Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Last Days of Hans Schwabe

Last week I wrote about the Kalahari and the Le Riche family who became synonymous with the management of the new national park proclaimed there in 1931.  A few years after that Britain proclaimed a game reserve across the border in Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and Joep le Riche was given the game management of that also.  A very small group protected a huge area of semi-desert. Even in the apartheid years, the two countries co-operated there.  There was no choice.

Botswana became independent and relations cooled for many years.  There was even talk of a fence along the border between the two game reserves which would have been disastrous; game must be able to move long distances to search for food in this type of environment.  Cooler heads prevailed and the fence was never built.  Three years after the democratic elections in South Africa, the two countries proclaimed the first cross-border park: the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, an area of fifteen thousand square miles, jointly managed, and allowing visitors to move around freely across the international border within the park just as the animals do. 
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Going back to the fifties when I first visited the area, Joep le Riche was keeping a firm hand on the South African area and a firm eye on what would become the Botswana Gemsbok National Park.  At that time no diamonds had been discovered in Botswana, although there is a story that De Beers knew about one of the deposits and kept it quiet until after independence, perhaps out of concern that such potential wealth might derail the independence process.  But lots of people were looking around, convinced that the rich alluvial diamond deposits of the Atlantic coast to the west had to have come from somewhere in the interior.

One such man was a German geologist from South West Africa named Hans Schwabe.  He regularly traveled through the south of the Kalahari park and sometimes visited Joep le Riche on the way.  On the afternoon of 20th October 1958, he joined Joep for coffee but the conversation took a strange turn. What did Joep think of the possibility of finding diamonds in the Kalahari? Hans inquired.  Would it be possible to get permission to do some prospecting?  Joep laughed.  Stories of a diamond bonanza in the Kalahari were nothing but fables and rumors.  He had lived there all his life and seen nothing.  As for prospecting, it was strictly forbidden in a national park.

Windmill water pump along a dry river
Shortly after that Hans took his leave.  He drove off towards South West Africa as Joep expected, but shortly after leaving the camp he hid his car in the bushes and waited.  When there was no sign of anyone following, he carefully cut across to the Nossob road, heading north along the Botswana border.  At Kwang Pan he parked his car and headed into the veld.

A day later the Bechuanaland police phoned Joep to tell him that an abandoned car had been found.  They didn’t have the manpower to search for the occupants and he agreed to do so.  With his son, two constables and a Bushman tracker, Joep set out on the Nossob road.  As soon as he saw the car he recognized Hans Schwabe’s Oldsmobile.  They got out and looked around.

There were a number of curious things.  There was a note from Hans which read: “No water for the car, no water for myself, no food, follow this road.  Monday 8am. H Schwabe.”  Two sets of tracks led from the car and one led back - apparently Schwabe had started out, returned, and left again.  Joep checked the radiator.  It was full.  And water was at Rooikop, 10 miles south.  Why was Hans walking north?

The group started following the second set of tracks away from the car.  Soon they climbed out of the river bed and continued along the calcrete ridge.  The trackers spotted signs of prospecting – rocks chipped, sand sieved.  “He is digging his own grave,” said Joep.  “We must hurry; soon the sun will set.”

Shortly after that they came to a high point and in the distance they saw a tree in which a vulture sat.  Under the tree they found the remains of Hans Schwabe, his body already mutilated by predators.  There was nothing to do, and he was on the Bechuanaland side of the border.  They agreed that it was best to bury the body right there.  They did so, covering it with a cairn of stones.   Joep scratched the words: “Here lies Hans Schwabe.  Died 22.10.58.” Then they left him to the desert.

The grave of Hans Schwabe
We first heard this story from our friends in Kasane, then again from Jill Thomas at Berrybush Farm in the southern Kalahari. We finally found the above account (in Afrikaans) in the book Gee My ‘n Man! by Hannes Kloppers published in 1970.  It’s an intriguing story leaving many questions unanswered.  What was Schwabe looking for along the banks of the dry Nossob River?  Diamonds indicators would be in the river.  Why did he pretend to be out of water when such was obviously not the case, and why did he return to the vehicle and then leave again?  How did he become disoriented so soon and then die so quickly with help not far away? Was he attacked by lions?  If so, why were they not on their kill?

As Stanley and I pondered the tale, we started seeing an idea for a mystery…

Michael – Thursday.

PS  Speaking of mysteries, Strand Magazine has announced the winners of their competition to provide an ending to their Graham Greene novella THE EMPTY CHAIR.  Seems it's some character by the name of Michael Stanley...


  1. Congratulations on the win! And thank you for bringing me back to the gorgeous Kalahari.

  2. Congratulations on winning the contest.

    I am really looking forward to the third Kubu book and I think it would be a terrific story if Kubu had to the opportunity to solve an mystery like the death of Hans Schwabe.


  3. Thanks for the congratulations! And, yes, Kubu has some old and new bodies to explain in the Kalahari...

  4. Another well done from me chaps. Never in doubt eh?

    Great, intriguing story too. What theories are there to what happened to hans?


  5. Congratulations on the win and on fascinating everyone who's read your blog! I can't wait to read Michal Stanley's undoubtedly definitive story on the fate and fortune (denied) of Hans Schwabe.

  6. Thanks Dan, Jeff.

    As to Hans, one can only speculate. The detailed story is that as Joep followed his tracks he noticed that Hans was becoming more erratic in his path. It usually takes two or three days without water to induce confusion of the sort he was exhibiting. This was only a day later and there was no reason for him to go without water in any case. Perhaps sunstroke, but he was an experienced explorer and it is very unlikely that he would have spent the heat of the day walking in the sun. There was no sign of large predators. Could he have eaten something poisonous? Why? He wouldn't have been that hungry or stupid. Maybe his mind was disturbed before he headed into the desert?
    But, in any case, if you wander off into the desert on your own, you are - as Joep said - digging your own grave...