They always said that Charlie looked a little…weird, And that he should thank his lucky stars. Charlie doesn’t like this gossip (even if some of it is true), which is why the old man lives quietly on his barren patch of Kalahari sand and very seldom comes to town. Once a year, in fact, to pick up the new Landcruiser the dealership has ready for him – papers done, licence and everything. He never squabbles about the trade-in – he’s far too rich to worry about such simple trivialities.
Vetfaan recently witnessed just such a transaction and now sits at the counter in Boggel’s Place, recounting the event.
“Man, that old man didn’t even say good morning or anything. Held out his hand for the keys, sort of nodded his thanks, and drove off. Cash Banks – remember him, the dealer? – shrugged and pocketed the cheque before heading off to the Oasis Casino to celebrate. Invited me along, saying he wished he had more customers like that.”
“To think it all started by accident,” Servaas smiles wistfully. “Just goes to show…”
Charlie – with his short legs, skew teeth and underdeveloped jaw – detested his nickname. Donkey isn’t exactly complimentary, after all. Boys joked about him, girls avoided him (‘Imagine being kissed! Ugh! It’d be like a rabbit working his way up your neck…’) The only good thing to come from all that, was Charlie’s determination to prove he didn’t deserve the moniker. After school, he studied chemistry at the University of Cape Town, paying his way by working on the railways (as stoker) during the holidays. These two facts determined the luxury of his later lifestyle.
Sure enough, Charlie graduated and obtained a BSc degree – but then failed to find employment. At every job interview the employers gaped at the weak jaw and declared the position already filled. When at last he returned to the Kalahari, he was a broken man. Donkey, indeed! Society had been right: he had no prospects.
What could he do? He decided that his degree was a waste of time and that the only place he wouldn’t be ridiculed would be in the veld, tending a small flock of sheep. At least they didn’t care about his looks. Sheep didn’t not giggle behind his back and didn’t run away when he called them.
And so we find Charlie next to his little fire one night, staring at the small, blue flames dancing upon the embers. Why were they blue? The question bugged him until he remembered Molybdenum, the trace element one of his professors mentioned. Could it be that the heat-resistant, hard and rare metal was responsible – and was the last thing in the wood to submit to the intense heat of the embers? And if so, could it be that the hard camel thorn wood of the Kalahari contained enough Molybdenum to be a source of the rare material?
But, of course, the problem was much more complex than that. How, indeed, was he supposed to find out what caused the blue flames? He had to get a sample of the mysterious stuff and then have it analysed. Maybe he could send it to his professor? Donkey wasn’t entirely stupid: if he were to send a piece of wood t the university, he would be the laughing stock of the department (again). No, he needed to be scientific about this: a purified specimen was what he needed.
Charlie started experimenting – but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t catch a little blue flame in a bottle. Eventually he realised that whatever caused the blue flames, must be caught up in the smoke. The smoke was the answer! It surely contained the gaseous traces of whatever caused the blue colour. Okay…but how do you catch smoke?
And so Charlie set about – first with a towel, later with a large, wet sheet – to catch the hot smoke rising above his fire. He burnt a number of shirts, rags and even part of his tent before he managed to get a linen bedsheet filling up with smoke.
It is said that many scientific breakthroughs were the result of accidental findings. Antibiotics, X-rays, and falling apples contributed to this view.
Charlie was no exception.
“So he’s still living out there on the farm, all alone?” Kleinpiet downs his beer and signals for another.
“Oh no, my friend.” Vetfaan sighs. “He has this blonde running his business. A gorgeous thing with legs all the way to heaven and a body to die for. He met her up in Kenya, I heard. Apparently she was the one to convince him to expand. He adores her.”
“Ja, I heard she’s got some business degree. Clever girl, by all accounts.” Gertruida has to show off again. “MBA from Harvard, if I’m not mistaken. He had the idea, she had the knowledge. Formidable team.”
“Imagine that, hey?”
“There’s no telling why people get attracted to each other, Boggel. Apparently she was teaching at the university in Nairobi when Charlie went up there to see if his idea could work. They met at one of the colonial clubs, and bingo! The rest is history.”
“Well, what are the chances? A chap from the Kalahari and an American girl, teaming up to create Charlie’s Hot Air Balloon Safaris. Now they’re running one of the most lucrative businesses up there, in Malawi and Zambia. Rich tourists fork out fortunes to see Africa the CHABS way. And don’t forget: she was also the one to suggest the luxury lodges. Only royalty, celebrities and some of our politicians can afford it.”
“Goes to show,” Servaas says again. “Staring into the embers late at night is never a waste of time. It could unlock the most glorious future if you’re brave enough to dream. A bit of hot air, a brilliant idea and blind girl.” He sighs heavily, staring out of the window. “…and no Molybdenum,”
“So what,” Vetfaan asks, “causes the blue flames?”
“Oxygen, Vetfaan. The stuff you breathe.” Gertruida, of course.