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13

First Contact
The man walks out of the darkness. Hes wearing a trench coat
and a cap and his features are difficult to make out in the shade of
his headgear. You must put the light out, he says. His voice has
the calm authority of a man used to command. Hes referring to
the red tactical light that is on in the doorway of the Ratel. The
section leader corporal, Dave, is writing a letter. I thought the red
light would be fine, says Dave. Hes not arguing; he seems to sense
that even if he has the rank in our vehicle, this mans authority
comes from his experience rather than from anything displayed on
an epaulette. Were fresh and frightened. They will see it, says the
man. Dave switches off the light. Do not be afraid, the man says
before he turns and disappears into the night.
John gives a nervous little laugh. Those UNITA okes have
fuckin seen it all. I feel better knowing theyre just over there, hey?
He jerks his thumb in the direction of the UNITA platoon.
The man has brought us closer to our situation. We are protected by the darkness from FAPLAs 21st Brigade on the other
side of the wide Lomba River floodplain. This is the closest weve
been to the enemy, even though weve been in Angola for several
days. They tried to cross the river earlier in the day but were beaten
back by one of our anti-tank teams. Our task is to fire illumination
bombs at set intervals. The UNITA officers concerns about the dim
red light will soon be irrelevant: the bright muzzle flashes of our
intermittent firing will let the enemy know exactly where we are.
The weapon crews are given their slots in the firing schedule.
Were only due to fire much later in the evening, so I roll out my
sleeping bag next to the vehicle and try to sleep. I cant. Fear creeps
around in my guts, its icy touch spreading and receding as my
thoughts wander from the beaches of home to the bush of Angola.

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I lie gazing into the blackness of the night. Clouds obscure the stars.
I close my eyes and try again to sleep.
Bang! Adrenaline spurts into my system as the first illume bomb
is launched. Then the dull pop as it opens, followed by the soft
whoop-whoop-whoop as the shell casing falls from the sky. The
bright burning light hangs high over the floodplain, swinging under
the little parachute. Tree shadows crawl across the ground, lengthening as the white light makes its descent. Then everything is black
again. I doze off until, half an hour later, the next mortar shot shakes
me from sleep, and then its our turn and Im in my Number3s
seat preparing an illume and bang! Then Im back on my sleeping
bag for another doze. The routine continues throughout the night
and nothing else happens.
Its light. I add coffee powder and a vanilla milkshake sachet to
water heated over a fuel tablet. My buddies John and Deon and I
bounce it. Then I open a ProNutro packet from my rat pack and
tip it into an FL, one of those long narrow polythene bags that are
used to mix cooldrink, nicknamed FL because it looks a bit like
the proverbial French letter. I add water, tie the open end and bite
a hole in the closed end, from which I suck my breakfast. Im sitting
in the sand gazing at the opposite bank where the FAPLA brigade
is positioned. I see nothing but trees. The floodplain between us
could be as wide as a kilometre. Long grass and a ribbon of river
divide us from battle.
What the fuck was that? A bright flash of white light blips
on the far bank. Before we can start speculating, the question is
answered by a scream overhead and the crack-bang of high explosives. I dive into my foxhole, wishing Id made it deeper. There are
running boots and a shower of sand and then Im winded by the
full weight of Deon as he crashes down on top of me. Sorry bru!
he says, breathing hard. It would have been comical had I not been
scared out of my wits. Fuckin tiffies grabbed my foxhole. Two of
them. The hole thieves had been wandering past our positions on
their way back to their recovery vehicle when the shell had screamed
in. Im lying in the foetal position, curled up at the bottom of my

