They say it gets darkest just before the scene turns pitch black. That is probably how the situation felt to Corporal Alex Bierkamp. At 28 years old, this was his first time: he was ordered to parachute from the Air Force Viscount at 8,000 feet precisely at 22:00 hours.
The night jump episode was uneventful despite his chute being tangled in trees; nothing a strong arm behind an army utility knife could not fix. Cut loose, Alex dropped three more meters. Once his feet found terra firma, he sprang upright. A quick pat on his shoulder found the 2-way radio pack. It was intact. He hoped it worked.
His kit bag was still in its place. So were all the contents: two matches, a standard canteen, a small pot, a compass, one raw egg, and some biltong. The egg needed his immediate attention and closer inspection. Alex gingerly held it before his torch. Under light, the egg shell looked intact.
More important there were no visible or palpable leaks. While squatting he pulled the folded paper from his shirt pocket. Laying out bare the rudimentary pencil scrawled terrain map, Alex studied its content. Without any natural light, neither from the moon nor from the stars finding and identifying a familiar landmark proved difficult. He was no stranger to the bush veld of Western Rhodesia though. For the past four years, as a civilian, Alex operated safaris from his base camp in Bulawayo. That meant he could rely on smell, hearing and his innate senses. A single theme dominated his thoughts: he had to arrive at the collection and extraction point at 06:00. The spot marked 'X' was southwest of the drop zone, about 20 kliks away.
He had two choices: follow the Zambezi River along its banks, or, find dry ground in the bush veld and trek through the savanna. The second option was fraught with danger; the degree of risk was two-fold. With sparse tree cover the shorter route meant that his every step could be tracked by a hungry leopard. A lion pride with a hyena pack on its heels was already on the hunt. He heard the fearsome predators' roars and moans on his descent from the sky.
This was also enemy territory; for sure the rebels had their forward scouts on night patrol. In Salisbury, General Command HQ reported the opposite: the rebels were ensconced in Northern Rhodesia. A fresh offensive on the Matabele lands seemed remote. Disconcerting to Alex though and to other Light Infantry regulars was the veracity of the intel. Defectors often told HQ what they wanted to hear: the rebels were in full retreat. Worrisome too was his M-1 carbine's magazine: it held three cartridges. One bullet he had to save to fire as a distress shot; in case things went awry. Weighing all factors in balance, Alex wisely sought the river's edge. Problem was that he was on the north bank; the opposite side of his destination. However, he would cross that bridge in the allotted time.
Barely two kilometers along the river bank, Alex's ears honed in on a discordant note. The Zambezi's swift current was lapping a solid object; something other than a rock. Aware that crocs could be lurking nearby, Alex ventured knee deep in the murky waters. All the while his torch scanned the vicinity. Soon its bright beam found the target. There was no mistaking the structure and the source of the turbulence. Anchored straight ahead was an aluminum skiff.
At nearly 16 feet, this skiff had all the hallmarks of a poacher operation. Tonight they were careless; the boat should have been dragged ashore and camouflaged with elephant palm leaves. Alex mused. "Maybe the crocs got on top, this time." The Johnson outboard required just one pull; the motor fired but emitted much smoke. The sight of those thick plumes rising heavenward could soon reveal his position to both poacher and enemy fighters alike.
None of that mattered now. Alex charted his course west. In less than two hours, he would make shore; from there it was a short hike to the extraction point. After he started a fire, at long last, Alex would present the hardboiled egg to his handler, Captain (Robbie) Robson. Alex also took solace in the near certainty, that he completed the final leg of the field test. Moreover, by doing so he earned the right of passage to join Rhodesia's famed fighting battalion, The Selous Scouts.