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A Winterkeeper Finds His Yellowstone Doppelgänger In Africa

Has Steven Fuller's life in the American bush left him bosebevokked?

April 25, 2018: The Crazy Allure Of Untamed Places

Steve Fuller on an 11-day 320km horse trip across the Namib desert from near the central plateau city of Windhoek to the town of Swakopmund on the South Atlantic Coast.  He was engaged by the Namibian outfitter to photograph the trip.
Steve Fuller on an 11-day 320km horse trip across the Namib desert from near the central plateau city of Windhoek to the town of Swakopmund on the South Atlantic Coast.  He was engaged by the Namibian outfitter to photograph the trip.
April is a cruel month, the apex of the bell curve of death in Yellowstone, when winter-kill peaks and there is four to six feet of old snow on the level here at Canyon Village. 


The melting of the snowpack historically didn’t take off until May, though the trend in the past few decades is for spring melt to start earlier and to accelerate faster—a full month earlier than historically, say the scientists. Much of April seems characterized as a month of receding gray snow and the expansion of melt-sodden brown grass.

Nowadays, for the six weeks after the end of the “winter season,” I am confined to home and to office until the park officially re-opens to the public which happened on April 19 this year. And so my thoughts turn to the many Aprils I have spent in Southwest Africa, a place I have come to think of as my Yellowstone doppleganger—and from which I just returned.
"I have long thought of Yellowstone in winter as an albino desert of snow dunes where much of the water is locked up in crystalline solids," Fuller observes. "In Yellowstone, as in Namibia, the landscape is often animated by large spectacular animals. Here a bull bison makes his way across the mid-winter snowscape, a harsh environment of deep cold and deep snow but one in which he is at home."
"I have long thought of Yellowstone in winter as an albino desert of snow dunes where much of the water is locked up in crystalline solids," Fuller observes. "In Yellowstone, as in Namibia, the landscape is often animated by large spectacular animals. Here a bull bison makes his way across the mid-winter snowscape, a harsh environment of deep cold and deep snow but one in which he is at home."
A Gemsbok moves amid the great dunes of the Namib Desert. The species is highly adapted to life in the often waterless, intensely hot, fierce environment it makes its own. Both environments take their toll on individuals but in both worlds the species thrive. Photos by Steven Fuller
A Gemsbok moves amid the great dunes of the Namib Desert. The species is highly adapted to life in the often waterless, intensely hot, fierce environment it makes its own. Both environments take their toll on individuals but in both worlds the species thrive. Photos by Steven Fuller
SWA—better known now as Namibia—is the mirror image of my life here in Yellowstone, so different yet asymmetrically so similar as to be the other side of the mobius of both this place and of my life.

Before washing up on the Yellowstone beach in the early 70’s, and during a decade of global drifting,  I spent the better part of three years hanging out and sometimes teaching in Uganda and Kenya, where Africa literally got into my blood and figuratively into my heart.

In 1986, after living at Canyon since 1973, I was invited by SATOUR, the South African Tourist Board, to be their guest to tour many of their national parks and to meet with parks wardens (rangers) as well as NGO conservationists.

Two years later the tour led to a seven week long solo trip to Namibia where UNTAG, the UN peacekeepers. were overseeing the end to the decades long war for independence. 

This second visit kindled a newfound fascination with Ma Africa, but more specifically it nurtured a sense of mutual fellowship with the bush-wise conservationists I met on this and frequent subsequent visits. In the course of many late night campfire conversations with mostly white African conservationists we both came to take for granted how much we had in common. 

 In the course of the next 30 years these friendships have continued to deepen as has the comfort and pleasure I find in the most remote regions of the country. For me, going there in the seam between winter and the weeks when preparation is made for the summer tourist season at Canyon, has been a near-annual pilgrimage.

