I was 19 and imbedded deep in the Angolan bush as part of an ideological war we did not understand. What we did know was that we were ragtag soldiers, paratroopers deployed in counter-insurgency, but dressed in a mixture of South African, Cuban and Angolan uniforms, unshaved and unwashed for weeks, carrying a plethora of weapons, living more off the land than off our rations; a few had been sent home for injuries or for smoking pot. A few weeks ago we had lost Simon and Anton when they stepped on a vehicle mine. We wrote the odd letter home and I had informed my parents that I would not be home until somewhere in January.
And then we were suddenly flown out from the north Namibian bush back to our base in Bloemfontein, a 1000 miles away, for a wash, a shave and change of gear. We handed in equipment and were given a five day pass, released onto the streets outside Tempe on the afternoon of 23 December. My parents were at their seaside holiday 600 miles away, I did not know the phone number and had little money. So I decided to ride with my thumb, although hitching was not allowed in uniform; you had to stand quietly on the roadside and hoped someone safe stopped to give you a lift.
So, as I stood outside the gate in my step-outs, red beret on and Brassoed wings on my chest, another soldier stopped. He was going to Despatch near Port Elizabeth, to see his fiancée and their son, and I was going in the same general direction. So I got a lift in his Datsun 1200, through the southern Free State and Colesberg down to Middelburg in the Karoo, and he dropped me off at a junction just outside town that felt like the middle of nowhere. Even in midsummer the Karoo night air was getting cool by 9. The first car came past after 30 minutes of waiting; it was a big old Ford pick-up truck holding a farmer, his wife and three kids and he immediately stopped; I was thankful to be bundled in the back with bicycles and sacks, and got dropped off in Cradock, with streets that were totally deserted by 11 pm, two nights before Christmas. I had made up my mind to walk to the Police station and ask if there was space in the holding cells for a place to sleep when another car stopped and the driver asked where I was going. He, his wife and daughter were returning home to their farm near Bedford after an early Christmas dinner with friends, 100 km from home. When I replied that I wanted to get to Grahamstown they told me to get in; I was grateful. Their car was an old Opel Rekord, and they took me down to Cookhouse, well beyond the Bedford turn-off, where they dropped me off on the main road south, before making a 180 degree turn and completing their 80km detour, all to help a lonely soldier trying to make it home for Christmas.
By now it was 1.30 am, Cookhouse was completely dark except for a few streetlights, but I noticed there was a train station. I walked the km or so into town and went to wait on the platform, hoping to find a railway bench that would be more comfortable to sleep on than the ground. And then a slow train came past, I explained my predicament to the conductor and he told me to hop on. I got to lie down in an empty compartment and paid nothing. At Alicedale the conductor woke me up and told me to change trains to get to Grahamstown. Again I flopped down in a compartment at no charge and can still remember how cold it became with no blanket and air leaking in somewhere. We arrived in Grahamstown at daybreak and I walked south to the road to Port Alfred. It was another hour away by car. Just before 7 a vegetable lorry stopped and the driver shouted “get in junior”; he had been in the para’s a few years earlier.
Senior dropped me off at 8 am on Wednesday 24 December in front of my parents’ beach house. Mum was alone in the kitchen, saw my face through the lorry window and started shouting “Fanus is here”. Poor Dad thought she had lost it, with me being away in the bush war, and came running out to help her, but found me standing at the door. Then everyone appeared, brothers, friends, neighbours, the children in swimming costumes and the old people in pyjamas, with me sticking out like a sore thumb, still with the red beret on my head. The vegetable lorry driver sat there watching the reunion, then gave me a crisp salute and drove off. I had no gifts, no other possessions, but it was probably our best family Christmas ever. Three days later I flew back to Bloemfontein, with the prospect of a traumatic week to secure my release from the army to get to university, and scars to carry forever.
Fanus Dreyer is a Consultant Surgeon at NHS Dumfries & Galloway.