“The two men staring at Gert – let’s call them Dan and Ben, because the language barrier prevented any proper conversation, let alone introductions – were simple fishermen. They caught the bream and the tiger fish that teemed in the river, and sold it to the local villagers nearby. They also robbed and stole whenever the opportunity arose.”
Vetfaan sits up straight. Now, this is more like it!
“But, except for the shabby rucksack – which seemed to be empty – this stranger to their area obviously had very little in the way or worldly possessions. But…he had army boots, and that was something worth taking risks for.”
Deep inside the human brain is a centre. It’s not big. It’s a tiny region where a complex network of neurons meet. These never-sleeping nerves collect data from the senses, even when we’re asleep. When drowsing off – say in your own bedroom – this centre goes into Green Mode, which happens when the subject feels safe and secure. Put that same person in a war zone, or alone in the veld without a fire or weapons, and the centre switches to Red Mode. It’ll scan and analyze everything that poses a possible threat.
That’s what happened when Gert Smit finally dropped off in an uneasy slumber that night on the banks of the Chobe River.
And when the two fishermen-cum-crooks approached the sleeping figure on silent feet, that same centre lit up like a bonfire. Danger! They were two yards away from Gert when his eyes snapped open. He remained as he was, but fully alert. Two men…obviously on their way towards him and he was equally certain that they weren’t there to pay him a friendly visit.
The fight was short, sweet, and final. Gert Smit may have been very young, but he had been trained by the best and was extremely fit. The two fishermen had no chance.
“Now: how do you sort out two criminals when you can’t understand a word they are saying? After a few lusty blows the two men lost their interest in Gert’s boots. but his retaliation had been so convincing that they clearly understood they had to remain seated under the tree where he had deposited them. The scant moonlight from the halfmoon made it impossible to make out features. Hand signals and Fanagalo had to do.
“It took time. A lot of it. In the end, Gert understood that his boots were worth a lot of money amongst the locals, and they understood he wanted to go to the nearest town down the river. That’s when the unlikely partners found common ground of mutual interest – which proves the tremendous power of barter trade. First they take him, then he’ll pay them. Although it sounds simple, it was way past midnight before the bargain was struck.”
Gertruida sits back, quite pleased that she told the story as it should be told: leaving out unnecessary details, but still elaborating on the storyline when the need arises. This she says, is important when conveying a story – you have to know what to leave out. She says the audience will enjoy the story more if you allowed them to use their imagination. The best explanation she offers, is this: listening to a story is like a lover’s first kiss: it is best done with eyes shut…
Ben and Dan, despite their failure that night, were usually quite successful in their endeavours to relieve other less fortunate visitors to their area of prized possessions. That’s why they, unlike their kin and friends who had to make do with dugouts, had an aluminium boat. And a 25 HP engine. And a few jerry cans with petrol they stole from an army truck. While they wouldn’t compete with the fast boats the police used on the river, they were at least comparatively better off than most.
One may say they weren’t overkeen to comply with Gert Smit’s demands to be taken to the nearest town, but still – they weren’t keen on another bit of headbashing, either.
The Chobe Safari Lodge of 2014 is a far cry from the collection of humble huts that started the enterprise in the 60’s. Although 1977 saw battle between Rhodesian troops and Botswana soldiers near Kasane, the region retained it’s laid-back atmosphere. When the three of them booked into two separate huts, the clerk – obviously an avid reader – mused: “The reporter, the photographer and the damsel – now there’s a title for a book…” Only the older man flashed a wry smile.
Jacques tried to sound bored when he asked about any unusual activity in town lately, but still couldn’t keep the anxious tone completely hidden.
“Not much,” the clerk repleid dreamily, “the usual. An elephant chased a few tourists, old Riley from Maun recovered a Unimog near Savuti and three cases of malaria had to be flown to Gaborone. Oh, and our ice-machine broke down….That’s it, really.”
“A lot of strangers? Maybe lost soldiers?”
The clerk just shook his head.
The three of them settled down at a table next to the river. Lettie ordered a G+T, afterwards asking Jacques what the plan was.
“Well, I’m acting on a hunch. The old newshound-nose, you know?” He tapped his red proboscis. “If I’m wrong, I’m in trouble. If I’m right, I’m on of a great human interest story. I’m tired of writing how happy our troops are up here. If I can get an interview with a rebel…”
“So, we wait?”
“Yes. Three days. We wait three days. If nothing happens, I’ll just have to face the music.”
So will I, Lettie thought, my father will be furious when he finds out I’m not in Katima any more.
“So they waited. The hours dragged by. They played three-man bridge, guzzled down warm drinks until – on their second day – the ice-machine was repaired. It was on the third evening, when they were halfway between despair and being drunk, that they heard the putt-putt-putt of a small petrol engine of the river. It was too late for the sunset cruises and an unusual time for a police patrol.” Gertruida sips her Diemersdal, smiling at Vetfaan who is still reliving Gert’s fight with the two fishermen.
Lettie knew! She just knew! She got up (a little unsteadily) and rushed down to the water’s edge. Jacques and Harry stared at each other for a moment before the penny dropped. They were on their way to join Lettie, when the outboard started up again. The sound slowly disappeared in the distance.
“False alarm,” Jacques sighed as he steadied himself against one of the trees next to the river.
Harry gave a wolf whistle.
There, in the misty moonlight, he saw a couple embracing. Lettie had her arms around a khaki-clad man – a very dirty man, even in the half-light. And, strangely, his photographer’s eye noticed the man was barefoot.
He stumbled back to Jacques.
“Your story can wait, Jacqie. Stories may have a best-by date, I understand that. But love, real, genuine, yearning love is best enjoyed when it’s fresh. It’s a harvest-a-day thing. What you don’t use today won’t be around tomorrow…tomorrow you have to work hard in that field – all over again.” The young photographer surprised his older colleague by being so serious. Then he smiled. “Come on old man, I’ll buy you a drink. I’m sure they’ll join us….eventually…”
Kiss me, kiss me a lot
For I am afraid of having you
And losing you all over again.