Gert Smit headed due east until dawn. He was tired, hungry and thirsty. The bush in this area is dense, making progress only possible if he followed a game tract. These, are of course, dangerous: not only are snares and traps set for animals, but it wasn’t uncommon for the local soldiers to use landmines to obtain something for the pot at night. Add to that poachers, hunters, farmers and patrolling soldiers, and you get a situation where any game track can lead to any number of surprises at any place.
“So did he make it, Gertruida?”
“Vetfaan, let me tell the story, will you? The middle of the story is as important as the ending – and in Gert Smit’s case, you have to know everything before you can understand what happened later. So…just be patient, okay?”
Gert was about to look for a hiding place for the day, when he heard the cry of a Fish Eagle. Come….on here! Come….on here! He decided to risk the track a little while longer: the river had to be close.
And there, on the river bank, were two mokoros, one with several fresh fish in a little basket in its front. He saw a few huts a bit higher up on the bank, but nobody seemed to be up and about just yet. Gert didn’t hesitate. He got the new suit, socks, shoes and shirt from his rucksack, put them neatly into the empty vessel, and got into the other dugout. One day, he promised himself, he’d come back and apologise. At that moment he felt he had no choice – and that the swap had been a relatively fair exchange of assets. Especially the smart shoes. In some villages, after all, your status is determined by the shoes on your feet.
To keep your listeners interested in your story, Gertruida says, you have to keep on surprising them. That is the backbone of a good story. Now, with Gert Smit’s Tomatoes, she says this is easy to do, simply because fact is so much stranger than fiction.
That’s why, she says, Major Gericke stood there, gaping, after his daughter’s kiss. Even in his well-organised, disciplined mind, he couldn’t get a grasp on the fact that she was standing there in front of him, in this secluded army base so far away from home.
In the army, you handle surprises in one of two ways: either you speak your mind in no uncertain ways (rather loudly), or you dismiss the junior officers in your presence. Gericke chose the latter before sitting down heavily.
“Letitia…,” he started, but faltered when he looked at her again. His little girl was all grown up; a beautiful young lady, self-assured despite the circumstances. He remembered the baby swaddled in a pink blanket, oh, so many years ago. Then the army happened and the war started and he missed how many birthdays? Did she really grow up so fast…or had he simply been an absent father who cared more about uniforms and orders than the simple pleasures of parenthood? “Lettie, my child…what are you doing here?”
She explained. He listened. They shared an uncomfortable silence. Then, breaking all the rules, he told her exactly what had happened to Gert Smit. At least, he told her as much as he knew, which was that Gert was dropped at the Kaplyn and that he hadn’t been heard of since.
Lettie took the news calmly up to a point. When her tears welled up, the strict major got up stiffly, walked over to her and patted a shoulder. It was too much – or too little – for Lettie. She rose from her chair and hugged her father. Hugged him like a little girl would, tight against his chest, her arms around his fit body. And she did what a little girl would do: she sobbed uncontrollably. Major Gericke was too overwhelmed to say anything about the mascara on his tunic.
Later, when she calmed down, he told her they had to figure out something. It turned out to be much more complicated – and simple – than they both would have guessed.
Gert Smit made good time on the Cuando. The stream was strong and he only used the paddle to keep the mokoro (as far as possible) under the overhang of the trees on the banks. Once, he heard a helicopter, some distance away to the west. Twice he heard the crack of distant gunfire. He wondered if his guard was okay..
At about midday he felt that he had put sufficient distance between him and Jamba, and beached the mokoro on a sandy island in the middle of the river. Carefully hiding under the huge Jackalberry tree that dominated the island, he started a fire with the magnesium rod in the emergency kit from the rucksack. He roasted the fish as they were, and then had to wait impatiently for his meal to cool down. Oh, how he wished he had a knife!
After having his meal, he settled down under the tree to rest. It’d been a long night…
The village of Katima Mulilo wasn’t much to look at in 1977, but it was teeming with soldiers. It is situated just south of the place where the Zambezi takes a sharp turn towards the east before tumbling down the gorge of the Victoria Falls, some 200 km away. The South African Defense Force maintained a strong presence here, as well as an airfield and later its only inland ‘harbour’ on the Zambezi.
In 1977 the war had not really reached Katima yet. Armoured vehicles were handy only because they were used to chase elephants off the rugby fields on Saturday afternoons. At that stage a posting to Katima was welcomed – but in later years that changed, of course. This was before the SADF’s success with Operation Reindeer and the response by the Angolans by launching Operation Revenge in 1978.
So, when Major Gericke arranged for Lettie to stay in one of the safe-houses the army maintained (chiefly for reporters, visiting dignitaries and occasionally for important defectors from the Zambian side), it seemed like a very reasonable compromise. Lettie would be relatively nearby, and still be protected. Any news, her father promised, would be relayed to her immediately.
“Lets give it a week or two, my child. We haven’t heard anything from Smit for some time now, but you never know. No news is good news these days. If he had been killed or captured, we would have heard something by now. And…” he hesitated, “I checked on Smit’s record. He had the best training. He’s a rebel, that’s for sure, but he’s also a very capable soldier. He can look after himself.”
“Will you pray, Daddy, please? Pray for his safe return?”
This time Major Gericke looked into the pleading eyes of his little-girl-all-grown-up-to-be-a-striking-young-woman, and it was his turn to blink away a tear.
Traveling down the Cuando at night proved to be too dangerous. There were rapids to negotiate, deep pools where hippos snorted their displeasure and twists in the course of the river that ended up in banks of reeds and grass. Gert Smit adopted a new strategy: he paddled in from first light until the sun was about three hands above the horizon. Then he’d find an island, build traps for fish, and wait for late afternoon. He’d take to the water then, and keep going as long as possible. This made his progress slow, but he was fairly sure he’d avoid being detected in this fashion. He was right.
On the fourth evening, he spotted the Golden Highway. He was back in the Caprivi! He must have missed the Kaplyn in the early morning gloom. Be that as it may, he was both safe…and in danger. With darkness increasing by the minute, Smit settled down for the night. Going down the river past Fort Doppies was out of the question. Hitching a ride to Katima Mulilo would have been equally stupid. No! He had made up his mind. As far as the army knew, he had been caught or killed in Angola. That suited Gert Smit just fine. He’d make his way back to South Africa somehow, tell his mother he’s okay, and then wait for the war to end.
Gertruida smiles sadly when she comes to this part of the story. “Just shows you how naive the poor fellow was. The war would drag on until the 90’s, but he wasn’t to know that. He just had the basic outline of a plan in his head, but his main motivation was his disappointment that the army used him as a disposable pawn in their game of one-upmanship. Savimbi and his men had treated him well, after all, and he felt rather ashamed at the thought that he was sent to kill the leader of UNITA. Were they not allies? The more he brooded on this thought, the more upset he became.
“Well, he decided, the next morning he’d set off towards the east along the Golden Highway, until he was far away enough from Fort Doppies. Then he’d cut across the veld, southwards, to reach Botswana. How he’d survive and what exactly waited for him en route, was a secondary concern. He’d face the problems as they arose.
“And so Gert Smit fell asleep next to the river that was now called the Kwando. And he slept soundly, like a young, tired man should. He was prodded back to being awake by something. He opened his eyes, straining to focus. There, level with his face, a row of boots faced him.
Boots? Eight of them? Here? Then, sitting up in fright, he stared at the faces of the four-man patrol that had stumbled upon him a few seconds ago.”