Tankwa Karoo and the CIA plot

[ Part 3 of the South Africa series that began with Cape Town Weekend, and continued in Clanwilliam. ]

On Wednesday morning, following two nights in Clanwilliam, I started for the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Named after the Tankwa river that flows near its southern border, the Tankwa Karoo is an arid region at the western edge of the Great Karoo desert. On Google Earth the park terrain looks like a rusted tin sheet with tiny ridges the colour of mould. Few roads are visible, and there is no settlement large enough to merit a mention.

About forty kilometers from Clanwilliam, not long after the Cederberg Wilderness Area, the tar under the wheels disappeared. I was expecting a gravel track on the route, but not so soon. With a hundred and seventy kilometers still to go, I recalled the YouTube video I’d watched the previous evening. ‘Changing a flat car tire step by step’ featured a serious-looking American in a full-sleeved shirt, grey pants, and formal shoes, who used terms such as ‘lug wrench’, ‘lug nuts’, and ‘hub cap’. He made the technique look straightforward but I remained unsure, like the MasterChef contestant who has never cooked a meal, only committed recipes to memory.

The unpaved road, about fifteen feet wide, was sprinkled with small stones and crushed rocks fragments. Avoiding the sharp ones I followed the faint trails of tyres, keeping a steady sixty kilometers per hour, but the occasional bumpy patch of small rock outcrops slowed me down to twenty. After ten minutes or so I settled down and looked at the landscape. The red earth was freckled with dust-ridden shrubs. A brilliant blue sky was patched unevenly with white. In the distance grey mountains rose to meet the sky. There were no trees, and no signs of animal life.

I had driven through remote landscapes before, in Iceland and in Norway, but this was different. The land was barren, the road had no settlement abutting it, and in five hours on the road I met only one vehicle, a jeep in the opposite direction that appeared on the horizon as a cloud, like a tiny dust storm, and when it crossed, some minutes later, my windshield was fine veil of reddish-brown. I slowed to a halt, cleaned the glass, and drove on.

South Africa

Beside me, on the passenger seat, was a large bottle of mineral water, three packets of cream biscuit, and a colour printout from Google Maps with a list of directions from Clanwilliam to Gannaga lodge in Tankwa Karoo:

…Continue on R364 — 87.6 km
Sharp right — 57.1 km
Turn right onto R355 — 6.7 km
Continue straight — 37.8 km
Slight left — 7.1 km
Slight left — 11.6 km

Despite the remoteness these instructions suggested, the dirt road was flanked on both sides by wire fences. The land belonged to sheep farmers, and the road, which ran through their farms, was interrupted in one stretch by a closed gate attached to a fence running across it. Beyond the gate the road went on as before, cleaving the wilderness. On my map I checked if I had missed a turn. This was unlikely: only one line, thin and unmarked, crossed this part of Tankwa Karoo. The gate bore a sign in Afrikaans, and a closer look revealed that it was not locked. I opened the gate, crossed with my Nissan to the other side, then came back and closed it. I imagined this was what the sign said: Keep the gate closed.

This gate was the closest I came to a disruption. I stopped now and then, to sit on a rock beside the road, take in the vastness, and savour the solitude. Each time a couple of flies would attach themselves to me and buzz around until I left. It was hard to see where the flies came from. My breaks were in remote spots unpolluted by man-made objects. But this freshness all around explained why the flies were drawn to me.

Wild flies apart, the sightings that day included small tortoises ambling across the road (sensing the vehicle approach they turned into trotting tortoises); a flock of sheep huddled comically under a tree, seeking shade; and an eagle perched on one of the electricity pylons running parallel to the road. Each time I halted before a pylon to take a picture, the eagle rose and settled on the next one. After three such forward hops, the bird got the hang of it. The next time I stopped, it flew backwards and sat on a pylon behind me. (The person who coined the word ‘birdbrained’ had most likely never met an African bird.)

The sheep and the fences were not the only signs of farms. In places where a narrow path led to a cluster of low-roofed white buildings, I saw faded displays bearing Dutch-sounding names (Elandsberg, Blesfontein) and rusted post-boxes propped up by rocks. Some of these farmhouses were set next to a rectangular patch of grass, irrigated by industrial sprinklers, patches that gave the vast red earth a startling touch of green. At one point I passed a display that welcomed visitors to the Tankwa Karoo National Park. This display, which sat on a fence, was the only sign of a different territory: the “park” was as desolate as the farms I had seen this far.


