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) that saw them operating 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 the 11(!) 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 its culture was overwhelmingly Afrikaans. Though mostly white, it also took 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 went head to head with Cuban regulars in division strength.

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 tanks-on-wheels popping up around Asia (and Europe and Canada too)? South Africa has been doing 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 an army of tanks and artillery preparing for a conventional war against mechanized Communist regiments,now their enemies were increasingly fighting a Maoist war along South Africa’s 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 South Africa’s predicament, who are outnumbered and isolated among hostile neighbors, all do the same thing: they rely on their aircraft. The French did it in what was then called “French Indochina.” Israel did it in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and the Americans again in Vietnam, and the Soviet and Western forces 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.

The GAO Shirt

A repost as part of our current series, “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.” See our previous installments on French design idiosyncrasies, French day packs, and bush shoes. Amusez-vous bien!

The débardeur GAO or chemise GAO. Quintessentially French, this man’s expression says it all: “With shirts like these, we are the masters of every hot climate we deign to visit. En fait, we would be the envy of the world if only we had ditched these hats, which apparently were designed as a team-building exercise between a Soviet puppet government and Japanese war criminals.”

The French really understand parched, roasting climates. From 200 years of walking around North Africa, they figured out what to wear for brain-boiling heat.

Call me an insufferable American chauvinist, but I rejoice that my ancestors left Strasbourg for a new land where they would be free to have short shorts with proper back pockets.

If you’re a regular reader of Lean, Solid Dogs, you already know that I love short shorts. And my favorites are surplus French Army shorts. Cheap, durable, and comfortable, they would be 100% perfect if not for the tragic European aversion to back pockets.

But my French cousins absolutely aced one other piece of hot weather gear: the GAO shirt. Think of it as an optimized tank top. Its most distinctive feature is that it doesn’t have sides, just straps that hold the front and back together while ventilating your body. For even more ventilation, there’s a deep V-neck that leaves about half your chest exposed to the air. Only the shoulders get extra coverage to protect them from the sun and the chafing of pack straps or other loads. And the designers even compensated for the lack of back pockets on their shorts but putting a sort of dump pouch across the small of the back, like some cycling jerseys have.

The GAO shirt’s origins are somewhat mysterious and people are unsure where the name comes from. It might be named after the Gao region of Niger, or it could be an acronym for “Operational Support Group” (Groupe d’Appui Opérationnel). What we do know is that it appeared in 1983 in Chad, when the French Army helped repel a Libyan invasion.

Beau travail (1999)

To my surprise, I’ve never seen a GAO shirt on anyone else in the United States. Peerless for hot, dry weather, they deserve to be better known. I first saw them years ago in Claire Denis’ film Beau travail and instantly saw how comfortable they would be.

French surplus GAO shirts are cheap but very difficult to buy from within the US for some reason, even in the age of Ebay and FedEx. However, they are easy to make. If you get hold a French specimen to copy, a sewing machine, and some 33% polyester ripstop fabric, you’re in business. If readers are dying for a pattern, drop us a line and I’ll do my best to provide you to provide you with one.

The Swedish “Moose Sack”

I have lots of surplus packs, but there are two that I love and cherish. For big jobs, I have a version of the legendary Swedish LK-35. For everything else, I carry the nimble, gorgeous Swedish M39, the “Moose Sack.”

Like in Switzerland, Sweden’s neutrality is very much an armed neutrality. Even though Sweden did not fight WWII, they kept over half a million men under arms. And since the Swedes knew a thing or two about the outdoors, Erik and Oskar were issued a rucksack that is a work of genius. You can recognize it anywhere by the strange, perforated, leather-covered crescent shape at the top, which is a godsend for comfort.

At almost 80 years old and heavily used, this pack is so bomb-proof that you’d think it was Soviet if it weren’t also attractive and comfortable.

As its backbone it has a peculiar X-shaped frame. It holds the pack close to your back without quite touching, and the top of the pack moulds itself over your shoulders, so it is pleasant to carry and makes you feel quick and light. In addition, the pack “grabs” the body firmly and stays put, with minimal slipping, flopping, or bouncing. On a heavy march, that saves energy because you don’t have to hold the pack still. And it feels more ergonomic and somehow more agile than something with a rectangular frame. You can also adjust the ride height and even the spacing of the straps on your shoulders!

Retro in the Snow

When Lars Grebnev at Survival Russia talks, I listen.

First he got me into jackboots, which I like more all the time because they’re weather- and terrain-proof. On slippery rocks, in muck, over a gravelly boulder-scape, in a calf-high stream, the jackboots keep you stable and dry. This time I tried them with snowshoes. My cheapo, old-fashioned 1980s Swedish army snowshoes were not exactly high-performance dynamos, but the $20 East German jackboots kept me warm, dry, and comfortable all day.

Tip for you jackbooted thugs out there: boot grease really works. It’s cheap and takes two minutes to apply, and it makes these things truly waterproof.

Lars was also right about old Scandinavian wool. For cold weather, he’s remarked, you’d do very well to find Scandinavian surplus from the 1960s or before. It dates from a time when armies lived outdoors for long periods of time and they made clothes that were supremely warm and durable, in a way that isn’t true of modern stuff.

Through the awesome Surplus City, I found some old wool trousers that came along with me on the snowshoeing trip, and I think the world of them. Apparently these Nordic folks really know a thing or too about cold. I felt like I had a warm lamb wrapped around each leg.

They’re also very comfortable to wear with a pack because they’re high-waisted. My rucking guru Sgt. Šileika told me to expect this: the extra length of old-fashioned, high-waisted trousers protects you from chafing, and since they use suspenders rather than a belt, you don’t get flesh pinched between the top of your pants and the hip belt of your pack. Much more comfortable!

Let’s Sing the Surplus Song!

To the tune of “My Favorite Things”*

East German jackboots and green Czech suspenders,
Norwegian trousers for snowy weekenders,
Bundeswehr base layer, Steppentarn scarf,
On French army snow shoes I’ll hike til I barf!

Finnish boot grease!
Swedish rucksack!
From your grandfather’s day.
For ten lousy bucks you can buy it all up
And head for the hills to play!

*Acknowledgement to Tam at View From the Porch, who inspired me with her Gun Show Song. And additional thanks to Varusteleka and Surplus City—they are world class!–and to the Hungarian armed forces, the Austrian Bundesheer, British Army, and above all the Swedish Air Force for making awesome gear and then deciding they don’t want it!