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hole. I can feel sand trickling onto me and sticking to my sweaty


skin. My heart races. I expect another shell. I have a strong urge
to shit.
Kom by jou wapens! yells the corporal from a couple of vehicles
away. Theres a murmur of dissent from below ground level: theyre
fucking shooting at us and were intent on staying safely in our
burrows. Kom by jou fokken wapens! Ons gaan terug skiet! Beweeg!
Against every instinct Ive known, Im going to get out of the hole.
Deon grunts as he hauls himself out of my foxhole, trampling
me as he goes. Quickly I follow him to the Ratel and take up my
position in my Number3s seat.
Sight data comes through on the radio while there is the fast
ripping sound of a Soviet-made RPD machine-gun somewhere
down in the floodplain. We launch high explosive bombs at the
opposite bank. I dont see them land. The enemy goes silent. Either
weve hit them or theyve decided not to attract further counterbombardment from us.
Excited chatter bursts across the fire group. The fear and tension
of the preceding minutes finds an escape hatch in the retelling of
what each one of us did or was doing when the shell exploded
and who had to share their foxhole with whom. There is nervous
laughter and thigh-slapping and relief. Now we have to pull the
camo net over the Ratel. We didnt do it last night in case we had
to pull out in a hurry and because it was dark.
Putting the camo net on is always a chore. The Ratel has many
little protuberances that snag the net and every little snag has to
be identified and released. Although its an exercise that we have
done often sometimes every day for days on end its guaranteed
to result in frayed tempers among a usually laid-back weapon crew.
Today is no exception.
After only the slightest hesitation I join Dave on top of the
Ratel. Hes started unrolling the net from its place on the roof, on
top of the spare tyre. Its an impossible job to do alone and already
hes going from one side of the vehicle to the other, repeatedly trying to unhook the net from some annoying piece of metal. He calls

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down to John and Deon, who are sniggering as they stand below,
watching us struggle. They start winding up the corporal. Its easily
done. The section leader corporals authority is a delicate matter,
as he is little more than a glorified troep. He lives with us, without
the distance of the platoon sergeant or lieutenant, so he has to be
friends with us too. We resent this. Daves a decent guy, but as
corporal he is the authority figure that commands the least respect.
The poor section leader gets kicked from below and above. His
stripes seem barely to cling to his arms; sometimes they may even
be invisible. I think he wishes they were. We take advantage of this.
Youre doing a great job, John and Deon call. Im not amused.
Ive come down from the adrenaline high and feel fatigued and
irritable. This is a pattern, and sometimes its a funny little pantomime. Typically John will follow me up after token resistance,
followed by Deon once the bulk of the work has been done. Our
driver, Gary, will usually pitch in conscientiously if he doesnt have
some or other maintenance task to perform on the vehicle.
Today feels different. Maybe its because weve just been directly
shot at for the first time. Perhaps were all tired from the long
sleepless nights spent battering through the Angolan bush and the
long sleepless days of being harassed by millions of flies. Deon says
something that I dont catch and Dave mimics his way of speaking
disparagingly. Its the final straw for a tension that must have been
building without my being aware of it. Deon walks slowly from
under the tree and climbs carefully up the side of the vehicle. On
top, he steps over to Dave, puts his hand on the corporals shoulder,
and punches him in the face.
Feel better? says Dave calmly.
Ja, lank, bru. Deon starts helping with the net as Daves eye
swells.
Once weve finished, I dig out my camera and take a photograph
of Deon standing in the hatch with the far bank, dark with trees,
behind him. Our first contact of the operation. My ProNutro break
fast lies in the sand. After the shelling my hunger deserted me.
No sooner has the worst of the tension seeped out of my body

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than there are three indescribably loud explosions in a row. I grab


my helmet and, as Im about to dash for the foxhole, the corporal
yells that theyre ours. G5s are pounding a target. The explosions
sound close, but I cant see them and I quickly realise that theyre
not so close its just that the G5s shell is so big that it sounds
much nearer than it is. Im thankful that Im not on the receiving
end of such a weapon.
Pack up, start up! Ons waai! comes the call from the corporal.
Were too exposed here and might attract more fire from the
FAPLA brigade. Rolling up the camo-net happens quickly now
that weve been on the receiving end of the enemy artillery. We
move back over the ridge and into the trees, and Im relieved.
The Lomba River is behind us the last big obstacle that the
advancing FAPLA army has to deal with before they have a clear
run to the strategic UNITA-held town of Mavinga.

