CROSSING THE CUNENE.

CROSSING THE CUNENE. 

It was 1966 or 1967.  I was 23 or 24 years old.  I had been working in South Africa around Cape Town and Stellenbosch.  I had acquired a pretty good knowledge of road building and construction equipment, and was developing an interest in surveying and physics.  I had discovered that I could operate a road grader better than most, and achieve low tolerance finished surfaces that were required for airport runways and modern freeways.  This skill meant I could get a job any where in any country, and the skill was independent of language, but it was lonely, noisy and dusty work.  The work I had done in Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea was mostly pretty precise stuff, but I had had enough of that.  It is a flaw in my character that once I have learned how to do something well, I did not want to do it any more.  This character flaw was now exerting an influence over me that I could not control.  I packed up my little Mini Cooper in Cape Town, and headed for South West Africa (now Namibia), half heartedly promising myself that I would try to avoid this kind of work in future as much as possible.

I was surprised how difficult the road to SWA was with my low slung, small wheeled Mini.  Once out of the vicinity of Cape Town the road was sandy gravel with Mini defying deep wheel tracks, I had to concentrate on this, but did make it to Windhoek.  Now what??  From what I had seen and heard I doubted the Mini would go any further in any direction, except back to Cape Town.  Poor choice of vehicles.

I hung around Windhoek for quite a while.  I nearly took a job with Windhoek Municipality as life guard at their swimming pool.  I happened to have my “Life Saving Certificate” from the Sawtell Surf Life Saving Club in Australia, but nah, that is not going to lead anywhere.  Then I met Brian Hose, an Aussie from Vaucluse, Sydney.  Now I know Vaucluse is one of the better eastern suburbs of Sydney, so Brian would most likely turn out to be a well brought-up, honest young man.  Many years later I met Brian again at his parent’s house in Vaucluse, and I can confirm my first estimate of the man was spot-on.

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BRIAN WITH HIGH CAMPER VAN COMPARED TO LOW SLUNG MINI.

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AUTHOR WITH BRIAN’S CAMPER VAN.

Brian told me he had a kind of “Camper Van” with high ground clearance, and big wheels.  He had plans to travel further north and was looking for a traveling companion.  I naturally agreed to go with him.  We had met an English family (Mum, Dad and the Kids) who agreed to me leaving my Mini in their spare garage for an extended period.  Of interest to me was that this Mum, possessed a three quarter length coat made of unborn leopard skins.  This of course means from birth to 24 hours old.  She assured me this coat was well known throughout the world, as was Elizabeth Taylor’s and the Queen’s.  There were no others.

There was no reason to further delay our departure from Windhoek, so off we went.

It was not until we were actually settled down and trucking, that Brian revealed his plans.  The main objective was Etosha Pan Game Reserve (Now, Etosha National Park).  We would see what was to be seen on the way, but see all that was to be seen in the way of animals at Etosha.  After that we would visit Tsumeb and Grootfontein.  “Is that OK with you Jim??”  “Yes, it sure is”.

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SEEN ON THE WAY.

I should point out at this time my entire photographic equipment consisted of an already old Box Browning camera, and an unreliable Kodak Instamatic.  While I was in Cape Town I had realized that I was on an exciting world jaunt, and should have at least a “through the lens” camera of some description.  I had my eye on a Single Lens Reflex, Yashica camera at a shop in Adderley Street, but that would have to wait.

Brian’s camper van proved adequate, while we could both sleep in it, the van did not support any kind of ablutions.  This was OK for us, if there were convenient camping grounds available, we would use them, if not, and well, there were plenty of bushes.

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TSUMEB’S MAIN STREET. 

The appeal of SWA is its vast emptiness.  There are few actual stand-out features.  Experience had shown me that landscape photos of this nature with my limited photographic equipment are always disappointing.  So very few pictures.

As we got closer to Etosha Pan our interest started to pick up.  Wild animals were starting to appear as my eyes became sharper, and we began to know what different animals looked like.  This is an interesting phenomenon.  In later years I have been to places where there is known to be thousands of elephant, yet I can not spot even one, and then after you spot your first elephant they are everywhere.  In this case I had never laid eyes on some of the animals I am seeing now.

Another interesting item we came across was a car stopped on the side of the road, and the driver collecting water from a short length of pipe gushing water into the edge of the pan.  We stopped to chat.  The man collecting water said this pipe had always been here gushing water for as long as he can remember, about 15 years.  This indicates to me some kind of Artesian Basin under Etosha Pan, similar the Great Artesian Basin under most of central Australia.  It can come from a geologically up-lifted mountain range up to a few thousand kilometers away.

