2020/07/25 03:12 PM
Lomba River source, Southeast-Angola, late February 1988…
That whining automatic turbo diesel engine of the Ratel, such a reassuring and calming sound for its occupants, raises in pitch as it accelerates, bouncing through the thick sand, sweeping bush and small trees aside, breaking its own path through the thick, bushy vegetation of the Angolan landscape, right on the edge of the bush next to a huge anharra, a wide, open, treeless band of sucking mud and grass that surrounds any and almost all rivers in southeast Angola.
We are bundu-bashing a new track along the inside of the tree line, the Ratel leading the way to a hide the battery have to occupy for the night, somewhere to the southwest of Mavinga. It’s a rather large number of vehicles, mostly comprising of Kwêvoël armoured and Samil-100 10 ton cargo carriers. Samil-100 gun tractors, some Buffel armoured personnel carriers, and Ratel-20 infantry fighting vehicles, doubling as command vehicles for convoy control purposes as well as convoy protection. Not all the vehicles, such as the gun-tractors, are mine-protected, and it is for that reason we have to painfully break a new track through the thick bush in order to avoid any mines that may have been planted in the tracks made by previous convoys. This was standard counter-mine drills as time has taught us that we have a wily enemy who would literally mine the tracks of vehicles that had passed overnight. There had been recorded incidents where vehicles had, in fact, struck mines following the tracks of a convoy that had just passed a couple of hours before! Its guerrilla warfare at its best (or worst?), with a strong conventional flavour quickly building the aroma of battle, which had already led to the screaming crescendo of armoured clashes in the land at the end of the world, so aptly described by Dr. Antonio Lobo Antunes in his book of the same name.
I am riding in the command seat of the leading Ratel, my helmeted and sweaty head sticking out of the cupola, my arms locking my torso in place in the inside of the cupola to avoid being bruised by the pitching and swaying of the vehicle as it bucks violently through the uneven sand. Arms lame from having to brace against the armoured inside of the command gap and to protect the sensitive communications equipment comprising mostly of switches, affixed on my chest with which I control the different channels of the radio squelching in the built-in earphone of my helmet. My head barely sticks out of the cupola, just allowing my eyes to see the landscape rush past and avoid the sweeping branches of trees which are giving the vehicle a good scrub down as it passes through. All you see are trees and bush… and some more trees and bush and I am acutely aware of the open stretch of ground to my right. THAT’S where the real danger lurk… enemy MiGs waiting to swoop down on the unsuspecting convoy caught in the open… but not on MY watch! Not if I can help it, I tell you!
I am bringing in the entire assembly of F- and A-Echelon vehicles of Quebec Battery of Regiment Potchefstroom University to the front. These are all the gun tractors (without the actual guns, as the gun crews have already been flown in to take over the guns from the departing National Servicemen), ammunition carriers, fire control posts, supply vehicles and reconnaissance vehicles, all packed with ammunition and supplies. Quebec Battery had just been converted to the G-5 155mm gun/howitzer in the field, while our sister battery, Papa Battery, are actually bringing in their World War 2-vintage 5.5-inch medium guns, know in the SADF as the G-2 140mm medium gun. These guns have been in use by the South African Army for 46 years, ever since before El Alamein in October 1942, and would still be firing in anger at real enemy targets as late as June 1988!
Bloemfontein, South Africa, February 1988…
As the most senior junior officer (being a full-lieutenant) left after all the officers and the gun crews of the battery had been flown up to Grootfontein two weeks earlier, and because I had arrived late at the 7 Division Mobilisation Centre at De Brug, Bloemfontein, after most of my troops and colleagues had already left, I was saddled with the responsibility of bringing up the battery’s vehicles and equipment by road as part of a huge convoy of all the vehicles of 82 Mechanised Brigade that had been mobilised for the operation. The convoy comprised literally of a few thousand vehicles behind each other, in 100m intervals, moving at a snail’s pace of no faster than 60 km/h, and stretched out up right from the point of departure at De Brug to the first overnight halt at Upington, over 600 km away. In fact, the first vehicles had left De Brug at first light that morning, and the last vehicles were still waiting to leave De Brug at sundown.
