Home to South Africa
Transferred to Northern Transvaal Command
New Year had barely passed by, and our PFs returned to duty, when I and the other National Service chefs who had been posted to South West Africa back in December 1978 were summoned to SWA Command, at the Bastion, there to be greeted by a Captain. He told us that all Chefs who had been in South West Africa since 1978 were being replaced and returned to South Africa for reassignment to other units, as we had done over a year. This evidently included our former colleagues further north at Okahandja and in border camps.
Staff Sergeant de Souza was by now back in command of the base kitchen as Sergeant Major Kok had been returned to the Army Service Corps driving school in Kimberley, from where he had been temporarily reassigned all those months before. De Souza was far from happy to lose his experienced chefs, but to a man I think we were glad to be seeing the last of him! We barely had time to see the next contingent of roofies arriving, from whom new chefs were selected to remain in Windhoek, and we were issued our rail warrants and orders.
Tony Pereira and I were assigned to Northern Transvaal Command in Pretoria and decided that we would be smart and catch a few extra days at home by trying to trade in our rail warrants for air tickets. The plan worked fine, until we discovered that we were required to come up with the shortfall between the train fare and the air fare! Needless to say, neither of us had this and we scurried off to catch our train instead. The worrying thing was that the clerk at the booking office where we tried to change our tickets had already removed our meal tickets from our rail warrants before we discovered we needed to pay extra cash to catch the plane, and without meal tickets, we could not eat in the dining car on the train! Neither of us was brave enough to return and ask for our meal tickets to be recycled from the rubbish bin, and we were quite disconsolate when we boarded the train, a civilian train headed for Cape Town via de Aar again.
I can't remember the exact date we left Windhoek, but I think it was on Friday 4 January. The train journey itself was interesting again, as Tony and I managed to get a cabin to ourselves with a couple of our mates, and we brought a lot of alcohol with us! I remember buying a bottle of Coco Rico, which is called Malibu here in New Zealand, and drinking just about the entire 750ml bottle myself! We celebrated hard out and got very pissed, and vomited all over the cabin. A bunch of drunken Vikings couldn't have outdone us that first afternoon and evening on the train.
The following morning, no doubt alerted by the noise, the conductor arrived at our cabin and took one look, before exploding in rage! He called us all manner of questionable things, poured scorn on our parents for producing such miscreants, and proceeded to make poor Tony, still severely hung over, clean the entire cabin on his own. I was again on the top bunk, and for some reason the conductor never thought to look up, so he missed my presence entirely! I lay very quietly while he stood there, hands on hips, and poor Tony cleaned up to his satisfaction. I got away with it scot free, apart from my very bad hangover ! Tony, being the good mate he was, didn't hold this against me although I think anyone else might have.
Once the conductor had left, we made plans to find some food, and fortunately for us discovered that a steward did the rounds of each carriage in turn, twice a day, with a trolley of confectionery and biscuits, which you could buy. Luckily we had some cash each, so as soon as we spotted the steward, we hastened to buy some snacks. We proceeded to live off these alone for the next few days as the train slowly wended its way to De Aar. The trip was good though, and a real relaxer, as the weather outside the train was sunny every day and we saw a lot of the dessert along the way.
Tony looking out of the train window on the way back to South Africa, and one of the more interesting rocky outcrops we passed on the journey.
By the time we reached de Aar, both Tony and I were starving for real food, and as our carriage had been uncoupled and the train from Cape Town to Pretoria was at least two hours away still, we walked into town, where we found a Wimpy Restaurant. We literally charged in, and the waitress' face was a sight when she heard our order. We both ordered enough burgers, fries and milkshakes for three men, and proceeded to eat the lot when they arrived. I don't think she could believe her eyes! It was two very full soldiers who returned to the train, and I don't think we ate another thing the rest of the journey to Pretoria.
The last part of the journey, from de Aar to Pretoria, dragged for us as we were very keen to see Johannesburg again. Eventually, on Monday morning 7th January, the train rolled into Johannesburg Station, where our compatriots, who were going to Witwatersrand Command, got off. Tony and I had time for a brief hello to family members who were there to see us, before the train continued on to Pretoria.
