Gertruida is on full cry this morning, telling the group at the bar about the longest river in South Africa. Originating in the high mountains of Lesotho, the Orange River (Gariep) cascades down the Drakensberg, fills up dams and provides irrigation along its 2200 km course.
Servaas isn’t listening. He remembers another story about the river – something that changed his life forever.
The last stretch of the Orange forms the border between South Africa and Namibia. To the north, the Namib stretches away to the horizon. To the south, the inhospitable Richtersveld. Sand on the one side, heaped mountains of rocks on the other. This is not a place to get lost in – but Servaas did.
It is not unusual for young men to do stupid things. Some believe they can change the world, others rebel against the age-old rules of society. The more amorous (and decidedly less intelligent) believe they were placed on Earth to woo the hearts of maidens, usually ending these episodes as pathetic remnants of their old glamorous selves. After all – as all men learn eventually – being victorious in the heart-winning quest does not automatically mean a happy-ever-after. Love does not require a single moment of passion; it demands far more than that. And Servaas, dreaming about holding Mathilda’s hand while whispering the three words he hoped she’d like to hear, didn’t know that. He was seventeen – how could he?
The problem was that Servaas grew up on a farm with too many males. Not only humans, mind you, but somehow the cattle and the sheep (even the goats) went through a few seasons of producing only rams and bulls. In that world of male dominance, it was only natural that Servaas picked up on the atmosphere surrounding the old homestead: males either fought each other, or they tried to get the odd cow or frightened ewe to share a bit of time with them.
Servaas was the flanker in Prieska’s scrum. He was fast, had a short temper and intimidated his opponents to such a degree that his team ended up in the finals of the regional rugby championship. In those days it was common knowledge that Servaas only tackled you once – after that the local doctor had to apply a splint or put in a few stitches. In the days before Superman, Servaas was Prieska’s invincible superhero.
And so the entire Prieska took to the road to witness the final against Vioolsdrift on their homeground. There was no doubt about the outcome: the framed Springbok-horns would be on the mantelpiece in Prieska’s hotel the next day.
Enter Mathilda Jacobs, the only girl in Vioolsdrift to have gone to the finishing school in Paarl, Mrs Hermiena Volschenk’s Academy for Discerning Young Ladies. Enrolling in Mrs Volschenk’s famous institution guaranteed the students everything they needed to become the most sought after young ladies in their districts. After completing the two years under the watchful eye of their headmistress, girls could darn socks, knit jerseys and recite Psalm 23. By that time, the brighter girls also had to be able to supervise servants, play bridge and be able to recognise a successful gentleman (those wearing shoes and socks).
Needless to say, Mathilda had a hard time after returning to Vioolsdrift. Using the skills Mrs Volschenk had taught her, she insisted that the would-be admirers made an appointment to spend time with her on the veranda in front of her parents’ house overlooking the Orange River. Outlandish as the idea was, the young men of the district had no choice but to accept that Mathilda – a graduate in the finer arts of life – was then elevated to the status of royalty. No longer could they arrive in numbers to vie for her attention – if you were interested, you had to be able to converse comfortably about difficult subjects involving bookkeeping or flower arrangement. Mathilda also had the servants serve tea in real cups and saucers – a clever ploy to keep both her visitor’s hand occupied. As such, she not only dictated the terms of courting, but wreaked havoc in many a young man’s heart. The sudden increase in pedestrian traffic past the veranda prompted her father buy Kaiser, a ferocious Doberman Pinscher.
On the day of the finals, Servaas and the other fourteen rugby players from Prieska were having their pre-match pep talk on the dusty rugby field when Mathilda and Kaiser arrived to sit down on the chair a servant placed next to the field. Dressed in a high-collared white blouse and a rather revealing skirt, she only had to snap her fingers once before the servant opened a parasol to protect her perfect complexion.
Well, in all honesty, it wasn’t a real parasol, of course. Such things didn’t exist in the Northern Cape. But Mathilda had seen the one that Mrs Volschenk had, and attached a length of lace to the rim and ribs of her father’s black umbrella he used when attending funerals. As the town’s undertaker, Mr Jacobs was much feared and respected – nobody dared to antagonise the man who’d be responsible for your last resting place. There was only one shady spot left in the cemetery at the time. No surprise then, that not a single person walked past Mathilda that day without saying how beautiful the umbrella was.
Towards the end of the second half, Viooldrift’s team had been reduced to ten men, thanks to Servaas’s efforts. Still, the defence was surprisingly resilient and the scoreline only favoured Prieska by one try. This didn’t bother the Prieska team too much – a win is a win and why sweat away at piling up points when the other team surely had no chance to score? No, scrumming was much more fun – especially while Servaas was in such a destructive mood.
You get these whirl winds in the Northern Cape. They appear from nowhere on a seemingly windstill day, dance around haphazardly for a while, and then usually fizzle out. Just as the teams readied themselves for yet another scrum (and the doctor wondered whether he had brought enough bandages along), a dust devil developed in the road next to the field. It picked up momentum – and size – and swept across the players towards the spectators.
Mathilda’s parasol was lifted high into the sky, swirling and twirling towards heaven. And Servaas, knowing who the umbrella belonged to after ogling her all afternoon, left the scrum to chase after it. If he could return the umbrella to its rightful owner, he’d surely impress her enough to guarantee an invitation to spend time with her. The rest of the Prieska team realised what their flanker was up to, and ran after Servaas as well.
The Vioolsdrifters weren’t so stupid. They knew Mathilda. No matter what you did, she’d only tilt her nose in the air and tell you it is unacceptable to decant your tea into the saucer. And there was the undefended tryline to consider…
One by one the Prieska players gave up the chase until only Servaas sped across the barren landscape towards the Richtersveld.
This incident had several results:
- Servaas was found three days later by a Bushman tracker. He still hadn’t found the ‘parasol’.
- Vioolsdrift won the championship by a record margin.
- Mr Jacobs took to wearing wide-brimmed hats (tied down under his chin with a bootlace)
- Mathilda realised Mrs Volschenk was wrong and that Hennie Viljee, who scored the six tries in the last five minutes of the game, didn’t have to wear socks to impress her.
The Bushman tracker managed to get Servaas to the river, where the muddy water of the Orange River saved his life. When, years later, Servaas met Siena, he stopped playing rugby – saying he’d rather chase after his Siena than die of thirst.
Anyway, he said, rugby is only a game. Love, on the other hand, is real. When Siena jokingly explained the meaning of a ‘whirlwind romance’, Servaas was not only amused, but he knew then the some events in life may have a prophetic nature. Being swept away by love is far better than chasing something you’ll never catch.
Mrs Volschenk would have applauded.