This month, as everyone bangs on about the centenary of the armistice that called curtains on the War to end all Wars, I cannot help recall how – just 60 years later – I was getting ready to head off to a war of my own.
Like most white boys of my generation, I had received my military conscription papers in a little brown envelope. I was told to report for two years of national service at 4 SA Infantry Battalion at Middleburg in what is now Mpumalanga in January 1979.
Having completed my matric exams in November 1978, I decamped Johannesburg for the coast. Not Margate or Plett like the more well-to-do lads that attended KES; me having arrived in Joburg from the Eastern Cape six years ago, it was to that part of the world I returned.
One of my mates from school – a drinking, smoking, swearing reprobate who happened to be one of the finest flyhalves the school had ever produced – also came from that neck of the woods and it was his advice that I followed.
Jeffrey’s Bay, he said, learn to surf and jump the beach bunnies. Seven weeks later, buff and tanned with long locks bleached by salt and sun, I stood at the side of the N10 at the foot of the interminably long uphill that marks the start of the road between Craddock and the Middelburg that lies about 100km south of Colesberg.
It was early afternoon on a blistering hot Sunday and traffic on that stretch of road was nonexistent.
The weather couldn’t have been more different the other day when I retraced my steps 40 years later, albeit this time behind the wheel of a plush Mini Cooper D Countryman. Rain clouds were gathering and the breathless heat spoke of impending thunderstorms.
I saw a roadsign that got me thinking about that day when I’d been hitchhiking back to the old Transvaal and my date with military duty. I was bored after spending nearly three hours waiting for the lift that threatened never to come, so I decided I’d start walking up the hill even though the heat was beastly.
Before hefting my rucksack, I pulled out one of my waterbottles for a swig. It was oddly hot and swollen. The previous night had been a festive one at the Port Elizabeth home of my profane flyhalf friend who now, incidentally, is headmaster of a posh private prep school in KwaZulu-Natal.
I didn’t know when I awoke just before dawn the next morning that he’d filled all three my waterbottles with Old Brown Sherry. The warm alcohol went straight to my 17-year-old brain and I was well-blootered by the time I was two-thirds of the way up that 4km climb.
Then I heard the roar of a truck coming up the road behind me. It was a full laden Coca-Cola lorry and it was making as heavy weather of the incline as I.
As he crept past me, the driver indicated he’d wait at the top. Believe me, I ran the rest of the way … sweating copious amounts of OBS, but what the hell?
It wasn’t a long ride. However, I’d barely alighted from the vehicle when a local farmer pulled up in his bakkie.
It was getting towards sundown and he said I’d be an idiot to hike through the night. I was free to stay over with him and his wife for the night and he’d put me back on the road at first light. It was an eish! experience decades before Klippies came up with the ad.
That night, over braai and brandy, I learned that – in this part of the world – the 1914-18 conflict was not regarded as the war to end all wars. That dubious honour was reserved for the one fought between 1899 and 2002, the one historians called the Second Anglo-Boer war and which the Afrikaners still speak of as the Second War of Independence.
On the N9, just after the Craddock/Middleburg roadsign, stands a monument to the victims of the Slagtersnek Rebellion by a group of Boers against the British government of the Cape Colony.
The ringleaders were captured and hanged by the British in 1815. Custom has it that, if the hangman’s rope breaks, the condemned man walks free: not in this case, several ropes snapped but the British went right on hanging the men till they were all dead.
These are ever-lasting memories for the rural Afrikaners of the Eastern Cape, and Boer and Brit are still fighting (albeit mainly verbally) the battles of the 19th century.
The only reason the friendly farmer extended his hospitality to this long-haired rooinek was because I was on my way to do my duty for my country