When we drove through the city of Kimberley, my home town, which I left just a few days before, the Military Police and civilian traffic cops ensured the smooth flow of traffic to allow the different sections of the convoy to pass through without stopping. I remember longing just to see my wife and kids next to the road even if I could just wave at them! We were not allowed to make contact with anyone outside our units, and while probably everyone in Kimberley were talking about the huge convoy passing through, my family remained blissfully unaware that I was, in fact, part of it and passing through so close by. Despite proudly riding in the command seat of my Ratel, I felt my throat choke up… it really is difficult to explain the emotions you feel as you see all those familiar roads and places, going off to fight a war and not knowing if you would be back to ever see any of it again…
My own pakkie (pocket) of about 40 vehicles arrived at the Upington overnight halt shortly before midnight, and we first had to replenish fuel from lappiespompe (mobile pumps) that had been deployed just outside Upington before we could enter our own designated halt area. With me for this task I had the Battery Sergeant Major (name??), some NCO’s (ranging from over a dozen lance-bombardiers though to a couple of staff-sergeants) and all the designated drivers, two per vehicle. Only the Ratel crews were complete and I found my own crew (call sign G25A, I seem to remember) to be pleasant and cooperative, the driver quite capable, and, despite spending long uninterrupted periods behind the wheel driving the powerful vehicle at such slow speeds, quite alert! I cannot remember anyone else taking over the responsibility of driving from that driver (a Ratel crew comprised of the driver, a gunner, a co-driver/radio operator, and the commander – in this case, me – and could carry seven additional infantrymen, or a selection of technical, and command and control equipment). I found a huge respect for this young driver, but for the life of me I cannot remember any of the crew’s names! (I was hoping some of them would eventually make contact through Facebook!)
A point worth pondering: During mobilisation at De Brug, we discovered to our dismay that much of our carefully stored technical equipment, things that we as a regiment and particularly as a battery maintained meticulously every year in order to remain in a perpetual state of readiness, had been shamelessly plundered and sent off to the front earlier to replace losses. We suddenly found ourselves mobilising to go fight a war, with half our equipment missing! Nevertheless, keeping all those checklists handy, we were told not to worry as we would be receiving replacement equipment. Still, it was not nice knowing that the battery’s ability to achieve a full state of readiness had been sabotaged!
No indication of any replacement equipment at Upington… and given the fact that there is only an infantry battalion base (8 SA Infantry Battalion), we thought it acceptable and that we would probably be replenished at Grootfontein, it being the logistical hub of the South-West African Territory Force (SWATF), formerly the SWA Command of the SADF.
Early the next morning the huge convoy set out for Grootfontein, a long trek of over 1,200 km over the next two days.
Everyone was tired after that long trek and the entire convoy rested at the oorgangskamp (transfer base) for two days, before proceeding on towards Rundu. We, as officers and some of the NCO’s, even had time to visit some of the local shops for some last-minute personal shopping!
But no sign or even mention of the expected replacement equipment… and the rumour had it that we were sure to get it at Rundu! Yes, sure!! We didn’t even have batteries to operate any of the electronic instruments in the battery, never mind the fancy Tubula computerised fire control system in the fire control posts!
Angolan border, Northern South West Africa (Namibia), 4 March 1988…
Trusting in the hitherto unfailing logistical supply system of the SADF, we took on the 260 km to Rundu… where we failed to halt and resupply (once again!), and were led right past the town to the engineer’s pontoon bridge across the Okavango River a few kilometres away. It was quite something to see all the vehicles crossing the bridge and a sense of excitement surged through me as my Ratel took its turn to cross, with the rest of the vehicles in my pakkie following closely behind. Exhilaration pulsed through me as we approached the other bank of the river… It had been almost seven years since I have last been in Angola, but this time I was entering this beautiful foreign country in a fighting vehicle, and not a Samil 100 cargo truck with a radio as I had in 1981 during Operation Daisy!
My exhilaration quickly turned into horror, as I noticed something floating towards the bridge… it looked like a bloated dead animal, all black… but then I realised what it was – the bloated blackened corpse of a man! Damn! Not a nice thing to see when you are still on the way to the front! I caught myself hoping that it is not a bad omen of what is waiting for us on the other side! Shit, I don’t even believe in crap like that!