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BEGINNING TO NOTICE ANIMALS.  WILDEBEESTE.

STARTING TO NOTICE ANIMALS.

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COLLECTING WATER FROM A NEVER ENDING STREAM.

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BEGINNING TO NOTICE ANIMALS.

These African Animal sightings were really exciting for me.  I had traveled all over Australia, most of New Zealand, and a good bit of Papua New Guinea, but had not seen any thing like this before – for example:

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FOR EXAMPLE.

We were making our way to Namutoni along the edge of the pan.  There were no other vehicles; we seemed to have the place to ourselves.  I was developing a liking for this part of the world.

As is always the case “one thing leads to another”, or as my little daughter (much later) was fond of defining history as “One damn thing after another”.  I began to wonder where this little life episode might lead.  Brian had a schedule, he would have to turn around and head back to Cape Town in a week or two, while I on the other hand had no schedule, or responsibility, except to maybe take care of my mini left back in Windhoek.  You could say I was now on the look-out for ways and means to stay in Northern S.W.A. longer.

I should point out right now (incase you are getting bored) that this is only the back-ground and lead-up to the main story which will start to emerge in 4 or 5 pages.  In the meantime we are nearly to Fort Namutoni.  Ah there it is.

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FORT NAMUTONI.

Well we made ourselves comfortable at Namutoni and prepared for a few days of Game Viewing.  I have to say there were untold numbers of all species of game in the areas surrounding the Etosha Pan.  Infact so much so that it became boring.  I had noticed at some watering holes there were man made water troughs, and a small edifice made of stone or concrete that I presumed housed a pump and / or protected a boor-hole.  I must ask the Ranger about this back at the fort.

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COMFORTABLE AT NAMUTONI

“Negative” said our friendly Ranger.  “The troughs are fed by an underground pipe, and the pumps and boor-holes are usually some distance away”.  “The rock / concrete structures you saw are partially underground game viewing hides”.   He went on to explain that the roof can be levered away by means of a crowbar to allow entry, and levered back again for security.  The viewing slots should be at eye height when standing inside.  Wow, we have got to do this.  Can you take us to one of these in the morning Mr. Ranger?  Yes sure, be ready an hour before sun-up, and bring food, water and something to pee in.  Great, see you in the morning.

All went well; we were in the hide just before sun-up.  Here is some of what we saw,

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SOME OF WHAT WE SAW.

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SOME OF WHAT WE SAW.

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SOME OF WHAT WE SAW.

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SOME OF WHAT WE SAW.

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SOME OF WHAT WE SAW.

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SOME OF WHAT WE SAW.

What a great day.  We were thoroughly satisfied with Etosha Pan.  What now??  “Well”, said Brian “we carry on up to Ondangwa at a leisurely pace, and then dawdle our way back to Windhoek”.  Good enough, we will start on that plan in the morning.

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ONDANGWA.

Well, Ondangwa was a pretty dismal place; hot, dusty, poor and nothing much going on, except – a gang of men were building a compound of some description just on the north west  side of town before the bridge.  Some were putting up a perimeter fence, and others were erecting prefabricated huts etc.  What was this all about, it looked like a construction camp in the making.  I approached one of the men.  “Yes sir we are building a construction camp ready for the crew who will be coming up from Windhoek in two or three weeks to start work on part of a new road from here to Ruacana”.  “OK and what construction crew would that be??”  The man gave me the name and address of the construction company in Windhoek.

It was pretty obvious about the new road to Ruacana.  The existing road into Ondangwa from Tsumeb was reasonably new in the general scheme of things, but stopped at the bridge.  On the other hand the road to Ruacana was nothing more than wheel tracks in the sand.  Even risky for Brian’s Camper Van.

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EXISTING ROAD INTO ONDANGWA. (IN BACKGROUND).

An embryo idea was forming in my mind as to how I might return from Windhoek and build this road to Ruacana.  In hind sight this idea could more accurately be described as highly imaginative fantasizing, but anyway we will see what happens when I get back to Windhoek and talk to Mr. Construction Boss.

Let me see now; I had obtained South African Permanent Residence while I was in Cape Town, and SWA was administered by South Africa, so there would be no immigration problem.  I had acquired a South African heavy duty Drivers License.  I had never heard of a Curriculum Vitae, I would have to rehearse my skills and experience so they could be put forward verbally in a short, precise and believable manner. Yes that should do it.

We dawdled on to Windhoek, Brian driving and me fantasizing and rehearsing.  After I retrieved my Mini from the lady with the three quarter length unborn leopard skin coat, and said goodbye to Brian, I set off to talk to Mr. Construction Boss.

