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Open Features: Chapter 3 - A Beginning

...The sky in the West, was alive with beautiful yellows, pinks and reds only to be seen when the sun set in the Highveld. Jack looked around carefully to see if there was any sign of activity in the areas he could still see. The place he had selected would soon be dark, so he set off from his hideaway at an angle, and made his way slowly down the hill, careful not to disturb any loose material he came across. Once he reached the area he had reconnoitred, he moved quietly across to the nearest building: a burnt out hardware store, and knelt down among the charred remains...

Jack decides to make a momentous journey.

Jake van der Wilden continues his novel concerning a man struggling to survive after the collapse of civilisation.

He stared at the blank piece of paper trying to recall the rules for writing goals, hoping that the action of recording his thoughts would help to trigger some possible solutions. He remembered that goals had to be realistic, measureable and challenging. ‘Well, I’ve certainly got the last one nailed,’ he thought, as the harsh reality of what he was trying to do sank home. He needed to define a goal, and start writing down what the outcomes were that he was seeking. His first thought was to look at getting away from where he was, but he realised that this was a negative approach, and that his thinking should be focused on going towards something. ‘Look for an outcome,’ his brain told him, ‘and define where you want to be. The why and the how will come later.’

He really needed someone to talk to, to help him make decisions. As he did not have anyone, he knew he would have to work out his destination for himself. The only place he could think of making contact with someone would be the coast. He reasoned that the ocean would not have changed, and the movement of people around the world would still be happening at sea. But, which coast? The closest point might be Maputo, but he had no way of knowing what had happened in that country that had once been so dependent on South Africa. He did not speak Portuguese. He spoke Afrikaans fluently, and a bit of Fanagolo, a sort of lingua franca, derived mainly from the Zulu language that had originated in the mines of South Africa as a simplified method of communication between the miners.

While writing down his first goal he concluded that his logical destination would have to be the port city of Durban, some 600 kilometres away. He sat back and looked at the scene before him and for the first time in many months he felt positive. He had a goal to work towards. In the distance he saw a small plume of smoke rising upwards into the clear sky. He wondered if it were a possible contact, making a cooking fire or perhaps one of the notorious suburban gangs burning what was left over from one of their attacks.

He thought about his trip to Durban and realised it would be difficult to put a time scale to reaching his goal as he had no way of knowing how quickly, or how far, he would be able to travel at any given time. He was also faced with the more difficult task of identifying and obtaining the means required for him to arrive at his goal without being detected, or dying from thirst or starvation. Instead of dwelling on the obstacles he could visualise he forced himself to focus on the task at hand. And as he listed each possible challenge and identified the solution to overcome each obstacle, his sense of purpose became stronger. It was as if his life suddenly had more meaning.

His recollection of the route to Durban was the option of either travelling at high speed on the toll roads, a flight, or a train ride over the terrain he would now be forced to walk. He grimaced resignedly remembering that second ‘train trip’ honeymoon that was now just a memory of the past. He sighed realising the chance of finding any kind of vehicle in a useable condition, and without fuel, was so remote as to be dismissed out of hand. He was so preoccupied with his deliberations that he had not been aware of the time until he realised he was struggling to read what he was writing. He looked up, and saw that the sun was steadfastly disappearing. ‘Tomorrow,’ he whispered to himself, ‘Tomorrow is when I will prepare for my journey.’ He was realistic enough not to delude himself that it would be a quick, or a simple task, but he fell asleep feeling that he had made a giant leap forward.

Tomorrow dawned clear and cool. He opened a can of the inevitable corned meat while nostalgically wishing he could cook a plate of maize porridge: the ubiquitous mielie meal that he had once scorned in his youth as being the food for poor people. But with neither fire, nor mielie meal, it remained just a wish. His supply of water was also in need of topping up, which meant an expedition out into the open. He preferred to use rain water for consumption whenever possible, but on the odd occasion he risked using the river water that he would boil on a small, smokeless fire before bottling it. One of the few benefits of his current situation was that with the absence of overpopulated squatter camps, and with no industrial pollution, the rivers had begun to fill with water that was fairly clean and useable.