On the last stretch, the track followed the Gannaga pass over the Roggeveld mountains. At a vacant viewpoint near the summit I parked the car and got down. Behind me miles and miles of barren country — parts I had covered in the last five hours — stretched to the horizon. To my left and right were treeless mountain slopes, sliced in places by a road that curved and disappeared and appeared again. The sky was clear, the sun mild, and a light breeze moved around spreading whispers. The flies had not reached this height. I spent half an hour sitting there.

Gannaga lodge, a set of low stone buildings at the top of the pass, was a short distance from this spot. I parked outside the main building, under a tin-roofed enclosure, and looked at the horizon with a mixture of elation and disbelief. Pale grass overspread the plateau until a gorge, beyond which the greyish rocky land rose gently, turning into mountains at the horizon. The lodge itself was set on an escarpment whose rocky summit was not far from where I stood. There was nothing here, aside from these quarters. It seemed the end of the world, a place that exists only in the imagination and in movies, like the spot where the tribal in The Gods Must Be Crazy casts the Coca Cola bottle out of his world.

* * *

A moustachioed man, not more than twenty five, was sitting behind a computer screen in a dark corner of the large L-shaped reception room. The previous day, on the phone, I had interpreted his slow manner of speech as a sign of diffidence, or of his poor English, but JJ — he introduced himself by that name — was lacking neither in confidence nor in English skills. He was a dreamy young man with a cool, laid-back manner that was in tune with this place. There was nothing to do here, and he seemed like someone who did nothing. Standing behind the bar counter, a cigarette in hand, he would look out the window into the highveld, giving the impression nothing could break that calm. He spoke slowly, haltingly, with a nasal voice that made comprehension hard unless you listened carefully, and his laughter was strangely stifled, as though his body had absorbed half of it before the chuckles emerged.

The lodge was managed by Johann, a middle-aged man with a white moustache on a tanned face. When he spoke, he seemed always on the verge of laughter. Within minutes of meeting Johann I found myself listening to an anecdote, involving his Scottish friend Robert and himself, whose climax rested on a ‘pussy’ as a double entendre. He narrated it first in Afrikaans (among others listening were a middle-aged couple, Louis and Marianne, and JJ), then, after the laughter subsided, he translated it to English. I do not remember that story, or any of the others he narrated that afternoon. All that comes to mind is the conversation on the CIA plot. But this happened later in the evening, after dinner.

At lunch I sat by myself eating bread with peas and potato soup. Later, following a nap, I took a dip in the small pool and stood in the water looking, as Johann had said, “out into the nothingness”. There was a water body down the slope, a small rectangular pond, and at its edge I spotted outlines of deer-like animals, creatures barely visible to the naked eye. I got dressed and walked towards the pond. The two house dogs tagged along, keeping me company.


Up close the pond was a swamp. The animals were gone, but as we approached a squadron of wild geese stationed next to the water took off, traced two circles above us, and flew west following the setting sun. The dogs scampered across bushes and ran after each other’s shadows, stopping only to catch breath. They stayed close to me, catching up when I took a detour, and this reversal (I had assumed I would follow them) was strangely comforting. On the walk back I discovered the dry bed of a stream, where round rocks bore fractal-shaped patches in a faded green. They looked ancient, fossil-like. Uphill, an old car tyre lay in the grass, incongruously, like an object left behind by an alien craft in this landscape untouched by time.

* * *

In the evening I met Louis at the bar, and we got talking. Louis was a photographer from Prince Albert, a small town at the southern edge of the Great Karoo, where he had a studio and offered photography courses. With his wife Marianne he made these trips into the Karoo, photographing the desert, and as he spoke of his love for desolate landscapes I had this curious sensation of discovering a part of myself in him. He was surprised to hear that I shot using film. He did, too, and he asked where I got my film from.

“A local shop in Heidelberg. I use Portra 400, and he always has that in stock.”

“Mine I get shipped here from London,” he said.

A tall man with grey hair, his manner was relaxed and he spoke slowly, with a depth that comes from experience. Most of the time, though, he was content listening. He was curious about my choice to visit Tankwa Karoo — tourists usually go to parks with big animals, like Kruger, he said — and was struck by my plans to go stargazing in Sutherland. When I spoke of my love for South Africa, this land and the sky, he linked it to my early years in Ghana. (Earlier in the exchange I had told him about my childhood — the first four years of my life — in Ghana.) Something of what you felt at that early age is within you, he said, and it will bring you back to Africa again and again. He drew a parallel to a South African nature photographer, a Dutchman who had spent his early years here before moving with his parents to the Netherlands; later in life he discovered his passion for photographing this landscape. Our meandering conversation flowed over dinner that evening and breakfast next morning.


