadway, high-centered on rocks or stuck in the sand.
I pulled my key from the ignition and made the worst move of my life. I got out of the bakkie.
Everything was wrong. A roadway packed with cars, their doors flung open and their drivers and passengers absent. I wandered into the stopped traffic, searching for anyone still here. Most of the vehicles had been abandoned with their keys still in the ignition. The only sound came from their sad chimes and warning tones, futilely attempting to inform their missing drivers that they left the headlights on, and their keys in the car.
I could infer how many people had been traveling in each vehicle by the number of open doors. Many had only an open driver's door. The driver and passenger had gotten out of some vehicles, leaving two doors open. All of the doors were open on a few cars. I walked past a Datsun with an empty infant's car seat in the back, its door flung wide open. At least they took their kid with them, wherever they went.
I looked to the north, past the gaggle of vehicles that had made their desperate and doomed thrust into the desert. Something was out there. Something moving, climbing a small hill about 500 meters out. I shielded my eyes from the sinking sun and saw them. People. Five or six, slowly making their way up the hill.
I shouted to them, "Hey! Hello!" Then the Hunger found me.
I'll spend the rest of my life searching for the right words to explain it. There was a hunger. An urge to feed stronger than any biological need I've ever experienced. Starvation and thirst and lust combined and multiplied by a thousand. But I wasn't hungry. When I say there was hunger, it was something else that was hungry. I was the food. Food that was desperate to be consumed.
I sprinted away from the road, towards the people climbing the hill. I didn't want to. I didn't not want to. I just did. It was like finding yourself absent-mindedly looking into the open refrigerator for a snack. I was on autopilot, driven by the Hunger.
I ran into the desert like a low-flying aircraft, banking around trees and hurdling bushes and rocks. I stumbled a few times, cutting my palms as I caught myself on the stones and gravel. then lunging forward like sprinter out of the blocks, racing to find the Hunger.
I'm a relatively fit fellow and soon caught up with the stragglers climbing the hill. I looked back as I passed them: A few seniors and a woman carrying a toddler. They were clearly working hard as they hurried into the desert. I heard them gasping for air as I passed. But their faces bore expressions of utter joy. Like mine.
I crested the hill. The terrain descended gently on the other side and the Hunger lay in the plain at its base. It was a jagged gash in the desert floor. An irregular black pit twenty meters wide. The remaining crowd from the highway was here, descending the hill and stumbling towards the abyss. We were spread out like runners at the end of long-distance race. The man in the lead ran full-speed towards the pit and plunged in, not even breaking stride. Another man who was close behind fell in a second later, immediately vanishing into the blackness.
The sight of the men falling into the pit filled me with joy and the need to join them. I had to satiate the Hunger. I found new energy and sprinted down the hill towards the pit. More men and women fell in as I descended the hill. A man in a blue sweatshirt and red hat. A woman in a business suit with bare and bloody feet. Two guys in blue overalls.
The sensation of hunger within me changed as the men and woman fed themselves to the black pit. The hunger wasn't satiated, or even diminished by the bodies that hurled themselves inside it. Yet there was a feel of satisfaction. Like the first few bites of feast, or the first breath upon surfacing from a long swim under water.
It's terrible to say now, but I remember thinking at that moment that the horrific scene was deeply beautiful. The late afternoon sun painted the Kalahari with a golden glow. The group of people I had caught up to were strangers, with nothing in common save a journey on the N14. But at this lonely point in the desert we were full of life and joy. And we were going to share the experience of death together.
Pain exploded into my left ankle. I fell again. This time, I didn't lurch back into a sprint. This pain was from the real world, not related to the other-worldly urge emanating from the pit. I caught a glimpse of a sand-colored snake darting away into the grass as rolled in the dust, clutching my leg.
I examined my ankle and found two tiny, perfectly round holes in my leg. What the hell had bit me? A cape cobra? A puff adder? The Hunger within me vanished. Maybe the pain and the terror of the snakebite chased it out of my mind. Or maybe whatever was in the black pit decided I was toxic, now that I had an ankle filled with snake venom.