His thoughts returned to his plan. He realised that on his journey access to food and water would be a necessity, and he would have to plan his movements according to the likelihood of finding what he needed. It suddenly dawned on him: He needed a map! Thinking back to all the journeys he had undertaken to Natal in the past, it struck him how unobservant he actually had been when travelling. He used to travel in an air-conditioned vehicle, with a cruise control unit, and some form of music to take his mind off his journey. Where had the rivers been? How far was it between towns? Jack drew a parallel between himself and the situation of the South African population during the years preceding the implosion of the society. All the road signs and distance indicators had then been in place; he had seen them but had not really taken any notice of them. It was just like the citizens of the country who had not noticed the signs of imminent disaster even if they were there for all to see; instead, they chose to relegate them to a part of their mind where they did not interfere with the business of living.

Once again, he dragged his thoughts back to the problem at hand: Where to find a map? In the past, petrol stations had sold them, with their own sites prominently marked so that travellers, particularly those on long trips, would go to the next refuelling point run by that particular fuel brand to ensure they did not run out of fuel. These usually had some form of restaurant, curio shops (with genuine African souvenirs – complete with a ‘Made in China’ sticker on the base), and convenience stores selling other sundry goods that might tempt the motorist. He added to his list: A Map. He then thought of other con-straints that he would encounter. He was no longer in his prime, and not an athlete, hiker, or backpacker so he would have to use his ingenuity to put together some kind of vehicle on which to transport, without huge physical strain, his necessities; most certainly water, and whatever food he could find. The question was, what could he use, and where would he find the things he needed to make it?

Jack delved back into his mind trying to remember the lessons he had learnt in industry. What resources do you have available? What are the constraints? What strengths do you have? What weaknesses? He recalled a song that had been on the hit parade of his day: ‘There are more questions than answers,’ and he raised his eyes to the heavens and thought. ‘Well, they got that right.’

He recalled another lesson: Deal with one matter at a time, as this was essentially how the human was designed. In the days when there was still a thriving, but fragile society, he remembered that so many people used to boast about multi-tasking, mistakenly thinking that this meant that they could do several things at once. He had found that in order to do something well, it was best to do one thing at a time and to make sure it was done well. Dealing with a whole lot of issues at once merely meant that each one received a bit of his attention, usually not enough. He thought of the manager who proclaimed that he could ‘multi-task,’ to which Jack had replied; ‘Yes, I can also foul up three things at the same time’. Needless to say, he was indeed not very popular.

One of his pet irritations, in both business and in daily life, had been having to wait patiently after having been invited or called in to a meeting. The person who he had come to see, sat behind a desk, supposedly listening to him while flicking glances through e-mails, or taking other cell phone calls, or giving instructions to another person, while telling him to: ‘Please carry on, I am listening.’ He eventually cultivated the habit of keeping quiet and waiting until he had the full attention of the person. Experience had taught him that no person alive could listen to two sources at once, no matter how they protested. However, with cell phones, e-mail, SMS’s and all the other electronic accoutrements of the age it seemed the norm had become people had to be in touch, even if only to assure themselves of their own importance.

The corollary of all this communication was that everyone had access to everyone else, and what one person communicated, demanded an immediate response from the other, resulting in a communication overload that did little or nothing to improve the quality of listening. This lack of listening led to time subsequently being spent on ‘putting out fires’ because people had not listened carefully in the first place. It reminded him of a question that one of his teachers had put to his group, who were discussing planning and time management in the workplace. ‘Are you in control of things, or are things in control of you?’

He realised he had to focus on one thing at a time to be in control. The first question that raised its head, and begged an answer, was; ‘How am I going to cart along the essentials?’ He had to carry his water containers, as well as his small store of food and clothing, and any other essentials that he might not be able to find while he was on the road. He had worked out that it would be safest to travel at night so he needed some kind of mobile unit that was easy to move, fairly strong, and quiet, as a rattling or a clattering sound was sure to attract unwanted attention.