Once arrived in Pretoria, we made our way on foot, carrying our kit, to Northern Transvaal Command, asking directions along the way as neither of us had any idea where it was.
When we got there, our reassignment papers we were presented and we were shown into the presence of an elderly Commandant. He turned out to be a very kind and understanding man too, as he welcomed us and thanked us for our service in South West Africa (which nobody up there had ever done). Once these formalities were dispensed with he advised us that, contrary to what we had been told in Windhoek, we were not to remain in Pretoria, but were being reassigned to Witbank in the Transvaal, and Jan Kempdorp in the Northern Cape! We had been told we'd be staying in Pretoria, so this was a bitter blow.
Rather than arbitrarily assign us, the Commandant allowed us to pick a destination, and as neither Tony nor I wanted to consign each other to Jan Kempdorp, the further of the two places, I volunteered to go there in the end and Tony was assigned to Witbank.
The formalities over, the Commandant asked us if either of us had been granted home leave before reporting to him, which we truthfully said we had not. He immediately signed our leave books, granting us leave from that morning until Friday 11th January, and dismissed us, reminding us to return on Friday to pick up our rail warrants and papers for our new assignments.
Tony and I parted here, and I was never to see him again. I've often wondered how he did at Witbank. I certainly was fortunate in volunteering for Jan Kempdorp as, although far away, we were generally well treated at my new base, 93 Ammunition Depot, and I had few causes for complaint during the six months I was to spend there.
It was with a happy but troubled heart that I hitch hiked back to Johannesburg, to greet a surprised Sharon and eventually my mother and father. I wasn't at all keen on going to the Northern Cape!
On arrival at home I found that my older brother Dave was having a 21st birthday party on the Saturday, 12th January, a day after his actual birthday, and my mother wanted me to attend. I wasn't sure this was possible, but she again called the Commandant at Northern Transvaal Command and he readily agreed to extend my leave until the Sunday. I was advised to report on Sunday 13th January to pick up my papers and rail warrants, which would be left with the guard commander as nobody would be working then. My train for Jan Kempdorp was due to leave that same evening.
As usual, my leave passed all too quickly, and on the Sunday my mother drove me to Pretoria to pick up my papers. That night I was dropped off at the station in uniform and caught my train. I was feeling very nervous as the train chugged through the Western Transvaal, but eventually I dropped off to a fitful sleep, fearing that I would oversleep and miss Jan Kempdorp station. I needn't have worried, as I was woken by the conductor as we approached Jan Kempdorp, and it was early morning when we did arrive.
93 Ammunition Depot, Jan Kempdorp - January to June 1980
I disembarked at the barren siding, hoping that some one would come and fetch me, as I could see no evidence of a military presence or camp at all. When nobody arrived, I asked a local railway official where 93 Ammunition Depot was, and he pointed me down a long dusty road. I walked for a couple of kilometres, most of it alongside a tall fence covered in barbed wire, before reaching the main gate of the base. Here I was directed to the HQ, who checked my papers before introducing me to the Officer Commanding. I was then sent off to collect any local kit I would need from the Quartermaster Staff Sergeant, and then shown to the kitchen.
93 Ammunition Depot was huge in actual area, but did not have a large number of soldiers serving there. Its main purpose was the storing of munitions of course, and personnel seemed to be composed of infantry guys doing guard duty all around the place, plus a lot of ASC and PSC guys who ran the various stores and received shipments of ammunition, which arrived regularly by train. The depot itself was outside the town of Jan Kempdorp, located 100 kilometres north of Kimberley, and I can still remember wondering what would happen if there were ever a fire and massive explosion of all the ammunition there. It would have flattened half the district, never mind the town! It never did happen though, and 93 Ammunition Depot is still in use today (2006).
The atmosphere at 93 Ammo Depot was fairly relaxed too, and not at all like anything I had experienced in Windhoek. As a chef, I was assigned to the kitchen and did not mix much with the guards, other than at meal times when they came to the mess to be fed. Our barracks were located in a house, just behind the kitchen itself, which was itself nearer the PF married quarters than it was to the tent area where the guards slept.
