Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking In Dry Heat

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we think a lot about backpacking in hot, arid landscapes, and we’re always seeking wisdom for dry heat from neglected corners of world.

Why? Because of a cosmic joke. Even though my ancestors and I lived in foggy, damp, northerly climes ever since hominids left Africa, fate has resettled me in the bone dry, scorching hot western US interior. My genes think we’re wearing bear skins in a German forest, but my ass is cooking in sun-baked chaparral. 

Lean Solid Girl says I’m really a springer spaniel. If stuck indoors, I chew on the woodwork. Better to have me wrecking things outdoors.

But what am I going to do, waste my life playing video games in the A/C? Hell no, I must romp around outdoors—rucking is not optional for me.

So I learn from people with experience in hot savannas and arid hills. Especially relative late-comers who adapted successfully. Americans and Brits have learned a lot about deserts in the last 80 years. But we also have some other teachers out there too, who have worked within their own distinct traditions.

Certainly Israel qualifies. Half of their country is desert. ‘Nuff said. Besides, despite close ties with the US, the Israeli army is absolutely unique in many ways and the very opposite of an epigone of any foreign military advisors

Then comes France. Though the Land of the Gauls is not a desert environment, since Napoleon’s time French troops have romped very actively around North Africa, and even today they are intimately involved in Djibouti and Chad. With a distinct military tradition of her own, France diverged from Anglo-American practice almost as sharply as it is possible for a Western European country to do. (OK, Switzerland and Sweden diverged even more, but they are not exactly princes of the desert.) And France invented the awesome, light canvas boots that Israel later adopted!


China excels in that old Second World genius for “low cost, high concept” design. On their long border with Mongolia, for example, troops traded their vehicles for camels. In a featureless landscape plagued by sandstorms, drivers have trouble seeing roads, but the camels have an unerring internal compass.

And the Chinese can probably offer lessons about desert operations. Their military interest in “the Great Northwest” (e.g. Xinjiang) and Inner Mongolia goes back several continuous centuries, and the PLA has been upgrading its desert forces. And it exemplifies a lot of the qualities that make for ingenuity, like outsider independence. 

And then there’s … South Africa?

I never associated South Africa with “desert warfare”—a phrase that conjures images of T.E. Lawrence with Bedouins and scimitars in the shifting Arabian sands. But South Africa includes three deserts and plenty of other arid terrain that many groups have trekked and fought over. Moreover, in the 20thcentury alone, South Africans found themselves fighting the Boer War, both World Wars, the Rhodesian Bush War, the Mozambican Civil War, the Natal Civil War, and the South African Border War (plus some others) and operated on desert/arid terrain in the Cape, Natal, Botswana, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Namibia, and also in Egypt and Libya against the Axis. 

The South African Defense Force (SADF) in Namibia, in the last of the great East-West proxy wars. This is also what it looks like a stone’s throw over my back fence.

Those are some dry places, my friends. South Africa itself gets only half the global average of rainfall, and the main theater for the Border War, Namibia, is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Not the Anglosphere. Only one South African in 10 speaks English as their first language. For most, it’s Zulu, Xhosa, or Afrikaans, or another of their eleven (!!) official languages. The culture of the SADF was overwhelmingly Afrikaans, not English.

Even better for us, South Africa remained unique. It never assimilated much into the Anglosphere (at least not for a British dominion) and because it was ostracized for much of the Cold War, it was left to innovate in relative seclusion.

And it did so among a shocking variety of influences: the SADF itself had a British heritage institutionally, but culturally it was overwhelmingly Afrikaans. Though mostly white, it also accepted non-white volunteers. The SADF interacted with its counterparts in Rhodesia and Israel, and it had some support from the US. And it operated in a theater crowded with more players than a Bollywood dance number: not just the immediate neighbors–Angolans, Namibians, Zambians, and Mozambicans–but also their foreign sponsors: the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, China, and North Korea. At one point the SADF even fought head to head against a division-strength Cuban enemy.

That meant that Seventies and Eighties southern Africa became a kind of melting pot and R&D lab for many of the features of 21st-century “small wars” and insurgencies: the rise of roadside bombs; the drawing in of foreign volunteers; the high importance of informants and police work; three-sided wars with multiple insurgencies who also fought each other. South Africa and neighboring Rhodesia became the early experts in counterinsurgency, developing the “fireforce” concept and new vehicles for traveling vast distances with little in the way of secure roads. Mine-resistant troop carriers that can thwart IEDs? South Africa invented those. All those new tanks-on-wheels? South Africa has done that for decades.

Today’s US mine-resistant vehicles are descended from the South African Buffel (“Buffalo”). Happily, my town is largely free of mines so I drive a Honda.

And we care about this … why?

Like the American military after the Cold War, the SADF of 1980 was orienting itself more to the desert. Where before they thought of themselves as a conventional mechanized army defending against Soviet-style armored formations, now their enemies were increasingly conducting a Maoist insurgency along their long borders, and that meant foot-mobile desert warfare.

Sorry for the history lesson. I’m a professor by trade…

None of this would matter to us at Lean Solid Dogs, where we just ruck and rarely hit IEDs or parachute into gunfights, except for one pivotal trick of fate. South Africa was unique in a very consequential way: They could not rely on air power so they had to start walking a lot.

See, other countries in a predicament like South Africa’s, outnumbered and isolated among hostile neighbors, all do the same thing: they rely on their aircraft. The French did it in Indochina. Israel did it in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and the Americans in Vietnam, and the Soviet and Western forces again in Afghanistan. Since I don’t have a helicopter, that doesn’t do anything for me.

But unlike those others, South Africa could barely supply its aging air force with spare parts because of the UN embargo, so they flew very sparingly. Lacking the plentiful air support of other Western-style armies, they were forced to compensate with very, very long foot patrols, in dry country under a bright sun.

Paratroopers might walk a parched, sandy Namibian or Angolan landscape for a week or more, carrying all their necessities on their backs. AJ Venter describes 7- to 11-day patrols in Ovamboland (northern Namibia), walking 12+ hours per day in sand and packing about 40kg (88 lbs.). Granger Korff writes of similar patrols in Angola lasting for several weeks with resupply only every five days.

The SADF adapted impressively to this unexpected new reality and changed out a lot of its “soldier systems,” the kit for the individual guys.

For our purposes, what they did was to figure out the best systems for their guys to carry stuff on their bodies. With a special view to arid climates. What Sherpas are to high altitude, the SADF made themselves to dry heat.

They proudly filched ideas from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and they invented another so outlandish that it became a science fiction icon.

This is the story of South Africa’s “Pattern 83,” and this is the subject of our new series. Watch this space.