The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
Our second Border Trip was to the Kaokoland/ Kaokoveld, Sector 10. This area is a vast, mountainous and semi-desert land, lying below the Cunene River and Angola to the north; the cold Atlantic Ocean and the Skeleton Coast to the west; Owamboland and the Etosha Pan and Game Reserve to the east, and with Damaraland to the south. Perhaps not as ‘hot’ (terrorist activity) as Owamboland or Kavangoland because it was more difficult to infiltrate from Angola. Though – when they did it was much harder to track their movement because of the rough and mountainous terrain.
Half our platoon was to be stationed at Opuwo Base and the other half at Okongwati Base. We had flown up to the border in a SAFAIR Hercules C130 and landed at Grootfontein. From here we were taken up to Oshivelo Base where we spent a few weeks in vigorous re-training and evaluations. I remember this time-span at Oshivelo very well. We slept in tents while here and had to stand guard at night, even after exhausting training all day. I remember being exceedingly hungry as we were given very little food. Such was my hunger one night while on guard duty, that I entered the Officer’s Mess and helped myself to a large bowl of cornflakes and a litre of milk. Typically, the fat cat PF’s had access to the best food. This unfair dynamic within the SADF was always evident, and was perpetually galling. The thought of it, even 30 years later, still raises my hackles. The Permanent Force, who on their own were unable to secure the security of the borders without the conscripting of thousands of young white South Africans boys, treated those recruits like the shit of the earth. This created an ‘us and them’ division. As conscripts we despised all the PF’s, without exception. The very abbreviation PF was used by us in a derogatory fashion. We invented vicious nicknames for all of them, the kind that would have sent them into apoplectic rages had they heard them. Considering the anti-English sentiments expressed by many of the Permanent Force, it was highly ironic that they had unwittingly imbibed the worst aspects of the British Army’s poisonous chalice, where the NCO’s lorded it over the humble Tommy and the Officer’s over everyone. The only twist was that the ranks of the SADF’s Permanent Force were generally filled by the ordinary, while the conscripts came from the full spectrum of South African society, from the humblest to the most elevated.
The highlight of my training at Oshivelo occurred one miserable evening as I was about to be posted on guard duty. My brother Gordon’s mechanised unit from 1 SAI were chasing terrorists in the Etosha Pan area which lay near to Oshivelo. Several of his unit (including my brother) had been sent to the training base to pick-up rations. On arriving he discovered that O Company from 3 SAI were in the camp and he and his mates came looking for me. While lined-up and ready to be marched-off, one of my platoon members came up and told the Corporal on duty that Mac’s brother was looking for him. I was overwhelmed with excitement. I had not seen Gordon since the night he boarded the military train in Newcastle, the same night I had left for my two years. I was relieved of my guarding duty, and as I walked off the parade ground there was my older brother, beaming broadly, looking tanned and handsome, blond moustached and with heavy growth on his face, surrounded by his amused mates and my envious friends. I was beyond thrilled. We were able to spend the night in each other’s company, catching up on the previous 14 months. Late that night his unit had to leave and I watched disconsolately yet elated as they drove off into the darkness in a Buffel. We were only to see each other again at the end of our service.
(below) My brother Gordon in blue and myself.
On completing our training our Mortar Platoon was put to the test and our ability to bring fire onto designated targets to be evaluated. If my memory serves me correctly, two sections were chosen, one Observer, and one Plotter. I was selected as the Plotter. I remember this evaluation for the high stress level I experienced. Having to do the mathematics and calculate the necessary charges, deflections and elevations from the direction and distance estimates provided by the Observer was demanding and I did not want to let my platoon and company down. We performed very well and I remember the exhilaration when we heard the results. Any further elaboration would sound boastful.
From Oshivelo our Company was driven up to Ondangwa in the Owamboland on route to Opuwo. However, action up ahead had us turning around and driving all the way back to Grootfontein in the rain. Here we spent the night in a hostel. The following day we were driven in open white trucks around the Etosha Game Reserve to our eventual destination in the Kaokoland, a detour of several hundred kilometres. We arrived at sunset at Opuwo in the pouring rain and then drove out to a small base just outside Opuwo called Alpha Base. I remember the occasion well, for as we arrived late one evening on open trucks it again began to pour with rain. Our spirits were not improved by a meagre meal of cold tinned food. We had no suitable shelter and had to make do by kipping under open-sided sheds. Drenched through, hungry and depressed, I was eventually invited into a tent by a kindly officer. I recall my relief as I curled up in a corner of the tent like a disheveled wet dog.
We remained at Alpha Base for well over a week, frustrated and bored. It was evident that no preparation had been made at Opuwo Base for us.
