Musings from the end of a long leash
At age nineteen, I was living in what was Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, had recently finished High School, and was studying further by correspondence through Cambridge University. Back then, there was no such thing as on-line!
I was trying to decide whether to take up my allocated place at University the following year, something I had really worked for, or to follow my other dream and join the Air Force. It was the time of the civil war in Rhodesia which, under rigid Government censorship reporting, was apparently limited to small incursions through the borders, held in check by the Army, Police special units and the Air Force.
To those of us, who knew nothing different, it was why we had a standing army. My indecisions, however, came to a sudden halt, when out of the blue, I received call-up papers for National Service.
Reading between the lines quickly determined that if I had already been accepted to study further at University, I could apply for a deferment from National Service for the same length of time as my studies. Once finished however it was theoretically back to square one.
Believing the war would all be over within the next three years, which was the length of my tertiary studies, I applied with alacrity and in the new year, joined hundreds of other students, also with similar thoughts in their minds, as we boarded trains and traveled to our new residences at different Universities in South Africa, all filled with our own educational dreams.
At the end of my third year, I graduated, came back to the Rhodesian capital, Salisbury, filled with the belief that somehow, luckily, I had been overlooked in the bigger scheme of things. I spent two months finding a job, another four months working and one morning, just like that, the dream ended.
The long, invisible elastic leash tied around my neck three years previously, abruptly jerked me from my feet and unceremoniously dumped me early one morning in the parking lot of my new home, the barracks, along with approximately sixty other equally nervous individuals.
Little did we know, it was the beginning of six months of hell.
In week three of our basic training, all broken down to our individual components of DNA and atoms and partially deaf from the constant screaming of the drill instructors, we were loaded into the back of trucks for what was termed “Counter-Insurgency Training” or just “Coin.”
On arrival, we were divided into teams of four, given a four-person tent and given sixty minutes to find a place, scrape the area around it clean of vegetation to deter snakes and other denizens of the thick forest, set up our respective campsites, put our gear away tidily and re-appear in the lecture tent. This was the time they made it abundantly clear to us that what was happening inside Rhodesia was anything but what we’d been reading before. We were now in a full-on low-intensity war, spread throughout the country, plain and simple.
For the next few days, all was normal as we learned the tricks of the trade, how to fight a bush war, how to shoot, how to strip and clean our weapons in the bush and everything needed to keep us alive, barring plain bad luck, stupidity or being in the wrong position at the wrong time.
Side note:-Before our departure, I had, from a just returned recruit from the same Coin training as I was now on, been given a piece of highly confidential information. He shared with me why the mountain had been named after Kenelly and made me understand, in no uncertain terms, that the information needed to be kept to myself.
Kenelly was one of our COIN instructors. A stickler for military rules and regulations even in the middle of the bush, and utterly ruthless, as we were soon to find out.
One week, we began night training; these comprised ambushes, mock attacks on specific targets, moving silently through thick undergrowth and one never to be forgotten night, our first timed route march using only a specific map. Each team was randomly handed one with a specific route already marked out and was to be completed in six hours from start to finish or …
And, just to prevent cheating, which would inevitably be attempted, there were numerous checkpoints along the way, from which a specific item was to be brought back. Failure to bring all back would mean being sent out again immediately.
Before each team left, they studied their route by torchlight and without realising it at the time and in the darkness, our final checkpoint – each team had one – was the top of Kenelly’s Mountain.
Painstakingly, over the next several hours, we made our way through the bush, fully loaded packs on our backs and carrying loaded rifles and spare ammunition. We climbed, cursed, got lost in the dark and climbed some more, a marked circuitous route through rivers, through thorn bush forests (probably deliberately) retrieved all our demarcated items along the way, until more by luck than skill, we miraculously found ourselves on top of our final destination before returning to camp – Kenelly’s infamous mountain.
The most dominant feature on an otherwise unspectacularly regular summit turned out to be a triangulation pillar. A white-painted, four-foot-high concrete structure, surrounded by a pile of white-painted large and heavy rocks.
Once again, as proof we had not cheated at the last hurdle, we were to bring one of the white stones back to camp. Resting for only a few minutes, time being of the essence here and still facing a long, steep, and torturous descent through the thick bush to camp, my discussion with the previous returnee suddenly leapt into the forefront of my brain and a prescient thought took hold.
I quickly called the other three members of my team together, shared the tidbit of information I’d been privy to and expecting looming disaster at some point on the course, persuaded the other members to each take one of the heavy stones down the mountain. We would place them under a tree somewhere close to camp … in case.
With a lot of grumbling, the others eventually agreed. The challenge though was to get five rocks down the mountain which is where my newest friend Percy, who I’d started talking to in the car park the day we first arrived at barracks, now came into his own.
Percy was at least six feet, three inches tall, slim and unassuming, but as I was to learn that night and later in the course, possibly the strongest individual I had ever met. He gave me his rifle to carry, picked up one rock and then told someone else to pick up another and give it to him to hold under his other arm and with the five rocks we gingerly, very carefully, made our way back.
Approximately three hundred yards from the edge of the forest, I whispered to everyone to stop. We took four of the rocks, placed them around an enormous tree stump, covered them with leaves and earth and with our sole remaining evidentiary rock, made it to camp with approximately twenty minutes to spare. We were neither the first back nor the last.