Our house, although ordinary enough, was luxury itself to me, as I had been living in a derelict washhouse or a tent during my year in South West Africa. I was assigned a bunk in a room, which I shared with two other chefs, and then taken to the kitchen and introduced to the PF in charge. This was Sergeant Major Errol Rabey, an English speaker and very happy and friendly guy. He too was typical of the place, and a lot more relaxed than many of the PFs I met during my two year National Service.
Rabey asked me the usual questions, where I had come from, what was it like in South West Africa etc., and then introduced me to the only other PF in the kitchen, Corporal Silk. Silk was an odd fellow, in as much as he was quite young to be a PF Corporal and was also an English speaker. In my experience, most PFs were Afrikaans, so to have the only two PFs in a kitchen both being English was unusual.
Errol Rabey, as he looks today (2006).
Besides Sergeant Major Rabey and Corporal Silk, there were no other ranking chefs, all the rest being Privates like myself, and all National Servicemen too. All of them were my roofies too, as they had only begun their service in January 1979, six months after I did. None had been to South West Africa either, so I subconsciously placed myself on a slightly higher plain than them, which was silly. Many names escape me unfortunately, even though I can picture their faces to this day, and by this stage I was not writing to my parents at all, so don't have my old letters to fall back on.
Among the men I do remember was an English guy, Keith, who had blonde curly hair and a ready smile. He came from nearby Kimberley. He had a Ford Escort which he had found in a rubbish dump in Kimberely and completely rebuilt and customised himself. It was a fabulous car, but the interior was just about entirely taken up with this monster stereo system he had installed. When he played this thing with the bass thumping and the volume up, the entire car used to vibrate as if it was about to explode, and this was with the engine turned off!
There was also a young, rather prissy Afrikaans lad, Lotter, who was later promoted to Lance Corporal. He was quite officious, which got him teased a fair bit by the rest of us, who were more inclined to be relaxed about army life generally and the kitchen particularly.
Another English guy was Garth Fry, who also had his own car. The latter was a Mini Minor, and as he and I were on the same shift and both lived in the Witwatersrand area, I used to catch lifts home with him on weekend leave during my first couple of months in Jan Kempdorp, paying him something towards the petrol costs.
He used to love the Police (a pop band at the time), and would play their first album over and over when we drove home on Fridays. Initially I found it quite irritating but I suppose the repetition grew on me, and I even bought the album in the end!
Besides these guys, there were at least another four Afrikaans chefs, all of whose names now escape me I'm afraid. One of them was an ou man like me, but the others all had at least a year to go. I'm even more embarrassed to admit that two of them were more my friends than any of the English guys were, although I got on well enough with everyone.
Weekend leave - adventures in travel
Shortly after posting to 93 Ammunition Depot, Sharon bought us a car, an old Volkswagen Beatle. When I was next on leave, it was decided that I should have the car as I could then drive straight home on my weekend leave, and leave later on Monday mornings.
My Volkswagen Beatle outisde the window of our barracks at Jan Kempdorp.
The two Afrikaans guys I befriended were both farmers' sons and both lived in a small town in the Western Transvaal, about midway between Potchefstroom and Johannesburg, and when I had my own car, I used to give them lifts home on weekends that we were on leave. I would take them to a point along the Potchefstroom Road and drop them off, and one of their father's would then pick them up from there later. They would then find their own way back to camp on Monday mornings.
Me with a pin up and one of my Afrikaans mates, in a relaxed pose!
The routine at 93 Ammunition Depot was very much the same as I had worked under in Windhoek. The same shift pattern applied, with us being given every second weekend off, during which we could apply for leave and head home. In the case of leave we would be excused shortly after finishing duty, after lunch on Friday, and have to dress in our dress uniforms. Then we would get our leave entered into our leave books, usually from 2.30 pm on the Friday to about 10 am on the Monday, and we would make our way home after that.
The latter involved a drive through much of the North Eastern Cape and Western Transvaal in my case, a distance off some 380 kilometres one way. We took in some of the small towns along the way, like Warrenton, Christiana, Klerksdorp and Potchefstroom, and used to pass right by Stilfontein, where my Aunt Thelma and Uncle Hannes lived. It usually took all afternoon to navigate safely, and I would get home around about 6.30 pm in the late afternoon / early evening.