Even at that point, in agony at the site of a mass suicide, and facing death by snakebite, I could see the irony of my situation. I had been saved from the ravenous entity in the desert, only to die of snakebite in the desert. I traded one form of death for another. At least now I had my wits back. I could at least try to fight for my life.
The pain grew as the venom oozed into my lymph nodes and worked its way into the broken capillaries at the site of the bite. I carefully stood up, already feeling dizzy from the effects of the venom. A dozen people had fallen into the lightless hole in the half minute between my being bit and standing again.
I shouted at the rest of them to stop. I screamed that they were going to die. I shouted for help. If anyone heard me, they didn't acknowledge it. They kept running right into the hole. A kid in a purple school blazer, A man and woman who might have been his parents, a man in a green and yellow T-shirt.
I started towards the hole again, not because of an urge to throw myself into it, but to try to stop the remaining people from giving themselves to whatever was down there. But the pain in my ankle was too severe, and the dizziness and light-headedness were intensifying terrifyingly quickly. The snake bite was serious and I had to get medical help.
I lurched back up the hill, turning to shout back at the dwindling group of the still living every few steps. At the top of the hill, I turned back around after shouting into the desert and collided with the woman and the toddler that I ran past a few minutes earlier. All three of us fell. The kid, a boy of about two, began screaming. The woman stood, ignored both her child and me and continued towards the Hunger.
I rolled and tackled her by grabbing her legs, screaming that she was going to die in the hole. She sat up, grabbed a rock and slammed it into the side of my head. I didn't think I blacked out, but when the ringing stopped and my vision cleared up, she was fifty meters down the hill. Blood dripped onto my shirt. I made three attempts to stand, but the dizziness from the combined effects of the blow and the venom sent me crashing back into the dirt. I took a few deep breaths and tried again, this time staying on my feet.
The boy still sat where he fell, screaming his head off. I carefully walked to him and picked him up. Unexpectedly, his weight helped me deal with the dizziness. His extra twenty kilos of mass somehow stabilized me, slowed down my wobbling.
When the Hunger commanded me into the desert, it took me only a minute or two to cover the distance from the road to the hill. The journey back took fifteen minutes, at least.
Thankfully, the kid only screamed and didn't thrash about as I stumbled back to the highway. Between wails, the kid screamed words. But they were words in Xhosa or maybe Zulu, and I didn't understand.
I had my first bit of truly good luck (the snakebite was a mixed bag of good and bad) back at the highway - thankfully, my keys were still in my pocket and hadn't fallen out during my trials in the scrub. I dumped the kid on the passenger seat and started the bakkie. I spun around and sped back towards Upington.
I don't know how I made it back alive. That drive was a nightmare. My vision was tunneling, the dizziness made it impossible to focus, my head throbbed from the blow, and the kid screamed like was being kidnapped (which, maybe he thought he was).
I swerved all over the highway. I recall regaining consciousness several times, woken by the vibration and noise of the wheels sliding off the road. I didn't encounter any vehicles traveling the other way, which may have been a blessing – I probably would have collided with them.
I don't remember arriving in Upington. They told me that someone saw me stop at a red light in town, then slump over into the passenger seat. My bakkie idled across the intersection and rolled into a stop sign.
I woke in the hospital. Dressed in gown. IV in my arm. Pulse monitor beeping. Bandages on my leg and head. The doctors had dozens of questions. The SAPS officers had hundreds.
The SAPS didn't exactly believe me, but they didn't accuse me of anything either. I could tell from their questions that they knew something strange and awful had happened on the N14. My story was one of the scant pieces of evidence they had to try to solve the puzzle.
I answered their questions for an hour. Fell asleep (passed out, really), then answered questions for another hour upon waking. But nobody had any answers for me. What was in the pit? What happened to the people who threw themselves in?
So now I'm posting here. Does anyone have any idea what happened to me out there? Has this sort of thing happened before?
cover photo by Cherry Gumapas