Letaba Ranch, an excerpt from Chapter 19


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More than twenty-five years have passed since that long-ago day when I went exploring my new surroundings in that base in the Letaba Ranch Game Reserve, and the only remaining evidence that 113 BN ever existed is the almost circular shape of the original camp, demarcated by roads and paths which have not yet grown closed with vegetation. The buildings, which were all prefabricated, or constructed from wood or steel panels, have long since been dismantled; perhaps taken apart by the SADF in its last days, or by the new Government, in its systematic environmental programme of rehabilitating old SADF bases that were used as operational training areas, or stripped for construction material by the locals. Some concrete floors may remain, but they have most likely been broken up – whether by hand or nature. Today, 113 BN is all but a memory for those who were there, its base a lymphoma excised from the landscape. The scar remains, but the passage of time will take care that it shrinks and shrinks, until it is necessary to scratch at the surface to find its trace.

After I had been wandering about the camp for about an hour, who should arrive but none other than Gavin Fish. He strode towards me with his hand outstretched, grinning. We greeted each other with the warmth that accompanies the chance meeting of acquaintances in a strange place. Gavin’s wish had been granted. He was not sent to any unit that would require him to carry out urban coinops in the black townships, but to Letaba Ranch, a rural posting, as he had requested. I was relieved to see him.

Soon, Gavin and I were joined by several other guys from Oudtshoorn. Anton Maas, who had been in Platoon 3 with me, was there. Ross Johnstone and Rick Parfitt were also all officers from Infantry School. With a few exceptions, such as my friend, the plaasjapie from Malmesbury, Lieutenant Maas, and two other pleasant but unremarkable Afrikaans blokes from Infantry School, we were a large contingent of English-speaking looties. Later we met two one-pip loots, Mark Cowie and Jason Smith, who were both imports from other SAI camps. There were no NCOs, and we would shortly learn that, apart from one or two senior white PF NCOs, all the corporals and sergeants at 113 BN were black.

The first of the resident loots to return to camp that Sunday was Lieutenant Ehlers, a dark-haired young Afrikaner who stood at 6’5” with size fifteen feet – talk about a giant among men! A one-pip lieutenant and July intake from the previous year, he was friendly and helpful; I suppose we would have called him a tame Dutchman at Infantry School. He warned us to watch out for the resident two-pippers, who were due to get back to camp later that evening. They had almost finished their two years’ duty and Ehlers told us that they were an arrogant and dismissive bunch. Needless to say, they were all Afrikaans, to a man.

After supper, we retired to the caravans and caught up with each other. There was no hot water or electricity, and the beds were without linen. After a cold shower, I spent a restless night in my sleeping bag, tossing and turning on an unfamiliar mattress, as much from the stifling heat as from being plunged yet again into an unknown situation. I calmed myself by thinking that at least now I would be the one giving orders as a commissioned officer.

I awoke to a cloudless Monday morning, shaved in cold water and donned my browns which were still adorned with Infantry School insignia. Just before 06h00, the other loots and I went to the officers’ mess for breakfast. Coffee and rusks were waiting at a self-service table for us, and our meal was shortly served, comprising greasy eggs, bacon and fried tomatoes. We were upbeat with expectation, and the conversation was light-hearted.

As we were finishing our breakfast, a group of five two-pippers arrived. We greeted them and one or two seemed friendly enough, but soon these were joined by a guy who seemed to be the leader of the pack. He strutted into the mess hall with self-importance and I immediately felt the mood amongst the others change to palpable disdain towards us, the new guys. ‘Lieutenant Contempt’, as I lost no time in labelling him, was shorter and more portly than the others, but what he lacked in physical stature, he made up for in derisory comment.
“O, kyk wat het ons hier,” he said in an irritating falsetto (“Oh, look what we have here!”). “Die nuwe ouens!” (“The new guys!”) He gave a loud and forced laugh. His voice changed to harsh and commanding, “Staan op, een-sterre! Salueer!” he insisted we should stand and salute him. We all looked up from our plates with Oh, come off it! expressions. I had to suppress a chuckle. I guess he was hoping for a bunch of anxious and overeager newbies to fall for his bluff and jump up to salute him, just so that he could sneer “Wat die donner dink julle doen julle?” He hadn’t counted on a couple of English-speaking, smartass officers from Infantry School.
Ross spoke to him in pointedly polite Natal English, “I believe we’re seated at the table, Sir,” the final word was loaded with scorn. “A salute would be uncalled-for.” Lieutenant Contempt’s expression changed to mocking.
“Oh. Englishmen, are we?” He said with a laughable attempt at an English accent. Pulling a chair out from the table at which his mates sat, he straddled it backwards, leaning his folded arms across the back. Facing us, he gave us a look dripping with conceit.
“Well, well, well.” I wondered if he saw the amused glances we exchanged amongst ourselves. He wagged a finger in our general direction. “Julle ouens lyk ’n bietjie nat agter die ore.” You guys look a bit wet behind the ears, he told us. “Hier gaan julle by die kaffers afkak, Boet!” he said, talking to all of us, but looking at me. You lot are going to suffer with the kaffirs here, he said. Turning the chair around, he rested an ankle over his knee and rubbed his chin. Switching to English, he said, “But yous are mos rooinekke,” he said, butchering the language unforgivably. “Maybe yous will enjoy it here, with your kaffir brothers, eh?” He and his buddies laughed. “Miskien sal julle nogal van hierdie houtkoppe hou? Kry vir julle!” he spat (“Maybe you’ll really like these wooden heads? Well, you lot can have them!”). They hooted and chortled at this. I got the distinct feeling he was continually focussing on me as he spoke. Was he threatened by my imposing height? Or insulted by my obviously English ways? Or did he regard me as the leader of the new loots? He really riled me, and I wanted to get up and punch him one! Somehow I maintained my dignity and composure, and gave him a dismissive look instead. We ate in uncomfortable silence.

Breakfast finished, I left the mess hall with the other loots. There was much muttering amongst us when we got outside. We all agreed that those two-pippers were a bunch of wankers, especially Lieutenant Contempt.

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