“I tell you: it was the wind. You have to admit it was quite a storm.”
“I’m not so sure. Too much of a coincidence, if you asked me. And we did taste that biltong – it was quite tasty.” Servaas, maybe the greatest Doubting Thomas since biblical times, still wonders about how – exactly – Bertie Bragass disappeared. The Kalahari is a big place and lots of strange things happen here…but Bertie’s case must be seen as completely unusual.
“You have to admit: his lies were sometimes even more impressive than our president’s. That really takes some doing. Imagine! Telling us about that giant meerkat. Did he think we’re stupid or something?”
“True. And what about the time he dragged that elephant rib in here? Told us it was the tooth of the last lion he shot. Almost had me convinced with his statement that it came from a rare species. Leo Giganticus, he called it. According to him, that thing swallowed his sheep whole,”
The group at the bar nod in unison. Yes, they remember all too well. Bertie phoned the bank manager from this very bar, asking for a loan to buy a canon to kill the beast two weeks prior to that visit. Of course, the manager refused, which caused Bertrie to use some rather spicy language as he swore to get that critter. (It wasn’t clear whether he referred to the manager or the lion). Then, fourteen days later, he dragged that bone in to Boggel’s Place to tell them he managed all by himself in the end, thank you. He maintained he used a bucket of rat poison which he wrapped in a fresh sheep’s skin.
“It sure looked like a tooth.” Precilla always defends the underdog.
“It also looked like a rib. A big one. Must have been an elephant’s.” If you listened carefully, you’d have heard the tinge of doubt in Vetfaan’s voice.
“Don’t forget about his tall giraffe, either.” Kleinpiet’s remark makes them all snigger again. “Remember? The one he trained to predict the weather?”
This is one of the favourite Bertie Bragass stories in the bar. This giraffe, Bertie told them, was born with an abnormally long neck. The poor animal had to hide behind the barn on his farm when the wind was too strong – to protect its head from flopping around in the gusts. Bertie said he found the animal in a terrible condition.
‘You see, its body and legs were only slightly larger and longer than usual, but the neck had grown to such an extent that he couldn’t feed himself. The trees were just too far below him to reach, understand? Even when it bent its knees and made the neck fold double, there was no way he could reach the topmost leaves in the trees. Christian-like person that I am, I started feeding the poor beast, it was the least I could do.’
According to Bertie, he had to hoist bales of grass into the air by standing on top of his longest ladder fixed to the platform on his wind pump. Initially, he said, the giraffe was famished and he had to keep on feeding it constantly for a full month – day and night. After that, the giraffe’s hunger subsided a bit.
‘But I noticed something. Because it was so tall, it could see very far. And you know what? It could see a storm coming two days away. That’s when it’d run to the barn to hide. It didn’t like it much when the wind whipped its head around like that. And if he poked that large head into the barn, I knew there would be lightning, too. That giraffe saved many of my sheep by warning me of impending storms. Grew quite fond of it, I did.”
Vetfaan snorts as he finishes his beer.
“Ja, one could almost swallow that story as well as the lion swallowed his sheep. But I must admit: the way he told of the giraffe finding a mate, was rather creative. He reckoned there must be a herd of long-necked giraffes out there somewhere.” He sweeps his hand owardsthe endless dunes, smiling at the thought. “So up rocks this other stretch-neck and they wander off into the wilderness. Bertie seemed genuinely upset.”
“He had me going with the huge meerkat for a while. Of all his tall stories, that one was just too much.” Boggel pushes fresh beers across the counter. “No meerkat can be as big as a rhinoceros. I almost told him to stop lying like that.”
Servaas shakes his head. “Man, when he told me, I laughed in his face. He wasn’t offended or anything like that. He just said he’d show me. Then, last week, he arrived her with that load of biltong on his pickup.”
‘You guys didn’t believe me? Well, I shot one of the meerkats and made some biltong, just to prove to you I’m not exaggerating. Here, have a taste.’
To everybody’s surprise, the biltong was tender – almost sweet – and they soon found themselves asking him to tell them more about the meerkat.
‘There’s a family of them. You have to be careful – they seem to be rather aggressive. I once got too near one of the smaller ones and he growled at me, showing his big, yellow teeth. The sound he made sounded like thunder. And he stomped so hard on the ground, I lost my balance. No, they are fiercely ferocious, I can tell you.
‘They only come out at night, so I had to shoot this one,’ he indicated towards the heap of biltong, ‘when he got isolated from the family. Then, realising that I was in mortal danger, I tied the carcass to the pickup and dragged him back home as fast as I could. Skinning took a whole day, but it was worth it. I’ve got enough biltong to last me the winter.’
The group at the bar stare at the little bowls of biltong on the counter. Bertie had pomised to bring the skin as proof of his conquest two day ago. When he didn’t arrive, Vetfaan drove all the way to Bertie’s farm.
“Tell us again what you found, Vetfaan?” Gertruida, who likes to think there’s an explanation for everything, can’t undertsand what had happened to Bertie.
“Well, like I said: when I got to his farm, the place was deserted. No trace of Bertie or his pickup. So I scouted around and found some tracks leading off into the desert. Following these, I got to a giant depression – you know? Like a hole almost filled with sand. Or maybe an underground burrow that collapsed.” To add graphic to the picture, Vetfaan places a saucer on the counter to show them what the depression looked like. “The sand is very loose over there, see? Something must have dug a tunnel there and it collapsed. Now….the pickup’s tracks led to that depression…but I couldn’t find them leaving it at all.”
“So the meerkat family had their revenge?” Servaas’ sarcasm is tangible.
“Ag, I don’t know, man. One day old Bertie will saunter in here with another of his crazy stories, I’m sure.”
Gertruida, who misses few things (if any at all) still doesn’t understand Vetfaan’s reaction. Every time he tells them about his visit to Bertie’s farm, he gets vague about the speed at which he left the place. No, he didn’t go into the house again. And no, he didn’t wait to see if Bertie returned.
Big, burly Kalahari men will never admit to being scared. Vetfaan will tell them he simply got into his vehicle and drove back to town. Yes, maybe he drove a bit faster than usual, but that was to tell them about the collapsed burrow. He knew, of course, they’d laugh at this and poke fun at him – but he can only report on what he’s seen, not so? At least, he can tell them the bit they can believe – not the rest.
Which is why he can’t – won’t – ever tell them about the ladder he saw strapped to the platform on the wind pump. And, of course, about the clearing behind the barn and the soft sand bearing the impression of two huge bodies that had hidden there during last night’s storm.