He thought about his destination and remembered the colourful rickshaws of Durban and the Zulus sweating profusely as they bounced up and down, while pulling a couple of tourists along. Could this be the solution to his problem? The more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed to him. The unit had to be light and easy to pull. The likelihood of finding the right materials was reasonable with many bicycles and the like, having been abandoned in homes and in shops. He located his piece of paper again, and began to list the things he would need to construct a two-wheeled structure that he could tow, keeping in mind the constraints of weight and silence, while still having a decent capacity. What would he put on the frame? How would he manufacture the frame - there were no welding units, or power drills? What kind of unit would he have to build? It was clear that he would have to venture out into the open to locate an engineering workshop to find some steel for the frame, as well as wheels for the cart. He thought about inflatable wheels and realised he would need to find tubes, a repair kit, and a pump. Jack was realistic enough to recognise that his plans needed to be flexible as a great deal would depend on what he would find.

He decided that he would go out that same evening, and see what he could find. He peered, with a new focus, over the edge of the low embankment outside his cave. Initially he had selected this cave and improved it to create a secure spot that would be easy to defend. Now he needed to evaluate distances and locations, as it would do him no good at all to be caught out in the open when daylight came. Cautiously he crawled up to the nearest ledge, and with his binoculars, which he had found during a scavenging trip, he started to examine his surroundings more carefully.

Some distance below him, and slightly to the south, was a commercial/light industrial area. This had been a hive of activity in the past, with car repairs, light engineering and manufacturing businesses. Jack calculated that he could reach the area and get back before dawn. He realised that he would have to move as soon as it started to get dark to give him the time he needed. He dug around in his small supply of clothes, and found a dark jersey, and a pair of dark blue jeans. He hoped that in the moonlight he would be able to see well enough and not be too conspicuous.

It was nearly noon; the sun was almost directly overhead. He opened a tin of pilchards, and wished he had just one thick slice of bread to go with it. He ate the pilchards; threw the tin to one side to be buried later, lay back and rested before taking his first real step forward for a long time. He was constantly amazed by how clear the air had become without the industrial and commercial pollution. Many years before, in an attempt to clean up the air, legislation had been passed to stop people using open fires but this had been less than successful. Paraffin and electricity, while still available, had been priced right out of the range of the majority of the population. In the squatter camps, and in the areas that had been built up to accommodate urban migration, cooking had been done on open fires, using whatever fuel was available. Low-hanging clouds of polluted air had hung over these areas, bringing with them the inevitable chest complaints and infant mortality rates that climbed back to previous highs. People with TB had also been hard hit, as the fires were fed with anything that would burn. The lack of medication and the high air toxicity levels had led to higher death rates among those affected.

Industries had been heavily fined for not decreasing pollution, but all this had done was to cripple the smaller companies. The major industries had been left alone, mainly because the authorities feared that their closure would dry up an important source of revenue for the Government. The result was that major polluters had continued to cause problems. The subsequent closure of numerous small businesses unable to comply, caused job losses, and an increasing exodus of skilled workers drained the lifeblood of industry.

The sky in the West, was alive with beautiful yellows, pinks and reds only to be seen when the sun set in the Highveld. Jack looked around carefully to see if there was any sign of activity in the areas he could still see. The place he had selected would soon be dark, so he set off from his hideaway at an angle, and made his way slowly down the hill, careful not to disturb any loose material he came across. Once he reached the area he had reconnoitred, he moved quietly across to the nearest building: a burnt out hardware store, and knelt down among the charred remains.

It was interesting how the smell of burnt material never seemed to leave the places that had been set alight during the rioting and the looting. He reflected on the scenes he had witnessed from a distance: hordes of people looting and destroying, and setting fire to anything that would burn. Especially when the shelves in the stores were empty and it had become apparent that there would be no more aid of any kind forthcoming from overseas. The food-producing countries of the world at large, faced with their own financial crises, had simply stopped exporting huge quantities of wheat, dairy products and maize to countries where famine was rampant.

