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  • Writer's pictureChris Dresser

One Track Mind

The most perfect expression of a person with a ‘One Track Mind’ takes me back to my favourite desert, the Namib. Retired lawyer Louw Schoeman who was born in Namibia, grew up with an abiding passion for the desert. After running a successful Law practice in the nation’s capital Windhoek for many years he retired early to concentrate on his first love, the sands of the Namib!

I regularly freelanced for a film company who called me in to write a script on Louw after they had read an article in the paper. In the course of his many expeditions into the Namib, taking international tourists to remote corners of the desert in his light plane, he discovered a remarkable freak of nature.

Walking on his own one day, he needed to relieve himself and with no one in sight, he proceeded to do so on the ground in front of him. As it happened, he peed on an ordinary looking rock. Moments later, to his amazement, some long dried-out lichen on the rock unfolded and turned green at his feet.

In the article, Louw then extolled the many wonders and surprises to be found in the desert, which led us to make a film on the Namib using Louw as our central figure.

The film opened with Louw using a watering can instead of his own equipment to water some rocks, which obligingly produced the same unfurling lichen turning green. During the filming we were fortunate to experience the first rains in eight years, with the literally overnight miracle of grass and other small plants coming to life and turning the desert momentarily green.

The point of all this being that, before we set off in Land Rovers to explore the desert, Louw insisted that we only follow existing tracks in the sand. He explained that these tracks could last up to fifty years in the sand and too many of them would defile his precious desert.

Hence we called the film “One Track Mind.” Louw was totally obsessed with keeping ‘his’ desert as pristine as possible. During the filming we were shooting in an area where literally dozens of sailing ships had run aground over the past few hundred years. Treacherous currents and deceptive sandbanks have claimed many ships, including some more recent wrecks.

Louw was showing us some of the debris from the ships which ranged from masts and spars to wooden domino pieces and even the occasional skeleton, hence the name Skeleton Coast. At one point he gasped and pointed to a mast that had been sawn off at some point. He was nearly in tears as he explained that some uncaring fool had probably cut off part of the mast for firewood. It was an artefact that could be anything up to 200 years old. He was furious.

We also visited the site where all the passengers and most of the crew of the ill-fated Dunedin Star had managed to get ashore after the liner had run aground on treacherous sand banks off the Namibian coast. I'll save that story for another time, but it did illustrate both the miraculous eventual escape of the entire crew and passengers from seemingly impossible conditions in a desert without water and provisions, hundreds of miles from the nearest civilisation.Anyway, Louw was a wonderful character but was clearly on a single track in life. He even told me that he had once travelled to Ireland and found the greenery of the emerald isle to be offensive to his eyes!

The documentary was widely screened both on South African Television and in other countries. It had been an exhilarating experience but dwelling on the remarkable rescue of the passengers and crew of the Dunedin Star, had me thinking about the numerous narrow escapes I had when growing up.

Today I came up with a rather odd collection of “what ifs” but it served to remind me that if one has strong intentions in life, the chances are you will survive to carry them out, no matter how long it takes.

My “what ifs” took me to numerous points where I could easily have been killed but somehow managed to avoid this inconvenient ending to one’s activities.

Very briefly, when I was five years old, I was beaten up and left unconscious on the village green in Weybridge Surrey. The unruly elements of our class at my Prep school had been furious when I was the only one to vote against their decision not to go swimming when the teacher took a vote on it. I have no idea how it happened, but the result was that I regained consciousness just as my father was driving past the village green and saw me waving. None of the boys owned up to their actions and were never punished.

A year later my parents were returning to London from Edinburgh on the then famous “Flying Scotsman” train. My Dad was fooling around with me in the train’s compartment. He lifted me up and jokingly said he was going to throw me out of the train. As he swung me forward towards the door, unbelievably, the door blew open. My Dad probably got a bigger fright than me and fell sideways onto the seat with me in his arms with the wind whistling around the compartment and the train careering along the line at sixty miles an hour!

It was wartime and we lived in Weybridge not far from the famous Brooklands Motor racing track. During World War II, the Vickers Armstrong aircraft factory had been built on the grounds of Brooklands. Because of this we were subjected to endless air raids as German aircraft attacked the factory. Unexploded shells and even a bomb fell into our garden without harming us. However, then unmanned VI rockets known as “Buzz Bombs” started arriving. The first Buzz Bomb to descend on England hit a tree about 100 yards from my Prep School, blowing out windows and damaging the buildings but fortunately no life was lost. A “charming” facet of the Buzz Bomb was that when it ran out of fuel, it did one of two things. It either glided, crashed and exploded or it would dive straight down splattering everything beneath it. I had two Buzz Bombs stop right over my head. As you can guess, both of them glided!

On our way to South Africa in 1946, we travelled on a ship from Marseilles to Alexandria in Egypt. The ship travelled through a minefield with the captain ordering all passengers to remain in the stern of the ship in case we hit a mine.

Arriving in South Africa, we eventually lived in a lovely old cottage below Kirstenbosch Botanical gardens. Immediately above us was Table Mountain. Every school holiday I would climb the mountain on a route through Skeleton Gorge. Coming back one day, showing off, I ran down the path above the gorge, tripped and fell over the edge of a 200 hundred foot cliff, landing in tree about six feet below the path!

In another notorious fall in Jersey in the Channel Islands, I tripped crossing a road running for a bus with a car almost upon me. Fortunately, some basic Judo moves had taught me to roll with the fall, escaping the car by inches.

Apart from being charged by an enraged elephant we were trying to film in the Knysna Forest in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, the rest of my life has been relatively disaster free in later years.

Strangely I haven't really repeated any of my adventures in my fiction writing but my unusual generally hectic life has certainly influenced my thinking, in respect of action scenes in particular.

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