When the sky is starless

My man put his book down, turned off his headlamp, and rolled over, back to me. We were planning to wake up before sunrise to get a good start on the long drive back to Cape Town airport, so although I wasn’t sleepy yet, I decided it was a signal to wind down too. I tossed my tablet aside and clicked my headlamp from white to red.

I unzipped the tent flap and fumbled for my toothbrush and Colgate in the toiletries bag. I find things by touch – that’s why I have an ostrich-leather wallet even though I dislike its look of chicken skin, magnified. One of my younger friends once dramatically declared that he would kill himself if he ever lost his sight. I hope I never lose mine either, but if it should happen I would regard it as a metamorphosis rather than an existential crisis.

I squirmed into my sneakers and crouched in the small vestibule, zipping the tent shut before unzipping the rain fly, as if in an airlock. Warm air mustn’t be wasted when you’re camping in the winter. The sea wind walloped my upper body as I stood up from the shelter of the campsite’s dry-stone wall. The reflective threads woven into the guylines sparkled eerily under the red lamp, like some species of demonic poison caterpillar.

In the direction of the roaring there is still a thick white band of seafoam visible, but beyond that, nothing but featureless grey until the faintest hint of starshine marks the sky at the horizon. If it had not been overcast I might have seen the black and amber beds of dying kelp still tossing up and down in the waves, their long twisty blades giving an illusion of seals breaching and diving.

I took from the cold firepit a half-litre Coke bottle filled with water that we had boiled and then treated with colloidal silver. When we came to these campsites at the mouth of Groenrivier we had realised that we had been mistaken in assuming that there was a piped water supply. As we had been about to make our way back to the reception office to fetch water – several kilometres away, with sunset approaching – I had spotted two JoJo tanks outside an rangers’ cottage just next to the campsites.

The cottage seemed to have been disused for some time; its door sagged on the hinges, the half-drawn curtains were dusty, and a toolbox abandoned outside had become a solid oblong of rust. The taps of the rainwater tanks were rusted and jammed shut, but my partner hoisted me onto one and I lifted the lid and filled our few bottles. Probably nobody would mind, but it had a slight savour of burglary. “I’ve had enough diarrhea for one weekend,” I insisted, having just recovered from some bad airport food. So fire, then silver.

Coming out of the stone circle, I walked around and crouched down in its lee to brush my teeth, looking around at the sky. Every five seconds the lighthouse a kilometre to the south swung its beam around clockwise. When it passed, the sky was velvety with a faint stippled texture. The only other light in that direction was a tiny artificial star, a torch or headlamp belonging to some late sleeper of our neighbours two hundred metres away.

The vegetation across the dirt road was Vantablack. In the daytime, we had seen beds and clusters of succulents with bright blooms and bushes with silvery grey needle-like leaves and tiny pale flowers. At night, its myriad textures simply drank up all the scant light.

To my left I was surprised to see another huge beam of light sweeping across the sky and wondered for a moment if there was another lighthouse to the north before realising it was only the beam of the southern lighthouse playing on a screen of clouds. Far, far to the northeast, just above the horizon, two faint stars finally peeked under the curtain.

Well. So much for stargazing in the unpolluted wilderness. I spat and rinsed my mouth twice, trying to dissolve the white detergent foam so that it wouldn’t be visible come daylight.

I crawled back into the tent filled with my sleeping partner’s warmth and scent, repeating the airlock process in reverse, writhed into my sleeping bag, and reached for my tablet. Listening to the wind scratching at the rain fly like a curious cat, I sat up to write.

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