“Yes sir, Mr. Construction Boss is out of town at present, but he will be doing interviews for the Ondangwa contract next week”.  “Would you be able to come back then, and would you like to leave your C.V”.  “Er, yes OK, what is a C.V??

Of course I quickly found out what a C.V. was, but had no facilities at my disposal to cobble one together.  I would have to revert back to my rehearsing.  In the meantime I could service and check-out my Mini, and see the sights of Windhoek and surrounds.

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WINDHOEK MAIN STREET SCENE. 

There was not really much going on in Windhoek that I could participate in.  I hung around the municipal pool a bit, found I was welcome at the sports club on the west side of town, and had long pub lunches at a couple of the hotels in the C.B.D.  I just wanted to get back to Ondangwa and build that road to Ruacana.  I had even bought a couple of books on road and bridge construction, and surveying with trigonometry tables, square routes etc.

The day finally arrived when I could have my interview with Mr. Construction Boss, and get the job of building the road up north.  At the table I handed over a piece of paper with my name and photo copies of my passport, drivers license, and Permanent Residence Certificate.  I then proceeded to tell Mr. Construction Boss every thing I had rehearsed, and thought he should know.

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AUTHOR AND MONUMENT IN WINDHOEK.

The up-shot of the interview was, that I got a job.  My duties in the first instance would be as follows:

1. I would lead the convoy of heavy duty earth moving equipment from Windhoek to Ondangwa (Seeing as I had been there, and at least knew the way). This consisted of 10 or 12 rubber tired units with drivers, and a mechanic’s truck to follow up.

2. When I got there I would search for, and demarcate the pegged line and references pegs of the new road to be built. Apparently it had been staked out several years previously.  This is because I had embellished my tiny bit of surveying knowledge at the interview.

3. When I had found all the surveying pegs for the new road (And documented what pegs I could not find), I was to take the Road Grader (Which would arrive by truck in Ondangwa soon) and drive it up to Ruacana where I would find an old Tar-Pot near a new airstrip, and tow it back to Ondangwa.

While I was doing this, bush clearing and earth works would have started on the first part of the new road under the supervision of a foreman, and a Site Agent / Engineer who was to arrive a little later to take over-all charge of the contract.

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PART OF THE CONVOY OF HEAVY DUTY EARTH MOVING EQUIPMENT.

All this went pretty much according to plan.  I got the convoy to Ondangwa safe and sound and in good order without incident.  The survey pegs for the new road which I had expected to be covered with sand, or stolen, or obliterated by vehicles or herds of livestock were found to be pretty much in place.  There really were very few people in the vicinity, no vehicles and very little livestock. I had hired a Chevy. C10 pick-up for this job, about the only vehicle in Ondangwa.  I then marked the pegs with whitewash, stones if available or simply heaps of sand with whitewash splashed over it.  At least the earthworks foreman expressed himself happy with what I had done.  Now for the Tar-Pot at Ruacana.

The camp was now established with food and fuel.  The Road Grader had arrived, and awaited my attention.  It was a Caterpillar CAT 12.  It was a bit old, but I knew these machines well.  It had a 6 cylinder diesel engine.  The “12” indicated a 12 foot long blade.  An interesting feature of these engines is that it was started by means of a 2 cylinder petrol engine.  So you needed both petrol and diesel fuel.

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THE AUTHOR WITH GANG – LOOKING FOR SURVEY PEGS.

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THE WHITE CONSTRUCTION COMPONENT

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LOCAL FAMILY.

I had thoroughly checked out the Grader; it had pretty good tires, plus spare wheel at the back.  The Tow-Bar had heavy duty ball and pin.  Fuel capacity was around 250 liters.  It had an on-board compressor that worked.  All the oil levels checked out, and all controls were in good working order.  I was satisfied with this machine.  Now the tar-pot??

Nobody I could talk to at Ondangwa knew anything about the tar-pot.  Size? Weight? Tire size? Tow hitch??  Full?  Empty? And more importantly; how long had it been there?  A radio call to Windhoek that night secured most of the answers the next morning.  An outstanding query remained; Windhoek indicated that it was not empty, but could not say just how full of cold hard tar it was.  And oh yes it was left there more than a year ago.  Oh well.  Tires would be the immediate problem; I scrounged truck tubes and tire levers from the mechanic.  I could do little else by way of preparation for the tar-pot.  Now the road to Ruacana.

Again; nobody I could talk to in Ondangwa had driven to, or even been to Ruacana.  Some said they had heard it was about 225 km to 250 km, but don’t worry just follow the road.  OK, well alright.

