Old cars, Gertruida likes reminding everybody, are like old stories. Although they can’t compete with the fast modern types, they tend to fascinate a select section of the population. Not all people like to rush from point A to point B. If you travel leisurely, you have time to savour the experience.
“So they progressed slowly, the Beetle churning up the sandy track to Kang. Then they swung north, choosing the harder ground between the hills and dunes. It took them four days to reach the spot where Gert thought they’d find the mythical Kang Lake.”
“There’s nothing here,” Lettie said. Despite the difficult circumstances, her natural optimism never wavered. Even so, Gert thought he detected a note of disappointment in her voice.
“I’m sure we’re here.” He didn’t sound sure at all – and he didn’t say where ‘here‘ was. Sill, with their supply of petrol almost at the point of no return, he killed the engine and got out. The heat was tremendous. Around them the endless plains of the Kalahari stretched away to the horizon, with only a small hill to the west breaking the monotony. Ahead was a slight depression with a whitish surface in the middle.
“Look, we know there shouldn’t be a lake. Your father said Farini was prone to exaggeration, and we must remember there are no permanent fountains or rivers in this region. I guess this fills up when it rains and it could be a largish pan. Or puddle. Or something…”
Lettie heard his sentences getting shorter, eventually petering out in the same doubt she had been fighting for some time. Despite everything, she went over to him to give him a hug.
“The hill over there?” He arched an eyebrow. She thought it made him look particularly handsome.
“Well, then all we have to do, is to find a cave, a garden and the twelve messengers. Should be easy.” They laughed at that. Slightly strained, but they laughed. Young people tend to do that when faced with adversity. It’s only when we get older that we imagine our problems being bigger than they are.
“So they trudged over to the hill. Botswana, as you may know, isn’t blessed with many mountains. Especially towards the south, the world is flat although slightly undulating. The hill they were aiming at, off to the one side of the depression, wasn’t really all that impressive.”
“Gertruida, get to the point, will you?”
“I am, Vetfaan. I am. Relax.”
“Oh shush, man. Do you want me to stop?”
The nearer they got to the hill, the stranger it seemed. From afar it looked like a hill. Up close, it was a collection of boulders (Here? In this sandy wasteland?), with a very large Baobab growing amongst the rocks. Neither of them had noticed the tree when Gert stopped the Beetle, but on approaching the hill, there was no mistaking – or ignoring – the majestic Baobab.
“There could be a cave here,” Lettie suggested hopefully, looking at the rocks.
They spent quite some time poking, prodding and peeking between the rocks, but no cave begged discovery. Lettie joined Gert on one of the rocks. He offered the water bottle, which she accepted gratefully.
“There’s no cave here, is there, Gert?” Her eyes pleaded and he felt his heart shrink. “Just that bloody old tree.”
The penny dropped!
“You, Lettie, are the most wonderful, most exquisite creature God ever created!” He jumped up, did a jig on the rock, and almost lost his balance. “Come,” he shouted, “come with me!”
“Baobab trees are much more common in northern Botswana and in the Caprivi. They tend to grow large, and then the trunk hollows out. In Kasane the hollowed trunk provided a handy jail in years gone by, and I’ve even heard about a bar in on such tree.”
Gertruida switches to lecture-mode, telling Vetfaan that some Baobabs are older than the pyramids, and that it is said they ‘don’t become handsome before their 800th birthday‘. Also, she says, the really big ones are the hardy ones that withstood floods, droughts, climate change and lightning strikes. “The rest of their peers died off, leaving these solitary giants to rule the domain.”
“And,” she says, “there is a religious connotation. The Bushmen believed that God threw the tree from heaven, landing it upside down. The reason? Because the Baobab didn’t like the leaves it was issued with. For it’s punishment, it was doomed to spend eternity with its roots in the air.”
“Get on with the story, will you?” The growl in Vetfaan’s voice was unmistakable.
“Look! It’s a tree-cave!” Gert was childlike in his excitement. “This can be the perfect shelter, a wonderful home, and the base for our search.”
He rushed out, picked up Lettie, and carried her inside. “Just like newlyweds,” he laughed.
And so it was that the two of them settled in the tree-cave, made it a home, and used it as a base for their search for the Lost City. Gert hunted when it was necessary, and for the first time in his life used his shooting skills to ensure the survival of a loved one. Lettie became an expert at biltong-making. They used the limited supply of twigs, bushes and wood sparingly for fire, and it was only after Lettie figured out how to make candles from fat (harvested from the intestines of Gert’s hunting efforts) that they had light at night.
But water remained a problem. A big one.
Initially Gert used plastic stills to catch evaporated moisture from plants, but the process was too slow and tedious. Condensed dew on the Beetle helped a bit, as well.
“Gemsbuck almost never drink water, do they?” One day, Lettie pointed at the small dots on the horizon with their straight horns etched against the sky. “How do they survive?”
“I don’t know, Lettie. But I saw tracks of rabbits, jackals and other antelope. Not many, but some. They have to have access to water, somehow.”
So he set off, tracking the different spoor in the veld as best he could.
“…and that’s how he – eventually – found the garden his great-great grandfather alluded to. It was such an unlikely discovery that he sat down, staring at the seeping fountain for a long time, before he believed his eyes.”
Gertruida describes the scene so well that even Vetfaan is interested.
Endless dunes. The dry pan off to one side. A few stunted trees. Two rocks, barely visible above the ground. And a river.
“To call it a river, is maybe a bit flattering to that little fountain. Water oozed from between the rocks, ran for maybe fifty metres or so, and disappeared in the sand again. Around it, grass and weeds grew – but most of it had been eaten away by the animals. The little stream ended in a hollowed-out area – most probably dug by the animals – before seeping back into the dry sand. This is where they shared the most precious resource in the desert – antelopes and carnivores apparently respecting each other’s survival by taking turns at drinking.”
With their water problem solved, their next step was to align the tree-cave opening with the ‘garden’…and then find the Lost City.
“But what about the twelve Apostles?”
“We’ll just have to find them, Lettie. They’ve got to be out there, somewhere. And, knowing what we do now, we’ll have to use a lot of imagination…”