Of course they laughed at him. The huge bandage around his head, the constant hand-behind-the-ear and the puzzled look did, indeed, paint a funny picture – but it was the story behind Vetfaan’s deafness that made them snigger the most.
If, for instance, Vetfaan had been an upright, honest, law-abiding citizen, he would have spared himself considerable pain and embarrassment. Or if he didn’t take up the conversation in Boggel’s Place so seriously, his medical bills would have been less. Then again, fracking had been a subject hotly debated, and who would have thought such a threat to the environment could have caused so much damage? Maybe it is only right to blame the peach brandy Boggel served that night: after all, we all know that the most difficult problems in the world are reduced to mere irritations by the time Boggel finally gets to lock the door to his bar every night.
It was Kleinpiet who started the debate about fracking. He said the price of diesel made it difficult to make ends meet. Peach brandy, he said, had not increased in cost – and nobody else wanted to use the over ripe fruit, anyway. You simply picked up whatever had fallen from the tree. So why, he asked, should oil be such a problem? Was the fruit of the tree not similar to the oil underground? You don’t go about manufacturing oil or peaches – Mother Nature does that. Therefore, if peach brandy is virtually free, why then, so should oil be.
Gertruida then launched into a long and detailed lecture on refineries and world economics – which her audience either ignored or didn’t understand. It’s been a longtime understanding in Boggel’s Place that one must at least appear to be listening to Gertruida’s speeches, but that it is permissible to have another few tots, daydream, and nod occasionally – simply to allow her to finish whatever she’s saying. It was when she concluded her dissertation on the balance of energy needs and the supply of money and oil that Kleinpiet said something about how nice it would be if the country had it’s own oil supply.
“Look,” he said, “fracking involves pumping a lot of sludge into the ground. That’s bad.” He swayed to his feet, shaking his head at the thought of the pollution that’d follow. “But…if we discovered a new way of getting oil from under the Kalahari, we’d be rich. Maybe..,” here his face lit up at the thought, “…Rolbos will expand. Can you imagine a Spar, or a Checkers or even a Woolworths in Voortrekker Weg? Think about it: no more trips to Upington to buy shoes from PEP Stores – we’d have one right here! We’d be exporting oil – and save a lot by walking to the store and not driving halfway around the world to get to a decent shop.”
Of course his opinion received much more attention than Gertruida’s dreary lecture. Servaas wanted to start drilling immediately (at the end of Voortrekker Weg, where the road stops. In front of Boggel’s Place would be far too noisy). Oudoom agreed, dreaming of a bigger congregation and a new coat of paint on the church. The increase in business wasn’t lost on Boggel either, while Sammie could just see “Sammie’s Woolworths” in blazing neon above the entrance to his shop.
“Why drill? That’s expensive. What about using one of the dry holes we have in the district – some of them are very deep already.” (It has to be said that this was Vetfaan’s contribution, so he has only himself to blame.) “Gertruida, tell us again how the do this fracking? There must be an easier way.”
Somewhat reluctantly – for she must have had an inkling of what would follow – Gertruida explained that holes were drilled vertically, and then expanded horizontally. Then, she said, they pumped water and chemicals into the substrata, which forced gas – and sometimes oil – to the surface.
“We can’t do that.” Vetfaan glared at his glass, which was empty again. “We’ll develop the Rolbos Method.”
This – understandably – resulted in everybody chipping in with new and brilliant (if somewhat inebriated) ideas of how one can do ‘clean’ fracking. In the end, the slurred debate subsided into a sullen silence. Getting oil to the surface proved too much for even the ingenuity of their late-night plans. Like most evenings in Boggel’s Place ends, they bade each other a sound sleep before swaying to their individual homes.
The next day Vetfaan wasn’t there when Boggel opened his bar. This does happen sometimes when he has to count his sheep or repair his tractor, so nobody was particularly worried at first. However, when two o’clock arrived and Vetfaan still didn’t show up, it was Servaas who wondered whether the burly farmer might be ill or something.
“He did have an inordinate amount of peach brandy last night,” he said, “and he could have gotten lost on his way home,”
A rescue party was hastily assembled, and armed with a bottle (‘Hair of the dog,” Kleinpiet insisted), the group traipsed down Voortrekker weg to knock on Vetfaan’s ‘dorphuis’ – the cottage he uses when he’s not on the farm (which is most of the time. – he always says his sheep do a better job of looking after themselves than he does). There, after knocking on the door for a few minutes, they opened the door (nobody locks doors in Rolbos) to find the interior in complete disarray.
“This looks like a burglary,” Sersant Dreyer eyed the mess suspiciously.
“No, he was looking for something. Look, his clothes are still in the cupboard and the radio is there, next to the bed.” Gertruida assumed that superior attitude of one who knows everything. “But he did dig into his old army holdall. See how the uniforms are scattered around? There are the boots and the socks and the…” She stared at the oversized brown underpants in horror, unable to say the word. “…and here’s the steel helmet..and the bayonet.”
“Oh. My. Word.” Kleinpiet whispered the words, his face ashen. “It’s the hand grenade.”
Kleinpiet – with a sideway glance to Sersant Dreyer – then told everybody that Vetfaan had brought back a Russian hand grenade from the border. “He showed it to me once, and then he put it back in the old coffee tin. That coffee tin,” he pointed at the empty container, ‘which now no longer has anything in it.”
Servaas caught on immediately. “Didn’t Gertruida say they used explosives to help the fracking process?”
Vetfaan later explained that he pulled the pin, counted to five, and dropped the grenade into the dry borehole on his farm. Gertruida had to tell him (by facial expressions and various hand movements) that there was no need for him to shout, which only served to decrease his volume to a slightly more acceptable level.
“When I got to twenty, I realised the hand grenade was dead. So I went to the house, got a torch, and looked down the hole. That’s when it went off.”
Of course everybody said that was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard, and for months after his hearing returned, Vetfaan endured the jibes and the snide remarks with an embarrassed grin.
One day he’ll tell them about the black stuff oozing from that borehole. That’s the borehole that was quietly filled up with cement afterwards; the one carefully disguised by the construction of a huge ant heap over it. This was done quite cleverly, understand? If you didn’t know it was man made, you’d think it’s one of the hundreds that you see every day in the Kalahari.
Vetfaan thinks it’s far better to be silent about such things. Once he’d sobered up, he realised he liked Rolbios – and the Kalahari – just the way it is, thank you.
And Sersant Dreyer? There’s no evidence, he says. Nothing to indicate any criminal activity. After all – did he not help Vetfaan build that ant heap? No, poor Vetfaan had a temporary loss of hearing, and that’s a medical problem. Policemen don’t get involved in such matters.
No, sir, not at all.
For the readers who do not understand the simple lyrics: it is an old Afrikaans folk song, describing the beauty of the Kalahari. Enjoy the pictures, sit back, and let your mind wander...