A Rock and a Hard Place: An American Geologist's Adventures in Africa

A Rock and a Hard Place: An American Geologist's Adventures in Africa

by George Zelt, PhD


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Deadly Snakes. Heatstroke. Scorpions.

These are just a few of the obstacles that George Zelt encounters as a graduate student in apartheid-era South Africa. In A Rock and a Hard Place, readers will follow George as he explores this contradictory, beautiful country during a time of growth and oppression. With tales of finding refuge in a desert sandstorm, being stalked by a leopard, and narrowly escaping a herd of rampaging Cape buffalo, George’s story will leave readers breathless—their hearts racing, with the imagined grit of sand in their teeth! 

Nature is not the only obstacle George encounters. When he makes a discovery that may disprove an established geologic theory, his graduate advisor (and developer of said theory) does everything in his power to prevent George from going public. George has to fight not only against nature but also the politics of university life, all while navigating the complexities of South African culture.

​Who would have thought studying rocks could be so thrilling?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626345713
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication date: 09/17/2019
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

George left his Buffalo, New York, home in the 1960s when he was seventeen years old to hitchhike across the United States and Canada on such famous roads as Route 66 and the Alaskan Highway (sleeping in corn fields and hedges and among huge pine trees). In the 1970s and 1980s, he continued, building a shack on the shores of the Red Sea (which was burned down by vigilantes), traveling the coastal roads of Yugoslavia (where he ate with gypsies), and venturing farther north to the Arctic Circle to see the Laplander people before encountering his greatest challenge in Africa. He worked as an environmentalist and then developed his own company in the lawless 1990s in Russia and Kazakhstan when the Soviet Union disintegrated. He holds five degrees, including PhDs from universities in the United States, Finland, and South Africa and has published scientific articles. He recently moved to Texas with his wife and child after spending two years in Thailand, working on his books.

Read an Excerpt


1977: Prohibited Area, South West Africa

"How long, Patrick?" I asked, squinting through the back window of our Land Rover.

"Five, maybe six minutes." His keen eyes darted from side to side as we raced over the immense expanse of sand. "Then, bejesus, it's on us ... a frantic beast with whirling sand claws ... It will blot out the sun as it beats the hell out of us."

"That's kind of a poetic description," I replied, surprised and turning toward him. He wore his white long-sleeved shirt hanging out of his jeans, as did I. White helped reflect the omnipotent sun's assault on the desolate land below. Steamy heat waves rose, quivering. We were in our adventurous twenties, agile and fit, but now worried.

My throat tightened, and the heat increased as we slid the Land Rover's windows closed. There was no room for error when the desert bowled a sandstorm. It could kill. At six foot three, I could look out the top of the boxy windshield while Patrick stared intensely out the middle and drove.

Where should we go?

It was all so very empty.

Wide-brimmed hats lay on the seat next to us. Under them were rather featureless maps and a Brunton compass, the type we geologists carried. For a map to be of use, we needed topography. But there wasn't much of that out here.

Tapping sand fingertips began to play on our metal roof. Grains seeped inside through passages unknown, peppering Patrick's jetblack hair and scruffy beard, then blending with the sun-bleached strands hanging from my head. Fine particles began to work their way into our ankle boots and pants. We had been traveling some days through the Namib Desert; our luck had run out.

Within moments the darkening gray cloud behind us increased in size, rolling in a wave of fury as it sucked air and sand into its lungs. The bright desert was metamorphosing, extracting payment for our intrusion. The ungainly Land Rover plowed forward.

We were in the vast Sperrgebiet, or prohibited region, of South West Africa (which in 1990 would become Namibia), geology students illegally hunting for diamonds.

The area bordered the Atlantic Ocean, stretching north from the Orange River border of South Africa for about two hundred miles and extending some sixty miles inland. It was also known as Diamond Area 1 by then-owner Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa Ltd., which patrolled it using men with guard dogs.

As our Land Rover charged up a gently rolling rise, Patrick pointed through the haze in front of us to a long, isolated ridge of massive rock in the near distance.

"Precambrian," Patrick yelled over the increasing wind. "A billion years old." The ridge jutted upward like the desert's spine. Maybe we could find a hole between rocks to crawl into.

We gained speed. Lances of sand struck our roof furiously as the Rover lunged and finally reached the apron of boulders strewn along the base of the rock wall.

"I'll drive along by the boulders!" Patrick yelled. "Look for a crack in the rocks, a hollow, some protection!"