I set of to Ruacana around mid morning, it was easy going for a couple of hours, and the track was obvious.  Very soon there were forks and turn-offs that were very indistinct.  I knew my general direction was WNW, so where there were no other indications I took the track closest to that direction.  On one occasion when I did this, and after quite a few kilometers I came across a few huts and a well, with a hand pump, and a crude trough.  This was a Cattle Post of some description, and a dead end.  I asked the only person there “Waar is de pad na Rucana” (My only Afrikaans at that time).  He responded by pointing with a stick back the way I had come.  After that, if I saw anyone I would shout “Waar is de pad na Ruacana?”, and usually got the conformation I was looking for.  And so it went on.

It soon dawned on me that I was in very wild, dry country.  I had seen elephant spore and droppings, and evidence of trees that had been ravished by elephants.  I also noticed what appeared to be wildebeeste, and zebra carcasses in the bush, and according to what I had learned in the Etosha Pan these were most likely lion kills, but not fresh.  I determined that I would top up my water bags at each and every opportunity – It was pretty damn hotNow with slow going, and a few wrong turns I was not going to get to Ruacana today.  I will go until it is dark, and then sleep.  It would be impossible to sleep in the grader, the seat is designed for one only, and it is often driven and operated standing up.  To sleep outside on the ground bothered me in the light of the animal activities I had seen through the day, but I had begin to think that as the grader blade is fully rotatable in three dimensions, I could get up against something like an anthill or big tree, and turn the blade sideways, and sleep between the blade and the anthill.  I did not see any more human habitation, but did spot a suitable anthill about 50 meters off the track just after sunset.  This would have to do.  The CAT 12 is remarkably maneuverable, with its leaning front wheels, and I soon had the blade snug up against the flattest side of the anthill.  I fired up the petrol starter motor before I shut down the main diesel engine – just to be sure.

A little more about the CAT 12 starting system; The two cylinder horizontally opposed petrol motor is water cooled with the same water that cools the main diesel motor.  Therefore after the petrol motor runs for a while it warms the main diesel motor.  When that happens, you engage the petrol motor to the main diesel motor by means of a separate gear box and clutch, and simultaneously engage a de-compression lever which allows the main diesel motor to turn freely, and build up oil pressure.  After a minute or so the main motor now is warm and has oil pressure before it even starts.  You now drop the decompression lever and the main diesel motor fires up ready to work.

Another aspect about this trip for me to consider was at this point in history rumors had begin to circulate in Northern Namibia / SWA of terrorist attacks on various establishments, and communities in this huge region.  To my eye any penetration from Angola on foot would find it hard going, and would not get far once they left the Cunene River and vehicular convoys would not go un-noticed.  But I am heading towards that River, and who knows??  It is not hard to carry a couple of RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) in the dark if you had sympathizers along the way.  I was banking on being an unworthy target, and a waste of a RPG.

The first night of this expedition was quiet, and uneventful.  I arrived in the Cunene Valley mid to late morning the next day, and quickly spotted the recently completed airstrip, and the all important “Tar Pot” standing a little way off the easterly end of the airstrip.  There was nothing else.  As far as I could make out the Angolan border would be 3 or 4 km to the north with the Cunene River its self maybe 10 to 12 km to the north.  The Ruacana Falls would be further to the west about 12 to 15 km away, but my focus was to collect the Tar Pot as quickly and easily as possible.  I decided to circumnavigate the airstrip first, to see what is what in the vicinity, and then have a close look at the Tar Pot.  I was surprised to spot a small caravan parked in the trees a few hundred meters north of the airstrip, but no vehicle was in sight.  On investigation; the caravan appeared to be lived-in.  It was unlocked, and the gas refrigerator was in operation, and well stocked with Angolan Kuku beer – strange.  Anyway, to the Tar Pot.

As I had suspected, the biggest problems would be the tires. The Tar Pot was a sturdy beast; it had two double wheels on the back, and two single wheels on the front.  The front wheels were on a swivel axle to allow steering.  An “A” frame draw bar was attached to the swivel axle for towing purposes – it all looked sound.  Of the six wheels and tires two were hopelessly flat to the point of the tire rubber cracking, and one tire just not quite dead flat. The remaining three tires were still pumped to some degree.  OK then, I am not stuck yet – I have two serviceable tubes, and quite a few patches, and the CAT 12 has an on-board air pump, but maybe I should check the wheel bearings before I put any effort into the tires.

It was simple enough to lift each wheel off the ground with the CAT 12’s blade, and spin the wheel to check for worn or maladjusted bearings.  The blade lifted each wheel easily, and all the bearings seemed good.  I guessed there was not much tar left in this pot.  The tires were the next problem.

