The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
Towards the end of our border posting to Opuwo in the Kaokoland, our section was sent to Epupa Falls. As recruits – we of course did not know where we were going, but anywhere was better than that dusty and miserable Opuwo Base. We loaded all our kit and gear atop a Kwevoel transporter, and with our section ensconced in a Buffel troop carrier, we headed-off like prisoners set free, waving goodbye to our remaining mortar section who looked-on enviously.
I had packed up a wad of paper in a cardboard box, wrapped up in thin rope. Although I didn’t know where I was going, if I got half a chance, I was going to draw and paint what I saw.
Taking the sand road north, we traveled in convoy through the shanties and huts of the local Himbas, who were to be seen around their habitations, squatting in the peculiar-fashion as is their habit.
(below) A pen and ink drawing I did from the hillside above of Opuwo Base and Opuwo shanty town, showing the road running past the base and through the town to the north.
Several kilometres outside of town, we passed the hills to the left of the road where our section spent so many grim nights several months before. As we traveled-along, I reflected on the first night on those rock-strewn hills when we were sent out to observe any SWAPO activity from the north. Intelligence had determined that Opuwo Base was to be ‘revved’ (attacked with mortars) from the north and so our task was to radio-back to our fellow mortar section where the ‘terrs’ firing position was so that our section could return fire on them. That night we went out unprepared without any groundsheets or bivvies (water-proof shelters) and we had barely positioned ourselves on the steep side of the hill amongst the rocks and stunted bushes when a thunder and rain storm blew-in and it began to pour. We climbed into our sleeping bags (me in my grey army blankets as mine had been stolen) and soon we were soaked-through, shivering with cold and thoroughly forlorn. We took turns on guard-duty, two hours at a time, expecting the worst. I remember doing my guarding, with my R4 rifle ready, the rain running in rivulets over my face, listening for every sound and scanning the darkness for movement, a hundred questions dripping through my head. Were my fellow mortarists asleep? Were they as frightened as I was? What would happen if SWAPO stumbled upon us in the dark of the night. and if they did what would I do? If they set up their mortars near to us, would we be able to call fire upon them without blasting ourselves off the face of the earth?
The Kaokoland is an awe-inspiring area of the world. It has to be visited to be appreciated. Like any dry and semi-desert land, one’s eye’s are drawn to the larger more dramatic features of the landscape, and the Kaokoland has many imposing mountains, rock-covered hills and twisting dry river courses. Soon we had left the road behind and now we bumped and shook over some of the roughest track any four-wheel-drive vehicle can negotiate.
(below) A page from my diary recording my observations on the trip up to Epupa Falls. It clearly conveys my fascination at this land’s charms, as well as my observation on the ever-present dangers when I write of a civilian vehicle destroyed by a landmine. 1985.
It was with total surprise and excitement when our vehicles arrived on the banks of the mighty Cunene River. Like a ribbon of green in the barren desert, Epupa Falls lay before us, lush with palms and green-leaved trees, the wide expanse of the river in swift flow, the roar of the falls, a fine mist-like rain rising from the cataract like smoke, and the mountains beyond on the Angolan side of the river – rising precipitously. Like a child – I was beyond excitement – then of course I was a child, barely 18 years old.
The main military camp was set-up about a kilometre up the river from the falls, but our section was dropped off just above the falls. At this spot, alongside a small inlet to the the river, among the palms and beneath the trees, we set up our brown army tent
(above) I painted this watercolour of our campsite and tent beside the Cunene River at Epupa Falls on the 2nd of April 1985. This spot was incredibly beautiful, and the palms and trees were full of little squirrel-like creatures and brightly coloured lovebirds. I painted this scene sitting on the raised edge of our two mortar pits. These had taken extreme effort to dig because only metres from the river’s bank the hard and stony desert began. While painting this picture, an elderly Himba man walked up quietly from the desert, and leaning on a long stick while resting on one leg like a stork, he watched my efforts with silent intent until I finished the painting. Then as silently as he appeared, he walked away, disappearing between the arid hills to the south.