The tuneless drumming increased. We inhaled wisps of the storm's desiccated, heated breath. No vehicle could keep it out. We tied our well-used bandanas around our faces and looked like the thieves we were. Moments later we could see only twenty meters ahead as the sun's rays struggled through a sand army with trillions of airborne soldiers.

A hazy black hole just big enough to squeeze through appeared in the gray granite-gneiss ridge wall we were passing. Patrick braked and maneuvered into the boulders in front of it. His clenched hands twisted the steering wheel as if to strangle it. I slid back my window to watch for angled rocks that could slit our tires.

"This okay?" he yelled anxiously, unable to see much. The motor gasped for want of air while the wind whistled eerily as it tore along the ridge and between its fallen boulders.

"Hell," I replied, bringing my head back inside, covered with sand. "No choice! Shut it off."

Securing our hats with chinstraps, we clambered out, dragging a canvas. In the frightening, enraged tempest, we hauled it over the vehicle. Like tying a handkerchief across your face, the fabric protected the Land Rover's insides, the air filter, and fuel and brake lines from fine dust and sand as well as preventing the interior from being painted in powdery gray. The brim of Patrick's hat swept upward like a sail on a boat and with one hand he pulled at his chinstrap while the other heaved at a rope looped around a bumper. My sunglasses twisted off my face. We were spitting sand.

"Bring the water bottles!" I mouthed, pointing to the back door while standing on the wide rear bumper and gripping a corner of the billowing canvas with one hand. The sand pelted my face as I stretched up to grope for the shovels on the roof rack with the flapping tarp pulling me in the other direction. Throwing the spades to the ground and jumping down, we roped the reluctant last corner of the cover to the bumper. Pausing to look, we realized there was no question about staying inside the Land Rover and eventually falling asleep. The doors could be blocked with drifting sand, and it would become our tomb.

Bent over and bulldozing our way through surging sand, we hobbled for the black breach. It had been shaped when massive pieces of rock had fallen against one another, leaving a space within. Over thousands of years, additional rocks had tumbled from above, sealing and enlarging what was probably an elongated cavity. We squeezed through, away from the rage. It whistled hysterically as if calling us back, gusts of hot, prickling sand arms trying to find us in the dark.

"Did you bring the flashlight?" Patrick asked.

"No ..."

"Oh shit ... something else could be in here."

"Matches ..." I jiggled a plastic vial I carried. Immobile as possible and concentrating on the darkness, I struck one. A whiff of sulfur and the match flickered. Nothing moved in front of us — we inched hesitantly away from the crack. Patrick lit another. The glows ranged surprisingly far in the pitch black. We were in a room-sized cavern and there, in the middle, were the silver and black ash remains of many old campfires. A refuge that had protected Bushmen travelers for perhaps thousands of years! They were the only people in the huge region capable of living under such conditions. "Whew," I whispered, "we got lucky."

"It's relative at the moment; have to check everywhere," he replied.

The worsening storm quickly darkened the entrance. Patrick moved forward, another match held in front of him, peering around the sand floor, looking for things like snakes and scorpions seeking shelter as we were. Something could be silently sulking in a corner, like a hyena or cat; but it seemed likely they would have already issued a warning. We searched carefully. Only blurred remains of human and animal prints lay in the packed sand, their presence recorded as if in a book. Relieved, Patrick began looking at the walls more closely. On a large, flat surface, there was something, an image of some sort.

We inched closer, still wary, and very wide-eyed as we focused. Suddenly, a painted herd of fleeing elands emerged from the wall. In the simplest, most expressive sweeping lines and bold colors, the animals were at full gallop. Caught in midair, some leaping gracefully, their four hooves pointed backward, their heads held high, and their eyes burning with terror of the small men pursuing them. With buttocks as pronounced as watermelons and erections like upright elephant trunks, the hunters were alive with purpose.

I knew that in many places in southern Africa, hunter-gatherer Bushmen, or San, the world's best hunters, painted with great skill and loving care the animals they pursued. But I had never seen any such paintings.

In some way, the Bushmen saw themselves in the animals they killed. They shared the same freedom of the endless desert and endured the same thirst and starvation. They burned in the same heat and suffered when gritty gusts tore at their wrinkled skin. When they were too old to keep up with their band, they were abandoned and then died.

