Namibia’s Messum Crater, Part I – Architect of Soul

Another adventure with Frikkie von Solms – this time we go to the Messum Crater, one of my favorite places on the planet.  Messum Crater is full of immense space, timeless mystery, peace and transparency.  One can sit for hours there, doing nothing like Frikkie in the entrance of this little cave – perfect place for solitude and meditation.
The unassuming sign right off the coast shows the way to go and lets us know the road is not paved(!)
The road into the Crater leads across what seems to be an endless desert.
The first time Frikkie lead me into the Messum Crater I was absolutely awed by the vast presence revealed there.  Each time I’ve been there I feel I am entering into the shimmering, transparent primal soul of the earth. Messum, named for an early explorer, was formed by volcanic action about 130 million years ago and has been virtually untouched by human engineering since that time. I’m going to include some geological background -which fascinates me- just imagining something that happened 130 million years ago highlights how ephemeral the present moment is and how brief our little human lives are. In a place like this I can just dissolve into this vastness of time and my spirit is free to roam.  My chief source for the scientific explanations has been Namibia: Geological Wonderland by Nicole Grunert. Frikkie himself is well versed in geology and he also lent me his geological source book while I was in Namibia.
Have you ever just wanted to watch the shadows of clouds move across time?  A current estimate dates the earth as being 4.6 billion years old.  For over 200 million of those years, the African continent has remained a stable landmass.  The pieces that did break off shifted away and became the other continents, but Africa is the keystone, the core from which all other land masses floated away and to which they will someday return.  As though continents were the shadows of clouds drifting across the desert.
The Messum Crater was formed by the eruption of a volcano  from a geological “hot spot” – a stable, local heat force deep under the earth that causes the crust to melt thus producing magma which becomes a volcano.  The hot spot which created the volcano which became the Messum Crater occurred in the geological period known as Post Karoo times, 130 million years ago.  It was during this time that one of the pieces of the African continent broke off, the piece named Gondwana.  This world-shattering  event  formed the Atlantic Ocean and was accompanied by heavy earthquakes and massive volcanic eruptions. The Messum Crater is geologically the most complex of all the Post Karoo geological structures.   It is about 18 kilometers (11.16 miles) in diameter and is the volcanic centre of the southern Etendeka lavas which produced the magma and basalt of massifs (compact groups of mountains) in that whole area.  Messum is a caldera – a large volcanic crater formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of the volcano.  Imagine how huge that volcano was if the collapse of its “mouth” is 11 miles wide.
In the center of the crater is an area called the Eye of the Volcano. It is a large circular, sandy area which a mere 130 million years ago was a cauldron of fiery red lava – a churning molten sea whose explosions and intense heat created basalt, granite, and all manner of quartz crystal.  That volcano was and continues to be an architect.  The large rock to the left was not part of the original volcanic action.  It is estimated that it may have been left behind during a later ice age by a melting glacier.  It is very large which you can’t tell from this photo.  Next few photos are close ups I took standing right next to it.
Here is a portion of one edge of that big rock,
And this is a section of the other side.   Don’t those two protruding pieces look like huge animals? An oryx had been resting under the shade here just as we were arriving.  It quickly and quietly vanished, leaving only footprints…
traces of presence in a deep silence, soundless motion.  Notice the little crystal up top near the center.
Scattered all around the Eye are “zillions” of crystals which took thousands of years to form in the dark, hot  interstices of the volcano.  We will now travel from the center to the outer rim of the crater.
Messum is described as two concentric circles although when you are driving around in it, it feels more like a spiral or labyrinth.  I took this photo from a bluff across from this section of what I think is the outer wall of the Crater.  The looser sedimentary stone on the top surface is being eroded or, you could say, sculpted by time, wind, heat and moisture into rows of protruding formations which you can imagine are dragon beings.  Frikkie says they are also referred to as the legions – guardians of the space.
A closer view of one of these formations created by erosion.
And  here is a view of one of the internal walls.  Those long slopes remind me of the paws of giant lions.
Geologically speaking, on the lower level you see the solid volcanic rock foundation, probably basalt with quartz veins, and on top the less stable sedimentary stone which is more easily eroded by wind storms over thousands of years.  This is primal architecture.  In terms of how these ancient happenings sculpt the human soul, just think about all the minerals needed by our bodies: iron, calcium, magnesium, sodium, copper, zinc and so on.  These minerals are present in rocks and we ingest them through plants which get them from soil and animals who eat plants.  We have been formed from elements of the earth and the more we become aware of this, the more our soul can grow in appreciation of our profound connection to these very ancient stone ancestors of ours.
It is difficult to get a sense of the overwhelming size of this Crater from views of parts of it.  Recall the opening photo of this post –  Frikkie sitting in the little cave.  In this photo, you can better get a sense of the size of just this slice of the interior of the crater where this particular little cave is.
And this is me, taking photos as usual, dwarfed by enormity.
Perhaps I was taking a photo of this guy way up there with his dry mouth open in hope of even a one drop of infrequent rain.  I could spend years in this place discovering a new rock, a color, a view.  Everything seems silent and still, but subtle change is constant.  Every breeze re-arranges sand grains – each movement of the sun creates new shadows and colors.
