When Brigadier Gericke gets out of the ancient Land Rover, the entire population of Rolbos is there to meet him. He is, just like Gertruida expected, the epitome of the eternal soldier. He may have left the army, but the army can never leave him.
Despite his arthritis, the old man stands up straight to survey the little crowd in front of Boggel’s place. Vetfaan and Kleinpiet, who recognises the authority that comes with the old man’s bearing, snap to attention before they smile sheepishly at each other. Old habits…
Gericke is just a tad under six feet tall and his pale blue eyes still retain the piercing look of a commander. His lips are obviously not used to smiling and the sunburnt brow is criss-crossed by a myriad of wrinkles. Boggel is glad to notice the reddish nose – at least the man has his priorities right!
“Good morning.” He seems to relax a bit. “Which of you is Gertruida?”
“Come on in, Brigadier. We have a lot to talk about.”
Gertruida has to recount as much of the story as !Ka told her, with the brigadier filling in gaps here and there. At last, Vetfaan thinks, the story makes a bit of sense.
“Maybe you’d like to rest a while, then have supper? We can be off tomorrow morning, first thing.” Gertruida noticed the tiredness in the older man’s features.
“No. We leave now. I have enough diesel and supplies. You,” he points at Gertruida, “and the Busman will accompany me. The rest can secure the base and await our return.”
“My daughter is out there.” He sweeps an arm towards the desert, “and according to your intel, she is in the presence of a dying man. There’s no time to waste.”
There is no such thing as a simple story, Gertruida says. Even the most basic tale of the little teddy bear’s picnic must contain an element of conflict, characters and a plot. What would happen for instance, if a thunderstorm rained the picnic out? Did the bears pack an umbrella? Or have a plan B to continue the party down in the rabbit’s burrow? So, she says, it’s not unusual for subplots to develop, or for the storyteller to pause a while to make sure his audience can follow the storyline.
Many, many years ago, the currently barren plains of Botswana were green pastures and huge lakes. The Okavango, the Cuando and the Zambezi joined forces to feed these lakes, before they drained into the Orange River. The trees were tall, the massive herds of antelope roamed about, and the People From The North discovered gold and diamonds in the areas we now call Zimbabwe and Botswana.
These men – dressed in flowing white robes – enslaved the local population, forcing them to dig, to cultivate and to build. Great Zimbabwe rose above the plains of Africa and was connected to the Atlantic ocean by a series of fortified cities.
Then, in a tectonic upheaval that changed Africa forever, the land tilted and the lakes drained towards the Zambezi and the Limpopo, forming (amongst others) the Victoria Gorge and the Cahora Bassa rapids. Botswana lost her lakes and rivers. Man and beast were forced to leave by the unforgiving forces of nature.
History left no clue as to who these people were, or what happened to the treasure they accumulated from the African soil.
However, the Bushmen have legends about this time – stories they tell at campfires, late at night, when only the howl of a distant jackal laments the time when Botswana was a paradise of unimaginable beauty.
The brigadier’s Land Rover may be old, but it has been maintained perfectly. When Gertruida and !Ka gets in, they have to move a few boxes to find a comfortable space – Gertruida behind, !Ka (as navigator) in the passenger seat.
“You’ve planned for an extended trip, Brigadier?”
“Harrumph!” He glances over his shoulder as the vehicle bumps its way over the open veld. “An unprepared soldier won’t survive the battle. Everybody knows that.”
For once, Gertruida falls silent. The brigadier doesn’t encourage conversation. She decides to try another angle of approach, and asks !Ka whether he knows anything about the area where Gert and Lettie stayed. “…and was there really a city at one time?”
“My people have a story about this place. Men came here from there,” he points vaguely towards the northern horizon, “and they lived here in the Time of the Water. This was one of many cities. Many. You know Kubu?” Gertruida nods, remembering the ‘island’ in the Makgadikgadi salt pans with its ruins and Baobab trees. “That was another city, too. Many. There were many.”
“This place we go to, is like that. Tall people stayed there in the Time of Water. They used boats on the sea that was here that time. And they planted things. The trees there? They planted them. And they made gardens to make the place look nice. The Old People say these men planted those Welwitschias, like they did many other plants. But when the Time of Sand came, everything else died.”
“And the diamonds, !Ka? Where did that come from?”
The Bushman shakes his head. “There were many! The Waters washed them out on the sand, on the edges of the Water. People walked and picked them up, they were so many. My father told me those diamonds, they come from where Jwaneng is today. It’s not far.”
Gertruida smiles at this. In Bushman culture, distances may be ‘far’ or ‘not far’, depending on the season, the time available to travel and the people in the travelling group. Add old people, or a drought, and ‘not far’ becomes ‘far’. !Ka is now in a Land Rover, hence everything is ‘not far’.
They travel through the night. !Ka occasionally glanced at the cloudless sky to guide the brigadier a little this way or that. At one stage the old soldier asked (ordered?) Gertruida to drive while he takes a nap.
Dawn rewarded them with a spectacular array of colours.
“How far, still?” Gertruida discovered a Thermos flask with tepid coffee, a welcome refreshment for the weary travellers.
“Not far. Near now.” Even the brigadier smiles wryly at this.
And then suddenly – Gertruida will remember the time because she glanced at her watch – at five past eleven exactly, !Ka sits up to point to the horizon. There was no mistaking the hill with the lone Baobab tree next to the dry pan.
Inside the tree-cave, the woman cradles the man’s head on her lap. His breathing is laboured, barely more than shallow gasps. His eyes flicker open to search for hers, find them, and he manages a tired smile.
“My love…” A spasm of coughing prevents him saying anything more.
“Shhh…” She wipes the perspiration from his brow. “I’m here, Gert. Maybe they’ll still come? Here, have some water.” She holds the damp rag to his dry lips.
“It…doesn’t…matter.” With a supreme effort, he lifts his hand to touch her cheek. “You’re here. I…don’t…need…anything…more.”
She won’t cry. No she won’t! Her man, her Gert, has never seen her cry. It’s not something she does. And now, in these final hours, she needs to be strong.
Gert pretends not to notice the single tear that dropped on his heaving chest…