Best of 2013 | Salt of the Earthby Luke Daniel / 23.12.2013
Originally published on 30 September 2013.
My jeans are caked in a Kalahari cocktail of brown dust and warm sweat, and I’m reminiscing about the simple comfort and release that a warm shower provided a week ago. For a few seconds I’d zoned out of a conversation I was having with this guy Wolly, who spoke with a voice crossed between Tom Waits and Nathaniel; sandpapered vocals.
We’re both dirty and tired, 15 kilometres from the Namibian border, in the Northern Cape, where the nearest city is 250km’s away, and it’s Upington. Now see, if your nearest big city is Upington, you already know you’re a long way from any kind of conventional comfort.
For the past few days I’ve been photographing the second annual Kalahari Desert Speedweek, which is an event similar to the Bonneville Salt Flat racing in America. The event takes place on an open piece of uninhabited desert land, Hakskeenpan, where motor vehicles are pushed to their limits in a race against the speedometer. The Pan is seemingly endless; the surface is flat and hard, almost perfect for land speed racing. Unfortunately the surface starts to break up and become unstable after a few runs, leading to high speed spin-outs when vehicles begin to lose traction on the loose ground.
Spin out in a Ford Mustang at 200km/h and you’ll emerge unscathed, from a cloud of dust –shaken up, sweaty, but alive. Lose traction while commandeering a superbike at speeds of 300km/h, and marshals may need to venture into Namibia to pick up the pieces.
The man I’m talking to in the awkwardly shaped marquee tent isn’t here for the racing, which makes him part of the minority. Like me, he’s here because of his work, and was tasked with getting his Boss’s 5 million rand super car to the event on a flatbed trailer, all the way from Durban – that’s a lot of road to eat up. It’s no surprise he’s thirsty, and the empty beer bottles pile up on the makeshift table in front of us. As cars rumble around in the darkness and dust, we sit and talk about everything besides speed and motor vehicles. Wolly is the kind of character you meet once, maybe twice, in your lifetime – and if you’re lucky enough to, you’ll leave feeling more rugged and unrefined, like the salt of the earth has pushed its way into your pores. As the Kalahari night’s coldness creeps into the marquee, Wolly decides to head out in search of some good zol – which he finds on the other side of the campsite, amongst the a couple of hot-rodders from the Western Cape.
They’ve all traveled long and hard to make it up here in their classic cars. After a myriad of breakdowns and blowouts, over 1000 kilometers of straight Northern Cape tar, they’re here in their numbers, and make up the bulk of the petrol heads on the first weekend of the event. These guys are the real deal in motoring, in custom car building and restoration. They’ve proven their dedication to the craft, by the countless time and money they’ve pumped into their motor vehicles over the years. Add in over 30 hours of hard travel to the Speedweek, and you’ve got a bunch of guys who’s hands are stained with grease, and who can pin point engine problems by ear alone. They smoke the strongest cigarettes and drink the hardest whiskey. They speed through the desert late at night, while the super car owners are trying to squeeze the last bit of warm water out of the makeshift showers, before tucking into their K Way sleeping bags.
There’s two types of people present at the Desert Speedweek – the guys who live speed, steel, and petrol everyday of their lives, and the guys who play with their expensive toys for a few days a year in the Northern Cape desert. Regardless, they’re here for the same purpose – to see how fast their machines can travel, unrestricted. Most of the hotrods and classic vehicles reach speeds of up to 140km/h – with Barry Ashmole’s 1940’s pick-up truck getting close to 200km/h.
The supercars and superbikes aim to break the 300km/h barrier, with only a couple of machines actually pushing past that point – a Lamborghini Aventedor and a few Suzuki Hayubusas. There’s a definite spirit of speed, a matrimony of motoring and adventure which drifts gradually across Hakskeenpan, along with the dust and petrol vapors, it permeates the senses and grounds you solidly to the current space and time.
It’s a very peculiar circumstance, Speedweek – for two weeks out of the year, the natural eerie silence of the desert is disturbed by the rumbling of powerful engines, as motor vehicles from across the country tear across the crusted surface, leaving a dense mixture of high octane fuel and Kalahari dust in their wake. The petrol heads leave, the area is cleaned, the rains come in December, flooding the pan ad returning it to it’s previous natural, unscathed, desolate state, as if no tires had even touched it’s surface. For another year, the desert winds sweep across the barren land. The unforgiving desert heat targets the sand, and the below freezing night time temperature finds no tents or exposed naïve skin. For some, the spirit of adventure and obsession with speed and motoring exists as a personal addiction. A deep passion that is indulged in and practiced on a daily basis – a lifestyle dedicated to grease and gears.
For others, Speedweek offers a momentary escape from the mundane monotony of daily corporate life. An opportunity to spoil themselves with speed and motoring excess – a chance to become true petrol heads for a few days.
After which, their expensive vehicles are loaded onto a trailer, and driven back home, by a lanky, one-eyed, ex-fire fighter, who would have preferred a weekend away with his kid in the Magaliesburg mountains. Salt of the earth.
* All images © Luke Daniel