Chapter Nineteen

The Karoo. One hundred and fifty thousand square miles of barren, unforgiving landscape. It took them four days to cross it in an ox wagon. They had a strong wind at their backs, bellowing heat like a furnace. The skin on Frances’s face became soft leather. She choked on dust and ground her teeth, but by the end of the first day the wagon had shaken the fight out of her. She sat with her eyes fixed on a gap in the canvas, watching the sliver of road taking her away from Cape Town.

The wagon was crammed with goods. Spades and metal sieves hung down from the roof, and the canvas sides were lined with pouches holding tins of sardines, bottles of water, boiled hams, and flasks of whiskey. Equipment had been crammed under the benches. There were coils of rope, a box of wood screws, and a pair of oilcans bound together with straps which rubbed against the backs of her calves. Occasionally the wagon would hit a boulder or a tree stump and a tin of currants or ginger preserve would roll out from between the seats.

On the second morning, they stopped to pick up a tawny, long‑limbed Dutchman with a soft-rimmed hat and a square black beard, who folded himself onto the bench opposite. He carried a cockerel in a wire cage, which he stowed underneath his seat. It preened its feathers and clucked disapprovingly. The wagon lurched its way over the pitted road, and Frances watched the man’s knees bob about his ears. He revealed a mouth full of unsteady teeth, and she smiled back at him.

The rich, fertile lands around Cape Town had given way to a vast desert. The Dutchman, perhaps sensing her unhappiness, kept sweeping his hands over the shimmering expanse. “Zebra,” he would say, enthusiastically, pulling his beard, “wildebeest, impala, kudu.” And she understood he must have been talking about many years ago, because in all the miles they traveled she didn’t see a single wild animal, only the bleached bones of livestock by the sides of the road.

There were no hedges, fences, or walls to break the space, no markers of civilization to demarcate boundaries, only line upon line of dried‑up riverbeds choked with sand. The vastness of the landscape unnerved her. How could you tell where the civilized world began and ended? They passed cattle kraals and ostrich camps and, occasionally, farmsteads. Native huts, like swollen beehives, were scattered across the plains. Looking out from the back of the wagon, she spotted children, so dirty their race was indistinguishable, scrambling in the dust, arms outstretched for a piece of bread, or coins. Some of the Boers had built dams, which had shriveled in the heat to murky, muddy pools. Bright green mimosa trees clung to their edges.

The dust was everywhere. It rose in great ocher clouds from the road, obscuring the glare of the sun. It crept into every crevice of the wagon, worked its way under your fingernails, and gritted in your teeth. Her lips cracked in the dry heat, and when she licked them they stung and seemed to pull too tight across her mouth.

Once, she heard the fast thundering of hooves and excited shouts from their driver. “Hallo! Goede reis!”

It was a Cape cart from Kimberley, going by at twice their speed. Their horses were lathered and muscular. Two young men, Europeans, grinned and waved as they swept past. Frances buried her face in her shawl so she wouldn’t be seen.

At sunrise on the third day they passed a herd of cattle, at least five hundred strong. The herders whistled and shouted, flicking their whips over the animals to keep them moving, but the cattle were walking skeletons, heads bowed low, rasping their tongues across the side of the wagon in the hope of leeching some moisture from the wood. An adolescent calf, bones propping up a tent of skin, swayed at the edges of the herd, then collapsed on its side. A herder picked it up by the tail until it found its front feet and began to walk again. It took the wagon an hour to nudge its way through. The cattle jostled and pushed the oxen and brought with them a boiling cloud of black flies. They sensed the body heat within and crawled over the canvas like fat lice.

The old man opposite squashed one expertly with the palm of his hand, and held it up for Frances to see. There was a searing pain on her calf, and she had to lift her skirts to sweep them off her legs. It didn’t take her long to start killing them, and her palm turned crimson with blood.