Namibia can be a fierce place, as can Yellowstone. Both apparently so different have much in common. Both may unexpectedly threaten your extinction on any day or night of the year. The Namib is an intense desert world, mostly waterless, extremely hot and dry. Yellowstone in winter is a cold arid albino desert of snow dunes, with much of its water locked up in snow, ice, and frost. Both are beautiful places, but the deeper you go into them the more likely they are to devour you. 
Animal tracks cross snow and sand that have been given a similar appearance and form by the winds, though they are in different hemispheres. Photos by Steven Fuller
Animal tracks cross snow and sand that have been given a similar appearance and form by the winds, though they are in different hemispheres. Photos by Steven Fuller
Both are animated by big archetypal animals and by extravagant weather, as they are by extremes of temperature, minus 40F in Yellowstone, plus 40C in Namibia. Both are places where a naked ape, outside his technological bubble, can be capriciously and quickly recycled courteous of the primal forces of nature.

A friend once told me, “You have a wife and a mistress: Yellowstone is your wife and Namibia is your mistress and you love them both!” I knew immediately that she was right. Both combined to create me, a bosebevokked doppelgänger, a man with a foot in two worlds.  I am bosebevokked in both worlds and my doppelgänger is Namibia.

° ° °

I first heard the word “bosebevokked” in 1989 in Windhoek, the capital city of Southwest Africa, as it was then known, when I spent some time hanging out at the Press Centre, the gathering place for international journalists covering UNTAG the UN peacekeepers, the end of the war, and the coming independence of the country.

At the press center, I fell into conversation with a South African journalist and mentioned that shortly I was to fly to Kaokoland in the far north to travel with Garth Owen-Smith, legendary even then for his work melding the self-interests of cattle herding pastoralists to the protection of the desert elephants and rhinos in that remotest part of the country.  

Garth's partner, Dr Margaret Jacobsohn, was then working as an anthropologist in Himba village in Purros, Kaokoland when first I met her. She arrived in this remote village as part of her anthropology doctorate thesis.  In the process she was incorporated into the village women's moiety, built her own hut with their help and lived in intimacy with the women’s village community.
Dr. Margaret Jacobson in the Namibian village of Purros with her Himba friends, 1989. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Dr. Margaret Jacobson in the Namibian village of Purros with her Himba friends, 1989. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Subsequently she and Garth were jointly awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for their groundbreaking work in creating a successful community conservation paradigm that has done much to salvage the archetypal megafaunal wildlife of the region by involving local communities of indigenous folk in the effort, thus the Goldman Prize in recognition of their ground breaking work. Instantly, I was drawn to the knowing mystique they emanated.

Lowering his voice, the journalist with me said, “Garth Owen-Smith? He is bosebevokked!”  

He explained the word was Afrikaans for “bush crazy,” or more literally, “bush f—ked.” 

The word refers to one who has spent too much of his life in the bush, intimate with the natural world, outside the pale of the conventional world of man. So, when he must go to town after a spell in the desert, the townies, complacent in their bourgeois world, come out of their shops and shake their heads after he has passed by and say, “That fellow is bosebevokked!”  I was immediately delighted with the word, having spent 20 years at that time as a solitary winterkeeper.  I had long known I was bosebevokked, but until then I didn’t have a word for it.

Turning the new word over in my mind I compiled a short list of other bosebevokked souls:  the English “desert eccentrics” Lawrence, Doughty, and Thesiger of Arabia.   Ed Abbey, the curmudgeon of the American Southwest; and Howard, the old prospector in the Bogart film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre came to mind. Perhaps Mohammed of Mecca, though nowadays one must be cautious about voicing such a thought. And, of course, Dian Fossey, fatally bosebevokked among the gorillas high in the sorcery-riddled volcano landscapes of Rwanda. All had found or lost themselves in empty wild places.
Two apparently antithetical landscapes but strangely similar visually and dynamically. The first, at top, is at the edge of a hydrothermal area in Yellowstone, where water is locked up in its solid state during a spell of deep cold.  Frozen, the ground is rock hard covered in crystals and "frost flowers." The second is in the Namib following the rainy season where subsequent hot dry days have sucked all the moisture out of the ground leaving the sands mineral bonded as a richly-textured crusted solid. Photos by Steven Fuller
Two apparently antithetical landscapes but strangely similar visually and dynamically. The first, at top, is at the edge of a hydrothermal area in Yellowstone, where water is locked up in its solid state during a spell of deep cold. Frozen, the ground is rock hard covered in crystals and "frost flowers." The second is in the Namib following the rainy season where subsequent hot dry days have sucked all the moisture out of the ground leaving the sands mineral bonded as a richly-textured crusted solid. Photos by Steven Fuller
To be bosebevokked can be “good” or it can be “bad.”  In the fierce empty places one can discover transcendental wisdom or one can become a crazy old coot that shoots at strangers (or, he can become some combination of the two).  A person can become bosebevokked in any wild place away from the city of man, but deserts do it quickest, and Namibia and Yellowstone in winter are two versions of desert worlds.