To the Bushmen, the hunter and hunted were two soldiers who eventually would meet in combat, and one must die so the other can survive. From these deep emotional connections emerged the Bushmen's fervent desire to pay tribute, and perhaps a debt, to the hunted animal.

Heat driven by the tempest accumulated in our shelter as night approached. We lay on the cave floor beyond the reach of the groping sand that struggled to fill our refuge. The storm pounded and swirled, raced through rock cavities, whistling to trumpet its presence and torment our sleep, until sometime near daybreak a blade of church-like sunlight thrust its way inside. It was magic.

The sensation wrought then by the desert's sudden, utter stillness was otherworldly. We hesitated for a moment as if a heavy weight had been lifted.

Squeezing out of the crack, stiff and disoriented, we stared. Sand — everything was covered in flowing and graceful drapes of pristine sand. Not one blemish.

"Seems a shame to pee on it, Patrick," I commented, unzipping myself.

"Maybe something will grow," he replied, adjusting himself and then bending backward to stretch and spit.

I instinctively kicked some sand in front of me. "Let's check the Rover."

Shovels on our shoulders, we slid forward on fresh, unpacked sand.

"There she is, Patrick, all wrapped up and trailing sand like a bride's dress."

"It will start," he stated, reading my thoughts. We swept sand off the canvas and found the Rover wasn't buried too deep. "If we have to, we'll use the manual crank to turn the engine over."

Lifting the canvas from the door, Patrick squeezed his way inside, where everything was covered with a layer of golden dust. Sneezing and scratching, he pumped the gas pedal a few times. "It's in my pants," he complained.

"Keep it there."

Looking at me, he smiled, raising his black eyebrows, and turned the ignition key. A throaty gasp penetrated the dead silence. It started. He manually engaged four-wheel drive to provide maximum traction on the air-filled, loose, and slippery sand.

Patrick slowly began to rock the Land Rover back and forth as I shoveled furiously. Finally, we backed out. The Rover, still covered in canvas and a blanket of sand, looked like a weird float in a parade.

After sweeping off more sand and removing the dragging canvas, we celebrated with a breakfast of canned tuna on stiff bread. It was about seven in the morning when we pulled away.

Patrick shifted the gears. "What did you do with the tuna cans?"

"Threw them into the cave," I answered, opening the forward air vents and lighting a cigarette.

"Good. I don't like the smell of decaying fish."

Several hours later the few landmarks we searched for still had not appeared. The sandstorm had transformed the desert landscape. I got in the driver's seat and drove to the crest of an enormous dune while Patrick stayed below, making coffee on our gas burner. Using binoculars, I looked for some familiar object on the horizon. The desert sky was cloudless, the air clean and fresh. There was no pollution, nothing. I could see a vast distance. No signs of life, just seamless sand. I was awed and somewhat frightened by the enormity of what surrounded us.

Patrick had spread our crude, partially self-made map on the ground as the water heated. He waved to get my attention. I drove back down and joined him. As we drank black coffee, he pointed to red threads protruding from the sand next to his boots. It was an odd discovery. A moment later and on his knees, he gently scooped layers of sand away from a piece of fabric. Curious, ignoring the heat, we dug, carefully shifting the sand with shovels.

"What could be here?" I said aloud.

Patrick paused, wiping his face, and smiled. "I'll bet the Bushmen will be happy to find your tuna cans."

"Yeah, it will be like treasure to them." They would be able to see themselves in the shining bottom and make tiny arrowheads from the metal.

"Did you leave anything else?" "A pile of crap."

"Good thinking! They will know the gift isn't from the gods and won't be afraid."

Patrick and I continued digging, more slowly now, and passed the canteen between us. We were thankful when the sun finally lowered enough for the Rover to create a shadow.

From the brim of the wide, ever-deepening hole with sand running down its cracker-dry sides, I looked down at Patrick as he spat sand out from under the bandana around his face. I had mine on, too. Desert bandits, I thought again. Yet here in the desert, as at sea, concepts like theft changed with the wind, like the massive sand dune above us.

The bones of an undersized hand appeared. The body of a small man followed. The dry air had preserved him. His skull was strangely flattened and distorted from the weight of the drifting sands. His bones were broken. His teeth were worn — indicating he'd been old. He may have been buried here for a hundred years.