(below) I titled this sketch – ‘Waiting to go and in a bad mood’ 3 March 1985 (Sunday) Alpha Base, Ondororundu. This clearly portrays our frustration and state of mind during this difficult and trying time.
(above) A quick pencil sketch of a troop fully loaded and en route.
I drew this side-view portrait of Grant Anderson, Alpha Base, Ondororundu, to kill time. Nicknamed ‘Foxy’ – Grant was well named, for besides his sharp features and bristly red hair, he was sharp-minded and mannered. 3 March 1985.
Then on a given day we were loaded onto military vehicles and driven back to Opuwo. This was the administrative ‘capital’ of the region, a sprawling town mostly of tin shacks and huts made of tree branches. There were several shops and buildings of a commercial nature too. Puzzling to me was that the military base was surrounded by the dwellings of the Himba people and the homes of the top rank and file of the South West African Territorial Force, namely 102 Battalion. What came first I do not know, but any attacking force would have to make their way through a sea of huts and houses before they got to the base. And what a disappointment the base was to my young aesthetic eyes. A shamble of corrugated iron and brick buildings, dusty, dirty, with not a tree or blade of grass for eye relief. The base itself was an affliction on all my young aesthetic sensibilities.
(above) A pen and ink sketch of the Opuwo military base and shanty town beyond, drawn from atop the hill behind the base on the 28th of May, 1985. My small art studio can be seen as the building to the far left in the foreground. The main road through Opuwo can be seen running to the north.
The mountains to the north east of Opuwo were quite spectacular, especially when the sun set of a day. I drew this ballpoint pen sketch of these mountains to the north of Epuwo, 1 June 1985. For several weeks towards the end of my stay at Opuwo, our section had to trudge out of Opuwo on this road and set-up observation posts on the hills several kilometres outside of the town and base. SWAPO was expected to rev the base with mortars from this direction and should this happen, we were to radio back to our fellow mortarists who were manning the guns back in the base and direct their fire onto the target. The first night on those cursed hills it poured with rain, all night, and we had no bivvies to shelter under. I shan’t ever forget this night. Talk about a ‘dark night of the soul’. I have forever after had a keen respect for a dry and protected spot to sleep.
We would take turns of two hours on guard duty while our companions slept. After a couple of weeks I think we simply slept all night through. This was rather careless of us for several weeks into this routine while making a raucous settling-in we supposedly disturbed a group of ‘ terrs’ who had set up a line of mortars below the hill. They, thinking they had been discovered, fled. They were tracked by helicopter and special units to the other side of the Zebra Mountains (Baines Mountains) and dispatched of. We listened in on our radios, breathless. One unlucky fellow had crawled down an aardvark’s hole and refused to come out. We listened-in to the command to throw a grenade down the hole and the subsequent bang.
(below) I drew this image after we listened in on our radios to the operation to which I refer above. On the back of this image I wrote – “What might not be seen is sometimes heard”. The image is of a radio handpiece and relates to a command to throw a grenade into an aardvark’s hole where a ‘terrorist’ was holed-up.
(above) A caricature I drew of the Commandant of the Opuwo Base.
What I write in these military service posts is the thinking and observations of an 18 year old Conscript. A case in point was my view of the Commandant at the Opuwo Base. We as a matter of course held all Permanent Force members set over us with complete disdain. The Commandant would not have escaped this general dislike regardless. We called him GV (short for Grensvegter/ Border Fighter). We had derogatory nick-names for all our overseers. No one escaped our acerbic observations. One particularly descriptive nick-name was that for our platoon Lieutenant. We called him ‘Varkvel’ (Pigskin) as the skin of his neck was pink and pitted with old acne-scars. The fact that he should have as an officer limited the excesses of Killer Smith made us dislike him even more. It was evident that Killer had him well and truly under his crushing thumb.
I can no longer remember GV’s real name, just that we thought him quite horrid and despised him whole-heartedly while stationed at Opuwo. In reflection as an adult – he was probably a fine-enough man with considerable responsibilities that we did not have to face. He had these unusual stepped-down sideburns and wore thick black rimmed spectacles.
After my platoon member Willem Durandt died at the Cunene River, our section was flown back to the tragic spot in a Puma helicopter. We were accompanied by a dominee (reverend) and Commandant. While engaged in a service of remembrance, GV quite peculiarly and in our estimation, sacrilegiously, grabbed one of our R4 rifles and tried to shoot an otter that swam past the spot. When we got back to Opuwa we lodged official complaints and GV defended his objectionable behaviour by saying he thought it had been a snake in the river. Yeah! Our estimation of the man sank even lower, in the parlance of the time – ‘lower than snake shit’.