* * *
Huge tipper trucks churn clouds of swirling dust into the air as I
battle along the detour road. Ive been riding for an hour, having
left my gravel campsite after an early breakfast. One after the other
the trucks move back and forth fetching gravel and sand and other
materials for the new road being built. In places a water-bowser
has sprinkled the road to keep the dust down, which makes it only
slightly more tolerable for me. Im concerned by the volume of
heavy vehicles and the narrowness of the road running next to the
strip thats being prepared for new tar. I tense up and grit my teeth
every time a truck rumbles past, expecting to be swatted off my
bike at any minute. Although the front truck in the batch will see
me, I worry that his dust will obscure me from the others in the
little convoy.
It takes me only a short while to realise that there is a much
better way to travel this section. I cross over to the left of the busy
track and get off my bike. With some effort I haul it up onto the
new road. Rocks and tree trunks are spread across the road at
regular intervals to stop cars from using it while its under con-

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struction, but I have no difficulty in weaving around the obstacles.


Cycling here is a dream. The surface has been compacted by a heavy
roller; its almost as good as tar. A big grin spends a few minutes
on my face as I almost double my speed. I have the road to myself.
Construction vehicles churn up the detour next to me into a sandy
nightmare for a cyclist while I cruise along helped by the breeze
that has been more or less at my back since I left Cuito.
A truck driver stops his vehicle and waves. The two trucks
behind him have to stop too. Wherere you from? Wherere you
going? he asks. His English is very good and I discover that he
is Namibian. After he guns his engine and continues on his way,
I feel a pleasant glow inside. Meeting this English-speaking truck
driver from Namibia is as good as meeting someone from home.
Ive realised that solo travelling can be lonely, and short meetings
like this provide me with the encouragement to carry on.
Im cruising along very comfortably when I come upon a fenced
construction compound. It has container offices and accommo
dation, and trucks come and go from its entrance. Some men in
Day-Glo vests stand outside talking. One of them hails me with a
hello and I stop. They cross the sandpit that is the detour road
to meet me, and I discover that one of them speaks English. His
name is Paul and hes from Benguela. Dont you miss the sea?
I ask, because I always do when Im away from it.
Yes, of course, he replies, smiling. Hes learning English, he
says. He hasnt been taking lessons for very long a couple of years.
Im impressed and I say so. His English is good, considering. We
chat for a few minutes, his colleagues smiling happily but unable to
join in, then we bid each other farewell and I continue on my way.
There is very little war detritus on the roadsides here. Maybe
its because the rusting war machines have all been moved to make
way for the new wide road. Perhaps its because there wasnt as
much fighting in this part of the country. Occasionally I notice a
minefield sign, but even those seem to be less frequent here.
My road stops abruptly. The road building has ended and Im
on little more than a jeep track. Its a beautiful road the trees

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grow right up to the sides, arching over to form a green-fringed


tunnel. This feels like a wilderness road, a place where nature permits access, where road builders are forbidden for now. There are
no trucks. For the rest of the day I see only two cars and a handful
of motorcycles. As beautiful as it is, cycling requires more effort
on this road, and because of this I realise that my health is fast
deteriorating.
I feel weakness in my legs. I stop and perch on the gravel roadside berm, unwilling to find a comfortable spot in the trees for
fear of landmines. I eat some nuts and an energy bar. Although I
havent had the shits, my stomach feels very uncomfortable and
bloated. I mix some rehydration fluid in the hope that it will help
to sort out whatever is going on in my guts. I dont know what else
to do and figure it wont do me any harm. I continue on my way,
but less than an hour later Im feeling so weak that I have to stop
and lie down in the leaf litter on the roadside. This is by far the
nicest place Ive cycled so far. The road surface is challenging in a
way that should be fun rather than painful, but in my current state
I cant enjoy it.
Now Im stopping every half a kilometre. I cross my arms along
the handlebars and put my head down. What I really want to do is
stop for the day, but I havent made my fifty-kilometre minimum
and Im in the middle of nowhere. I could crawl into my tent and
hope that I recover by tomorrow, but what if I get weaker and
sicker? I want to find a settlement to spend the night around other
people. At least if I get very ill theres a better chance of someone
helping me. I grit my teeth again and push on, hoping that the
slight runny nose and cough Im developing means that its nothing
more serious than a cold. My stomach doesnt feel great but it hasnt
exploded into anything unpleasant.
A little while later I come across four teenage boys and three
dogs. They show me a rabbit they have killed for their dinner or,
more likely, that their dog has killed for them. I notice a hard glint
in the animals eyes that is absent in the gentle suburban dogs I
know from home. I part company with the little band quite reluc-