On Monday mornings my mother would get me up very early and send me on my way with a flask of hot coffee, and I would time my return to the closest second, usually only having enough time for a brief change of clothes and a hurried lunch, before reporting for work in the kitchen in the afternoon. One way of doing this was to call in on my uncle and aunt in Stilfontein, on my way back to camp.
Most of the trips home were routine, with nothing out of the ordinary to report, but on one occasion I was giving one of the guys a lift home when we encountered a traffic police road block just outside of Warrenton. Now I did not have a full drivers licence, only a learners licence, and my friend didn't have a drivers licence of any kind. As a consequence, neither of us was legally able to drive a vehicle, as I needed a fully licensed driver with me.
With heart in mouth I pulled over and a smiling cop approached. He asked me a raft of questions about what I had been made to do when undertaking my full licence test, as I assured him I had one (hoping he was too stupid to catch me out!). Well, sad to say I got the worst of it, as he very quickly found me out, and proceeded to issue me a R40 fine for driving a vehicle with only a learners licence, and not being accompanied by a licensed driver.
The strangest thing though was he then let me and my friend drive off and continue our journey home! This was exactly what we had been fined for in the first place, and just goes to illustrate how two-faced the whole system was. They were happy enough to take my money, which I paid on my way back through Warrenton the following Monday.
On another occasion, I was most surprised to approach a section of road works on a hill somewhere between Potchefstroom and Johannesburg, on my way home. There was a speed restriction in this road work area of 30 kph, whereas normally this stretch of road was open, with a maximum speed limit of 120 kph. As I sped up the hill, ignoring the reduced speed limit (which everyone does I am sure!), a car driving the other way crested the hill ahead of me and as he did so, flashed his lights at me and waved frantically, indicating for me to slow down. I had a long row of cars speeding behind me, but being in the front I took this man's advice and slowed right down to 30 kph, much to the annoyance of everyone behind me, who had not seen the warning. We crested the hill, me in front and everyone behind me hooting furiously at me, to be met by about ten traffic cop cars manning a road block, and about twenty poor unfortunates who were in the process of being fined for speeding in the 30 kph area! The bastards had set up a speed trap just over the hill, right in the middle of the road works, and were catching everyone as they came over the top of the hill. It was just my luck to be warned by someone going the other way, otherwise I and all those behind me would have been pulled over too! The cops just starred at this strange procession crawling down the other side of the hill, for we had to, to maintain a speed of 30 kph, and everyone behind me stopped hooting at once, no doubt grateful at their own good fortune.
Perhaps the strangest trip home though happened towards the end of my time at Jan Kempdorp. For some reason we left very late that Friday afternoon, at about 5.30 pm. I was giving a lift to the Afrikaans boys, and we set off at a brisk pace, to try and make up time as much as possible.
My other Afrikaans friend, with the kitchen at 93 Ammunition Depot just behind him.
I soon noticed that my petrol gauge was dropping at an alarming rate, and pulled over a couple of times to see if I had a leak somewhere. There was none, so I continued at a much reduced speed to try and conserve fuel. I also filled up my tank with the money I had on me, plus some that my friends always paid towards the petrol costs. Our reduced speed delayed us further, and by the time I dropped them off outside of Potchefstroom, it was dark and very isolated. We had stopped again a little earlier, to enable one lad to call his father, and I stayed with them until the latter showed up to collect them.
Once he had done so, I set off again for Johannesburg, but with my fuel gauge again dropping at an alarming rate I reduced speed even further, and was driving at no more than 50 kph by the time I reached the outskirts of the southern suburbs of Johannesburg, where I lived. I coasted as much as I could on down hills, only using my accelerator when I had to, and was just passing by Sir John Adamson High School, on the top of a hill leading down towards the road where Sharon, my fiancee lived, when the engine sputtered and died. I was completely out of fuel and money.
By now it was midnight, and I was tired. That probably explains why I took the stupid course of action instead of just abandoning the car there, and walking to Sharon's house, which would have taken me no more than another 20 minutes at most. Instead, I elected to push the car down the hill, as I reasoned that it's momentum would carry it up the short incline leading to her road, after which it was again a slight down hill and I thought I could get the car to her flat from there. WRONG!
