“Gee, Vetfaan, it is so huge! I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Vetfaan is putting on his old rugby shorts (as pyjamas) behind the Ford and glances down.
“It’s not bad, isn’t it?” He wriggles into the shorts, smiling proudly.
“It really is awesome. Almost frightening. In England I only got to see small bits of it, but over here…”
Vetfaan peeks over the back of the pickup to where Fanny lies in her sleeping bag. She’s fashioned a cushion out of a towel and is staring, wide-eyed, at the stars. Suddenly feeling deflated, he crawls into his own make-shift bed.
“You ate nothing tonight,” he says, changing the subject to hide his embarrassment
“It was the most wonderful thing, Vetfaan! !Ka took me into the veld and showed me a twig with a single, withered leaf. That, he said, was the source of water. He dug out a tuber the size of a melon and cut it open. Some liquid dripped out – it was slightly tangy, but quite drinkable. Then he scouted around for a while until he found a little bush. It looked dead, but he said it only makes leaves after the rains – which, like you know, is a rare thing. But on those dry branches, he found several round seeds. He said it’s old berries.
“Well, he picked one, and gave it to me. ‘Chew‘ he said. And he made me cup my hands and he squeezed some of that tuber’s juice in them. ‘Put it in your mouth with the berry‘, he said. When I swallowed, he said I won’t be hungry for two days. And you know what? My food-craving disappeared at that moment. I get thirsty, but my hunger is gone. I am amazed…”
They settle into a comfortable silence, allowing sleep to creep up to them.
!Ka wakes them when the Morning Star shines brightly above the horizon. After a quick mug of coffee, they upload and face the dune. !Ka says he’ll run ahead, testing the sand. Vetfaan must simply follow him. The little man sets of at a remarkable pace while Vetfaan coaxes the cold engine to life. !Ka is halfway up the dune before Vetfaan builds up speed to gain momentum for the onslaught. Following !Ka’s tracks, they reach the summit at the same time.
Driving downhill on a dune is more dangerous than going up. Keeping the vehicle pointing straight down, Vetfaan avoids using the brakes until they are on firm ground again. Fanny lets out a few shrieks every now and then, causing the men to smile happily. This is fun!
The next dune is higher, and the sun is already blazing down with considerable intensity. This time, Vetfaan gets stuck about halfway up. Again maintaining a straight line, he reverses doown, takes a longer run-up, and just makes it to the top at a snail’s pace. !Ka rewards him with an appreciative smile. It has taken them three hours to cross two dunes.
“We walk now.” !Ka announces.
It soon becomes clear why they had to abandon the Ford. They next dune (!Ka says it’s the last one) is even steeper and higher than the two previous ones. Every step vauses a little sand-avalanche, dragging the feet back and making progress painfully slow. Sweating and mubling curses under his breath, Vetfaan reaches to summit and flops down.
“There it is.” !Ka points to the bottom. The two iron-clad wheels are half-buried in the thick sand. Little bits of the rest of the wagon are a pathetic reminder of what the wagon once must have looked like.
They scramble down to stare at the wreck. Whatever happened here, happened long ago. To the north, a gulley between the dunes stretch off into the distance. To the south, dune upon dune obscure the horizon.
“They must have come from up there,” Vetfaan points to the gully, “and couldn’t go any farther. Why…?”
“My great-grandfather, he told a story. Many years ago, many wagons trekked across the desert. Men women, children. Some cattle and sheep. Even chickens in cages below the wagons. They were going that way.” !Ka points to the west, ” but some died. Many died. Wagons got stuck, oxen died. Water got finished. My great-grandfather, he says there are many graves. But those people, my great-grandfather said, didn’t come here. They trekked far that way.” He points north. “He also said some turned back. Some made it, others died. Lots of people died.”
“The Thirstland Trek!” Vetfaan runs a hand over the rusted iron cladding. “You’re talking about the Afrikaners who started trekking in the 1870’s. We learnt about them at school. They trekked from the Rustenburg and Pretoria, wanting to go to Angola. Some say it was because they wanted to escape the English, who were intent on annexing the gold fields. Others say those families simply trekked, because they had it in their blood. These were men and women who experienced the Groot Trek of 1838 as young adults and children – and they couldn’t face settling down. But, like !Ka says, it was a disaster.”
“Look,” !Ka says, “the wagon is pointing that way.” He points south. “They must have come from the desert, hoping to reach the Orange River…”
“…and the Cape Colony.” Vetfaan finishes the sentence. “They were hoping to escape the desert, only to run into worse conditions. Poor, poor people.”
“And there they are…” !Ka points toward the sand some distance away.
The three skulls – two adult and one obviously a child – lie scattered some distance away. No other bones seem to have survived. They walk over to stare down at them in silence. !Ka says something in his own language, and stands away to one side.
“You must bury them, Mister Vetfaan. They’re your people, you must do it.”
Fanny sinks to her knees and picks up the smaller skull, cradling it against her breast while rocking gently from side to side. When Vetfaan walks over to put a calming hand on her shoulder, he hears her singing softly. It’s a lullaby.
“I need something to dig with,” he says quietly, “I’ll be back.”
Of course, the years have done their damage. Scouting around the wagon, he finds not a single utensil or tool to help him dig. The wheels and a few floorboards of the body of the wagon are all that remain. He bends down and tears one of the ancient planks loose from the floor. It’ll have to do.
The sand between the dunes is quite shallow. Beneath it, is a layer of much harder and compacted ground. Vetfaan slaves away, making slow progress. After a while, !Ka joins him with another board. Between them they manage to dig a hole about four feet deep. The two tired men glance at each other and nod. This is what they can do, no more.
Fanny insists on laying the skulls in the grave herself. One by one she places them in a neat row, humming softly. It’s a tune Vetfaan remembers – Danny Boy…
“You must say something,”: she says in a small voice.
Vetfaan recites the Lord’s Prayer in Afrikaans, and looks up in surprise as Fanny joins him with the English version. They reach ‘Amen’ together.
“Shall we sing something for them? The Afrikaans Bly by my Heer semms appropriate.” He hums the tune.
“Oh! Abide with me? Yes, let’s do.”
Once again the words in the two languages merge and combine effortlessly. The two voices – his strong and low, her’s filled with emotion and faltering – fill the gulley between the dunes, washes over the remains of the wagon, and is carried south, to where the never-reached river flows. At least, Vetfaan thinks, the wind will complete their journey.
!Ka helps to fill the grave and, with nothing else to mark it, they plant the two planks upright at one end of the hole. After a final moment of silence, they turn to start their journey back to the vehicle. The sun is already dipping towards the west – they’ll have to hurry.
“Will you look at that!” Fanny points at the floor of the wagon. The hole in the floor of the wagon, left by the two boards, gape at the sky, revealing an old iron-bound chest. “That must have been protected by the boards.”
Vetfaan lifts the chest – about the size of a small suitcase – from it’s resting place. It is obvious that the wagon had some sort of compartment or drawer below the floor, and this is where the chest remained hidden for more than a hundred years. The lock is rusted, and crumbles in his hand. He lifts the lid…
(To be continued…)