Vetfaan’s Most Marvellous Mechanical Monster

download (2)“We can’t go on like this!” Vetfaan thumps a ham-like fist on the counter as the lights start flickering again. “First it was a silo that collapsed, now they say the pumps can’t keep up. How difficult is it to run a power station? You make a fire – that’s what the coal is for – and heat water to make the steam to turn the turbine. Voila! The lights go on! Water and coal. Two things. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out you have to make sure you’ve got enough of both to make electricity.”

“Ja, and now they want to build more nuclear plants. If they can’t run an old-fashioned coal burner, what can we expect when somebody on the nightshift has to push a plutonium rod into the reactor? Declare a National Braai Day?” Servaas ignores the disapproving glances from the rest. “Seriously, guys: we won’t need electricity anymore – we’ll all just glow in the dark.”

“We’ll just have to make our own electricity, that’s all. We’ve got lots of sun…”

“Yeah, right! Listen, Kleinpiet, that’s the problem. We need light…at night. Not during the day. Making electricity while the sun shines is stupid. Simply open the window, that’s all. But at night? Now that’s the time to worry about. That’s when ESCOM throws the switches and leaves us in the dark…”

***

And that’s how it started. A simple conversation because the light flickered. Then again, you don’t need much to create havoc in Rolbos.

Gertruida said something about wind and energy, which made them all fall silent for a moment while they thought about the chilling breeze that cools down the Kalahari nights.

“Okay,” Vetfaan said, “we’ll rig up a generator to one of the windmills, and that’s it! No more problems.”

If Gertruida hadn’t said anything to that, the conversation might have drifted to the vexing question about how many wives the president has or some such less serious matter. But, being the genius she is, she had to contribute her two cent’s worth by telling them that harvesting wind energy is no simple matter and that proper research was necessary before embarking on such an endeavour. This did cause a lull in the conversation until Vetfaan had a brilliant idea.

“Gertuida is right! We’ll build a scale model first to see how it goes. Kleinpiet, you still have that electric fan you won in the raffle at the church bazaar three years ago? The one that doesn’t work?”

Kleinpiet, the world’s ultimate hoarder, nodded.

Bicycle_dynamo“Well, I’ve got an old bicycle generator. You know, the type that clips onto the frame and supplies electricity to power the lamp? It’s a dynamo thingie or something, but it does supply energy. And I also have the lamp to go with it. Sooo…we simply remove that fan’s engine, pop in the generator, and point the fan into the wind. Bingo! We’ve got a scale model a la Rolbos,”

Gertruida went harrumph and Precilla marvelled at men who never grow up, but there was no stopping Vetfaan and Kleinpiet as they finished their beers before scooting off to get the spares.

***

Two hours later the group assembles around the Rolbos 1, the first homemade wind generator in the Kalahari. After Boggel filled up everybody’s glasses, they troop out to Voortrekker Weg to set up the machine in the main road, pointing the fan directly into the soft breeze.

And nothing happens.

“The wind’s too weak,” Gertruida says with her superior smile. “It won’t turn.” She’s right of course.

“Then,” Vetfaan grins, “we’ll make more wind.”

His plan is simple: fix the fan and the bicycle light to the top of the cab of his pickup, then drive fast enough to provide enough wind to turn the fan. The simplicity of his solution to the problem earns him a free beer from Boggel.

“You’ll have to disconnect the headlights, Vetfaan.” Servaas has his moments of brilliance, too. “Otherwise you won’t be able to see if the bicycle light works. When you drive, the fan turns, and the bicycle light shines – making headlights unnecessary, anyway.” He, too, receives a beer from the little bent barman.

***

At first, Vetfaan drove down Voortrekker Weg slowly. He didn’t need headlights in town, but couldn’t see whether the bicycle light shone at all. When the group in front of Boggel’s place made thumbs-down signs, he made a u-turn and raced back to the bar. Then, with the old speedometer hovering around 80, he watched as the spectators whooped and jumped around. The fan is turning. The dynamo is working. And…he can clearly see a weak ray of light bobbing around in the road in front of him. So excited with the success of his plan, he stomped down hard on the petrol pedal to accelerate the pickup to a faster speed. Lo and behold! The ancient bicycle lamp shone brightly as the defunct fan’s blades spun faster and faster..

Satisfied with the experiment, Vetfaan slowed down to return to Boggel’s Place. The only problem was that he was now outside town and without the aid of the single street lamp or the faint glow from the lights in the houses. The fan, quite naturally, slowed down when Vetfaan did. And, equally logically, a slower fan implied a slower dynamo…and thus a weaker light.

Now, anybody who knows anything about the road to Rolbos, knows that you can’t drive there  – at night – without the help of light. The rutted surface, the treacherous turns, the occasional jackal or kudu…there are a thousand very good reasons why no sane driver will attempt to navigate that track in darkness.

****

“I wonder when he’s coming back?” Servaas uses a finger to get to the last drops of peach brandy in the bottom of his glass, It’s way past midnight and the worried group in Boggel’s Place takes turns to sit on the stoep to watch the road. Gertruida has just taken up the vigil, leaving the rest to ask the same questions over and over again. When will he return? Is he all right? Will he have to drive until the petrol runs out? Should they go looking for him? What if he took one of the many turn-offs? 

img_2239They realise that stopping the pickup is out of the question. Too many things can go wrong if the speed falls to the point where there isn’t enough wind to turn the fan. Boggel remembers the wreck of the lorry from Kalahari Vervoer – a few years back – and how they struggled to get that vehicle out of the donga-like rut. This doesn’t help to lighten the mood one bit.

“If he’s not back by dawn, we’ll follow his tracks. That’s the best we can do.” Staring hopefully at Boggel, Servaas points to his empty glass.

***

When you visit Rolbos, you might notice the old bicycle dynamo and bicycle light on the shelf behind the till. You probably would think it strange to find something like that in a bar in the middle of nowhere, especially when you notice the long iron nails they used to hammer the assembly to that shelf – between the two empty peach brandy bottles.

Well, here’s a bit of advice. Don’t, don’t, don’t ask or say anything about it. It’ll take years for Vetfaan to live this one down.

Gertruida is very philosophical about the episode. She says the problem with ESCOM isn’t a national disaster. According to her the old paraffin lamp on the counter is quite adequate, thank you.

 

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