I solemnly bowed my head as I watched the body disappear beneath the bridge as the Ratel passed directly over it, to emerge, bobbing merrily, on the other side before slowly floating downstream. My thoughts went to my family. God, I really want to see them again! Please protect us all and bring us safely home!
We didn’t stop before we were at least 50km inside Angola, in the middle of nowhere, in the bush, me just following the vehicles ahead and making sure my pakkie of vehicles were all there. Because I had been late during mobilisation I had missed the full briefing of the battery, and all my fellow officers, including the battery commander, had been flown up to take over the guns in Angola, so, while knowing that I was to bring the battery’s vehicles up to wherever they were deployed, I knew utterly nothing about the state of affairs at that time. As civilians we had been kept completely in the dark about the heavy fighting that had erupted in Angola since September 1987, and despite having attended a month-long divisional exercise at the Army Battle School at Lohathla in the Northern Cape towards the end of the previous year, I knew practically nothing other than that almost the entire brigade had been mobilised to fight in Angola, in order to relieve the National Servicemen.
With not a single map, no batteries except those in the vehicles which also powered the radios so I could at least establish contact with the rest of the convoy and maintain contact with the other Ratels in my pakkie, not even a single bullet in a magazine or machine-gun belt loaded (all the ammunition being with the battery sergeant major bringing up the rear of my pakkie), I was told to follow the tracks north until I can make contact with the rest of the battery more than 200 km inside Angola as the crow flies. Two warnings only… break your own path in order to avoid the mines placed in older tracks, and keep under cover as there are enemy planes in the air! I had absolutely no idea where we were or where exactly we were going. Now if THAT was not the true mark of an officer, I don’t know what is!
Keeping a cool head and not letting any of my own uncertainty and doubt show, I called an order group and got all 80-odd troops and NCO’s together under the shade of some trees after the vehicles had all performed a perfect visgraat by dispersing widely in all directions and then carefully camouflaging the silhouettes of vehicles and avoiding any reflection of windshields. At least all the men remembered the training from their National Service days!
After consulting with the BSM, who told me that he was under strict instructions from the RSM (the regiment sergeant major) not to issue more than ten rounds of ammunition to each man in order to control that tendency of young men out on an adventure to shoot at every animal they see on the way, I allowed him to issue each man with ten rounds, ball, 5.56mm, only. Then I started to brief the men. I was received with stunned silence when I announced that we were now 50 km inside Angola and that the river we had crossed was in fact the Okavango River! None of them, other than the BSM, had actually realised that, and for a moment I though I was going to have to put down a mutiny! After explaining that since we left Grootfontein, we had not had any opportunity to explain anything, and had in fact, not even halted at Rundu as expected, I will never forget the surprised look on the face of one of the men as he stood up and said (loosely translated and omitting the strong swearwords), “Lieutenant, are you telling us we are in the middle of enemy territory, without knowing it, and now with only ten rounds each?” I assured them that we are not in the middle of enemy territory and that the area was relatively safe up to wherever the Brigade Administration Area was located. Other than enemy planes, and mines, and snakes and insects, we had nothing really to worry about.
To be truly honest, I had my own doubts! Don’t worry guys… I have everything under control!
Ja, right!!! Bullshit baffles brains!
I realised that these men looked up to me, and trusted me to do the right thing, so it was a huge responsibility to take on, but really, what choice did I have? I could not pour fuel on the fire by admitting to my own doubts and fears!
Lomba River source, Southeast-Angola, early March 1988…
Now, back in the present, I am leading that same pakkie of vehicles deep inside Angola, leading my own convoy independently of any others, following the edge of the anharra westwards next to some unknown river which is flowing towards the east, to eventually turn north beyond the river’s source (I do now believe that this was the Lomba River, after reading several accounts in other books).
It is Saturday (5 March 1988), and I am under strict orders to get the battery vehicles to a specific point for deployment before last night. No map, no grid reference, just again, go where the previous tracks lead you without actually driving in any old track. Not so easily done when the tracks in front of you seemingly split up in five different directions and you have to choose one to follow, not certain at all whether they all come together again further on! All I know is that I first travelled north, then west-northwest for quite a few kilometres and must soon turn north again. It has been days since we crossed the Okavango and time and distance have become a blur in my mind.
