Having rounded the treacherous Cape of Storms on their expedition to the Far East, Vasco Diaz, the captain of the Santa Flatulata, dropped anchor in the calm waters of Nice Nè Lagoon. On board were Marco Polo and sixteen sea-sick but relieved crewmen.
As discussed previously, young Marco was eastward bound to a domed palace behind a huge wall made of china. He planned to meet up with Pa who must have arrived by now, and was apparently staying with a real-estate developer called Kubla Cohen. Shouldn’t be too difficult to find, he thought. Can’t be too many Jewish developers with a leisure resort in that neck of the woods.
Sheltered in the lagoon, Captain Vasco set about doing what salty-dog sea captains do. He got drunk. But first he instructed the handymen to repair the shredded sails and plug the hull with Polyfilla. Others were sent to find fresh supplies and water, while the rest were told to fell Stinkwood trees from the surrounding forests, and schlep them back to the ship.
Now our captain – apart from being the goalkeeper for the Venice Underwater Polo Club – was a shrewd trader who kept his ear to the ground when not submerged, and he knew the East had no sturdy trees for the lumber required in large-scale construction.
Apparently they only grew rice, bamboo and chopstick trees, which they either ate, or ate with, and these Stinkwood logs were worth their weight in gold. So, with projects suitably delegated, Vasco got blotto for a few days.
Young Marco and Alphonso van Tonder, the ship’s cook, were in the Stinkwood squad, and headed off into the forests to do what lumberjacks do. They cut down trees, they ate their lunch, they went to the lavatory, and on their way bumped into a community of forest-dwellers.
Little has been documented about this encounter, but Alphonso van Tonder – who’d learnt Afrikaans from his father in Genoa – could communicate with some of the Dutch-speaking folks living in the settlement, and pretty soon the lumberjacks were invited to set up camp with them overnight.
They were a strange mixture of French, English, Dutch, German, Xhosa and Khoi, but they collectively revelled in their bohemian lifestyle. They grew all their own food and also cultivated a weed called The Giggly Twig, which they brewed and drank like a tea, baked in a cookie, or simply smoked. For the mosquitoes apparently. But for a living, they made candles and trinkets from leather or carved wood and elephant tusk – souvenirs for the passing travellers in their ox wagons heading towards Zululand and the interior.
“Ja, we’re on our way up the coast,” explained a bloke called Louis Trichardt, busy unloading his ox wagon for the evening braai. “We’re going to meet up with Oom Piet (Retief) and Gert (Maritz), then we’re heading east and north and collecting people along the way. We’re thinking of calling it The Great Trek, but so far there’s only eight of us.”
The aim was to all congregate further north to safeguard the ox wagons full of gold bars known only by the deceptive code name, The Kruger Millions, destined to fund the formation of the proposed Boer Republic on top of the gold mine.
Marco’s ears pricked up on ‘gold’, but just then an outburst of distant musketry fire could be heard from over the hill. “Wat’s dit?” asked Alphonso in his best Afrikaans.
“Ag! Just shooting,” replied a local casually.
“Brit against Xhosa. Thursday is Boer against Khoi. Over the weekends they all fight each other.”
Marco was relieved a few days later to be away from the battlefields and safely back on the Santa Flatulata, which was now loaded up to her gunwales with lumber and ready to set sail once again. Little did he anticipate that at their next refuelling stop in Algoa Bay, he would stumble across those secretly smuggled Kruger Millions, and reveal exactly what happened to them. But that’s another story, for next time.