(above and below) The Commemorative Service on the banks of the Cunene River.
A cartoon I drew of the thoroughly despised, fat and indulgent Luitenant ‘Lappies’ (Lieutenant Lappies) Permanent Force AH at Opuwo, Kaokoland. There was no way of getting any revenge on the PF’s who made the lives of recruits miserable. Drawing them in this fashion was my way of pay-back. And so – he remains after all these years, immortalised as a Goering-like figure.
(above ) An amusing sketch I did at 102 Battalion, Opuwo on the 1 of June 1985. I must have been feeling real animosity towards the camps commanding officer (CO) and his regimental staff sergeant (RSM). That’s me in the foreground being strangled mercilessly by a ghoulish GV. In the background is the nutless dominee who failed to censure GV’s behaviour at Willem Durandt’s remembrance service on the banks of the Cunene River. The RSM also makes an appearance, depicted as a long-armed zombie on the left. We nicknamed him ‘South Wester’ – partly because he came from South West Africa, but also because he was squint and one eye looked south while the other looked west according to my chums. Whispering into South Wester’s ear is his sidekick, portrayed as a lizard, a mean-spirited shit of a man who spied on us and went running with tales. I had made the image upon a discarded piece of paper with calculations of unremembered purpose.
(above) Pencil sketch of Machocho, a pleasant-featured and animated young Herero child who frequented the Opuwo Base, Kaokoland. 30 June 1985.
(above) LCpl. Tjipopo. On occasion we were called to the Opuwo Base parade ground and were marched up and down by this Lance Corporal from one of the South West African contingents. He had a particular and unusual jig that caught our attention. One day while sitting on the side of the ground I privately and quickly sketched him doing his rain-dance. Opuwo, Kaokoland, 12 June 1985.
(above) A detailed pen and ink sketch of the shitty Opuwo Base. Drawn on the 8 June 1985. For some reason when I looked at this drawing all these many years later, I recalled our constant hunger. Perhaps one of the buildings represented in this drawing was the kitchen, or while I was drawing I was hungry. The kitchen to this base was very poorly run and we often went hungry. This in contrast to most of the other bases where I was stationed. At one point I managed to rustle-up a box holding tinned tomato noodles. I would often open a tin and scoff it to assuage my gnawing hunger. When we could arrange it – we would buy a local fried-bread and other treats in the town. In contrast – the NCO’s and officers sat down each day in their fine messes to meals we would have killed for. Is the watermark me salivating over the thought of my Mother’s cooking back home.
(above) A black crayon drawing of Epuwo Base, executed on the 13 June 1985. My fellow Mortarists were located in the tents shown in the middle ground, while our mortar pits were situated on top of the hill just to the left of where the Samil water tanker can be seen. How one was expected to return fire at night when one had to run all the way from the tents at the bottom of the hill to the pits at the top is hard to comprehend, but such was much of the nonsensical nature of the military. During our stay, when some threat was determined, for several weeks, two sections were required to sleep in and around the pits.
(above) Watercolour painting looking from my studio through the gate toward the ablution block, Quartermaster store and camp Control Room atop the hill. 23 June 1985, Kaokoland.
(above) Brush and ink drawing of the rear Gate to Opuwo Base, Kaokoland, with the mountains in the far distance beyond the town.
(above) Pen and ink sketch of the rear gate to Opuwo Base, 26 May 1985, Kaokoland, showing an observation post to the left.
(above) A pen and ink drawing of an old tractor at Opuwo Base, 12, June 1985, Kaokoland.
The Commandant’s House, Opuwo, Kaokoland, 26 May 1985. I labelled this sketch the ‘Mad Man’s House’.
The Commandant’s House viewed from my studio, Opuwo, Kaokoland, 29 May 1985.
A view of the Commandant’s House from my studio, Opuwo, Kaokoland, 12 June 1985.
A view from my studio, Opuwo, Kaokoland, 29 May 1985. Some of us attended a Christian meeting in the early evening hosted by an English-speaking Permanent Force Captain in one of the small houses near the home of the Commandant. The Captain lived near-by with his young attractive wife. In this hot dusty climate we would arrive for the meeting after a preliminary visit to the showers, dressed in our PT shorts and army vests. One day the Captain called me over and instructed me to tell the other blokes that we needed to dress more appropriately as our bared flesh was a distraction to his wife. We all took umbrage at this and never returned. It was obvious, while our minds were on God, his wife’s was not.
