“Please, Gerhard, open up. It’s minus three out here.” Sergeant Andries Moroka hugged his bulky frame to maintain warmth. Temperatures like this were not unusual for winter in the remote Northern Cape town of Noenieput, but the icy rain which pelted down was indeed a rare event. Sgt Moroka had stumbled up the dirt track in darkness, after finding the motor gate to Gerhard Pretorius’ farm locked. His torch had dropped and broken as he climbed out of the police van.
Sgt Moroka’s pleading was tempered by the sympathy that he felt for Gerhard. Like everyone else in town, he had heard the stories about why Gerhard had come to live in this remote Kalahari settlement. In a small dorp, there are always people who make it their business to find out. Tannie Elize had taken this task upon herself, given that a new single man in town had doubled the marital prospects of her niece, Marietta.
It had not taken long for Elize to uncover that Gerhard had been a world-renowned rescue technician. The internet was a remarkable source of information, so Elize had discovered. His expertise had been called on to guide rescue missions all over the world, with the international media most recently dubbing him a hero for his role in freeing 28 trapped miners in Bolivia. Although his home was in Johannesburg, he was not infrequently flown out to assist in technical rescues in the Himalayas. Of course, once Elize knew this, so did everybody else in town.
It was this knowledge that had brought Sgt Moroka to Gerhard’s door in the early hours of Sunday morning. The previous morning, a 42-year old German tourist had gone for a hike in the Rooiklip Canyon with his 12-year old daughter. They had been staying with Koos and Elmarie van Staden, who had converted their stables into a B&B.
At 19h35 on Saturday evening, Koos had come to report to Sgt Moroka, the duty officer at the police station, that their German visitors had not returned from the hike. There had also been no cellphone communication from them, although this was not surprising given that the Canyon had no network coverage. Koos was especially concerned because it was now dark and the weather had turned bad.
By 21h00, a search party had been dispatched to the Canyon. Two hours later, they had located the father stumbling about in a dazed state, already moderately hypothermic. Despite initial difficulty communicating with him, the search party had managed to ascertain that he and his daughter had got lost. While looking for a path, the young girl had ventured to the edge of a ravine when the ground had given way beneath her. Unable to reach her, in desperation the father had set off to find help.
After drinking a mug of hot chocolate, and changing into dry clothes, the father led the search party to the scene of the accident. Although they were able to locate the girl on a ledge by torchlight, physical access to the child was impossible and it was clear that a technical rope rescue, or recovery, was required. They did not know whether or not she was still alive. Using a two-way radio, they had provided a situation report to Sgt Moroka, and had requested urgent assistance.
The news presented Sgt Moroka with a predicament, leaving him feeling nauseous from anxiety. Although there were some old boxes of ropes, carabiners and other climbing gear in the police station’s store room, neither he nor the other police officer in Noenieput knew how to use them. The officer to whom they belonged had moved away some years previously. Sgt Moroka knew that the closest emergency assistance was in Upington, two hours’ drive away, and that mobilising a rescue team there would take an additional couple of hours. If the child was still alive, she certainly would not survive until then. Helicopter assistance was out of the question given the foul weather.
As his sense of desperation mounted, Sgt Moroka suddenly recalled that the little community of Noenieput had in its midst one of the most renowned rescue technicians in the world. After quietly saying a prayer of gratitude for this divine inspiration in his time of need, Sgt Moroka set about the task of enlisting the assistance of Gerhard Pretorius. But despite repeated efforts to make contact with Gerhard by cell phone and radio, there was no answer from the man. Sgt Moroka strongly suspected that Gerhard was monitoring the radio communications, like all the farmers in the area, but was choosing not to respond. And Sgt Moroka thought that he knew why.
Sgt Moroka’s suspicion related to the fact that Gerhard’s rescue prowess was not the juiciest information that Tannie Elize had discovered. The rest had taken some more digging. It turned out that Piet le Roux, the organist in the local Dutch Reformed church, had a nephew, Johan, who was a paramedic in Cape Town. Johan had told Piet, and Piet had told Elize, that Gerhard had left the rescue profession after suffering a nervous breakdown. This followed a rope-climbing accident in which Gerhard’s teenage son had been killed.
From there, the details got a bit sketchy. Sgt Moroka had heard that Gerhard had taken his boy to the Magaliesberg for a weekend of camping and climbing, probably as quality time to make up for Gerhard’s frequent absences from home. They had been climbing on one of the less traversed routes – the father belaying his son on a cliff face – when a boulder came hurtling down, connecting with and instantly killing the teenager. The rumour, or so Sgt Moroka had heard, was that Gerhard had anchored the climbing ropes on the very boulder which had killed his son, having incorrectly judged it to be stable.