They had been pressurised by their own citizens struggling under the burden of debt, often brought on by their own greed and excessively high expectations, to look after their own people first, and to stop sending aid to those who stood in line with their begging bowls.

These riots were the reason for the most violent actions. Desperate people could not be persuaded to be calm and logical when they could see their children starving to death. The reaction invoked in the looters was an almost primal urge to destroy things, and fire was usually the most effective – the fire fighting service having been abandoned long since. Sadly, fire was an equal opportunity destroyer, and it spread rapidly to anything combustible. Numerous informal settlements had been wiped out when a local store or office had been torched. Houses in the suburban areas suffered the same fate, where the flames paid no attention to high walls or fences. Many of the suburban streets that had been lined with houses looked like the pictures he had seen of bombed areas after the Second World War.

A sliver of moon hung just above the horizon preventing total darkness. This made the going very slow. He would have to calculate the time he spent out in the open very carefully to allow himself enough time to get back to his base before dawn. He cautiously surveyed the area before crawling around the floor of what had been a hardware store. All he seemed to find was charred or twisted metal. Then, when he found a small set of spanners underneath a collapsed section of wall, he almost stood up and yelled with delight, a feeling he quickly suppressed when he remembered where he was. Cautiously holding onto the spanners he continued ferreting around in the debris until he found a few partially melted small plastic bags that contained nuts, bolt and screws. He would need some kind of container, or bag, to carry his little treasures back to his cave as quietly as possible. In the poor light, he tried to work out where the various sections might have been in the store.

He wished he had paid more attention in the science classes, at school, so that he could give the quarter moon a name, because it was in the faint glow of this quarter moon that he saw a couple of steel signs still dangling from roof struts, indicating where different items had been displayed. One sign seemed to spell out ‘plumbing’ and another, a little further away showed the letters ‘…ping’. Perhaps this was where the camping section had been. He moved as quietly as possible in the direction of the sign hoping to find a canvas bag, or a backpack. Suddenly he heard a loud clatter; he froze in his tracks and stood completely still, hoping that his dark clothing would make him invisible.

A few seconds later, still holding his breath, his heart pounding, he listened carefully but all he heard was silence. He slowly exhaled, trying not to make a sound. Cautiously he looked around to see if he could spot any movement, but nothing stirred. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a sign dangling on a piece of wire. There was no breeze at all, yet it was swinging ever so slightly. The support must have given way, probably rusted through, and the one side of the sign must have dropped. He breathed a sigh of relief and carefully moved to the opposite corner where he could vaguely see a small pile of badly charred canvas items. He lifted the top item, which looked like a backpack, or what had once been a backpack, and then carefully put it to one side. It was too badly damaged to suit his purpose. As he lifted the next pack, he noticed that it was in much better condition, but still not useable. At his fifth silent attempt, he finally found a pack that was slightly scorched at one edge, but was otherwise intact. He quietly packed his findings into the backpack. Out of pure habit, he looked at his wrist and remembered his watch had long since stopped: No battery. He had to get back to his refuge before dawn. Erring on the side of caution he moved quietly to the exit: the lighter square against the side of the building. He paused a moment to study the surrounding area as well as he could, then, moving from shadow to shadow, he made his way back to his base camp on his mine dump.

Except for the sliver of moon, and the brightly shining stars, the sky was still completely dark. There was no sign yet of light on the eastern horizon. He had totally miscalculated the time spent away from his hideaway. ‘Still, better safe than sorry,’ he thought, as he retraced his steps to his base. As he made his return journey, he realised that he would not be able to make an effective foray outside his base in the dark. He would have to go, in daylight, and survive a day, or several days outside his safe haven, to get the things he needed to attempt his exodus. The thought scared him more than the noise in the hardware store had, but the more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that it was his only hope.

He was unable to sleep after the excitement of his expedition and the fright he had when the sign had fallen. His mind kept going over the events that had, only recently, led to the devastation he now saw below him. What was it that he had not seen that gave warnings of what was coming?

It was the signals. Yes, the signals. They were the first signs that something was seriously wrong.


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