After halting briefly inside the tree line next to the anharra, and having assured all the troops that everything was fine and that we are still on our very merry way to war, and not lost at all despite appearances to the contrary, I point my driver to the tree line which seems to bend northwards, marking the end- and source of the river where we have to turn north.
We are keeping radio communication to a minimum as even I realise that we must be getting pretty close to really being in enemy territory by now. For the purposes of control, the BSM brings up the rear of the little convoy in his own Ratel, and will report just a codeword when he starts moving, and whenever he is forced to stop. That way I know the status at my rear of my convoy and everything in between should be hunky-dory. That’s the theory, anyway…
Unless you never GET the codeword!
The little convoy of 40 vehicles are spread out behind each other for at least 4 to 5 kilometres and as I turn northward into the tree line, I look back and feel quite proud to see a string of vehicles, spaced at least 100 metres apart, just visible inside the tree line, slowly following my lead. So far so good, as I lose sight of the line of vehicles and start breaking a new path through the bush next to an older track. Such discipline… good men these!
Making good progress after almost an hour, achieving a good 10 kilometres per hour breaking bush, I start to feel slightly concerned because there is still no codeword from the BSM. They should have started moving about 30 minutes ago! What is going on? I halt the convoy. I am concerned that the vehicles are moving in too closely to each other, but the other drivers cannot hear what is going on, so they all uncharacteristically close up to within 20 metres of each other. I am more concerned about the BSM and decide to break the intended radio silence and call 29F, the BSM’s call sign, “29Foxtrot, this is 25Alpha. Status report, over.” Silence, nothing heard at all except the squelching of the radios. I repeat the request, really starting to worry, when, suddenly…
So loud that the entire crew and some of the drivers and NCO’s gathering around me are startled, the radio bursts into life as a man’s voice loudly proclaims something in unintelligible Portuguese – I cannot possibly remember what he said – but so loud and seemingly so near, the signal so clear, that it sounds as if he is talking directly at us from right in front of us! Adrenaline popping, eyes wide of fright, everyone freezes in place, before crouching down with their rifles at the ready! Shit... how come the enemy is right on us?? All eyes are on me, and I gesture to the other drivers still on the way to get down! My heart is beating so hard and so fast I am sure everyone can hear it! But there is no firing, no flying bullets or rocket propelled grenades exploding… surely they MUST have heard the vehicles coming? I quickly point to groups of drivers, directing them outward into rondomverdediging around the vehicles. We have no idea where the threat will come from! “Fuck! That’s close,” someone mutters.
The voice again stutters something else over the radio. That’s the clearest signal I have ever had on that radio! So it’s got to be so close. What is he saying? Is he speaking to us… me? I have no idea!
Then to our further horror, vehicles start up and start moving… My first instinct is to think and say, “TANKS!”, and I suddenly wish I was not there! But I bite my tongue and decide to wait it out. The vehicles are only a few hundred metres away, but they are moving across our line of advance, not towards us!
“Those are SAMILs!” one of the NCO’s proclaims, and I stare at him disbelievingly. “They really ARE Samils, just listen!” he repeats. The blood is pounding so loudly through my head I can’t hear properly, but then, yes… the familiar (and oh, so welcome) sounds of Samil diesel engines permeate the air as another convoy of South African logistical vehicles crawl past in front of us! The relief is palpable as we get up from our fighting positions and start relaxing.
The alarming Portuguese voice was no more than a UNITA radio-operator of a small unit nearby checking comms with his headquarters. Bloody fool, giving us such a fright like that!
I call 29F on the radio again, and this time I get a reply. Whew! But the last vehicles have still not started moving, and that gives me reason for concern. I will have to go back and see what is going on. I request that the BSM meet me halfway so that we can get to the bottom of this dilemma, and, after instructing the other crews to visgraat properly and remain in rondomverdediging until my return, I instruct my Ratel driver to turn the vehicle around so that I can back track my route. After passing about fifteen of my own vehicles, I notice that the rest of my vehicles are simply not behind us! Somehow the vehicle behind this last one got lost or stuck or something happened to it. Without radios it is impossible to find out without driving all the way back.