Gerhard had never forgiven himself, and nor had his wife. After a few months of blackening depression and increasing conflict in their household, she had sued for divorce. On the professional front, Gerhard had been medically boarded after repeatedly losing his temper at work and, on more than one occasion, having frozen during critical junctures of rescue operations – sometimes placing co-workers and patients at risk.
As Sgt Moroka stood shivering outside Gerhard’s door, he remembered the day some two years previously that Gerhard had appeared in Noenieput, his car loaded with life possessions, looking for a place to stay. As it happened, Oupa Bart had just died and his family were only too happy to sell the old farmhouse to Gerhard. Since then, on the odd occasion he would come into town to buy supplies from the trading store, and sometimes he could be seen in the corner of Halfmens Pub harbouring a pint of lager. But he never attended church and hardly said a word to anyone.
Starting to shake uncontrollably, and with precious minutes ticking by, the sympathy that Sgt Moroka had felt towards Gerhard for many months was waning fast. He pounded on the farmhouse door again, yelling “Gerhard, you know there is no one better than you. Open the goddamn door.”
“Get off my property and leave me the hell alone.” The harshness of Gerhard’s words was incongruous with the thinness of his voice, barely audible from behind the locked door.
As Sgt Moroka considered how best to respond, his radio crackled to life. “Rescue One to Moroka, come in Sgt Moroka. Over.”
“This is Sgt Moroka, go ahead. Over.”
“We saw the child moving. She is still alive. Do you copy? Over.”
“Copy that, Rescue One. Over.”
“Sgt Moroka, what is the ETA for help? She won’t be alive for long. Over.”
Sgt Moroka hesitated, knowing that the child’s father would be listening in on the conversation.
“Give me a minute or two, Rescue One. I’ll get back to you on that. Over and out.”
Sgt Moroka felt a sudden upsurge of anger towards Gerhard. It was one thing to shut yourself off and wallow in self-pity if only you were affected by it, he thought, but another thing entirely if someone else’s life was on the line. He battled to keep his emotions under control.
“Gerhard,” he said, in a steely tone. “Can you hear me?”
There was no reply, but Sgt Moroka could hear deep and laboured breathing from the other side of the door.
“Listen carefully to me,” he continued. “A child’s life depends on you. Every second that we waste here increases the chance that she will not make it. It increases the likelihood that a father will go home today without his only child.”
There was still no response, but Sgt Moroka thought that he heard a whimper. For the first time, Sgt Moroka felt a shift in attitude on the part of the man on the other side of the door. He sensed an opportunity to drive the point home.
“Gerhard,” he said quietly. “It’s bad enough to have the blood of one child on your hands. Don’t make it two.”
The moment the words had left his mouth, Sgt Moroka regretted having said them. He paused. The wind seemed to have stilled, and even the noise of the rain had slowed to a gentle pitter patter on the corrugated iron roof.
“Gerhard, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.” Sergeant Moroka was once again conscious of the cold that seemed to have clawed its way into every bone of his body. After what seemed like an eternity, Sgt Moroka finally heard movement from within the farmhouse – the scraping of a chair on the floor, and heavy footsteps.
He breathed a sigh of relief, and waited for the door to open. He felt sorry for the pain that his words must have caused to Gerhard, but reasoned that they had been necessary to galvanise the man into action. He just hoped that their intervention would not be too late to save the life of the child. He thought that he should contact the rescue team to reassure them that help was on its way.
As he reached for the radio strapped to his chest, there was a tremendous clatter from within the farmhouse, seemingly of furniture crashing across the floor. It was followed immediately by a dull thud. And then silence.
“Gerhard!” Sgt Moroka yelled in panic. “What happened?”
Hearing no response, Sgt Moroka drew his revolver and fired a shot at the door, propelling the barrel of the lock into the room behind it. Still feeling some resistance as he tried to open it, he forced his heavy frame against the door until it suddenly gave way and swung open.
Standing in the doorway, Sgt Moroka stared in horror at a pair of boots suspended a couple of feet above the floor. He looked up and saw a rope looped over the rafters. His eyes followed the rope down to the head of Gerhard Pretorius, slumped limply over a noose around his neck.
A sudden gust of icy wind blew through the open door, causing the body to sway. A stack of papers was blown from a desk, swirling around the room. But Sgt Moroka stood motionless, oblivious to the chaos, mesmerised by the macabre pendulum swinging to and fro.
Finally, he was brought back to the present by loud static on his radio.
“Rescue One to Sgt Moroka, please come in Sgt Moroka. Priority. Over.”