The wheels were of the locking-ring type, and I knew from experience that although the metal ring could be removed easily enough, tires that had been on for a year or more need a lot of force to break them free from the rim.  I intended to use the downward force of the CAT 12’s blade for this.

I decided to do the easy bit first, that is pump up to pressure the tires that were not completely flat.  This task went surprisingly easy.  The tires that were completely flat did pump up to pressure, but showed immediate signs of leaking.  I suspected the flattened part of the inner tubes had been folded flat for so long they had perished beyond repair.  I would have to remove the inner tubes, and replace them with the spares I had bought with me. To do this I would have to lift the wheel off the ground with the CAT’s blade, and block it up with stones and / or wood or what ever I could find – there was not much lying around.  Then I would use the blade to push the old tires off the wheel rims.  I know tire shops have a special heavy duty impact bar for this purpose – but not me. I successfully blocked up the Tar Pot and removed one of the offending wheels, but the full weight of the grader could not break the seal between the wheel and tire.  The day was gone, I was hot tired and thirsty, and had ran out of water.  I thought of the cold beer in the caravan, and downed tools and headed that way on foot.

The caravan was still standing alone with no sign of anyone having been there since I spotted it this morning.  I helped myself to a couple of beers and a tin of corned beef, and sat near by to eat and drink.  I had just opened the can of beef and one beer when I heard a vehicle approaching – caught in the act, too late to run.  I would not have taken the goods away anyway, that would look too much like stealing.  The approaching vehicle turned out to be another Chev.  Pick-up with Angolan number plates.  At least not SWA plates, and I assumed Angolan.  My assumption was confirmed when I saw the driver was a Portuguese looking fellow, accompanied by 3 Africans.  Communications with these guys was pretty difficult; going from English to Afrikaans to Portuguese, and back to Afrikaans to English.  The up-shot was the driver was a Portuguese farmer from the Angolan side of the Cunene, and wanted to know what I was doing here.  The fact that I was eating and drinking from the caravan did not seem to concern the Angolans.  I took them to the grader and Tar-Pot and showed them my tire problems.  The group from Angola indicated they had the tools necessary to remove the tires, and would bring them tomorrow, and assist me to fit my new tubes.  Great; see you tomorrow then.

As promised, the Angolans arrived mid to late morning with their hand operated heavy duty impact equipment.  By mid afternoon the Tar-Pot had all 6 tires pumped up and ready to roll.  I hooked up the grader and towed it around the airstrip a bit to be sure all systems were A-OK.  To be sure there were no leaks, all agreed I should wait until tomorrow before leaving for Ondangwa – in the meantime I should accompany the Angolans back to their farm to drink some beer and eat some Portuguese chicken Peri-peri – to this I eagerly agreed.

So I climbed in the cabin of the Chev. Pick-up with the Portuguese driver, and off we went.  The Cunene crossing was a few kilometers away, and consisted of a rocky river bottom with the banks dug down on either side to form approach and exit ramps.  It was easily negotiated.  The farmer indicated that it was necessary to go to the official Angola / SWA border post to inform the Angolan immigration officers that I was in the vicinity, but no formalities were required.  This would prove to be a good thing, as time would tell, so far no one in the vicinity even knew my name.  The Angolan border post was a dismal affair.  There did not seem to be a SWA counterpart that I could see.  The farm house and out-buildings were a further 1 or 2 kilometers down-stream just off the Angolan bank of the Cunene.  It really was the furthest out-post of both SWA and Angola.

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THE ANGOLAN BORDER POST WAS A DISMAL AFFAIR.

At the farm house the farmer got us a couple of cold beers, called his cook, and ordered up “Chicken Peri-peri” for the evening meal.  I understood this was to be in my honour, so make it good and hot.

After taking care of our thirst the farmer indicated we should visit the falls, and take a few cold ones with us while the chickens are being caught and cooked, right.  We got back into the Chev. And re-crossed the Cunene to the south side and headed down stream along bush tracks.  All of a sudden we were there.  The falls.

The falls came as a surprise in that rather featureless landscape.  They were not large, but spectacular given their location.  We lingered for a beer or two.

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THE FALLS – WITH THE AUTHOR HOLDING HIS HAT.

The farmer soon assessed that the chickens would be almost cooked back at the farm house, and we should start back, fine, our beers were getting warm, and I was getting peckish.

As we approached the house I noticed there were quite a few native Himba gathering in the vicinity.  I also noticed a small barn at the back of the house with a table or two, some chairs and corn bags full of something that could be arranged as sitting places.  There were also two kerosene powered Coco-Cola refrigerators with Coke, but mainly beer getting cold.  I did not know what day this was, but it was beginning to look like a Saturday night at the disco / shabeen.  We turned the Chev around, parked it in front of the barn and proceeded into the house to be greeted by the delicious smell of cooking Chicken Peri-peri.  The farmer indicated I should wash up a bit and join him at the table for cold beer and hot hot chicken.