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tantly. Their lives are so different from anything I know and theres
so much I want to ask. Pushing on through the thick forest, I try to
think of a plan for the night. I thought I would make Cuchi today,
at least, but even had I been well the forest track would have slowed
me down. The sun is dropping in the afternoon sky and I wonder
whether Ill be camping wild again tonight.
I trundle down a short descent and find myself about to cross a
wide floodplain. Tall trees with spreading green crowns line several
hundred metres of grassland criss-crossed by a multitude of river
braids. For a while, the beauty of the scene provides a freshness
that balances the rotting happening in my digestive system. On
the near bank is a scattering of huts and a small school building.
Teenagers are walking on the side of the road in faded uniforms
and bare feet. We greet one another. There isnt a car in sight and
I feel the isolation of the place, the distance to the next big town
widened for want of motorised transport. Again I wonder about
the lives of these young people. What is it that they do when theyre
not at school or tending cattle or fetching water? The trajectory
of their lives crosses terrain so unfamiliar to me and the chasm
between us is so much greater because we lack a common language.
I look left and right at the huts. Women pound grain for the evening meal, chickens scratch around the huts and people sit chatting
outside their homes, the scent of woodsmoke an expression of
village life. Is their poverty of possessions balanced by a richness of
human relationships? I feel regret that I cant stop and chat, not
only because of my loneliness but because Im hankering after an
experience that is not available to me.
There is no reason why I should be able to speak Portuguese.
In my own country I am disadvantaged by the education system I
went through, which gave me so many privileges but refused to
teach me a language originating on the continent on which I live.
And although I have no excuses for not learning another South
African language in later life, I need not apologise for my lack of
language here. While it increases the gap between me and others,
it also leads me to see the lives of the people I meet as more exotic,

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more alien, than they probably are, as it excludes the possibility of


enquiry. In my experience there are often more similarities between
us than differences. Were all just trying to get from one end of our
lives to the other the best way we know how.

* * *
Ive been wondering when it would be my turn to get sick. Theyve
stopped trucking in water from Namibia and started pumping it
directly from the Angolan rivers. The other guys have been sick. The
water is sweeter than the water at 61Mechs base in Omuthiya,
which tastes like diesel. I am accustomed to its dullness. But the
Angolan water sparkles in my mouth; it tastes of freshness wild
water gathering minerals on its journey from the highlands to the
wide floodplains of Cuando Cubango. It has turned my innards to
stinking liquid.
Its a miserable state of affairs. We have no toilet paper left in
the Ratel. I resort to wiping my arse with airmail paper. Every time
I need to go for a shit I have to decide whose letter will be used.
My girlfriends letters dont get used. Neither do letters from Mum
and Dad. The rest I sort in priority of emotional closeness. I wipe
with a silent, guilty apology to the person who took the time to
brighten my week by writing me a letter.
Im sweating and feverish. Gary and I are walking back from
a briefing at one of the officers vehicles. I feel weak and faint.
Gary has just recovered from a bout of illness, and now he is gently
encouraging me with kind words. Anthony from 61Charlie has
had it too I remember him moaning under the camo net. I cant
go any further, not another step. I stop and sit down on a fallen
tree, insects buzzing and crawling around in my head. Were just
about there, Gary is telling me, just there, and he points. The Ratel
seems a long way off. I cant. I need to rest. I just want to curl up
in the sand and sleep. Eventually he persuades me to get up and
helps me to my feet. I stumble through the soft sand and tangles
of fallen branches. Thanking him, I sink to where my sleeping bag
lies in the sand.

