Africa Hinterland, which was set up as a genuine safari travel company, was a front for Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the A.N.C. The company produced a handsome sales brochure, ran slide shows on the scenic attractions of overlanding in Africa and organized visas and vaccinationsall geared to appeal to young backpackers, mainly Australians, New Zealanders and some South Africans looking for something different out of London. A Bedford truck was bought with $120,000 in A.N.C. cash, converted into an all-purpose safari wagon that would ferry up to 20 passengers and shipped to the Kenyan port of Mombasa to await the first tour group.
What the customers didn't know was that in the course of the conversion, the truck had been fitted with secret compartments under the seats. The hiding places were designed by Rodney Wilkinson, another A.N.C. activist-in-exile, who had been responsible for placing limpet mines at South Africa's Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town. The drivers were volunteer members of Britain's Anti-Apartheid Movement. When they took the truck in for "servicing" in Lusaka, Zambia, the arms and ammunition, carefully packaged to avoid detection by sniffer dogs at the South African border, were concealed in the compartments. In South Africa, A.N.C. agents collected the weapons and distributed them to underground MK cells throughout the country. It is not known how they were used, though up to 20,000 South Africans of all races were killed in political violence in the 1980s and early '90s.
In its nine years of operation Africa Hinterland Safaris made some 40 trips into South Africa, but the hidden arms operation was never uncovered. Mannie Brown didn't even tell his own family about it until six years ago. "When I got over the surprise, I recognized immediately the potential this story had for a powerful documentary film," says David Brown, who was also an A.N.C. member-in-exile and taught at the group's school in Tanzania before studying film and TV in Canada. In 1998 Brown and Australian co-producer Sally Browning traced the original Bedford truck, which was taken out of service in 1993. Rescuing it from a Pretoria junkyard, they put it back on the road to make their film. They also tracked down people involved in the London front company, as well as the drivers and South Africans who worked underground for the A.N.C. Londoner Jenny Harris, who managed Africa Hinterland Safaris, says she often thought about the morality of using the young travelers "sitting on a powder keg." But she also convinced herself that "in the end, the end justifies the means.'' Says Mannie Brown, now 74 and living in London: "The passengers had a good time and they got a bloody good deal, far cheaper than any of the others. Now I think perhaps we owe them an apology."
The documentary makers tracked down some of the original tourists and told them the real purpose of the overland safaris. Some were speechless with disbelief. Others were supportive. "If I'd known [what they were doing] and they were offering another trip, I probably would have gone on it and joined in, who knows?" said South African passenger Lucille Frauenstein. Observed Australian Misha Coleman: "It's probably one of the best things I did. If it was a contributing factor to apartheid being overturned, I'm very glad." Whatever the A.N.C.'s secret safari plan achieved, it will be remembered by many as a traveler's tale with an intriguing twist.