They have to stop at the dry drift as a mother warthog leads her young across the road. Hurrying as fast as their short legs can carry them, the erect tails signal their urgency.
“Oh, look, Kleinpiet! Aren’t they cute? It looks like a little procession of dwarfs…”
“Well, don’t be deceived. Those tusks can do a lot of damage and even cheetahs will shy away from a confrontation. But…they do look cuddlesome, don’t they? And look at the five babies: they always run in a specific order, with their little leader right behind mamma.”
Precilla smiles happily – get Kleinpiet into the veld, and he’s a veritable fountain of information. Often, in Boggel’s Place, he’ll sit quietly while drawing silly pictures on the counter top with his beer froth. Out here, he’s in his element and talking with him isn’t only easy – it’s quite a pleasure, too.
“I’ve watched this female for some time; she has at least eight burrows I know of – sleeps in a different bed every night,” he glances over with a smile, “but only with her kids. Males have no function other than providing the other half of the recipe for pregnancy. It’s the females that do the rest – protecting the young, feeding them, putting them to bed at night. That’s why she’s so careful not to use the same burrow every day – she doesn’t want predators to figure out how to ambush her family.”
The little procession disappears behind some bushes, leaving only a small dust-cloud to mark the spot. Kleinpiet reaches below the pickup’s seat to extract two cold beers, twists off the tops and hands one to Precilla. She’s wearing no makeup today – just the old-fashioned blouse and jeans – and somehow he prefers her natural look. She catches him staring at her and blushes.
“Don’t look at me that way, Kleinpiet. You make me nervous.” Although said in a light tone, the words sting.
“I…I was just…” He doesn’t finish the sentence. A lioness suddenly appears from the overgrowth, clearly following the scent of the warthogs. Kleinpiet has switched off the engine when they first saw the family of hogs, and now the big cat awards them only the briefest of glances. Within a few short seconds, she melts away in the bushes, still intent on securing a meal for the day.
“Oh, nooo! That lioness wants to eat one of the piglets!” The horror on Precilla’s face reflects her thoughts. “You have to stop her, Kleinpiet! Please!!” Her hand grips into his thigh as the reality of the situation dawns on her.
Kleinpiet sighs. “The lioness most probably has a few mouths to feed as well – and they have to eat to survive, too. It’s the old law of nature, I’m afraid.” He pats the cramping hand to try and calm her down. “Long ago, I’ve decided not to interfere. Nature must run its course, Precilla – the way it’s been since the beginning. We humans have an uncanny way of upsetting the balance that has existed through all the ages. I’m sorry, but we’ll just have to let them sort it out themselves.”
“But they’ve got no chance! In that lioness charges, least one piglet will die!” A tear streaks down te rosy cheek.
“Nah..it isn’t one-sided. That hog has a burrow next to the tree over there. The breeze comes from over here,” he points to the direction the animals came from, “so she most probably smelled that lion a long time ago. That’s why she’s heading towards safety. At the burrow, the young ones will pile in head first, but she’ll reverse in to watch the opening. And believe me! If you want to sustain some serious damage, you go ahead and poke your snout into that hole. She’ll slash away with those tusks until you give up. No, they’ll be fine, I’m sure.”
He starts the vehicle and allows it to roll forward slowly. Precilla seems relieved, but still keeps on glancing towards the tree to see if anything happened. Despite his assurances, she’s not convinced at all.
It’s the first time that Kleinpiet invited her to his farm. Like all other in the area, the farm is a huge stretch of Kalahari, dotted with stunted growth and the occasional wind pump. The sheep have been divided into smaller groups, each assigned to a specific area to prevent overgrazing. Precilla is mildly surprised at the neat little homestead with its small lawn surrounded by thorn trees – and says so.
“It isn’t much, I’m afraid, but it’s enough. Over there are the sheds for shearing and storing the wool; and if you look carefully, you’ll see my cow Julia Milkcow, browsing next to the tree behind the wind pump. The two cottages are for the workers – Patrick and Nkosasana – who help make this set-up work. Come, let me show you to your room.”
The house is spotless. Although the furniture is slightly aged and the floor has born the brunt of generations of feet, everything is tidy and all surfaces shine with obvious recent attention. The kitchen dates from a bygone era, with the Dover stove and the lantern as testimony of the remoteness of the farm. The single bathroom offers an enamel basin with its jug, a bucket-shower and a toilet. In the guestroom, a small arrangement of desert flowers keeps the candle company.
They spend the afternoon on the stoep, talking. Kleinpiet has quite an astounding array of wine in his little pantry, and soon they forget the strangeness of being alone in this isolated spot. Kleinpiet gave the workers the weekend off, and they have the place to themselves.
“Aren’t you scared to live alone like this? I mean, with all the farm attacks and such.” Kleinpiet has just refilled their glasses and looks up in surprise at the question.
“This?” He stretches out a tanned hand towards the endless horizon around them. “No, this isn’t what all those farm attacks are about. We’re too remote, see? Now, if you live near a city, that’s different. There you have thousands – millions – of disillusioned people who believed the government when they were promised housing, schools, hospitals and exorbitant salaries. There, if a farm is attacked, it is easy for the TV crews and the newspapers to get the story. Sensation. Morbid fascination. And the government doesn’t do much about it, because if they get involved, the truth of their non-compliance will surface. It’s far better for them to label it as racially motivated than to acknowledge their failures.
“But over here? Who wants this ground anyway? Its only if the Kalahari is in your blood that you will want to stay here. Sooo …. To answer your question: no, I’m not worried. But like that warthog, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. They attack me, and I’ll show them my bank overdraft. That’s enough to scare anybody away.” He laughs at this, but can still see she’s uncomfortable. He’s not going to tell her about the radio network, the electrified fences and the arsenal in the cupboard. Nobody’s going to take his farm away from him – not like they do in Zimbabwe. He’s the fifth generation Kleinpiet on this ground and he plans to make sure his son will take over one day. “Enough of that. Let’s go for a drive, and I’ll show you the farm.”
He takes a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses along as he allows his old Land Rover to meander across the vast stretch of arid ground. They sight a few gemsbok, a lonely tortoise and later, an eagle circling overhead. In the shade of a thorn tree, he stops and scans the veld.
For a few moments its only the creaking of the cooling engine that mars the silence – then they are enveloped in the unique hush of a Kalahari sunset.
“This is what peace is all about, Precilla. Late afternoon, a lovely lady and a good wine. What more can a man ask?”
“Maybe that more people in the country realise the value of listening, and stop shouting?”
On their way home, Kleinpiet takes the same route they used this morning. Maybe it’s luck. Or possibly coincidence. Or – more likely – it just happened, like things do on this great continent. Whichever it is: as they round the bend in the sandy road, the mother warthog and her five youngsters trot across the road, tails held high, proudly proclaiming they have survived another day in Africa.
Precilla heaves a happy sigh. “They made it.”
“Yes,” he says. “One day at a time, Precilla, one day at a time. As long as they have a burrow, they’ll endure.”
Sometimes men say things about their world: about the struggle and risks for survival. Men all over the world do it. And all over the world, women listen to this on a far more personal note. Precilla and the warthog have at least one common goal: to find a way to live in an environment few others are able to.
“That’s the thing to do,” she whispers to the last little warthog as it disappears amongst the shrubs. “One day at a time. May the burrow be warm and safe tonight.”
Kleinpiet isn’t at all sure she’s talking to the warthogs.