He lay in a crawling position, one arm partially reaching forward, where he died. Nestled with the body, we found a charred tortoiseshell, bits of an ostrich egg, a small bow, and a few arrows that crumbled under our touch. In silence we swept sand away to reveal the tips of seven horn paint pots, which had hung from a crumbling thong belt. Each pot contained the dried remains of a different color. He was a Bushman; his size, distinctive bow, and frail, three-part arrows identified him. And he was one of many Bushmen artists.

We found a fragile leather pouch. Parting the dehydrated skin, we squinted at its contents. Colored, smooth pebbles and pea-sized pieces of what looked like broken glass fell out.

"I'll be damned!" Patrick whispered as he stared at the transparent pieces he had separated out and placed in his palm.


"I'm not sure, but it's easily possible." He held the largest one up between thumb and forefinger then looked closely at it with his hand lens in the sunlight. "It looks like a partial octahedron. It's symmetrical, its planes catch and reflect the sunlight, but there are fracture lines. An industrial-grade diamond? Not a valuable one, but a diamond? Some seem to have paint on them," he continued, looking at the others. "Anyway, we can't find diamonds here, can we?"

"No, it's illegal. But why would he want them?"

"That is the question. Let's make camp. We can talk about this and make a plan. Tomorrow morning we need to move on. If the guards find us here, we'll be in jail, after they and their dogs jump us."

At dusk the desert became cool and the stars so clear that every mythological configuration in the sky seemed very close to us. Our fire, made with wood we carried on our roof rack, was nestled against the steep side of the dune I had driven up hours ago. We sat with light jackets on, watching and sipping coffee as it cast a restless half-circle of light and warmth over us. Above, a single row of sand grains formed the knife-edge crest of a beautifully sculptured wave. At times the uncanny stillness was penetrated by a slight whisper of wind, immediately followed by a powerful, explosive gust that tore at the crest. The sand grains shot forward, tumbling in one violent yet predictable instant. With this, the smoking sand dune grew and moved imperceptibly forward with timeless dignity. Patrick and I, thoughtful of our day's activities, gazed at our campfire and talked long into the night about the strange Bushman grave and his collection of stones and about the origin of the diamonds buried in the sands surrounding us.

Our evening story began tens of millions of years ago. Then, to the southeast of us and at least five hundred miles inland from the coast, in South Africa, diamonds formed. Diamonds are created in the earth's mantle under tremendous pressure. They are transported to the surface by deep-source fiery volcanic eruptions that often form cylindrical kimberlite rock pipes, also called blue ground. The blue ground is identified by diamond prospectors. Over the ages these rocks were eroded by wind and rain. Their contents, including the extremely hard diamonds, were carried along a prehistoric drainage network of rivers, including the current Orange River, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. There the diamonds were carried north by strong long-shore drift produced by powerful prevailing coastal winds and the cold Benguela Current. These forces deposited diamonds sporadically along the desert shore of the African coast. Over millions of years the waters gradually receded from the land, leaving that ancient shoreline where we now sat, some fifty miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

Winds and shifting sand reconcentrated the inland diamonds, causing them to lodge in the exposed cracks and fissures of the solid rock beneath the sand. Ancient streams then sporadically carried the diamonds back toward the receding ocean. In the early 1900s, diamonds were found scattered throughout these inland expanses all the way to the coast. Mining rights were later granted by the South African government to De Beers; they sealed off the zone from the public and hired hundreds of black men to collect the plentiful diamonds.


Excerpted from "A Rock and a Hard Place"
by .
Copyright © 2019 George Zelt.
Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 1977: Prohibited Area, South West Africa,
2 1975: Into Apartheid Africa,
3 God Gave Us This Land,
4 Blue Lace and Hobbit Holes,
5 I Know What I'm Getting,
6 Preparing a Rock, Finding a Woman,
7 "The Last Bushman Was Shot by My Father",
8 Oven at High Noon,
9 Unexpected Exposure: Lady and Leopard,
10 It Could Be Worse,
11 Watering Hole Death,
12 Black Wall of Fear,
13 Sacrificed,
14 The Beginning of Environmental Science,
15 White Hunter Remembers Livingstone's Folly,
16 Into the Largest Delta in the World,
17 From Dugout Canoes to Military Convoy,
18 Gold in a Gully, Vultures in a Tree,
19 Equatorial Africa: Nairobi and Mount Kenya,
20 Self-Loathing in Lamu,
21 Trading with Xhosas,
22 Guano over Everything,
23 The Procession: Baby's Coffin in Red Clay,
24 1979: The Doctorate and the Witchdoctor,
Reading Group Guide,
About the Author,

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