Well, boy was this good, but the Peri-peri was so hot I had to take a big slurp of beer after each mouth-full of chicken.  It seemed the farmer was doing likewise. It went on and on like this with the occasional break to the bathroom to relieve beer pressure.

We could not really talk to each other because of the language barrier, but we talked anyway.  Occasionally my farmer would go off and come back with a gun or knife or binoculars or something he wanted to show me.  At one stage he went off with out explanation, and did not come back in what would have been a reasonable time to relieve him self or get something to show me.   I finished the beer I had in hand, and wondered where they had been coming from.  I also wondered where my farmer could have gone.  Then I remembered the Disco / Shabeen in the barn at the back of the house, and decided to go and find the farmer and another beer, but first I would check other rooms in the house.  I got up from the table and was surprised how strong and well balanced I felt after all the beers. It was not long before I found my farmer – out cold in the bedroom next to the bathroom.  After a half-hearted attempt to wake him, it was apparent that he had had enough for today, and was not going to wake up for quite a while.

I wandered back to the other end of the house and outside towards the barn and the disco / shabeen.  Approaching the barn door I could see things had changed somewhat.  Several kerosene lanterns were burning on tables and suspended from the rafters, a large battery operated radio was playing typical West African music.  The small group of Himbas I saw earlier had grown to about 30, and were made up of all ages and both sexes, and even some babies / toddlers.  The older men had spears, and machetes attached to their waist bands.  Most of the women were topless.  This group wore leather at the waist, and looked reddish in colour and decorations.  There was also a dozen or so straight black boys and girls dressed in an assortment of European clothes.  There as a bonfire going just outside and to one side of the barn entrance near where we had earlier parked the Chev Pick-up.  There was some dancing going on around the bonfire, and occasionally a dancer would jump over the fire.  The dancing reminded me of the beach parties we used to have in Australia.  The surfer’s dance we had at that time was called “The Stomp”, at which I was an accomplished expert.  The black guy who spoke Afrikaans, and had assisted us with the Tar-Pot tyres was also there, and seemed to be in charge of the beer and money.  He greeted me and passed me a cold beer.  I took the beer, but did not really know what to do next.  I was out of my depth here, but just intoxicated enough not to know it, and as the odd one out I was certainly attracting some attention – hostile stares may have been a better description.

Well; over at the Fire Dancing / Stomp session I would certainly be able to hold my own, and maybe show them a thing or two.  As I said I was feeling strong and well balanced, so I put quite a bit of effort into my stomping and jumping.  I think it was appreciated by some of my topless dancing partners, but maybe not by others.  At one point when I stopped for a refreshing slurp of beer I turned from my dancing in time to see one of the Himba men picking up my still cold beer.  You do not do that where I come from.

I ran to him and violently snatched it from his hand.  He was certainly surprised by this but took no action, except to stand there with an expression I could not read.  Then stupidly; to avoid doubt as to whose beer this actually is, I pointedly guzzled all of the remaining beer, and threw the empty in the bin.  I was just compos enough to realize this act had more than a subtle effect on the gathering.  Most of those in the barn had seen what had happened, and were not applauding my act.  An attitudinal change had taken place.

Well so what, I went back to my topless “Stomp” dancing partners at the dying bonfire.  I have got to admit that the allure of the topless dancing girls in the firelight, had an amorous effect on me, and I attempted to fondle some of them.  To what end I do not know.  There was some encouragement – or so I thought – but also some strong rejection.  I did notice that the happy chatter among the dancers changed tone to an urgent appeal for help.  The men with the spears and machetes came from inside the barn to the door as the first response.  This got my attention, and I started to sober-up pretty quick- trouble was brewing.  I did reckon they were pretty stupid drunk, but what do I know, they had the spears and machetes.  The last of the vocals from the dancing girls died down to silence, and all eyes were on me.  The reality had clicked in.