° ° °

And, so, I met Garth Owen-Smith, after a couple of hours’ flight from Windhoek in a single engine plane, at Palmwag, an oasis set amid the magical mountains of Damaraland.  Tall, wiry, and thin as a rail, Garth had a lean ascetic face that was sun-cured and framed by a salt and pepper beard.  In the full vigor of middle life, he had an aura of quiet humbleness that I first mistook for shyness.  He was wearing a faded bush shirt and frayed cut-off blue jeans.  The big toe on his right foot stuck out the end of his shoe.

For nearly a fortnight we traveled by 4X4 along rocky tracks, down dry riverbeds, and across wind polished gravel plains.  We camped tentless under the stars in heavy kapok sleeping bags. We renewed our water from occasional springs and we carried all the petrol required for our 400 km journey.  Along the way we stopped to visit with cattle herding Herero headmen, and with tribal game guards recruited by Garth to counter poachers, and we looked-in on elephants and rhinos, both living and dead, known to Garth.  And, we talked a lot.

Garth Owen-Smith's book is considered a conservation classic
Garth Owen-Smith's book is considered a conservation classic
Most nights, surrounded by the darkness all round us while “barking” geckos sang their lizard mantras from the entrances to their ground burrows, we sat up late around the fire trading stories--the currency of our growing friendship.  Garth told of the lion the year before on the Hoanib river that had grabbed his foot and tried to pull him from his sleeping bag. I told of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone that smashed the kitchen window while we ate dinner and then reached inside and took a pot of stew from off the stove.  We compared the characters of big cats and big bears and we spoke of the ways we had learned to live and to sleep on the ground with some peace of mind amongst such beasts.

Stories are the glue that draw then hold us together and make our lives coherent and mutually comprehensible. He told me of the castaway stowaway he found sprawled near death with only his legs showing from beneath an overturned life raft on a remote beach on the Skeleton Coast, and of a prospector dehydrated and lost with his tongue hanging down like a short black necktie.  And he narrated the history of the recent decades of drought, war, and poaching that had devastated the people and the animals of Kaokoland.  Around the fire we spoke late into the night of the ways of animals, of the nuances of weather, of the seasons, and of the years. Ours was the ancient talk of men.

° ° °

Late on our last night in the bush, pressed close to a flickering pile of Mopane hot coals, I asked Garth quietly if he had ever seen God out here? To most people deserts are seen as deficient places in need of improvement, or simply as useless wastelands.   But, in the past deserts were valued as reservoirs of silence.  Their emptiness drew seekers into them.  Deserts were the voids into which God spoke.  Deserts are the ultimately hallucinogenic landscapes of this world.  They are the acid places where a person is especially likely to find or to lose his soul.

The sweep of space and the immensity of silence of these ancient landscapes bear witness to the frightful vastness of geological time and to the loneliness of mortal being. Unshielded by the preoccupations and distractions of mundane everyday life they raise uneasy questions about the significance of human existence. At night in the desert the stars flicker like wind-blown torches. In the white light of mid-day the facts of life and death are stark.  
Famed conservationist Garth Owen-Smith during a meeting with Steven Fuller in Namibia in 1989.  Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Famed conservationist Garth Owen-Smith during a meeting with Steven Fuller in Namibia in 1989. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Garth, after a long pause, responded to my question suggesting that perhaps in our times, God, like so many beings, is an endangered species threatened with extinction by the narcissist nihilism of modern man. That He is yet another victim of the disappearance of suitable habitat.  His voice is lost to us in the roar of our growing numbers and in the babble of metastasizing globalization. These are Bosebevokked thoughts born of lives spent much in empty wild places where the only heard voice is the one in your own head within the background silence all ‘round.

