Nutria Brown

Part IV of our series South African on surplus gear for arid climates. Please find the previous parts here, here, and here.

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.

Why monochrome?

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.

In American English, this is the color I’d label “khaki.” But in the British and French armies, they kept the name “khaki” even as the actual hue got darker and greener, to the point of being indistinguishable (to my eye) from what Americans called “olive green” and Germanic armies called “field gray” or “stone gray.”

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 Green 107, the pukey color of *MASH*, Platoon, and everything else set in the US Army of the Korea and Vietnam eras.

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.”

What’s Hebrew for “If it ain’t broke…?” The IDF still wears solid OD green.

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!”

For a given environment, a solid earth tone gives up a little to the right camouflage pattern, but it finishes miles ahead of the wrong pattern. The US Army’s disastrous “UCP” made soldiers glow, owing to an extreme case of color merging or “blobbing out.” When you look at almost any pattern from a great distance, the variegated colors blend into a single color. For the UCP, which was adopted with zero testing(!), the “blobbing” started at ping pong distance and yielded a color like a lighthouse beacon.

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.)

The French kept their “khaki green” tenue F1 until 2000. Other countries who hung on late to monochrome included China and Israel, as well as South Africa–curiously, all shared economic, military, and political peculiarities that made them global military oddballs. That is a subject for another day.

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.

“This is an act of revolutionary expropriation! I demand safe passage to Cuba and the release of all your freezer case’s single-serving containers of Haagen-Dasz!”

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.