After a few seconds of rational thought I made a run for the Chev Pick-up only a few meters away.  This seemed to be the only way to get far, and permanently away from here.  There were to be still a few surprises lying in wait for me.  The Pick-up was right hand drive.  I jumped in behind the wheel and hit the start button –nothing.  It was only a millisecond later I remembered the ignition was a simple on/off switch, no key, I smacked that down also, and she fired up.  I had just got moving when the first clatter of machetes, spears and empty beer bottles hit the rear window and loading tray.  The projectiles stopped almost immediately amid some serious shouting, which I heard but placed no significance, as I fumbled for the headlights.  The headlights came on nicely on a bright high beam –great.  As the headlights reflected back from the trees I noticed there was a package of some kind on the front seat with me.  Not wanting to be branded a thief as well as a molester, I made an instant high level decision to get rid of the package quick-time.  I wound down the window with my right hand, then grabbed the package with my left hand, and threw it across my chest and out the open window as hard as I could.  I am pretty ambidextrous so it was a strong throw, and the package went sailing into the bush.  But; the instant before I released the package I realized what it actually was.  It was a baby, no more than 5 or 6 kilograms.  Bloody Hell; what now??  The pursuing crowd must have seen this in silhouette, and another clatter of projectiles crashed into the back parts of the Pick-up, but I was up to speed now, and getting away.  In hind sight the baby was probably why the first salvo of projectiles ceased so suddenly.

Clear of the crowd for now my focus went to getting to the grader and Tar-pot, and moving out of the area without delay.  Now which way does the road go?? The river crossing is up stream to the east a bit, then cross the river, and the track follows the south bank of the river for a while heading west, and then south again away from the river to the airstrip, caravan and grader-yes that is it, I must not get lost now.  It was very dark.  I recognized the right turn to the river crossing, and successfully drove to the other side, turned right again to follow the south bank for a while hoping I would spot the track turning to the south.  I was breathing hard, and had the driver’s window down, and could see the darkness of the river bed on my right.  Suddenly I heard voices-angry voices coming from the river bed Whiskey Tango Foxtrot??  I looked and saw the faint bouncing light of a weak torches or kerosene lanterns coming my way.  I then realized I was probably opposite the farm house on the other side of the river.  It was lucky I did not delay or these gentlemen would have been able to cut me off.  I was now on full alert; hoping the turn to the south would come into view soon, and nothing with guns or spears jumps out in front of me.  When it came it was easily recognized, I was now heading directly away from the trouble I had made for myself – Whew!!

I do not think I knew what time it was, maybe 01h00 or 02h00 next morning.  I would drive carefully to the caravan, take some more beer or water and food, and then go to the grader, fire it up and move out.  It was lucky I approached the caravan stealthily, as there was someone sleeping in it – a deep snoring sleep which I did not think would suddenly wake up.  This was strange as I did not see any vehicle in the immediate vicinity.  The sleeper must have been dropped here, but who knows it was very dark.  The fridge was next to the door so I could reach in and take some beers, but did not risk a further search for tinned food or water.  I wrapped the beers in a “T” shirt that was on the floor.  This would have to do.

I decided not to risk starting the Pick-up again, and started to walk to the grader as the area here had been cleared as part of the runway construction.  I figured even if the Himbas got to the caravan before I got the grader going they would stop there for a while.

The two cylinder petrol starter motor of the CAT12 makes a hell of a racket, so I cut the pre-warm up procedure a bit short.  I felt the CAT12 would forgive me just this once.  The big diesel motor took to life as soon as I dropped the decompression lever.  She sure sounded good.  The grader’s lights came on nicely, and she hardly noticed the tar-pot in-tow as we pulled off into the night, destination Ondangwa.  It could not have been as late as I had previously thought.  After I had traveled for more than an hour, and I felt I was safely away from the Himbas, there was still no sign of dawn,

I decided I could get some sleep.  I again turned the blade against an anthill to make a fairly safe sleep spot.

It looked like the sun had only been up for about 2 hours when I woke up under my grader blade.  After a toilet break I felt pretty good.  I did not want to get thirsty and be forced to drink more beer, so I got going immediately.  I now considered the events of the night before.  I reckoned if the baby was uninjured, or even slightly injured the dust would settle and that would be that.  On the other hand if the baby was seriously injured or worse there may be some complaint and inquiry.  Every one had been pretty drunk except the fire dancing girls, and the black guy looking after the beer.  The Portuguese farmer who conked out would probably not be interested, and he would soon get his Pick-up back unharmed.  The immigration guys did not even see me, and no one knew my name.  The guy in the caravan is probably still puzzled.  Also the further I get away from here the better.  All I can do is enjoy the ride back to Ondangwa.  This ride turned out to be uneventful.

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CAT 12 AND TAR POT. 

I arrived back at the Ondangwa construction camp without fanfare.  I decided to say nothing about my trip, except to the foreman “Here is your Tar-pot in good order.”  I was in time for the evening meal, and some nice clean drinkable water.  I briefly met the new Site Agent / Engineer that evening, and for reasons I can not explain we took an immediate dislike to each other.