I retrace my tracks back towards the edge of the anharra where we turned north, and as the Ratel breaks through the tree line at the western edge of the river source, an incredible sight greets me from on the south bank of the river, between the tree line and the river itself, even though I am still some distance away: there seem to be vehicles EVERYWHERE in the open anharra, standing almost bumper to bumper. It’s the rest of my vehicles, mostly 10t Samil-100 cargo trucks, packed to capacity with 155 mm high explosive shells and charges! In the open! And stuck… in the mud… some of them right up to their cabs! And with the enemy air threat as it is…! Oh my God!!!
I race to the spectacle and notice that the BSM is already there, talking to some of the more senior NCO’s. He is not happy, and as I jump off my Ratel as it slews to a halt next to the group, I am absolutely fuming with rage! What the hell is going on here? What happened? How is this possible? I survey the situation and is shocked to find at least fifteen vehicles stuck in (or rather sucked into) the wet mud, three of them Ratels that also got stuck while attempting to pull some of the trucks out of the mess.
What happened? As the story unfolds, I start to fully realise our looming predicament… almost half my vehicles with most of our ammunition are practically lost to the Angolan mud, standing in the open, all sitting ducks for the prowling MiGs, and I have to get all these vehicles to our hide before sunset or incapacitate the entire battery and half the regiment in one foul swoop! My mind races as the terribly ironic situation unfolds.
The esteemed driver and co-driver of the truck that got stuck first apparently noticed some corn-fields at the edge of the river, and thought it wise to not get out of the truck, run down and pick a few yummy ears of corn for themselves, but rather, while they are on the move, make a short detour into the anharra so as to just lean out and pick some as they pass by, not realising that they are actually moving dangerously close to the sucking mud that makes up the rest of the open space down to the river’s edge. To ensure they would not get stuck in the mud they actually had the ingenious insight to accelerate so that the truck’s momentum would carry the vehicle forward right through any muddy patches, past the enticing corn which they would just pick on the go, and they could return to their track in the tree line. This exercise actually took place over a distance of over a hundred metres from the tree line, so they were really pushing their luck! Needless to say, they found themselves stuck in the more than waist deep mud, after the momentum of the vehicle actually pushed it in deeper! Unable to drive the vehicle out, they beckoned the following truck to follow their track down and pull them out! So that’s how number two got stuck as well… and three and four and five! Some enterprising NCO then thought throwing more vehicles at the problem might solve the dilemma, with the predictable result which now also included numbers six through twelve! They tried pushing and pulling, winching and dragging, all to no avail, with almost all the trucks now settling in, sinking up to the doors of the cabs! Three Ratels have also been thrown into the mix, linked to each other with tow bars and I am treated to the sight of seeing a hardened steel Ratel tow bar being bent like a soft spoon while trying to push just one truck out of trouble! Earlier, a winch-cable had snapped and nearly took out the towing Samil’s windshield in a mighty whiplash – fortunately no one had been hurt… yet!
At least it seems like the Ratels are not stuck too badly, and I try to make some recommendations and suggestions. The BSM is just shaking his head unbelievably… neither of us can understand how this could have happened! The sun is long drawing water, and I am starting to panic about how I am EVER going to get this lot to the hide before dark, never mind sunset!
To make matters worse… some infantry commandant passes the convoy, gets off his Ratel to get a better look at the shambles which is my convoy, shakes his head and grins, yes, GRINS! “Lieutenant, you have a major problem,” he states the too bloody obvious and I glare after him as he gleefully departs, probably thankful that this is not his problem! Thanks for leaving, Commandant!
With gargantuan effort, the men struggle to get the vehicles out, one by one, until finally, there remains only THE ONE…the original one that now sits deeply entrenched in its slime pit, having settled comfortably into the warm embrace that only warm mud can give.
