In America, we’d see someone dressed head to toe in a brown uniform and guess “UPS delivery driver.” But if you put him in southern Africa, maybe with a gun as a hint, “browns” would connect him with the South African Defense Force (SADF), South Africa’s pre-1994 army.
The SADF stood out among Western-style militaries of the Cold War, differing from everyone else in little details. One was their unusual brown uniform, which now is coveted on the surplus market. South Africa began the Sixties dressed in impractical, smart-looking British-type uniforms but knowing they needed something they could move around and get dirty in. And by the end of the decade, the troepies were spending a lot of their time in the field, preparing for a conventional war against Soviet proxies but also running around in the bush looking for Chinese-backed guerrilla forces too.
So in 1971, they adopted what became their trademark, the “nutria brown” color. Nutria sounds like the brand-name for a hippy protein powder made from brewer’s yeast and algae, but it’s actually the name of a cute (but invasive) rodent. However, that maligned rodent had the honor of lending its name to some of the best surplus of the Seventies.
Earth tones conceal stuff incredibly well. In search and rescue, it’s shocking how effectively plain colors conceal people in nature. I’ve searched a pine forest next to a man in a light tan uniform, and he completely disappeared from view just 10 yards away in moderate foliage. That makes khaki a terrible field uniform for SAR—orange or red is the way to go—but if you want to vanish in a forest, you can get there in chinos, loafers, and a tan button-down.
With just a couple branches between you and a searcher, they will have trouble picking out your shape, criss-crossed by a couple lines, from the chaotic background clutter. They might also miss you even if you just stand under overhanging branches, provided you are crossed by a couple shadows of branches.
Of course, if you want to hide on purpose, then you’re even better off with a darker color. Armies experimented after the 1860s with dull grays, yellows, and greens so soldiers wouldn’t get them shot from afar by the new, high-powered ammunition. Over the next century, they progressed toward steadily darker hues. The Russians didn’t settle on one standard color, retaining a mix of yellows, greens, and browns that nevertheless all looked like they issued from some part of a baby. But everyone else converged on nearly the same color, just described with different names.
British Commonwealth armies still called that color “khaki,” though it no longer matched its Urdu meaning of “soil-colored.” The Germanic armies all called theirs “field gray” (Feldgrau), and the Americans named theirs “olive green.”
Olive, gray, even (super-dark) khaki—all justifiable descriptions of pretty much the same, hard-to-define color. We do know one thing. It is officially Proven By Science that it’s the ugliest color in the world. When Australia ordered tobacco companies to redesign their cigarette packages so as to “minimize appeal,” government researchers identified this very color in experiments as the most morbid and depressing. The Australian olive lobby begged the officials not to call the villainous color “olive” and besmirch their fruit’s good name, so the government accommodated them and dubbed it “drab dark brown.”
In tests, plain old olive drab (OD) camouflages people in a forest almost as effectively as a well-designed camo pattern. So olive is still the standard in tropical Venezuela and Cuba, temperate Austria, and the mixed terrain of India. And amazingly, it actually works well in a desert too! The Israelis found it worked there almost as well as purpose-made desert camo, reportedly, so the IDF still wears olive. Maybe olive really is the closest thing to a “universal camouflage!”
South Africa had roughly the same idea. They needed a single uniform for forests and mountains and deserts, so they tried olive. But there was a twist: those varied southern African landscapes did share one commonality–they were all very dry. So when the South African army experimented in Namibia, olive was edged out by “nutria brown” in the parched landscape. (For the same landscape, the Kaiser’s short-lived colony of “South-West Africa” chose a lighter brown they called “sand color.” Probably not a coincidence.)
When South Africa adopted their signature nutria browns in 1971, most major armies were still uniformed in monochrome too, including the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and West Germany. But South Africa retained theirs longer than most, economically sapped by war and inflation. It is telling that, when finally adopting camouflage uniforms in 1993, the army’s chief felt he needed to justify the slight cost increase of just US $24 worth per uniform of his country’s falling currency.
For our purposes, South African nutria and other monochrome surplus is also attractively economical, even if we do enjoy a hard currency. It’s cheap and indestructible, and it’s extra versatile because, lacking a camo pattern, it doesn’t make you look like Mall Rambo. Even though that doesn’t matter when you’re out hiking and camping, afterward you might want to stop at the grocery store and not sow terror of a rebel attack on the frozen aisle.