For the whole day, Gaia remained withdrawn into endless flats of marbled white that hazed into pale blue, then soared overhead in azure to merge, again, into marbled white. It was such a vast and unchanging space that it made me feel like a single grain of the salty dust, forever trapped in one place, save for the whims of the winds.
The endless nothingness made space and time lose all meaning. Disorientation began to gnaw at my mind. There were no vehicle tracks, no sign of any life, nothing by which to trace progress. Just, emptiness. Was I heading in the right direction? Could I trust my compass? Were we even making any progress? Would we ever emerge from this vast desolation, or were we trapped in a bewitched capsule from which there was no escape? What if we got stuck?
I had known, when we started out that it is a hostile place to venture, and dangerous to traverse. At this time of year, its surface is arid, but large areas are prone to sudden collapse into sticky slush under a vehicle’s wheels. Getting stuck so badly that extraction is a hopeless endeavour is a constant risk. It requires super vigilance, quick judgement and some luck to avoid. Once deep into the pans, walking out from a bogged down vehicle is near impossible without succumbing to dehydration in a barren hell.
I sensed uncertainty building. There was self-doubt too, and fear for my daughter and her partner, who were with me on this expedition. I knew the danger of this. It leads to a dark tunnel of doubt and then, panic, then irrationality, and finally, I was sure, raving madness. I had to be aware of it, and I had to keep an iron grip on myself; push it all back.
Focus on not getting stuck. Keep following the North indicator. Trust it, I kept telling myself.
At sunset, we made a half-hearted camp. I lay tossing all night, craving even just the feintest of glows on the horizon, or the tiniest of sounds, but hearing only the utter silence of light year upon light year of stars, completely indifferent to my dreads.
I had us start the next day earlier than usual, out of nervousness. I sensed it in my companions too, in the way usually smoothly executed tasks were done awkwardly. I had us soldier on through the morning and past midday, half fatalistically, half doggedly, me wondering more and more if we should not simply turn around and retrace our tracks. It would be relatively easy, and safer.
Then, by mid afternoon, a thin dark line began to shiver into view on the horizon. Slowly it shaped into trees and grassy plains. A lone black backed jackal appeared, trotting by with but a curious glance at us, and without breaking his stride. We had in fact been moving! For a moment I thought I’d hug the first camel thorn I came to!