(below) Photographed in heroic pose in front of our tent and camp – Glen Watson with two fish he caught below the falls. In the shade of the trees, watching on, one can make out Johan Basson, Deon Botes and Sarel Brits.
(below) A drawing of a mullet-like fish the chaps caught in the the Cunene River.
(below) Photograph of the mortar pit with an 81mm mortar barrel poking out the hole. You can just make out the arrival of an Alouette helicopter in the background. Note the direction poles around the pit. We had spent several days after finishing the pits setting up pre-fired targets on the paths coming down through the mountains on the Angolan side. I was the ‘Plotter’ for the company and would have worked out all the necessary settings to hit these targets with the assistance of the ‘Observer’. On occasion we would receive requests from the camp upstream to drop several high-explosive mortar bombs on these targets ‘for effect’. On one occasion for fun we fired bombs into the river. This was achieved by setting the nosecone of the bombs to explode on impact. The effect was startling.
When all our tasks like building mortar pits and setting up targets were completed, we were able to settle down to a relaxing existence, rising when we felt like it, suntanning, bathing and swimming in the river, fishing and writing letters back home to our loved ones. My friend Glen Watson was kept very busy writing home to his wife Veona. On occasion while resting in our tent from the midday heat, Glen would read me extracts from the many letters he received from his beloved. I remember a letter of 36 pages from his wife. News of his baby girl was always keenly anticipated.
We would spend a lot of time talking about our futures and what we would do to secure those futures when we returned to civilian life. The chaps spoke freely of their dreams and aspirations. Like typical blokes they spoke of their plans to meet a girl, buy a hi-fi, buy a car to get around in, go ‘jolling’ at city clubs, and such like. My romantic future seemed fraught with insurmountable obstacles. Gay as a jay – I puzzled over what I would do to meet a guy, and if I did, what possible future could be had in a generally homophobic world. All this I of course kept locked up inside me. I write freely of this now, but then, being gay was something to be kept well-hidden.
The free time allowed me to draw, paint, read and write – and I knew instinctively what I wanted to do when I got home.
(above) A pen and ink drawing of the Makalani Palms (Hyphaene petersiana) along the upper course of the Cunene River above the Epupa Falls. These palms produced a very hard glossy-brown nut that when stripped of this shiny layer revealed a nut very similar in appearance to a small coconut. When dry and stripped of their outer smooth and then fibrous layers, a brown-coloured nut was to be found. We would spend many hours carving designs and motifs through this brown layer to reveal the attractive creamy-coloured vegetable ivory beneath. I was kept busy by my fellow mortarists drawing designs on these makalani nuts for them to carve. We had been given Victorinox fold-up knives back at Opuwo Base, and these were our tools.
(below) a pen and ink drawing I did of some makalani nuts. 20 June 1985.
A watercolour I painted from our camp of the fast flowing Cunene River, just above the Epupa Falls on the 10th of April 1985. Now an adult and sensible, it seems incredible that we would run several hundred metres up the river bank and then jump into the river to swim downstream and parallel to the bank with the strong current pushing us along like Olympic swimmers at top speed. When we approached the location of our tent downstream, we would quickly nip into an inlet with a few side strokes and climb out exhilarated. Failure to do this would have resulted in one been washed downriver and over the falls to a certain death.
The water of the Cunene River had quite a distinctive taste that we drunk unfiltered. It took us some time to get used to the taste, but when we did, we loved it. I even bottled the water to bring back with me when we returned to Opuwo Base.
I could hardly wait to visit the falls, and when I did, I was so in awe of these mighty foaming and steaming cataracts. One could stand atop the falls and be showered in a lovely cooling mist that rose from below.
Although we carried our rifles around with us on a canvass strap, like tourists – any concept of danger was well-forgotten as we explored like day-trippers. When we arrived at Epupa Falls we were cautioned that more than one South African soldier had been swept over these very same falls and died.
(above) A rather charming and accurate watercolour of the cataract I painted on the Namibian side of Epupa Falls. The descriptive Himba word ‘Epupa’ means foaming. I painted this image up on the hill, further down the river so that I could get a clear view into the foaming chasm. A large baobab was precariously attached to the left side of the falls, as it is today, while on the right side of the falls the large baobab that I called the ‘grafitti tree’ can be seen, also present today. While my section was stationed here, a huge baobab detached itself from the selfsame cliff and fell into the gorge below.