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Dave is sick for the entire three months. His clothes hang off
him. The doctor has no answer. If we had been back at the base in
Omuthiya we would have been recovering in the sickbay, or even
taken to a hospital. Were at war now, though, so we suffer, filthy
and sweating under the camo net. I dont even bother going to the
doctor; I know that hes done nothing for the others who have
visited his Casspir for help.
After a few days I recover. My stomach deals with whatever is
in the good-tasting Angolan water and I am not affected again.
Dave battles on.

* * *
I wonder how fucked Id be if something bad happened. My selfrescue plan has always been to hitch a lift to a place where I can find
help. Theres no traffic on this road, this bush track; no prospect of
rescue. It will be better once I reach Cuchi and the tar road starts
again. I hope the advice Ive received about the tar starting again is
accurate, not because Im not enjoying this quiet track, but because
the isolation of it could put me in a difficult situation if I am un
able to keep cycling through illness. I contemplate phoning Martin,
my doctor friend, for advice. It seems alarmist so I dont. I battle
on alone.
As I move further into the floodplain, I come to the first of
several river crossings. A series of channels cut the road. If I were
on an unloaded bike I would simply ride across, but I dont want to
risk a soaking, especially because of my camera equipment. A more
critical consideration is that a fall could result in injury. I get off
the bike and take off my shoes and socks. On a Sunday-morning
club ride if the water were too deep I would wade straight through,
but I dont want to wear wet shoes tomorrow. The water is cold
and clear and I can see what Im placing my bare feet on as I wheel
the bike across. On the other side I lay the bike down and put my
shoes and socks back on. I repeat the process again at the next
crossing. This time I decide to capture the moment on video. After
setting the camera on the tripod I wade the bike across the river.

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Then I wade back to retrieve the camera, only to find that I havent
pressed the record button. I swear loudly, then wheel the bike back
to the other side and do it all over again, this time remembering to
press the little red button.
Theres a man walking next to the road as I put on my shoes
after a third crossing. As we talk I realise how weak I am. I struggle
to form words and cant seem to think straight. Im in worse shape
than I thought I was. I sit for a while on the side of the road, feeling frustrated at my slow progress. This physical state is going to
put my journey at risk. Hauling myself to my feet, I walk over to a
little ford and kneel next to the river to splash my face. I feel like
lying in that cold water and letting it wash away whatever poison
is debilitating me.
The sun is lowering in the west. Ive long resigned myself to
the fact that I wont make Cuchi. Ive been pushing myself, but
I cant go on like this for much longer. It looks like Im going to be
spending the night in the bush. I start riding again and as I crawl
along the broken gravel I scan the bush for a potential campsite.
I havent seen many landmine signs on this road, but the lack of
red-and-white warning signs doesnt mean that there arent mines.
This should be a relatively simple exercise, but my brain seems to
have slowed to match the cadence of my fatigued legs. Its so much
effort to think about camping that I keep moving.
Then a village emerges in a clearing. The quiet of the bush is
replaced by the sounds of settlement. The murmur of many conversations is punctuated occasionally by laughter or dogs barking or
a call across from one homestead to another. Woodsmoke trickles
up from cooking huts made from mud bricks and thatch, the sharp
oily scent of it familiar to me.
I call a boa tarde to some people talking in front of a homestead.
Its a relief to stop here where the track has begun to turn to sand
in places. Im too tired to power through it and too weak to armour
my pride against a fall. Two men take leave of the women and
walk slowly from the little group of huts that squat behind the
log palisade to where Ive stopped. When they reach me one man