The next morning the foreman thanked me for getting the tar-pot back to him in good order, and short time.  He appreciated the difficulties I had with the tires etc.  The foreman also told me the new Site Agent wanted to see me for de-briefing and to give me instructions.  Fine, this I proceeded to do and met the new man in the dining / social room hut. The first thing he said to me was that I had drunk one of the camps soft drinks last night with-out signing for it.  I had to admit that was true, but did not apologize for it. The mutual dislike I had sensed the night before was not in my imagination.  He then proceeded to tell me I must service, and re-fuel the CAT12 and start with the clearing and grubbing and preparation of the road bed, so the bulk earth-works could commence as soon as the site surveyor arrived to set out the cut / fill lines.  Do you think you can handle that??  Well of course I can – didn’t you read my C.V. (knowing there was no C.V.).  The animosity was building up.  Oh, and one more thing.  There has been more reports of terrorist attacks on government and white establishments in this region, be careful!!

Well my dreams were shattered; I was back to operating a grader in a noisy, dusty, lonely, boring environment, just what I promised myself not to do.  To make things worse a site surveyor was coming to take over one of the aspects of this road job that I had aspired to.  Well, I would operate the grader until the surveyor has pitched up, and if there is absolutely no place for me in his team, I will give a months notice, and find my way back to Windhoek.

In a few days the new surveyor did arrive with his own vehicle, and his own gang of assistants.  It was obvious there was no place there for me.  No use even talking about it, and I could not talk to the Site Agent anyway – we could barely greet each other in a civil manner now.  I would have to resign on a month notice, but wait, if they fired me they would have to get me back to Windhoek.  Oh well; let me dwell on that and wait until the end of the month and see.  I could always make myself unbearable, but no.

A few days later, someone I did not know came down the line, and stopped me at my grader work to say, there was to be a meeting of all the whites in the area at a particular building in Ondangwa late that afternoon.  OK, thank you for the message.  Who told you about this meeting??  He did not know – he had just heard it from someone else.  Strange??  I arrived at the appointed building slightly before the appointed time to find several people milling about outside. I seriously asked many people; who had told them of this meeting, and who they thought was the convener.  I was already suspicious, so it was no great surprise when it was clear to me that the message had been delivered anonymously to all those that were already here.  I vigorously announced to all that would listen, this meeting is a trap, and once all of us were inside, the building would be RPG’d by terrorists.

I will not go in, and will be moving to the other side of the road – about 150 meters away.  About half of the two dozen or so people waiting outside the building moved with me.  The others stayed put.

About one minute before start time the Site Agent, foreman, another man (not the messenger) and a lady arrived in a vehicle, and headed for the building.  The new arrivals must have been informed of the earlier dissention, and all turned to stare across the road in my general direction.  The foreman beckoned for my followers and I to come to the building.  We simply shock our heads.  The body language of the Site Agent indicated to me that he told the waiting crowd – “Well screw those guys across the road, let us all go in anyway”.  We waited until it was dark, and no sign of a RPG attack, to wander back to the construction camp and other locations the people called home.  I guess I had been wrong, but I felt OK about it.

The next day – work on site as usual.  Mid morning the Site Agent came out to tell me I was a troublemaker, and was being sent back to Windhoek as soon as a flight could be organized.  Also, I had still not signed for the soft drink I had when I came back with the Tar-pot.  I just said “OK”, but secretly smiled to myself – just what the doctor ordered.  Later in the same morning another man (the one I had seen arrive at the meeting with the lady) stopped me at my work.  He introduced himself as the District Commissioner, and apologized for the sloppy way he had sent out word for the security meeting yesterday.  Strangely; between us, we could not identify the man who had actually informed me of the meeting yesterday.

The next morning a single engine plane arrived at Ondangwa to take me back to Windhoek.  It was a nice flight over Etosha Pan, and I recognized landmarks most of the way.  The pilot drove me to see Mr. Construction Boss, and almost without a word he handed me my pay, and the keys to my mini.  It had been washed, and the battery connected.  There were no cross examinations or hard feelings.  I drove out the gate into town.

Continue Here Jim….

——— RIDE HARD, SHOOT STRAIGHT, AND SPEAK THE TRUTH —-

One thought on “CROSSING THE CUNENE.”

  1. Mr Jimbo, what an interesting page. I think more people should voice their stories in this way. We have all (I am assuming you are now in your 80’s) had experiences in our lives that we keep to ourselves but in fact should be shared. I remember the losses in the 1st and 2nd world wars that should really be in the history archives but one tends to think this will not be of interest to the younger generation. Keep up the good work. Excuse me now, it is medication time. Good Luck

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