I look at my watch. After 4 pm! It has already taken more than four hours! I HAVE to take the convoy onwards and get them to the laager area, and if I don’t leave soon, the entire battery will be at risk. So I make the fateful decision – we will have to leave this truck so that a Withings recovery vehicle can pull it out of the muck later. I call the responsible NCO (an ex-PF staff-sergeant) and instruct him to remain with the vehicle with ten men and to protect its valuable cargo with their lives. He stares at me wide-eyed and exclaims, “Nee, jissusgod, Luitenant! Jy kan nie dit aan my doen nie!” (“No, Jesus, God, Lieutenant. You cannot do this to me!”). I stare him down and mutter, “I am taking this convoy to its laager position and I am leaving in fifteen minutes,” implying that I will leave with or without him and his men! The BSM smirks and whispers in my ear, “Good one, Lieutenant!”
To my amazement the staff-sergeant and his few troops grab shovels and spades and physically, all by themselves, with no help at all from any other vehicle, get stuck in under that SAMIL, and digs it out by hand!
As I prepare to leave the scene, once more in control, and at the head of the rear-end part of my convoy, I can’t help but notice that the once-stricken SAMIL, still dirty and muddy, have joined the procession discreetly, this time behind all the other trucks, in font of the BSM’s Ratel.
NOW WHY COULD THEY NOT HAVE DONE THAT RIGHT FROM THE START? Fifteen minutes instead to the four hours of struggle to get all the vehicles out! AMAZING how fear can motivate a man!
I move out without looking back and it is only a few minutes later that I receive the pre-arranged codeword from 29F… the last vehicle have just started moving! What’s the saying? All is well that ends well, not so? That’s what they say, alright!
I have to push hard to make up for the lost time, but we are now driving in the tracks left by the forward part of my convoy, so no bundu-bashing is required, and in less than half an hour, I rouse the waiting convoy from their stupor and once again take the lead in front. Up and away… Hi Ho, Silver!
My confidence restored once again, we are able to get on the same track just left a few hours ago by the other passing convoy and I up the pace. The sun is getting rather low and I have NO IDEA how far still to go!
The radio squelches loudly and I hear my battery commander inquiring about our progress (he remained blissfully unaware of the near calamity that almost befell his battery), and I happily report that we had just reached the main supply route to the BAA and that we are now making good progress toward our destination, if he can just direct me to where it is. No problem, the entrance to our designated laager area has been marked with toilet paper and I will see it approximately 500 metres past the abandoned fuel bunker truck next to the track. All right! Within minutes, I spot the hapless fuel tanker next to the track that had not been so lucky avoiding the landmines and had burnt out where it stood. I fleetingly hope that its crew had made it out alive, but have to start looking out for the marked entrance. 500 metres he said…
Darkness is approaching fast and I just don’t see any marked entrances into the wild bush around us. After about a kilometre I have to ask him to confirm that it is only 500 metres after the bunker, and he replies nonchalantly that maybe it’s a bit more, who knows, and that I should continue until I see the marked entrance. Right! I have slowed down considerably to ensure that I will spot the entrance and I instruct the entire crew to be vigilant and on the lookout for some toilet paper. But nothing…!
Fearful that I had missed the entrance, and not knowing what the tactical situation is, I proceeded to lead my little convoy onward into the unknown. DAMN, man! It must be almost five kilometres by now… where is that damn toilet paper???
Somewhere northeast of the Lomba River source, Southeast-Angola, late February 1988…
Looking for the toilet paper that is supposed to mark the entrance to our laager, I lead the procession of vehicles further and further away from the burnt-out tanker. The light is failing very fast now and I am really hesitant to report that we have still not found the position! Have we somehow missed the turnoff and went right past it?
I decide that this must be exactly what happened (dammit, it had already happened to me once before!), but I have to be realistic and accept the inevitable. We have to turn around! I can’t believe it! DAMN, what a day!
As I start issuing instructions for an ordered about-turn, I spot a vehicle in the bush next to the road a few hundred metres further. My curiosity raised, I instruct my driver to approach the vehicle so I can have a closer look… Unbelievably, it is another damaged fuel bunker truck, abandoned where it stood, but not burnt out like the previous one!
It had been the wrong damn fuel tanker we were using as a mark! I beckon to the rest of the convoy to follow me and we charge down the track like a cavalry brigade smelling blood, and lo and behold: a little bit more than 500 metres further, I do spot the toilet paper!