Our tent and camp was situated in the makalani palm grove just above the falls.
(above and below) The Epupa falls photographed by Glen Watson in 1985. The sheer force of the torrent is evident in the lower image.
(above) Several of our section swam across the Cunene River to be photographed on the Angolan side. To accomplish this feat – they had to jump into the river from the cliffs, much further up, so that they could swim diagonally across the strong current to reach the apposing bank. Crocodile spoor could be seen on the sand banks.
(above) A watercolour sketch of three of my fellow riflemen fishing on the sandbank approximately 1 kilometre downstream from Epupa Falls, Kaokoland, executed on the 5 of April 1985. The figure in the middle is Kevin Breedt and standing on the right in black shorts is Willem Durandt. The strong Cunene River current swept around a bend at this spot and therefore slowed down, making it a favoured swimming spot. Being young and thinking we were immortal, we swam here knowing there were crocodiles, we had seen their footprints and drag marks on the sand on both sides of the river. Tragically, two days later, on Easter Sunday, Willem Durandt dove into the water at this very same spot and never came up again. One can go onto Google Sat and see the very same location today. The sand bank is still there.
Rifleman Willem J Durandt, Service number – 81199878 BG. Willem’s next of kin is noted in my records as his ‘Swaer’ H J A Venter, and his home address as Cheverney Flats, Meyerspark.
I know this detail as our lazy company Lieutenant who we nicknamed Varkvel (Pigskin) had me do all his file and office work for the Company.
Blond-haired Willem, of modest height but sturdy build, was mortarist number 3 on the pipe. He had an enormous appetite and I would watch amazed in the mess as he polished-off a varkpan (pigpan) of food in minutes and then race back for more. He was something of a daredevil. The day I painted this image, we walked back as a group along the river to our camp above the falls. As we traversed the cliff alongside the raging falls, he edged as close as he could to look down into the torrent below. Several of us remonstrated with him to be more careful. We had hardly cautioned him when he slipped on the pebbly ground and almost fell down the cliff into the raging torrent below. I recall telling him that he would kill himself if he was not more careful. I am not insinuating he died because of his vigorous habits, for we had all spent time diving into the river and swimming at this favoured spot just as he did the day he died.
These past 30 years, each 7th of April and Easter time, I think of Willem and his untimely passing.
I have often wondered about his family and the sadness his death must have occasioned. Perhaps if we had been properly supervised this would not have happened, for we were simply dropped off at Epupa Falls and left to our own devices. Willem could not have been older than me, and I was 18 at the time.
I was drawing that morning at our camp above the falls and had not gone with the other chaps down to the ‘beach’ below the falls to fish and swim. While drawing I was startled to hear the panicked screaming of Kevin Breedt. He ran up sweating and shouting that “Durandt has drowned”. That he had simply “disappeared in the river”. A frightful chill ran up my spine as he ran on up to the camp further up the river where the PF’s were located.
I got dressed in my browns and boots as I waited for Kevin to return. Not long after an unknown chap came running down from the camp upstream and as he passed me on his way down river he yelled out “wat’s jou probleem, gaan soek jou maatjie” (what’s your problem, go look for your buddy). I thought I had best not wait any longer for Kevin so took the route down to the sandy beach below the falls. The chaps were in a state of confusion and terror.
After Durandt’s death a terrible sadness sunk onto us, For days we walked around dazed and forlorn. It took us all a long time to get over this tragedy. For days the military flew spotter planes along the Cunene River in the hopes of finding his body. There was no sign of Willem, but there was of large crocodiles.
This is a rough draft of the report I was required to write and present to the staff of Opuwo Base. I was not present when Durandt died and what I wrote was from the reports of those who were. We were careful in our reports not to mention the presence of crocodiles at the spot.