I pushed off and jumped in, and the car tore down the hill and began up the incline, losing speed as it went. With about 15 feet to go I realised I wasn't going to make it, and the incline being steep, I yanked on the hand brake and jumped out. There I was stuck in the middle of the road, on a steep incline, and unable to leave the car where it was. To make matters worse, I had nobody around who could help me; the streets were deserted.
Again, I had the sensible option, which would have been to get back in and take off the hand brake and coast backwards down the road, which would have enabled me to pull over to the side of the road. But no, I'm afraid stupid kicked in again and I elected to try and push the car uphill the rest of the way, alone. I took the hand brake off after bracing myself against the open drivers door and, inch by inch, managed to push the car up hill. After 45 minutes of this I finally completed the last fifteen feet and gratefully jumped in again as the car slowly rolled down towards Sharon's flat. Exhausted, I parked the car outside and walked up the stairs and knocked. By now it was after 1 am, and my future father-in-law, Ken, was not amused when he answered the door. Everyone else was asleep, but when I explained my predicament, he grumpily let me in and told me to sleep on the couch. I was so stuffed I fell asleep right away and then walked home later that morning.
The trouble proved to be two of my spark plugs, which had quit. Without being aware of it, I had driven home on only two working cylinders, with the other two pumping unburned petrol straight out the exhaust. No wonder I ran out of fuel! My father and cousin fixed the car for me fortunately, and I was able to get back to Jan Kempdorp without any problems the following Monday morning.
In conclusion, I think the biggest leave trip adventure story must go to some of my fellow chefs who opted one weekend, when I was working, to drive all the way to Mooi River in Natal, where one of them lived. They suffered a tyre blow out on the motorway just outside Mooi River, at 120 kph, and rolled the car! Luckily, none of them were seriously injured but they were incapacitated enough to need brief hospital treatment, and the shift I was on had to work through alone until Wednesday the following week before they returned, rather sore and chastened young men!
Characters at 93 Ammunition Depot
Although it sounds cushy in my description, we worked quite hard when on duty. As with most bases, there was an officers and NCOs mess, and one for the other ranks. The latter, mostly sentries, were a good bunch and we would frequently exchange banter with them as they came in for their meals. On the other hand, many of the officers were PFs, and expected us to wait on them at times, quite literally. This annoyed me, especially as I tended to view them as a bunch of upstarts living in a cushy base far away from the war they were so keen for us National Servicemen to fight.
One unusual PF we had at Jan Kemdorp was a married Private. He didn't work in the kitchen, but we had frequent dealings with him. A young guy, he had joined up for three years I think, in an attempt to at least get paid more than we conscripts were, only to discover that he didn't like the Army that much. He had already completed two years of his service when he resigned, even though it was pointed out to him that he would be forced to do his two year National Service from scratch. I and the other conscripts thought he was crazy, and would have stayed for the extra year instead and just seen out the PF service.
Another character at 93 Ammunition Depot was an old Sergeant Major, who had served in the South African Army since World War Two. He used to regale us with stories of his service in Italy during that conflict, and was a loveable old man really. It probably explains why he was still only a Warrant Officer Second Class after nearly forty years of service. He was approaching retirement then, and must surely be very old now if he's still around.
While I was at 93 Ammunition Depot, they also held a full blooded Court Martial of some PF who had shot another one, sometime before my arrival there. It seems the former was on guard duty one night and forgot his sandwiches or coffee. Back home he went to the married quarters, only to find his wife `entertaining' this other man! I'll leave the `entertainment' up to your imagination, but this PF naturally lost the plot and shot his wife's lover, fortunately not fatally (or should that be unfortunately?) I don't remember the outcome of the court martial now.
In the kitchen, Sergeant Major Rabey was very much in charge, setting menus and overseeing everything that went on there. As I've already said, he was always friendly and fair to us National Serviceman, so much so that I used to wonder what prompted him to join the army in the first place! He was married with kids, although I never personally saw either his wife or his children. He always looked after us, and would not tolerate any of the other PFs giving us a hard time. They could complain to him about us and he would deal with it, but woe betide the PF who went over his head.