Now, occupying a laager position is not at all like in the old days when all the wagons were driven in a circle, closing up the gaps and forming a tightly-knitted defensive ring through which you could shoot at the surrounding Indians! No. the modern laager is a widely dispersed affair, designed to irregularly space the vehicles quite far apart from each other and camouflaged very well indeed so as to not present any enemy planes with an inviting target, and protect the unit from concentrated enemy artillery fire. Yet the principles of forming a rough circle (or rather more like a loop), and establishing interlocking and overlapping fields of fire between each adjacent element still holds sound and for that reason we continued referring to this type of position as a laager.
You cannot just drive into a laager. The number of vehicles has to be considered so that the entire force will fit in the allocated space and the position of each vehicle has to be pre-determined and marked so that the incoming vehicles can get to their positions with the minimum of confusion and delay, without bundling together. If well executed, a very smooth and well-planned manoeuvre will get all the vehicles in position within minutes!
While the rest of my convoy halts, keeping their distance from each other but without visgraating, I approach the position, trying to judge its size and capacity in the very little twilight that’s left of the day, and estimate a mean distance between vehicles in order to fit all forty-odd vehicles into the position. From the entrance I then proceed to break a passage through the bush in a wide loop back to the entrance, but due to the failing light I cannot jump off and mark each designated position, so I try to memorize more or less where I intend to place each vehicle. Returning to the convoy, I gesture them to follow me and lead the way into the laager, working my way through the loop in a clockwise direction.
Every vehicle has to be directed in by hand, and I jump of my Ratel as it comes to a halt just past the first position, and I then direct the front vehicle off the loop into a position facing outwards where the crew will assume klaarstaan positions around their vehicle, before digging their foxholes for the night, making coffee, eating, and sleeping. Sentries will have to be posted, but that will be handled by the responsible NCOs.
As the front vehicle takes its position, I have to run back to my Ratel so that we can repeat the procedure with the following vehicle, and so on, until we reach the beginning of the loop again with all the vehicles deployed. The command vehicles also form part of this elliptical laager.
The stage has being set…
From the moment that you enter Angola, you notice a few things… the flies are many, many, many, times more numerous, bigger, obstinate, and irritating than anywhere else, and the other insects seem much larger and meaner, including the numerous species of spiders you encounter on a daily basis. We almost never take off our boots while on deployment, and when we do, we have to check the insides very carefully before putting them back on, as spiders and scorpions have the nasty habit of crawling inside the warm, damp space reserved so exclusively for our feet. Some really nasty types can be found in Angola, but I reserve this entire chapter to describe my encounters with only one species, one found most commonly in the bush of South-east Angola, the golden orb web spider.
Everybody that had been in the bush anywhere in Southern Africa would have come across the golden web spiders in the genus Nephila. These monsters are beautiful and the adult females of some species grow to a body length of sometimes more than 6 centimetres (2.5 inches). Now add to that a leg span of up to 20 centimetres (8 inches), and as you can imagine they appear quite scary from up close! They are actually quite beautiful with many glistening colours, most prominently black and yellow, with their bodies, and especially the abdomen, and even their leg segments alternating mostly between black and yellow. Very impressive to see in daylight, no so much at night, when they just seem large in the reflecting moonlight, sitting in their webs, waiting for some unsuspecting prey! While not dangerous to human beings at all, they are most effective when it comes to small prey and are even known to catch small birds! The males are minute in comparison to the females, so you never really notice them. In some species the male is up to 1,000 times smaller than the female and can usually be found in the same web as the female. I read that they are in no real danger of being eaten because they are so small that the female does not recognize them as food!
No male chauvinists in the arachnid family, I tell you! In other spider species it’s a case of, “Shut up or be eaten!” for the poor males. We human males are lucky, I think, although I have seen some human female monsters out there too!
The most impressive thing about the golden orb web spider, as amazing as these creatures are, is their web. The silk itself is usually a golden, creamy, off-white colour and very strong, so strong, in fact, that birds, bats and sometimes even lizards are trapped and consumed. No wastage there!
