It’s almost a quarter century ago, but Chris van der Watt still wonders what happened to the guy from the Free State who smuggled the Lee-Metford into Botswana underneath his caravan bed.
It’s spring 1993 and we find ourselves on the banks of the Zambezi River. It’s a quiet Saturday afternoon and we’re relaxing in the campsite of the Hippo Lodge. The army colours have disappeared; it’s only the dull brown of the river that flows by. We’re a party of four guys with a Land Cruiser farm bakkie that Willie de Graaf from Maun was kind enough to lend us. We arrived last night in the dark after a customs official (on the Namibian side nogal) decided we were too late. He just didn’t care that the ferry operated on Africa time. After a good night’s rest and with the dust of Moremi, Savuti and Chobe washed off, we plan our tigerfish strategy with only a worn two-man boat at our disposal. EXCEPT FOR OURS, there is only one other camp spot occupied. On this spot is a white Cortina bakkie with Free State number plates and an oldish white-and-blue Gypsey caravan. While we’re enjoying our afternoon coffee before tackling the tigerfish, Kerneels saunters over and introduces himself to us. We soon realise this guy is hungry and thirsty: hungry for company and thirsty for whatever is in the glass he has in his hand. Turns out he has a filling station somewhere in southern Free State and decided about a week ago that he was going to go see what it looked like “up in Africa”. So he and Titos hitched the Gypsey and started driving north. Titos is a petrol jockey, but has now been given the responsibility of getting Kerneels’ chair ready, keeping his glass full, and unhitching the caravan (yes, in that order). We actually just want to enjoy the peace and quiet after almost a day’s journey from the Vic Falls, through Livingstone, to Sesheke. But Kerneels is in the mood to talk. His bakkie is not a 4x4 and his caravan is not the off-road type, and he says, in response to our questions, that he came on the tar road through Namibia and the Caprivi. But they’re leaving the tar roads behind now. They “also want to see what the veld and the animals look like”. He probably senses our scepticism regarding his plans: “No guys, I might not have a fô-baai-fô, but I’ll drive on any road with this Ford and this Gypsey.” We indicate that we have to go see if we can pique the interest of a few tigerfish. WE TAKE TURNS with the boat and two stay on the bank. The boat’s engine had just started sputtering, and here comes Kerneels, glass in hand. And Titos obediently follows with cooler box and camp chair. Again our peace is disrupted by a prattling about nothing and more nothing. In between we do manage to get a word in about our trip, and about the occasion when the hyenas of Savuti tried to drag us out of our tents. We also mention that we didn’t have a weapon with which to defend ourselves – not even a slingshot. Kerneels immediately chimes in: He’s not that stupid; he brought his .303 LeeMetford along... We ask if he has an import permit for the gun, especially considering he wants to drive home through Botswana and over Savuti. Full of bravado he
We ask if he has an import permit for the gun, especially considering he wants to drive home through Botswana and over Savuti.
answers: No one knows about this weapon. We tell him in no uncertain terms that we see flashing red lights for him. Firstly, he’s not going to make it over Savuti with his bakkie and caravan, and secondly he is going to be in huge trouble if an officer of the law or any other official finds that gun. But then, if someone constantly drinks from the fountain of wisdom, there is nothing that can be done for him. His gun is hidden under his bed, and he did say he could tackle any road with his bakkie and caravan. By sunset we walk back to camp with two smallish tigerfish – that’s after we very firmly told Kerneels we had to go pack, because we were heading off to the Nakatwa Lodge in the Kwando early the next morning. AT FIRST LIGHT, as we get the Cruiser going, it’s dead quiet in the Gypsey – as expected. We chat about Kerneels and his plans only once, and we soon forget about him. We enjoy the elephants digging out tree roots at the corner of the wooden house, lions that roar so close by you can feel it, and hippos grunting in the river. Time flies past and we reluctantly have to return home to our responsibilities. It is when we stop at the Ngoma border post that we see it. The white bakkie is brown, but the caravan looks the worst: In front the paint has been stripped and it’s badly damaged by rocks, and the windows have fallen in (or maybe out). He can’t say we didn’t warn him. We quickly make our way into the customs office because Savuti is still a long way off. And there, in that office, we see Kerneels. And he sees us. He rushes over, a bewildered look on his face. His voice is shaky as he lets rip: “Man, am I glad to see you guys... you have to help me, please... They searched my caravan and found the gun and now they want to lock me up...” For a moment we’re speechless. Of course we want to help – we were after all raised properly – but the harsh reality of the situation stops us because the last thing we need is to be seen with Kerneels and be held up (or locked up) with him. Out of one mouth we explain that we’re in a hurry and that we wouldn’t be able to do anything for him in any case. We turn away, complete the paperwork without looking up, get the necessary stamps, and rush to the Cruiser. That night around our last big fire (to keep the hyenas away of course) we wonder what happened to Kerneels, or what’s still going to happen to him. We did expressly warn him, though. Today, after all these years, I still sometimes wonder: What happened to him and Titos with the Cortina, the Gypsey and the Lee-Metford?