Corporal Silk oversaw the day to day running of the kitchen itself, and usually checked on us and helped prepare meals when necessary. Nowadays he would be called an entrepreneur, as he had cornered the market in wedding catering at Jan Kempdorp. In 1979, it was still a pretty but very sleepy little country town, and there were not many options available to locals who wanted to have fancy wedding cakes made, or have their weddings catered. Silk very quickly filled this niche market.
He could make the most fantastic cakes, all iced and looking more like sculptures than cakes, and he would make these to order. Most weeks he could be found in the kitchen making these cakes, which came in all shapes and designs.
I had a brain wave one day and, with Sharon's birthday fast approaching, I asked him to help me to make her a cake. He showed me exactly what to do, from basic fruit cake to marzipan icing manufacture, and he also showed me how to ice the cake and make solid decorations from the icing. I made her a white cake, decorated with flowers and a replica of her engagement ring, the best cake I have ever made I think. I took it home with me on weekend pass for her birthday The gift was even more appreciated than I had hoped, as she told me she had never had a birthday cake before, and this was her 20th birthday.
Silk would also cater for some of the weddings, with the help of us chefs, and I managed to attend a couple this way. It was hard work but we were allowed free alcohol, within reason of course, so overall it was a good trade off.
Out of the ordinary
One day I was ordered to accompany one of our truck drivers to the main base in Kimberley, to collect supplies at the stores there. I had never been to Kimberley before, so was very keen to make the trip. It also got me away from the kitchen for a while, something I had not had the opportunity to do too often since my posting to 93 Ammunition Depot.
We collected a truck from the vehicle park and drove down to Kimberley, and although there was not time to stop and sightsee, I was fortunate enough to pass right by the Big Hole. This is a collapsed diamond mine and quite spectacular. I didn't even know it was there, until we stopped at a traffic light and I looked outside, to see the hole right next to me, just the other side of a fence! The driver, who had seen it all before, was completely disinterested.
When we arrived at the base stores and disembarked, we found it a hive of activity, with soldiers from a number of units scurrying about loading their vehicles, harassed the whole while by the quartermaster Staff Sergeant and his men. While standing there waiting for my driver, who had departed in the meantime to place our own requisition, I suddenly heard a familiar bellow from the other side of our truck. I walked around and found my old Sergeant Major from SWA Command, Sergeant Major Kok! I greeted him and was equally warmly greeted in return. "Hello Chappie. Where do you come from?" I explained that I was now stationed in 93 Ammunition Depot, and we spent the next half an hour chatting, while my poor driver and Sergeant Major Kok's own men loaded their respective vehicles. It was nice to catch up with him again.
One day it was decided that there would be a formal dinner held for all the NCOs and Warrant Officers at 93 Ammunition Depot. What the occasion was I do not know, but great trouble went into the preparations. Corporal Silk was placed in charge, and he ordered a lot of very nice food and wines for the occasion. All of us chefs had to help him; some were assigned to work as waiters on the night in question, while the rest of us helped prepare the food. I was one of the latter, thank God!
I don't now remember all the courses we prepared, but they were very elaborately made, and any five star hotel would have been proud to serve them. The problem was, we were feeding strawberries to pigs, to coin a phrase! The NCO's all turned up immaculately dressed in their dress uniforms, and at first all went quietly and with great decorum. Unfortunately, we were serving small alcoholic drinks with each course, all correctly selected and presented by Corporal Silk. For example, the meal opened with a glass of fine sherry, went through various glasses of red and white wine, depending on the type of meat or fish being served, and finished with a port after dessert.
Well, by the time they reached the port, all of them were so drunk that they could barely stand up. Loutish behaviour abounded, and the scene in the mess was anything but formal and refined. Corporal Silk was furious, but being outranked by most of the men at the dinner, he couldn't do much about it. By the time dinner was over, we had Warrant Officers and NCOs staggering all over the place outside, arm in arm to support each other. Some stopped to throw up before staggering on, and how any of them got back to their barracks or PF quarters I don't know. I understand they were not very favourably looked upon the next day by the Commandant, when he got to hear about their antics!
Whenever I phoned home, I was reminded how backward Jan Kempdorp was in those days. They didn't have an automated telephone exchange. Instead, we had an old phone with a crank handle, which you cranked furiously. This rang a bell in the manual exchange, manned (if I may use that word) by women switchboard operators 24 hours a day. They would ask what number you required, and then dial it for you, putting you through to your destination once they had established the call. This could be very time consuming, especially if you made a collect charge call, which we all did quite a lot. Then the recipient, usually parents or girlfriend, would be called and asked if they accepted your call before you were put through. Luckily nobody ever rejected any of my calls!
