The Big Read: Forever adrift in a wild sea
Some years ago a girlfriend asked me to accompany her to visit her dead relative in a cemetery. Since this was vastly preferable to accompanying her to visit her live relatives in Pretoria, I went along.
I still don't remember how we reached the cemetery or where it was. I just remember roads no one had ever driven down and vibracrete walls and an undergrowth littered with Smirnoff Spin and sun-bleached racing pages from the Sunday Times. Tombstones were fallen or sunken or broken. I wasn't sure which depressed me more: the graves that had obviously never been visited or those with ancient bouquets of withered chrysanthemums. We saw a snake.
Ever since that day I've had a deep aversion to being buried. I'm neither religious nor spiritual, whatever that lame distinction might be, and I don't believe that any part of us lives on after death other than as a memory in specific minds or in the dwindling percussive wave made by the rippling-out consequences of our actions. Still, I have enough of the human superstition gene to have opinions about where I don't want to end up, and I don't want to end up in some god-awful suburb of the dead, trapped unendingly in the depressing ground with some people whose company I haven't chosen. I don't mind being forgotten and neglected; I mind being forgotten and neglected like that.
The writer and Arabian enthusiast Wilfred Thesiger, who once conducted a journey across the Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula, a place so inhospitable and untracked that whole cities have been swallowed by the yellow sands, once told an anecdote from the Bedu people. It involved a famous warrior who achieved such splendid feats in his life that when at last he died, as needs must, he was strapped to his camel, hung with silver bells and finery, and sent forth into the sand sea to wander tinkling in his saddle forever.
Thesiger was sceptical - camels are very precious, and for the Bedu to sacrifice one to the wilderness for sentimental reasons would be similar to Nasa building a space rocket just to send the ashes of one of their favourite astronauts hurtling into deep space - but I can see why he loved the image. Isn't it a stirring thought, to spend as long as the planet has left wandering through the wild empty spaces that you loved, always in motion, out of the circuit but somehow still a part of the vast closed machine of life?
It has occurred to me that if I were an extreme climber, an Everest-summiter, I would want to be one of those fallen, frozen few who remain in place where they died in the Death Zone. Each of those deaths was tragic, of course - strong young men and women who died before their time - but I like the idea of one day, when the time has come, climbing back up there and arranging myself in a dignified position and allowing the cold and altitude to claim me. I'd be a part of something, a milestone (and perhaps a handhold) in other people's journeys forever, or at least until the ice melts.
So when I heard about Manfred Fritz Bajorat this week, my first emotion was envy. Bajorat is the German solo sailor who died at the desk in his radio room aboard his 12-metre yacht some undetermined time ago. He was found adrift this week some 100km off the coast of the Philippines but he's been sailing the world for the past 20 years and hasn't been seen since 2009. His body was preserved by the dry heat and salty air, cured and mummified to a silvery finish. Nearby was a letter, an unposted lament for his estranged wife who died in 2008.
For probably a year but - oh, what a romantic hope! - perhaps for as many as six or seven years Bajorat and his boat and his letter of love have been drifting unguided and unmolested through the world, dodging pirates and oil tankers and sperm whales, passing unseen through silvered tropics and phosphorescent seas under Pacific moons and monsoon rains. Flying fish have skimmed their bow, turtles have bumped their boards, sharks have skirled in their purple shadow.
What glittering shores have they seen? Have they surfed the Darwin Channel and skimmed Cape Point and ridden the Straits of Malacca? Have they consorted with giant squid in Sargasso weeds? Did they see submarines rise and Malaysian airplanes go down? What a journey, what an Odyssey! If only the world were large enough to have drifted undiscovered forever. If that ever happens to me, and you're one of the fishermen who find me, please do this for me - turn me around and push back to sea.