Our dreams blossom in a dry land

Long rays of morning sun flood lucerne fields and back-light grazing sheep. Sacred ibis and blue herons skim the rooftops of our small village and float in to start their day's work. Overhead, two crows curl out their call, flying straight to wherever it is they fly. I stand on my back porch wrapped in delight, wondering how I managed to pull off such a transition.

A few years ago I was trudging through city streets, breathing exhaust, cringing at automobile horns, police sirens, and the shrill cry of street vendors. I spent my days making decisions about politics, accidents, and crime, as a senior editor on a daily newspaper.

Then I decided it was time to realize a dream that began in my first year out of high school. I was on a train going from the inland city of Pretoria, South Africa, to the small coastal village of Saldanha Bay and the Gymnasium of the South African Navy. The rail route went through the Great Karoo.

The very word "Karoo" has an ancient ring. It comes from an extinct language spoken by the Karoo's original inhabitants, the Khoisan, and translates to "place of great dryness."

Dryness, yes, but also a place of wonderful light and air, of vast plains, mountains, and hills of rock that appeared to be precision-cut by some giant worker. A semidesert with a sky so blue that black eagles were sharp-etched though seemingly far out in space. And stars filled the clear night sky like sprinkled sand.

For the first time I understood the description "Milky Way." Across this huge space traveled a highway of pinpoint, pulsing lights.

I said then that I would come back and take the dust roads that snake toward the distant horizon, or duck down into alluring valleys; that I would have a closer look at the springbok and majestic kudu, the dry riverbeds and quaint villages glimpsed from the train window.

At the Naval Gymnasium, however, I became interested in newspaper journalism, and that meant city life. I loved my chosen career. I saw places and met people that otherwise would have been outside my realm, and I came alive with the adrenaline of deadlines.

But even while I was living in London and New York, on smoke-filled nights when sky hovers over rooftops, the deep star-fantasia of the Great Karoo haunted my imagination. Later, back in South Africa, I said to my wife, Gillian, "Let's just get into our truck and go. Drive nothing but dust roads, visiting only farms and small villages."

We entered the "place of great dryness" during the worst drought in 60 years. Rivers, like great pythons, were rock-dry; large pans (once water-filled) blinked back at the sun; the tires of our small truck kicked up a sirocco of dust. But we were happy - even without air conditioning in our vehicle. We were traveling, at last, the dust roads of the Great Karoo!

Soon our journey became a search for the right village and the right house, for with every rolling kilometer it became clear our city days were coming to an end. Almost every village had the same story: empty houses, decay, people fleeing to the cities. We were swimming upstream where every stream was only dust.

We came to a village where a farmer had just bought a house in exchange for three sheep. He originally offered two sheep, but the owner said, "Look, man, this house has a television aerial.".

In another village, a man said, "I've got a nice house you can buy." But his friend chipped in, "Man, your house is too new. These people are looking for an old, old place that's almost falling down."

We saw plenty of those in many villages, but after two weeks and 6,000 kilometers, nothing had truly called our names.

Reluctantly, we headed back to the city.

Two more journeys to selected regions in the Karoo still left us city-bound. Just when we were deciding this was a dream whose time had not yet come, we had a call from Nieu Bethesda, one of the loveliest villages we'd visited. The voice said: "Our house is for sale. Do you want it?"

"Yes," we replied, although we had seen it only once, and at night.

By European standards, the house was not old. It was built toward the end of the 19th century, old enough to qualify. And it had a tin roof, wooden floors, a borehole (well) with a wind pump, and a view.

About 50 years ago it had been converted into a trading store, necessitating the knocking out of several walls. We liked the open space and the idea that this structure had dispensed sustenance to local people.

It took a year to sell our city home, but finally Gillian and I and our alley cat were bowling through a long night. Our hearts were singing (challenges were still to come) as we turned the corner and saw the dawn-valley of Nieu Bethesda open before us like the curtain at an opera house. The hills were stark brown and boulder-strewn, but the small valley blazed with green pastures and trees; birds sang, cattle lowed, sheep blared.

Nieu Bethesda, sometimes spelled New Bethesda, and called simply Bethesda by locals, is only about one mile wide and two miles long. The town is home to fewer than 1,000 people. It was named by a Scottish preacher traveling with 18th-century "trek boere" (nomadic farmers of Dutch descent).

They came across a spring that sent a strong stream meandering through the valley, and the preacher, Andrew Murray, speaking in Dutch, said, "Let us call it New Bethesda." Or he may have said, "Let us now call it Bethesda." In the Dutch of the time and region, "now" and "new" were not dissimilar in sound.

But the name Nieu Bethesda stuck. Bethesda is, of course, the pool in the book of John where Jesus healed the man who couldn't move fast enough when an angel stirred the water. No doubt, preacher Murray saw this pool as a healing place in a stark, waterless semidesert.

Attempts were made to set up a mission station to convert the wandering Khoisan, but they failed, and the valley gradually became a center for Dutch and British farmers.

Then, in the 1950s, the thriving village began to die as people headed for the big cities. Almost 40 years later, the tide would turn. Slowly, houses are being restored, crafts and guesthouses boosting the economy. City people, like us, are rediscovering the "magic" of vast spaces, clean air, relative silence, and time to look at sheep backlit by sun.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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