There are areas where the stones are red (ferric oxide), and the heat created in the expansion/contraction process creates cracks and crumbling.
A piece of shale can serve as a tray for a desert lunch.  Yes, how awful, I’m drinking coca cola in the Messum Crater.  A cold beer is even more refreshing after a long day in the unrelenting sun.
There are all sorts of cozy spots for an afternoon nap, unless the imagination wants to see this as the mouth of a huge snake.  A shadow creates his eye ( a little down from the center) and maybe you can see a few fangs inside the mouth…
and here’s a feat of balance – perhaps the artist was a melting glacier a master of precision.
This is rock pudding, a geological phenomenon  created when individual stones are caught in a finer grained stone, such as sand stone when the elements were molten liquid.
A honey comb pattern  appears when the rocks fall out due to the above mentioned heat-caused contraction/expansion process.   Infrequent human visitors have inserted stones with their names and the dates they visited – see upper right, but to me leaving such a token only emphasizes the transitory nature of our passage on this earth. Imagine carving a poem on a rock and inserting it into one of these tiny caves.  The rock itself is a poem which will outlast all our human words. Why is that a kind of comfort for me – giving me an opportunity to surrender into peace?
Ancient humans who dwelt in the Messum seasonally used stones to create shelters for themselves.  The stones were the foundation upon which they interwove branches, twigs and grasses into huts.  These were ancestors of the people in the Damara culture.
This  circle of stones was also assembled for a shelter by the ancient Damara.  For all the thousands of years gone by since this circle of stones was built, when you are present there, it seems like yesterday. Memory is present here – of a time when the crater was lush with water and greenery, teeming with game. I warn you, it is hypnotic – you will want to sit down on the sandy ground and stay and stay soaking in the energy of that memory.
This is the entrance to the walls on which the Messum rock paintings, over 2,000 years old, can be viewed. I experience it as a sacred place rich with our human beginnings of exploring the world through creating images. These ancestors of the Bushmen  would paint at a place in the rock where there was a crack or shape which served as a entrance into the invisible world beyond the surface of this one. It is this kind of activity, this interaction between the human imagination and, in this case, stone, which creates soul, encourages the soul to explore and experience existence in ever deepening ways.were created but the paintings themselves were done by an earlier group, ancestors of the Bushmen.   (See my earlier post about Namibian rock art for more detail.)
The one image there I am riveted by is the fish.  The first time I saw it, I wondered why/how an image of a fish ended up on a desert wall.  My first understanding on that day was sparked from my sense of the ancient memory present there – of course, two thousand  years ago, there was a river here!  Then over the next year,  I learned more about Bushman art, about how the fish represented a being which lived in the spirit realm, an altered state represented by being underwater.  And now as I continue to reflect on all of this experience – I now understand how the earth itself, especially in a place like the Messum Crater, stimulates the human imagination.  There is a long, world-wide tradition of humans retreating to the desert to experience visions.  And why did they go to the desert for this?  The solitude, the silence, the emptiness?  Yes all of these, because there is something in that timeless space which evokes the powers of the soul.  Hence, the title of this post – Messum Crater: Architect of Soul. 
Is this ancient cave art?  No these are naturally created patterns on the wall in the Messum Crater.  Here’s another…
What do you see here?  a running figure?  an antelope?  or a mysterious being half animal-half human?  The point is that it is the interaction between the human eye seeking pattern and form and the markings in the stone which spark  the imagination which grows the capacity of the soul.  In a place like the Messum Crater, where we are free of the distractions of town and city life, the noise and bustle, the constant message to shop till we drop, we are better able to allow such primal earth forces to inform us, inspire us, feed us the soul experience we constantly hunger after  which the glitter of commodities and the accumulation of possessions can never satisfy.
After hours of being in the Messum, you begin to see visions everywhere, some of them humorous…did this guy bum a cigarette and smoke it down to a butt?
and this guy, is he the Wise Old One of the ancient stones?  He’s been staring at the sunrise for centuries.
Sometimes the vision is more subtle and resembles a sculpture.  Can you see the head of a fish here?  Look half-way down and find the open mouth and then looking toward the center, the eye of the fish created by a curved slit of shadow?  I call this the Dreaming Fish.
and here perhaps the suggestion of the head of a  a horse – the eye is almost in the exact center of the photo.   Can you see the pupil? and the rounded muzzle? Of course the soul-making experience of being in the Messum Crater is not confined to seeing figures and patterns in the rocks.  The heart of it is allowing yourself to dissolve in the mists of time, the world of subtle color and shape.  Next, let your eye and heart linger on these scenes of stark and utter beauty…
the heat haze of mid day…
the meandering path of the soul…
drink in the the mystery and allure of distance…
watch the late afternoon drench the air with gold…
let your heart be refreshed  by the array of color and shift of the day toward sunset…


And if you are fortunate enough to find some citrine crystals on the floor of the Crater, and bring some of them home, you can enjoy every day all the colors of  sunlight  playing across that beautiful, mysterious land where deep underground in intense darkness these crystals were formed over untold numbers of years.  The are  a love poem from the earth to the sky.   Stay tuned, dear readers, for Part II of the Messum Crater – The Roots of Soul.