In December 1972, I hitched to South West Africa. After Upington, an Afrikaner lady picked me up, while her mampara son, result of desert inbreeding, sat between us. She asked me to drive west, as she'd driven all day and was tired. As it was my first desert visit, she insisted I stay in Karasburg with her. "It's impossible to hitch on Sundays," she said. It was my first experience of Afrikaner hospitality from a stranger.
A Boer dropped me off under a kameeldoringboom, saying, "If youz don' getta lif' juz'-now, youz muz walk along my dirrt rroad to my karrrakul skaap plaaz." He was bang I'd die of thirst.
An Englishman muttering, "You're mad!..." took me to Fish River Canyon, reputed to be the second biggest canyon in the world, after USA's Grand Canyon.
At Seeheim, we sank beers with a German taverner. "You're my last patrons," he said. "I'm retiring after thirty years in the desert."
At Keetmanshoop school rifle-butts, noisy natives scared me at dusk, so I slipped out of town and slept in the veld.
Billy, driving a Combi north, picked me up. On New Year's Eve, Billy and I pub-crawled Windhoek. I drank whiskey and soda, glad that Billy drove, as his body absorbed alcohol better. We trekked west via Mount Hakos over the Namib. Near Walvis Bay, we slid down giant coastal dunes. At Swakopmund, we poisoned ourselves with vrot hamburgers, and our projectile-puking coloured motel walls.
On the road north to Tsumeb, I wedged myself amongst three Ovambo men in their truck, sitting on top of the metal engine-cover. They didn't speak English nor Afrikaans. The afternoon was hot, the engine hotter. Ovambos offered me beer. I wondered if they were gun-runners. At stifling Tsumeb, a white poof tried picking me up in a hotel. "Ja-nee," I said. "My hairy arse was already burnt today."
Near Tsumeb, for decades, thousands of conscript troopies were brutalized, courtesy of Azanian taxpayers, at Grootfontein; Ondangwa; Rundu on the Kavango River; Katima Malilo on the Zambezi in the Caprivi Strip; proxy war in Angola.
After weermag army basic, Fraser would do three month border duties at Grootfontein and Rundu. He swam the crocodile-infested Kavango River, never seeing terrorists. He saw Ovambos and Bushmen trackers. I still have the carved Af face in a palm dish, Fraser brought home from the border. Some weermag conscripts had SWAPO Ovambo terrorist contacts, and during and after 1975, contacts with Cubans and Russians in Angola.
Two Afrikaner train-drivers drove me past Windhoek and Rehoboth baster-dorp. We braaied in the middle of the tarred-road beneath the Southern Cross. At Mariental, my chummies snored like diesel-units in their car, while I slept on the ground. Back at Keetmanshoop, it was futile hitching on Sundays. I waited for hours, carving my name in sweet-thorn bark, while traffic slouched by.
At Karasburg junction, a Swiss hitching to Cairo said, "I've hitched three days from Cape Town to Karasburg." He was over-dressed, had a larney rucksack, and didn't blend in. I hitched with a light pack, and covered my attached sleeping bag with a ground-sheet. Using white shoe-polish, I painted number-plate-symbols on my groundsheet, which drivers could see. I tried to look young and non-threatening, but hid mom's Toledo steel paper-knife in my underrods for protection.
A white Volksie-Beetle driver, a white student trekking from Windhoek to Cape Town, sped me south, across the Orange River, through Namaqualand...
At Paarl, I trekked through vineyards, as I wanted to get on the N1 to Bloem. An Indian businessman picked me up saying, "I don' usually pick up white hitchers, as the las' white ou I picked up asked, 'Why'd ya have a swanky Mercedes? Coolies aren't supposed ta have 'em...'"
Speeding north through the Karoo, seeing veld, koppies, horizon and sky, I sang, "Ringing out from our blue heavens..."
"Uit die blou van onse hemel..." cannoned the Indian.
At Three Sisters Junction, I waited till dusk. A donkey wagon rattled past - smooth tyres wobbling on a car back-axle; wooden crate on a car chassis. A coloured, migrant sheep-shearer sjambokked two plodding donkeys. His family, Hotnot wife with four snotkoppe, sat on belongings, trekking the Hottentot, migrant-Springbok way...
I searched for a safe doss-plek. Snake holes were everywhere. "Karoo's a helluva big pozzie..." I thought. "Snakes sliding into my sleeping bag...I could sommer vanish. No one'll find my bones..."
Next day, I hitched to Bloem, showered at aunt Dorothy's, and backspoored to Durbs. During my early teaching years, I hitched to many unknown parts of SA, as I couldn't afford holiday petrol-costs while driving mom's brown Mini.
Copyright Mark JS Esslemont.