My encounter with the traffic cop at Warrenton prompted me to make haste to obtain my full drivers licence. The only way I could do this where I was, was to apply to do my drivers test in Hartswater, a slightly larger town some 30 kilometres northeast of Jan Kempdorp.
Even Hartswater was something of a backwater, and they had no regular traffic police there either. Instead, a single traffic cop would be sent to Hartswater once a week from Vryburg, on Thursday, and he would deal with all traffic matters while he was there. These included any learner driver or full drivers licence tests.
Having made my appointment, I was mindful of taking a fully licensed driver with me when I went to do my test. I had befriended a big black labourer in the kitchen, Sakkie, or Isaac to give him his correct name. He was a very friendly soul and was quite obliging, being more than happy to accompany me to Hartswater as my fully licensed driver.
On the appointed day I arrived in Hartswater with Sakkie, to find the traffic cop was out doing another license test. When he returned, he asked me where my licensed driver was, and his face was a picture when I pointed out the beaming Isaac. He'd probably never seen a white learner driver turn up with a black licensed driver before!
The test itself was very brief. He took me out in my Volkswagen and we drove around a couple of blocks. Then he asked me to follow a car, driven by the woman who had just received her licence before I arrived. The cop had noticed that she had a car full of kids with her, but as he had no way of proving they were in her car before she got her licence from him, he let her go eventually and we drove back to the offices. There he granted me my licence, which I picked up at the local town hall, after paying the prescribed fee. It was a hell of a lot simpler than doing a drivers license test in Johannesburg, where I came from!
With only a couple of months left of my two year service, I was asked by Sergeant Major Rabey one day how long I had to go. When I told him that I was finishing in late June or early July, he told me it was a pity, as he needed to promote two of his chefs to Lance Corporal and he had considered me for one of these promotions. However, the promoted ones needed to be there at least until the end of the year, so I lost out once again! In the end, I think Keith received one stripe, and so did Lotter.
In June, just as I was celebrating min dae we received an unpleasant reminder of the war in South West Africa. I can still see the scene now in my mind's eye, which is strange as it didn't affect me directly. We were preparing lunch when one of the guys came in with the morning newspaper, which had a major front page spread about Operation Sceptic, and particularly the attack on Smokeshell, which had just been carried out. Smokeshell was the code name for a Swapo base in southern Angola.
There was all the usual death and glory stuff, mixed with propaganda about how we had kicked the crap out of Swapo once again, but more disturbing to me was the seventeen or so portrait photos of the South African soldiers who had been killed in the battle. Lotter, with whom I was working, took one look at these and went as white as a sheet before stammering that one of the dead was a former school friend of his. He'd recognised him by the photograph. This really struck home with me, as Lotter was a year younger than me, and his friend would probably have been too. Now the latter was dead, with no future, and his parents had already received that dreadful visit that I'm sure all our parents feared when their sons and daughters were stationed in South West Africa.
In due course I was advised that I would be klaaring out, or getting discharged, on 27 June 1980, almost two years to the day since I had been taken into the army at SAMS in Voortrekkerhoogte. It was all a bit of an anti-climax actually, as I was one of very few ou manne at 93 Ammunition Depot at this time; I think there were less than ten of us and I knew none of the others. Consequently, there was no celebration at our finally finishing our two years, either individually or by the unit itself. There was talk of holding a small formal dinner for the men finishing, but that's all it turned out to be, talk.
On the appointed day I was excused all duty and sent on my way to the stores, to return any equipment which I'd drawn at 93 Ammunition Depot (sheets and blankets, plus a few personal items). This was about the sum total of it, and after a rather limp farewell to the Officer Commanding 93 Ammunition Depot (only the second time I'd ever seen him!) and all the guys in the kitchen, as well as Sergeant Major Rabey and Corporal Silk, I threw all my gear into the Volkswagen and drove home to Johannesburg. Free at last!
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Published at Sentinel: 24th July 2006.
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