It takes place in the early 2000s, specifically 2008, six years after Saturn's moons are observed winking out of view. A year later a meteor strikes Mt Kilimanjaro and immediately grows a vegetation no one can identify but that serves to fully cover the mountain and grow at an exponential rate. It immerses everything within in and nothing that enters returns.
So it's said. There is one person who has left. Peter Werther is an early victim of the meteor, a member of a hang-gliding group that was thought decimated by the landing. It turns out, however, that the vegetation, which has come to be called The Chaga (named perhaps for the ubiquitous chaga mushroom?), had kept him alive in a manner of speaking for five years before expelling him. Gaby McAslan is a reporter for SkyNet (based on BSkyB rather than on the developer of the Terminators) who has been put into contact with Werther and has come to hear his story.
But what has struck me best and is the reason I am transcribing some of McDonald's novel here, is that the group Werther has been staying with since his "release" are called the New Millennium Travellers and are a perfect complement to what the Rainbow Family can become in an international manner. Werther's reason for being with them, too, resonates clearly with me.
The Travellers' camp was only a few miles beyond...,down a long dirt road that turned off the track to the Safariland Lodge and meandered along the shore of Lake Naivasha. Their wagons were pitched in the shelter of a stand of flame trees. Some were propped up on cinder blocks, wheels removed, a final surrender to the fuel shortages. There would never migrate along the world lines again. A beautiful hand-painted wooden sign stood over the entrance to the settlement. WHAT THE SUN SAID was its name.
What the sun said was dust. What the sun said was flies. The sun said heat. The sun said melanomas.
Tents and awnings billowed limply in the slow, hot air. Wind chimes set on ornamental door-posts barely tinkled. Japanese fish kites hung open-mouthed, stirring their streamer tails. Stranger fruit hung from the branches of the flame trees: things like cracked leather cocoons bound with steel wire. There were three of them, each about five feet long. They turned slowly anticlockwise to Coriolis force. A long generator chugged, most of the camp's power came from silent solar panels. All the vans had small steerable dishes on their roofs: the economics of techno-nomadism was that the information revolution had made it not only a desirable lifestyle, but a necessary one. You followed the sun and lived the lifestyle in harmony with the planet until one day the fuel ran out and left you stranded in the heat and drought of Africa's Rift Valley. With the Chaga approaching.
The Kilimanjaro Event had made East Africa the social navel of the planet. International Bright and Beautiful, and those who clung around them hoping that brightness and beauty were contagious, followed the planetary media circus to the plains in the shadows of the mountains. Most had moved on when Africa and things African slipped out of fashion. Some remained. They found room for their humanity to resonate in Africa's great spaces. They made their camps under the big sky and settled into sun-warmed introversion and the evolution of white-boy ethnicity. The men of What the Sun Said were bearded and sat about with their hands dangling loosely over their knees, watching what was watchable. The women, naked to the navel, carried their babies slung at their waists and intimidated Gaby with the firm upturn of their breasts. Children in beads, feathers and zinc oxide war paint on noses and cheekbones came running to greet the visitors. Their skins were tanned hard brown, there were flies around the corners of their eyes and mouths.
"Are you the people come to talk to Peter?" they asked. "We're here to take you to him. Come on." They pulled Gaby...along...In one of the big, billowing saffron tents, someone was playing a thumb piano...
This was what a man come back from the heart of darkness looked like. His face was tanned that dark brown peculiar to Teutons gone native. His hair was blond, long and worn in the community style; shaved at the sides, plaited at the back...He had the palest eyebrows she had ever seen. He did not effect the white-boy ethnic chic of the Sun-Saiders. He was dressed in a relaxed linen suit over a simple white T-shirt. No jewelry. No tattoos or ritual scarification or body piercing. His only idiosyncrasy was a leather biker's glove on his left hand...A swirl of warm wind set the black pods hanging from the trees swaying into Gaby's peripheral vision.
"They are into rebirthing," Peter Werther said, observing Gaby's distraction. "Spiritual metamorphosis."
"There are people in those things?"
"In sensory deprivation. They let them out after three, four days. The thing seems to be that they don't tell you how long they are going to leave you hanging, or even if they are going to come back at all. Face the fear and pass through is the experience. I think that after three days upside down in this heat, you will believe anything you are told about yourself. There are always willing volunteers, and not just from the community."
...[Peter Werther continued,] "I am sure you are wondering, why this place, why these strange people with their strange rituals? Well, they are a good people, it is a good life they lead, but the real reason is simpler. They were the first people I met when I came out of the Chaga. I walked, you see. I was brought to the edge, and told I must leave now, and I just walked north. They do not ask questions, you see. They accept...[These] people, in their months of travel, gave me the time and space to learn about myself, and what I have been changed into, and what it is I must do. And now I think I know, and I am ready, and these people have let me bring you into their peace and calm because they agree with me that the world needs to hear what I learned, back there."