Photo: MarshyPhotography/Shutterstock

Tripping to a Mercenary Ghost Town

by Richard Stupart Aug 23, 2011
Pointing a car at a the possibility of a piece of buried South African history.

“WHAT THE HELL is a Pomfret?” I ask my brother, John.

“It’s not a what. It’s a where.”

It’s a tiny spec of a town in the north of South Africa, near the border with Botswana, he tells me. I hop onto Google Maps and it looks like any other rusty, dusty half spec of a South African dustbowl town. Except that the tar on the roads looks a little funny.

There’s sand all over them. It’s like the place is deserted.

John continues in the background, explaining that the town was a government-provided home for veterans from the war that the old South Africa waged in Angola. The residents were Angolan nationals who worked with the infamous 32 Battalion to infiltrate and eviscerate communists and terrorists in a war for a country that they probably never thought was destined to crumble into a multiracial democracy.

“Focus.” John snaps. I focus.

A mercenary, Simon Mann, apparently recruited a bunch of these ex-soldiers from Pomfret for a coup in Equatorial Guinea, before they were all arrested. In response, there are rumours that the government cut the water to the town and forcibly relocated everyone to different areas of the province. It was a way of making sure that there couldn’t be a mercenary-town that could operate as a dog-of-war supermarket.

I feel a deep-stomach excitement. Try to work out the distance in a car from Johannesburg. “Are the stories true?” I ask.

John shrugs.

I almost don’t care. This rusty, dusty, half spec of a South African dustbowl town has story potential. And that’s just as good, in my view.

“I’ll be up there in mid September. What say we take a weekend to go check it out?”

John confirms too quickly. He knew I wouldn’t be able to resist. Am I so easily read? An interesting piece of history. A bizarre urban landscape. The possibility of a fantastic story. Most combinations of these are justification enough to point a car westward at the first possible opportunity.

Maybe there is something at the end of the long tarmac. Maybe there isn’t. A great road trip is more often than not about the seeking, not the finding. I’d go so far as to say that, sometimes, a road trip needs to have as many unknown future circumstances as possible.

If that wasn’t the case – if I knew what was on the other side – it’d just be transport.

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