The webs themselves are usually large, no, more like HUGE, and very sticky, with the main web sometimes reaching over 2 metres (6 to 7 feet) in diameter. The supporting strands radiating from the main web can be as much as 6+ metres (20 feet) apart. Because the webs are so extensive, these spiders typically do not need to make any new web as they simply keep on repairing the existing one. I just recently read that the webbing of these spiders are used as fishing line by the natives in some of the Pacific islands, because it is so strong.
The point being made here is that this sticky web can trap and hold virtually any other insect, some smaller birds, bats and lizards and could possibly even catch some flying fish!
Laager area northeast of the Lomba River source, Southeast-Angola, early March 1988…
Darkness is folding its comforting arms around the bustle of activity which is my laager. The sun had gone to ground and the twilight of day is fast fading. I can barely see the silhouettes of my vehicles as I run out in front of each one, directing each into its position by pointing both extended arms and clenched fists into the direction I want them to face the front of the vehicle, i.e. outward! The process have slowed down considerably in the failing light as the drivers are no longer really able to see where they are going. I have done about two-thirds of the convoy and I run, breathlessly, towards the next darkened outline… I have to finish this before we can see absolutely nothing! With about twelve or so vehicles to go, the adrenaline pumping, the blood-vessels on my forehead popping, my eyes wide, and the pressure building, I feel the burn from the exertion, but fail to notice that I am charging through between two trees, probably three or four metres apart, and suddenly I am enveloped in a cocoon of sticky, strong substance that fold around my head, arms and torso in a fatalistic embrace. My mind races as realisation sets in! WEB!!!! SPIDER!!! Just earlier today I had watched one these grisly creatures trap, kill and suck the insides out of a rather large insect, and I instinctively lash out with my arms, while not missing a single bound of my headlong charge.
I think the spider is sitting somewhere on my face!
No, I am sure I can feel it scrambling around my head trying to find a soft spot to sink its terrible fangs into… YEAAAAGH!!!!
I think I may have just screamed a bit like a young girl, but cannot be sure – there is still a lot of vehicle noise around me. But I don’t think anyone have heard or noticed this terrible state of affairs at that moment, and somehow I continue my thrust towards the vehicle, while thrashing around my head and upper body with my arms. Where did the spider go???
But there really is no time to worry about where it has gone to, but I manage to tear off most of the thick, sticky webbing from my head and face, and beat at my chest and sides with my fists! It’s under my shirt! No, wait… I think it just went in under my skin!!!!
Suddenly I am in front of the vehicle, and I have to compose myself before someone notices the utter panic of their fearless leader! Trying to ignore every prickly hair and pore on my body, each which I perceive as the crawling legs of this great predator, I simultaneously gesture to the driver of the vehicle to follow me while still peeling off chunks of spider webbing. As I am not wearing my bush hat, and probably because of its shortness, my hair is merely covered with silk, which, amazingly enough, does seem to settle on top rather than get entangled with any of the strands of my hair, so it can easily be peeled off. I wonder fleetingly what the driver must be thinking I am gesturing to him.
Less than ten minutes later all my vehicles are in position and I am alone… FINALLY alone! With shivers of terror still running up and down my spine, I drag the remaining pieces of silk off my shoulders and sides, while frantically beating at every bulge or perceived movement under my uniform! It is really hard for me now to sit here and describe what it felt like, my hands involuntarily still wiping at dark places on my shirt, and as the memories flood back it is actually hard to continue typing on the keyboard.
And I am not even afraid of spiders! You can ask any of my immediate family members.
Can you imagine what it feels like to not be able to go take a shower afterward, not being able to take off your uniform, having to focus on the myriad of tasks that are required during the occupation of a laager position, and finally, after having settled down, to have to climb into your bedding for the night in a foxhole dug next to the vehicle, without even taking your boots off, or wiping your face with a nice cool cloth? If you were never there yourself, I would think not! In fact, I would not see any water sufficient enough for a bath for many weeks still to come. The spectre of that long legged creature hiding somewhere in an orifice of my body kept me awake for some time!
Extract from "The Eyes of the Leopard", still very much a "Work in Progress"...
Copyright ©2020 Johan Schoeman