I mentioned before how powerful it can be to navigate in close country particularly at night. What I didn’t tell you is that the power usually eluded me, and soon you will understand why.
After plenty of lead-up training on navigation theory they took us out into the bush for a navex (navigation exercise) by day, and by night. Eek!
The 15-year-old platoon commander showed up in his immaculate new greens. He was of slight build and he wore a cravat. It was actually a sweat rag that most blokes draped around their necks to soak up the sweat and to stop small leaves, twigs and other debris from falling down the back of your neck when negotiating thick country, but he crossed his in front of his neck and tucked it into his shirt. Maybe he thought he was Audey Murphy, come to think of it he looked a little bit like him, only younger.
“OK men, today we put our navigation theory into practice. You will be dropped off at 500 metres intervals with a list of checkpoints you must find. If you get lost move south to the road and wait, someone will come along to pick you up. The navex will finish at 1600 hours, if you are not at a checkpoint at about this time move south to the road and wait. Are there any questions?”
“Are there any fucking questions?”
We were in teams of three. We had water and a ration pack but no radio or panic alarm to summon a chopper if things went belly up. This was life or death stuff – but we could handle it.
They gave us some maps and a compass; and dropped us off in the middle of nowhere.
Stretch, a tall guy from Tasmania should have gone to officer training because he tried to take control of our group by suggesting that someone should climb a tree to see if we could see anything. We agreed, and he was outnumbered.
Soon Stretch was clambering up a tree trying to catch any clues as to where we were. All he could see was trees.
We all agreed that the maps were fucked and the bastards had dropped us off somewhere that wasn’t on the map. So we moved off the road into the scrub, sat down, had a brew and a bite to eat.
An hour or so later we decided to move north because it was too early to go south.
It was a beautiful day and there were plenty of kangaroos around.
Soon we spotted another group of soldiers about 100 metres away. We could see they had their maps out and were following their compass bearing. Were they from our course?
Then we spotted the checkpoint so over we went, looking really confident.
The sergeant asked to see our checkpoint list. He studied it for a minute and said, “Did you boys have any trouble finding us?”
“No not really sarge. Stretch here is officer material, we gave him his head.”
“This checkpoint isn’t one of yours.”
The sergeant informed us, “You boys have come too far north, this is where you are,” as he pointed to a spot on our map.
We chatted for a few more minutes and set off.
Bewdy, we were on the map, and more importantly we knew exactly where we were. How good’s that? We may have this navex thing licked. We headed south for a couple of hundred metres and stopped for a brew, some food and a snooze.
This navex is tough shit.
We made a group decision. We’d better show up at one of our checkpoints or they’d think we were a bunch of idiots. Wait a minute, they probably think that already. Anyway, the last thing we wanted was for them to worry about us and initiate a search party only to find us taking it easy, so we studied the map.
We measured two hundred metres south from the other platoon’s checkpoint, checked the co-ordinates of our closest checkpoint and we quickly realised that it was only 400 metres away on a small knoll.
We calculated the grid bearing, did the adjustment for grid to magnetic variation, set our compass and off we strode.
Soon we were at one of our checkpoints. We can’t show the NCOs we are enjoying this so we stagger in as if we are buggered and really pissed off.
“Aha. Who said team number seven was lost? Hello boys, been having a tough day have we?”
“We would have been here sooner but Stretch was too scared to come down outa the tree, he’s scared of heights.”
“OK Boys, well done. Have you worked out your nav data sheet for the next checkpoint?”
We strode off quickly before he asked to see it.
I dunno in which direction we went, the compass was still set at the old bearing and we pretended it was telling us the way to go.
At 300 metres we stopped for another brew and snooze. We were getting low on coffee.
At just after 1500 hours we moved south to the road. A couple of the other teams were on the side of the road. In all we probably walked only a couple of kilometres, and by the look of the others they hadn’t walked much further.
“You blokes got any coffee?”
“No mate, we’re all out.”
Soon a truck came by and took us to our night location. They had a fire and we were given a hot meal. We laughed and joked as we were in high spirits. The NCOs thought we were idiots.
“Youse blokes can’t even find a couple of checkpoints in fairly open scrub, what will you do when we get to the really thick stuff?”
“That’s easy corporal, we’ll follow you.”
Soon the boss showed up. Maybe I was a little off about his age. 17 was probably closer to the mark.
“OK men,” he said with his best Audey Murphy stance with hands on hips, “I see some of you had a few problems finding the checkpoints today. I guess navigation is not as easy as you blokes thought, ey?”
He’s a bloody Queenslander!
“Tonight will be harder. You will combine three teams into one group, each of nine men. You will be allowed to carry a torch for safety but use it wisely; I don’t want to see any Batman signals going up into the night sky, ey?”
He’s definitely from Queensland.
We chuckled to give him some confidence. He went on, “You will be taking a route either west or east of this main road, if you get lost all you have to do is go east or west back to the road and wait. Are there any questions?”
“Are there any fucking questions?”
Soon we are into it, literally. It is so bloody dark I can’t see my face in front of my hand.
To save us from getting lost we tied ourselves together. We were expecting the fairly light terrain we had during the day, but here in the dark, it was hilly and we faced a veritable wall of vegetation. Imagine a chain gang of soldiers tied together trying in vain to navigate though, impenetrable jungle.
We bashed our way along on some bearing according to the compass that someone up front possessed. Bearing? My guess is it was set to ‘find thick jungle’.
We were falling over and laughing while trying to be quiet. This was impossible. After about an hour we covered 100 metres.
The laughter was gone and we were sweating profusely. Someone shone the torch around. Nothing but thick shit everywhere. It was less scary with the torch off.
Smithy let out a scream. Have I told you about Smithy? He was from the Central Coast of NSW. He drove to Townsville in his lowered white HD Holden wearing out both back tyres in the process. With the lowered car and with a couple of blokes on board with their Army gear the tyres were rubbing on the inner guards every time the HD bottomed out on those undulating Queensland roads. He was a larrikin.
“Shit Smithy’s been bitten by something.”
The torch went on, “it’s a bloody stinging tree, ey.”
Another bloody Queenslander.
“When you brush up against the leaves they leave tiny thingies on your skin that can be really painful, ey?”
“I’ve heard that there’s a flower at the base of the tree. You squeeze the flower and rub the juice onto the sting to ease the pain.”
“I bet you’re from Canberra.”
We went east or west to the road, and then back to the big fire at the night location. Another team was already there. They had completed their task. We didn’t believe them.
The medic put some stuff on Smithy’s arm. We stood around with our hands in our pockets, told a few lies about how good we were in civie street; and then we went to bed.
Day/night navex completed. Box ticked.
Reproduced with permission from FUN, FEAR, FRIVOLITY – A tale by an Aussie infantry soldier in the VIETNAM WAR. If you can’t wait, read more of this story now – or wait out while we reproduce it on these pages.
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