While stationed at Opuwo, the RSM ‘South Wester’ took a peculiar liking to me. He had seen several drawing I had made for an officer, and so it was that I was called to his office at the top of the hill. I went with some trepidation, but soon I realised it was my artistc abilities he was requiring. 1o2 Battalion were a proud bunch of men and he wanted all their vehicles to be emblazoned with their insignia, a shield of alternating white and blue surround with a buck’s head in the middle, surrounded by a field of yellow. I told him what paints I would need and before long several cans arrived including a pile of metal plates. At first he set me up in the garage of one of the 102 Bn houses adjoining the base. Impressed on their delivery, he called me up to his office and told me that he was giving me a studio in a prefab building lying just outside the gates of the base and adjacent to the Commandant’s house. Occasionally South Wester would have me paint something for him or design some regimental pamphlet or the other. As he put it – “jy is a kunstenaar, jy moet teken en verf”. And so I was neatly ensconced in my studio where I spent many happy weeks drawing all manner of things. I even slept and ate in the studio. This placed me in an invidious position with the rest of my mates. They were having one shit of a time at Opuwo, having to build bunkers, making up cleaning parties, forced to spend the day in the full sun next to the mortar pits and such like. Some of them complained to Corporal Rafferty and Lieutenant Abrahams. I was instructed to return to base. However, when South Wester heard, he had me promptly returned to my studio. And this is where I remained until my section was sent to Epupa Falls, and as the Plotter I had to accompany them.
(above and below) A pen and ink drawing of my Art Studio, Opuwo Base, Kaokoland, 9 June 1985. So great was the heat in summer on the Border that many buildings had shade cloth stretched over the roof on a frame held up by split poles. This was surprisingly effective. Some of my happier moments during my two year army service were spent in this prefab building drawing and painting. The water reservoir and water tower is visible atop the hill.
One day while working in my studio, my platoon came rumbling past the window. They were been punished for some or other perceived infraction by the camp Commandant and our platoon corporal was instructed to carry it out. These punishments made-up of running, sit-ups, press-ups, leopard crawl and buddy-dra (carrying your buddy) etcetera – were called ‘opfoks’ – need I translate. By this late stage in our service the chaps were so ‘naafi’ (an English translation escapes me) that they would hardly comply. Corporal Rafferty, apoplectic at this stage kept yelling that he would have them for ‘meitery’ (mutiny). My brother-in-law was one of these troops and related to me years later that Rafferty had thrown his hands up in frustration and asked them to dirty themselves so that when they returned, it would appear as if they had had a severe going-over.
My studio, Opuwo, 26 May 1985.
My Studio, Opuwo, Kaokoland, 26 May 1985.
My Studio, Opuwo, Kaokoland, 15 June 1985.
(above) A relaxed line drawing of the inside of my studio. 26 May 1985, Opuwo, Kaokoland. Some things do not change much over one’s lifetime, for my present studio looks very much the same. Well! – correction – now my desk has a computer and we no longer use transistor radios, but what could possibly replace pens and ink?
(above) A portrait in pencil of (Pip) Phillip Small from Underberg. This sketch was executed at Nepara on the 10th of December 1985. Phillip was in our sister platoon, the Storm Pioneers, and joined me for some time in the studio when he was tasked with some art task. Phillip used the artwork executed in this building to get into art college when he returned to civilian life.
(above) Phillip Small doing sewing repairs, Studio, 12 June 1985, Opuwo, Kaokoland.
(above) A pen and ink drawing of Phillip Small rocking back on a chair and reading, Studio, Opuwo, Kaokoland, 25 June 1985.
I picked up these two beautifully shaped vertebrae in the bush outside the Epuwo Base and sketched them in ball-point pen on a washed background. 9 June 1985.
(above) A view up the hill from my studio towards the ‘owl tower’, reservoirs and water tanks, Opuwo, Kaokoland, 30 May 1985.
(above) The ‘Owl’ tower and view, Opuwo, Kaokoland, 28 May 1985. This square structure of unknown purpose (perhaps an observation post) lay on top of the ridge behind the base. I visited this location often – the 360 degree view made a great spot from which to draw the surrounds. A family of barn owls resided in this tower who would his at me on my way up the ladder to the top.
(above) a chinagraph crayon drawing of the owl chicks in the ‘Owl Tower’.
(above) A pen an ink sketch of a building in Opuwo town, sketched from the ‘Owl Tower’. You can make out this building in the image above.
(above) A pen and ink drawing I did from the ‘Owl Tower’ looking towards the valley behind the camp. If you look carefully you will see two of the Kaokoveld’s ubiquitous donkeys.
Drawing in wax crayon of the mountains of Kaokoland, 28 May 1985.
The Himba of Kaokoland have a creation legend of having been birthed from the mountains. Such is the enigmatic mystery of the Kaokoland mountains at night that I was quite able to imagine the legend. Ball-point pen over an Avtar and enamel paint wash.
Graham Leslie McCallum