There were four guests in the lodge that evening, and we shared a table for dinner. Louis and Marianne sat across me, and beside me was a heavy-set middle-aged man who managed capital investments for local farmers. (His name has escaped my memory, and it does not figure in my journal either, so I’ll call him S.) S was often on the road, driving long distances from one farm to next, and in Tankwa Karoo he used the Gannaga lodge as an overnight stopover. After dinner S returned to the bar, and later that night I found him still sitting there, behind the dim glow of his laptop screen. Johann was there too, and he came over to ask if I could help in a matter involving “computers”.

S explained the situation. Johann’s Scottish friend Robert was one of S’s clients, and the previous day S had received a mail from Robert to divest a large amount of capital and transfer it to an account. The mail, he said, was unusual — Robert did not request such changes over mail, and the method of transfer requested was technically not possible — so he sent Robert a reply, asking a few questions. The mail bounced back. S then forwarded the mail to Johann, seeking his opinion, and that mail bounced back too. This was puzzling, because a new mail reached both Johann and Robert — only this particular mail could not be forwarded or replied to. After speaking on the phone with Johann, S decided to call Robert in Scotland. Robert denied sending the mail.

“How can this happen?” S asked.

“Robert’s mail account was probably hacked,” I said.

This explained only part of the episode. Why did the mail bounce back when S replied to Robert or forwarded it to Johann? And who had hacked the account — was it possible to find out?

Every email contains meta-information that includes an IP address — a unique identifier that points to the computer the mail was sent from. Robert’s email contained the client IP address, and a quick web search revealed that it pointed to a computer in San Francisco.

“Was Robert in San Francisco when this mail was sent?” I asked.

“Of course not!” Johann answered. “Robert has been in Scotland. But if the mail is from the US, I know what it means.”

“The Americans, huh?” S said, looking at Johann.

“That explains it,” Johann said. “It has to be the CIA.”

S nodded. “It has to be.”

“Did you just say CIA?” I asked.

“Yes, yes.” Johann answered. “Robert, you see, has been researching the Lockerbie plane bombing — you’ve heard of it? — and he has collected evidence on CIA’s role there. He’ll be making it public soon, so the CIA is behind him now.”

I looked at Johann. He had shown a penchant for wild jokes, but now, standing behind the bar counter, he appeared serious. S had started a new mail to Robert, and on his screen I saw the words emerge: “…a friendly IT specialist from Germany has found where that mail came from — the US.”

This discovery — of the email’s country of origin — animated Johann. He confided that the framing of the Libyans in the Lockerbie case was engineered by the CIA. Robert had known Gaddafi personally, and some years ago Gaddafi’s son had visited the Gannaga lodge with his entourage.

“This place was full of soldiers,” Johann said. Pointing at a table in a corner, he added: “Gaddafi’s son was sitting right there, smoking a cigar.”

Such a beginning held the promise of a long conversation on the conspiracy theories that still cling to the 1988 incident, but I was in no mood for it. Inwardly I was laughing at the claim that the CIA was behind the email (which, I had to admit, suited this unlikely place — where else would you expect such a conversation but in a bar at a remote lodge near the tip of Africa?). I wished them luck in getting to the bottom of the matter, and walked back to my room.


* * *

At this point the narrator, a character in this piece, has to step aside briefly to let the writer take over.

There was something unsatisfying about the section above, a hunch of a loose end there, something I hadn’t followed through, and to deal with these symptoms I searched the Internet for more on Lockerbie. What I found led me to conclude that my response that evening at Gannaga lodge had been ignorant and unfortunate.

Robert, it turns out, is Robert Black, emeritus professor of law at Edinburgh University, who persuaded the Libyans to let Abdelbaset al-Megrahi — the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing — to be tried under Scottish law (an act he later regretted, after Megrahi’s conviction). There’s a photograph of Robert shaking hands with Gaddafi. He maintains a blog on the Lockerbie case, updating it with the latest developments, trying to convince the world that Megrahi was wrongly convicted. And — should I laugh at this or cry? — he owns the Gannaga lodge, stays there for six months each year. Johann is his business partner.

* * *

The next morning I woke up at a quarter to six, shortly before sunrise, and stepped outside my cottage. The sky was dark. Shrill bird calls pierced the air, punctuated steadily by a cock’s crow. Marianne was outside her cottage, standing with arms folded against the cold. She asked if I had slept well. Watching me approach her dog began to bark. When she couldn’t get it to stop, Marianne said goodbye and carried the dog inside.

The birds grew noisier as the gentle curve of mountains in the east turned orange. In the common room I made a cup of tea, then stood outside drinking it, watching the morning star fade.

Two hours later, following a leisurely breakfast of cereal and fruits with Marianne and Louis, I settled my bill with JJ and started for Sutherland.

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