We also spoke of our beloved places, of their archetypal plants and animals, and of the manifold threats to their integrity and even to their ultimate survival.  I came from the oldest and a world famous national park that was widely perceived at home as being in danger of being “loved to death”, while Garth in Namibia was struggling to stoke the embers of nascent tourism so as to build a constituency both among local communities as well as internationally in order to support and sustain elephant and rhino populations whose extinction was threatened.

On that last night around the fire, late when conversation had fallen into an easy silence, feeling my beloved Africa all around me and lost beneath the incomparable sweep of the stars of the Southern Hemisphere I thought in Africaans “Ons mooi land”, (“Our beautiful land”) and I remembered Yellowstone.

Two days later, back at Palmwag, we said good-bye at the edge of the landing strip where the small bush plane waited to take me on the first leg of my long journey back to another season in Yellowstone.  For Garth, the Namibian summer was starting to heat up. We shook hands in the gentle lingering African way---unspoken brothers in the knowledge and in the fellowship of the bosebevokked.

° ° °

Garth was the first in a cluster of friendships that grew in Namibia over the decades among the remarkable “founding fathers” community of Namibian conservationists I have come to know and count as friends.  And now, thirty years later, the similarities of the successes and problems in both worlds have come ever more closely to resemble each the other.  Namibia is booming, and a “safari tour” to its’ incomparable deserts is high on the bucket-lists of tourists from around the world. Chic, exquisitely expensive, fly-in “Out of Africa” lodges are popping up everywhere in the remotest magical places in the country.

The single grassy tracks in formerly daunting places, thanks to GPS and the internet, have become braided corrugated 4X4 thoroughfares fifty and more metres wide. Brief visitors to beautiful places rarely think of the trash, scat, or spoor they leave since they will never in their lives be in this place again.  But for those of us who revere and return it is painful to see coprolites and wind fluttered TP, like brown prayer flags, memorializing the lack of respect for such charismatic places. (under the intense Namibian sun-light most plastics degrade rapidly while poop paper has a very long life. The opposite is the case in Yellowstone, where we also see a growing abundance of both).  
Both worlds are home to archetypal predators. A Yellowstone grizzly bear, above, recently  out of  winter den, feeds on a young winter-killed bison while a pride of lions feed on a just-killed wildebeest. The dynamics of life and death are identical in both worlds, only the players are different. Photos by Steven Fuller
Both worlds are home to archetypal predators. A Yellowstone grizzly bear, above, recently out of winter den, feeds on a young winter-killed bison while a pride of lions feed on a just-killed wildebeest. The dynamics of life and death are identical in both worlds, only the players are different. Photos by Steven Fuller

The spoor of mass tourism is a marker of the successful establishment of a constituency for conservation in Namibia, both among local communities who derive economic benefits from tourism and internationally by the impact this extraordinary place has on the tourist people who experience something of the magic of it, even when viewed through the osmotic membrane of a two-week bubble tour. 

Both are constituencies that have an awareness and an interest in the welfare and the future preservation of viable populations of archetypal animals in some semblance of their ancient landscapes. Garth has devoted his life to melding people, both local and international, to this place, since knowledge and attachment to place is the most powerful force for conservation. Bond with a place, come to know it and in time you will love that place, and so you will resist fiercely those who come to despoil your beloved space.

For now, both places, Yellowstone and Namibia, are faring well, all things considered.  But, in both places, each in its’ own way—global climate change, the mathematics of demographics, the vagaries of politics, greed both corporate and personal, the fragility of the world order, and the ever-present potential for global nuclear suicide are among a few of the many factors that threaten the mortality of both of these last best places. These doppelgängers are a mirror, each of the other, apparently so different but so similar in so many ways in their beauty and vulnerability, in the similar challenges they face, and in the unanticipated consequences of the “success” that threatens them both.

Click here to read all of Steven Fuller's journal entries for "A Life In Wonderland" and this Todd Wilkinson profile of Fuller, "Twilight of the Winterkeepers
Steven Fuller
About Steven Fuller

Steven Fuller has been the "winterkeeper" at Canyon Village deep in the heart of Yellowstone National Park for 45 years.  Well traveled on several continents, he is also an award-winning nature photographer.  Follow him at A Life In Wonderland appearing exclusively at Mountain Journal.  His collectible photography is also available through Yellowstone Gallery.  Steven Fuller profile photo by Neal Herbert/NPS
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