More training followed. Days blurred into each other and one morning we were in the lecture tent being taught the fine art of some bush survival strategy when Kenelly burst into the lecture room, shouting and virtually frothing at the mouth he was so angry. In a tone filled with menace and almost incoherent with rage, he demanded to know who the occupants of Camp 5 were. Which, unfortunately, was Percy, myself and two other individuals.
We were unceremoniously ejected from the classroom and made to follow him, all the while being verbally abused about our blatant disrespect, lack of discipline and hygiene and several thousand other sins that we were going to pay dearly for.
In the one or two minutes it took to stumble back to our campsite, we’d apparently committed more military sins than anyone in history and we were going to be sorry. When we arrived, he pointed out our fireplace, which had a single, small blackened piece of forgotten wood next to it, a towel placed over the tent to dry and God forbid, someone had left his toothbrush on his bed.
Pointing out these major infractions, again and again, all the while screaming at us and how useless we were, he finally dismissed us with contempt and told us that the minute our morning lectures finished, we would begin our punishment.
We finished the lectures, a collective bundle of apprehension and as threatened, when we left the lecture room, we were greeted by the sight of Kenelly standing outside the mess hall, arms folded tightly, one foot resting on top of a large cardboard box and his customary scowl deeper and darker than ever.
The four of us were called out and in front of all the other trainees and staff, he outlined our severe breaches of protocol again, our complete and utter uselessness and our obvious contempt for the military and regulations – again.
Once he thought we’d been sufficiently cowed he ordered us to go back to our tent, collect our packs, rifles and ammunition and return within two minutes. Possibly with milliseconds to spare, we were back and removing his foot, he looked at us, looked around the assembled multitude and now with a large smile, informed us of our fate.
Pointing at the box by his feet, he told us it was filled with twenty-four boxes of individual daily rations and our task was going to be to carry it to the top of his mountain, and as proof of getting there, each of us was to bring back one white painted object from the top.
We had three hours starting immediately. (A near-impossible task, even without the rocks.)
The box must have weighed a hundred pounds or more, but it was bulky and awkward and with everything else we were laden with, it was hell to carry and slow going. We tried every possible combination, but between its awkwardness, the thick undergrowth we were walking through, and the time pressure, proved near impossible.
But … as soon as we moved around a corner, Percy, good old strong as the proverbial ox, Percy, took over. He simply picked the box up, placed it on one shoulder as though it weighed nothing, and we moved into the forest briskly and out of sight.
Now, suddenly, I was the hero of the day. As soon as we were comfortable that we were deep enough into the forest, we dumped the box, made our way to the tree stump, uncovered the four white painted rocks, took them back to where the box was and spent the next two hours telling stories and smoking or dozing.
It seemed inconceivable that Kenelly thought anyone would carry the box to the top of the mountain and we discussed this between cigarettes and jokes, but the assumption was that no-one would dare disobey him especially if they didn’t know what was on top. But we knew. Kenelly, unfortunately, had no idea that the same team that had done the night trail to the top of his mountain, was the team being severely punished now.
When we had forty minutes of the three hours left, we quickly smeared dirt over ourselves, mussed our clothes and hair, Percy picked up the box, balanced it on one shoulder, gave his rifle to me, and as per his ask, took one of the rocks which he placed under his other arm. It was seemingly without apparent effort and a somewhat sobering display of his immense strength.
Then we made our way back to camp, walked towards Kenelly, all four looking shaky and unhinged from our efforts, and placed the five objects at his feet.
As the most verbal and ostensibly the team-leader because I was the only one of the four with a University degree, I will never forget the look he gave me. It was hard to know if it was a smidgen of respect, immense suspicion or loathing. Whatever it was though, he sensed that somehow, something had gone wrong that afternoon, but he had his four white-painted rocks, the box of rat packs back and there was little he could do to prove otherwise.
He never bothered our team again.
Four years later, the war was winding down and one day, while on leave, I walked into a bar in Salisbury that was popular with military personnel on their off-time. Walking through the packed room, I approached the bar, eventually ordered a beer and standing there sipping it, reflecting on survival, a hand clapped me on the shoulder. Swinging around, I looked directly into the face of my COIN Instructor, Kenelly.
This time, it was a friendly discussion and after a few war stories and contemplations of both surviving unharmed, he said to me. ‘I know for a fact you guys did not go to the top of the mountain that afternoon, yet you had the rocks. How did that happen?’
Taking a sip of beer, I laughed. ‘That first night map-reading route march exercise we did. Our team had the route which ended at the top of your mountain. Something said to me there was significance in the rocks, so despite the verbal abuse, we took four down to the bottom of the mountain and hid them next to a tree stump.
When we had to take the box of rations, we hid in the forest, collected the rocks and chilled out until we figured it was time to came home. And there you were. But I always believed you weren’t sure. It was written all over you.’
‘I wasn’t. But you had the rocks. What could I say?’
‘Something which puzzled us at the time. Why would you think we’d ever carry the box to the top?’
‘I thought I’d scared you enough that you wouldn’t take the chance that somehow there wasn’t someone at the top waiting for you.’
We had a few more beers, chatted a bit longer, and when I left, that was the last I ever saw of him.