In 1284, so the story goes, the town of Hamelin in Germany suffered a plague of rats. A little man dressed in a motley pied costume arrived in town and offered to rid Hamelin of its problem, for a fee, to which the townsfolk agreed. The Pied Piper (as he has become known during the intervening centuries) whipped out his pipe and began playing a jolly tune as he wandered through the streets of the town. Miraculously, the rats began to follow him, enchanted by the music, but the wicked little man betrayed their murine trust and led them into the waters of the Weser River, where they all drowned. So sad.
But, the story doesn’t end there, because the townsfolk then reneged on their promise and refused to pay the Piper. Not happy with this change to the agreed script, the Pied Piper waited until all the adults of the town were in church (apparently children didn’t go to church in Hamelin!) and then he began to play his pipe again as he walked through the streets. This time it was the children who followed him, and they were led into a cave outside the town, never to be seen again. Well, according to some accounts three of the children survived; one was lame and couldn’t keep up, one was blind and couldn’t follow the group and one was deaf and thus singularly unimpressed by the music. Thus we have witnesses to this account.
But that isn’t the end of the story either, although that is probably the part that you are familiar with. After all, that explains what happened to the rats and the children, but what became of the Pied Piper? Well, one theory (published here for the very first time!) is that he was exceedingly disenchanted with the people of Hamelin, and in fact with humanity in general, and so he immigrated to the isolation of southern Africa. To Rooiputs in the Kgalagadi, actually, although it probably wasn’t called Rooiputs in 1284. Probably called Little Hamelin or New Hamelin or Piedpiperville.
No sooner had he settled down in this isolated part of the world, than the Pied Piper noticed that he was not alone! Several little grey heads appeared from well concealed burrows and several pairs of beady eyes watched his every move. Rats! He smiled. Rats he was familiar with. He whipped out his pipe and began to play. History doesn’t record the name of the tune that he played, but we like to think that it was the “Colonel Bogey March”, later (much later) to be used as the theme tune in the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai”. A jovial, catchy tune that soon had the rats out of their burrows and dancing along beside the Piper.
“Wait a minute!” thought the Piper, “the German rats marched behind me in orderly fashion. Left, right; left, right. Proper goose-step. Left, right; left, right. These miserable rats are dancing! Don’t they understand discipline here in Africa?” He stopped playing for a moment, indignant at their behaviour and intending to reprimand them in no uncertain manner, but the rats would have none of that and insisted that he play on. This was the most fun they’d had since Bushy passed by with his one string guitar in the winter of 1167. Short on repertoire, the Piper played the “Colonel Bogey March” again, but the rats had his measure now and began whistling along as he played. (Whistling? Could this have been the inspiration for the whistling soldiers that were featured in “Bridge on the River Kwai”?)
Now please take note – this was a momentous occasion. This marked one of the great, unsung evolutionary leaps that has gone unrecorded in most textbooks. The rats had never whistled before! They didn’t know that they had it in them, but “Colonel Bogey” they could not resist. They stared at each other in delighted amazement at this unexpected development, and enthusiastically increased the volume of their whistling, almost drowning out the piping of the man in the pied outfit.
The Pied Piper marched through the Kgalagadi, surrounded by his growing troupe of dancing rats, all whistling in tune as he played. He was intent on getting rid of the rodents as he had in Hamelin, in spite of their undoubted musical talent, but, alas, this was not Europe. The rivers of the Kgalagadi are dry for much of the year and the Pied Piper was unable to find any water to drown them. Instead it was he who eventually succumbed to exhaustion, slumped to the ground and melted in the heat. All to the refrain of the whistled version of “Colonel Bogey”.
The rats, on the other hand, flourished.
If you visit the semi desert of the Kalahari and sit quietly in the low scrub at sunset you will hear the wonderful whistling of the descendants of these Pied Piper-inspired Whistling Rats. You may not hear the “Colonel Bogey March”, but, then again, you might. Who knows? A close friend swears he heard them whistle “Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing”.