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hangs back. Hes wearing a little blue cloth sun hat and a white
collared T-shirt with horizontal stripes. The first man is obviously
interested in finding out about me. We go through the usual dance
of words, some comprehended, some not, and he grasps that I
am a turista. Sun-hat man is scowling and muttering in the background. The first man says something back to him. I point to my
tent and do my best to convey that Id like to camp somewhere
for the night. Ive noticed a little clinic up ahead, walls clean and
white with newness. Theres an open space next to it that would
make a good campsite. Sun-hat is very obviously unhappy about
my being here and when he grasps that I want to spend the night
his muttering becomes louder and more animated. The first man
turns to him and snaps at him. I pick up the word turista. Sun-hat
slopes back towards the homestead complaining as he goes, and the
first man repeats his response: Turista!
Problema? I ask, starting to become anxious. No, no, says the
first man. No problema. Its the first time Ive encountered anything like this open hostility. Should I continue and find a wild
camp tonight? Im too tired to linger on the thought so I file it
under Plan B.
I gather that I have to ask permission from the soba the headman
whose homestead Im given directions to. A young man is tasked
with guiding me through the maze of huts. As I haul my loaded
bike through the sand, a sow and some piglets scuttle out of my
way. Theres the buzz of dinner time about the place. I smell pap
and unidentifiable cooking aromas mingled with people sweat and
goat shit. Chickens and goats escape between the huts as a handful
of wide-eyed, snotty-nosed children follow me at a cautious distance.
The old soba has his khaki bush jacket draped over his shoulders. His hair is nearly white and his eyes are milky with age. Its
instantly clear that my staying in the village is beyond question
he is so nonchalant about it, its as if I were a regular visitor who
passed through every week. A pair of kitchen chairs is brought for
us and we sit together next to a little rectangular hut. Conversation
runs out within minutes, but we remain sitting together anyway.

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I say something about his lovely orange tree. It seems ancient and
no less fecund for the years. He says something to a boy of about
nine, who is quickly into the highest branches of the tree with the
skill and fearlessness of a boy of his age. In a few minutes Im presented with five oranges. I thank the boy and the old man and begin
to eat, not without some concern for my stomach. The sourness of
the unripe orange on my tongue is eclipsed by the severe stinging
of my sunburnt lips. I battle on gamely until it is finished.
To reciprocate the old mans hospitality, I give him the remains
of a loaf of bread I bought in Menongue. He takes it to a padlocked
hut where it is locked away, presumably for his later enjoyment.
After a while the soba leaves me to attend to some other business. A small gallery of curious young residents has formed at
a respectful distance from where Im sitting. Hello, I say to the
gathered children. Im answered by a quiet spread of big eyes. One
whispers something to an older girl and she replies. Silence. Como
ests? I ask. Shy giggles. I smile. Little coughs ripple back and forth
through the dust-whitened band. Many of the childrens scalps
present scabs caused by some or other ailment. Gradually the
members of the little band drift off, called for dinner at their
respective homes.
The sun sets into the forest and in the remaining twilight a girl
of about twelve, wearing a flared skirt, arrives with a grass handbrush and a bowl of water and disappears into the hut outside
of which Im sitting. She sweeps the beaten-earth floor and then
sprinkles water on it to keep the dust down. The old man indicates
that this is my room for the night.
Close to where I sit theres a small solar panel about the size of
an open laptop charging a mobile phone. The sun is down so the
phones owner, a man in his twenties, collects it and tramps off
again down the sandy lane. Someone else puts the panel away for
the night. It happens without fuss or discussion, one of the many
daily routines that have claimed my hosts for now. Ordinary lives
of ordinary people.
A little while later I roll out my mattress and sleeping bag and

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wonder where Ill find the strength to continue on my journey


tomorrow. Somewhere a generator chunters power to a thumping
music system and children shriek their delight. I lie down, insert
my earplugs and, with the sickly sweet smell of the dust floor in
my nostrils, drift into a dead sleep.

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