(4 images below) Several weeks after the death of Willem Durandt, after we had been returned to Opuwo, our section and close friends of Durandt were flown up to Epupa Falls in a Puma helicopter. After landing near the spot where Durandt disappeared, we gathered on the beach with the Commandant of Opuwo Base and the Dominee (Reverend) to hold a memorial service. after the Dominee’s message, we threw wreaths into the river and watched as they circled around several times and then were swept away.
(above) Sarel Brits and Deon Botes look out from the window of the Puma helicopter.
(above) From L to R – Kevin Breedt, Gary Kinsey, Graham McCallum, Venter who was a close friend to Durandt, Sarel Brits, Bezuidenhoudt (friend of Durandt), Glen Watson, Unknown who replaced Durandt, Deon Botes, Johan Basson, Lt, Abrahams, Commandant, Dominee.
(above ) A pen and ink drawing of my washing hanging up in our tent to dry, Epupa Falls, Kaokoland, 29 March 1985.
An unusual ink pen and wash sketch of our campsite along the Cunene River at Epupa Falls, executed on the 15 of April 1985. We were all still in shock at Durandt’s death on the 7th, a week before. Hence the red tree. The grassed lean-to in the background was constructed by Deon Botes and Sarel Brits to sleep in as the tent could be hot at night. When Frank Leone contracted malaria and was running a raging fever and could not control his bowel – we placed him in this shelter to keep cool. Here he shat the place into a dreadful stink. Two or so days later our Medic Crawford had him ‘casavaced’ out by helicopter to a military hospital where he recovered. The malarial tablets we took each day were purported to stop one from tanning, and Frank (Francesca) had stopped taking his. In the game of chance he had rolled the dice and lost. It was some time after that he returned to us on recovery.
(below) The puma helicopter that casavaced Frank.
Pencil drawing of the Baobab tree that stands next to and above the Epupa Falls, Kaokoland. Over many decades people visiting this site, mostly soldiers, had carved their names into the bark of the behemoth, and with time and expansion many of these letters had enlarged or distorted. It stood on an ancient organic mound of its earlier growth, also inscribed. I titled this drawing the ‘Grafitti Tree’. This area was often bathed in a fine mist from the falls and was a delightful spot to cool-off on a hot day or simply to take a dip in the rivulets that pushed through the rocks in front of this most remarkable of trees. One can go onto the internet and see the tree, now photographed by recent visitors for a comparison to my drawing.
A photograph of the graffiti tree, taken 30 years after I sketched it during my military service.
Pencil drawing of a Baobab tree and leaf, at Epupa Falls, Kaokoland, drawn on the 16 April 1985. This tree stood on the rocky and dry hill opposite the falls.
Baobab tree, Epupa Falls.
(below) Glen Watson photographed alongside the trunk of a large baobab tree.
Me shaving in the rivulets above the falls of the Epupa River. We were instructed to shave our beards off before returning to Opuwo, 1985. Without shaving cream, I am using Colgate Shampoo.
(above) Frank Leone (middle), Glen Watson (right) and myself cooling-off in the rivulets of the Cunene River.
(above) This pencil, ink and ball-point pen drawing I titled ‘Army Life’ was executed at Epupa Falls. Several components visible in this image will be familiar to those who did their service.
The Vanilla Energy Milk Shake was from our ratpack border rations. I liked the vanilla and we would swop-out rations for different rat’s – “my corned beef hash for your vanilla milk shake?”, “not on your life!”, “then how about my chocolate nut energy bar?”.
I do not recall what became of my dog tags in the intervening years, but I did use my fabulous can opener for years after until a servant swiped it. My service number (82603549BG) can be seen across the image. I have never forgotten this number and can still rap it off at request, something I cannot do with my ID number.
(above and below) Glen Watson photographed at our campsite eating ratpack from his dixie. Behind him is the ratpack box. One can see from Glen’s expression, that Glen is probably eating Corned Beef Hash.
(image above and 2 below) Kevin Breedt, Graham Leslie McCallum, Johann Basson, Sarel Brits, Unknown who replaced Willem Durandt, Deon Botes, Glen Watson and Gary Kinsey, Epupa Falls, Kaokoland.