To catch a desert plane

Landmines. The anti-tank types—requiring 60-500 kg direct downward pressure to initiate.

That reality clouded an otherwise pleasant trip in an air conditioner-less armored vehicle, while dressed in full military fatigue in the middle of summer in northern Namibia. Mopani and the occasional Baobab lined the 250-kilometer gravel road we were traveling on. Mirages bounced off the pale road surface as the dust-cloaked us and left an abundance of crunchiness between the teeth. Our brown shirts were glued to second skins on our backs.

After serving a period of three months on a border outpost in the Caprivi-strip, it was time to go home. We traveled east, to Rundu, where I was scheduled to catch a military Hercules C-130. This flying barn with four turbo-propped engines was fondly referred to as a “Flossie.”

Once in Rundu, the arrangement was to report to the “jakkals gat,” the “jackal’s den,” the local military air travel booking-office. The South African Defense Force in the 1980s were made up of permanent staff members and national servicemen. I belonged to the latter. In the military food-chain, that was right at the bottom, in spite of being a full lieutenant in a Medical Battalion.

It was a Friday, minutes before noon when I presented myself at the jakkals gat, with full kit, medical bag, automatic R-1 rifle and a 9-mm pistol, without rounds. I was ready.

“Sorry, Lieutenant, but there’s no room on the Flossie.”

“What do you mean? I’ve done my three-months! I’m going home. My seat has been confirmed!”

“Lieutenant … you know how it works … we had to take you guys off to make room for some of the permanent force member’s dependents …”

I didn’t want to know how it worked. I argued my case. Pleaded even. Though they were not supposed to know, my family back in South Africa was expecting me home late that evening, at the military air base outside Pretoria. Word had been sent through the local bush-telegraph.

“Commandant’s orders, Lieutenant.” That was the end of it. Then the booking clerk added, in a consoling tone, “We’ll definitely have room for you on Monday.”

That would be the bloody day.

The next in line, a corporal, had overheard the whole deliberation. He quickly inquired, once I stepped aside, whether he perhaps had more luck. He too, and everyone behind us, had been thrown off the Friday-flight.

He turned to me, “There’s a civilian plane, lieutenant. A Boeing, that flies from Windhoek around six this evening. We can hitch a ride to the city and catch it.”

“But it’s 700 kilometers! We’ve barely got six hours to take-off.”

“Lieutenant, you know these South West Africans, they’re always in a hurry. We can make it. But then we have to run. Now.”

I hesitated. I should probably inform my commanding officer.

“Lieutenant, there’s no time. Are you coming?”

Five minutes later found us standing outside Rundu, not far from the Angolan border. We waited on the side of the national road, leading south. Hopeful, that a good Samaritan will take pity on us.

The corporal was well informed. The farmer who gave us a lift, once he grasped our desperate goal to reach Windhoek in time for the six o’clock plane, took off with wheels spinning. Towns and cities in Namibia are scarce, separated by hundreds of kilometers. Driving at 160 kilometers an hour was standard practice for the locals. We soon sped past Grootfontein, making a good time on the paved surface. We shared our adventures of the past three months with out friendly host, who laughed at our antics, but kept his foot steady on the gas pedal.

We followed the national road south, cutting through the outskirts of the Kalahari desert in Botswana, lying toward the east, on our left, and in the far south and west, the sands of the endless Namib desert. Quiver trees dotted the arid land; outsize succulents, like giant dusters, shoved into the red earth, by even larger hands.

By 5:50 we roared passed the municipal borders of Windhoek, still hopeful of making it in time. It was the corporal who cried out, pointing at the sky ahead of us. It was unmistakable: a large passenger plane ascended above the city, accelerating with great speed. The farmer, sensing our despair, soothed us with the possibility that it was perhaps only an earlier flight, that there could still be the 6 pm flight.

He slowed down as we took the turn-off to the airport on two wheels. The big old sedan had barely heaved to a halt at departures, when the corporal and I had already stepped outside, our belongings in hand.  We hollered words of gratitude at our host, before barging through departure’s double doors.

Inside, our suspicions were confirmed: there was only the one flight that evening, the one we had witnessed above the city.

Once we shared the details of our ambitious quest, one of the ground personnel suggested we purchase two tickets and go on standby for an early flight the Saturday morning. He had a gentle heart and took us in for the night. He even fed us breakfast and dropped us off on time to go on standby.

The corporal and I stood waiting the Saturday morning, our hopes dwindling by the minute, as the few vacant seats got snatched up ahead of us.

The lady in charge at the gate shook her head. “Sorry, gentlemen. The captain had the cabin doors closed. They’re righting the plane.”

I stepped toward the windows to at least watch the departure of the plane, our second chance, slip through our fingers. I pondered the wisdom of my impulsivity. No one, literally no one, knew we were here in Windhoek.

A commotion made we turn away from the window. It was the gate personnel gesturing and calling. The departing plane had stopped.

“Lieutenant, the captain has changed his mind! They’re making room for the two of you. But you have to run. They’re opening the cabin door!”

We vaulted down the stairs and streaked across the tarmac, the Boeing was already two hundred feet away from the gate, its engines running. My oversized backpack bounced on my back, medical canvas bag in my left, R-1 in the right as we ran and scrambled on board. (We did demonstrate to the ground personnel that both our handguns and rifles were without ammunition.)

I was given a seat in the cockpit, right behind the captain. The corporal joined the flight attendants in the back.

Halfway to our destination, the captain, knowing by that time the particulars of our hitchhiking trip from Rundu, wanted to know whether my family knew that we were on our way.

“They expected me last night, sir. They have no idea we’re on our way right now.”

“Let’s rectify that.” He made contact with the control tower at the Johannesburg International we were heading to. They transferred him through to my parents’ house, where my wife temporarily stayed until she could pick me up.

The captain informed them I was en route and requested they meet me at the arrival gate in an hour and a half.

A few cheers went up from the passengers as I emerged from the captain’s cabin after touchdown. It wasn’t every day that a medical officer with full kit and firearms (with empty magazines) got to ride one-up behind the pilot. I gave them a formal salute while waiting on the corporal to join me.

Within days of returning home, I received instructions to report to the brigadier in charge of our medical battalion. ASAP. There was, according to my commanding officer, ministerial inquiries about our “sudden disappearance from the base in Rundu,” and how we managed to reach the Republic, “without informing anybody.”

I shared with the brigadier why we did what we did. Also the fact, that had come to light once we were safe home: the “Flossie,” from which we were thrown the Friday, had, after all, seven open seats. Seven of the PF members’ dependents didn’t bother to show up and claim their seats.

“Sorry, Sir,” I said. “But after having served three months on the border, then to be treated with so little decency, was a bit too much. We improvised and solved the problem. We even had to use our meager ‘danger pay’ to buy the tickets. There was no time to inform anybody. No, sir. There are no regrets.”

What I didn’t say was that I thought we should have been decorated with medals for inventiveness.