Thursday, May 11, 2023

The land that dried up

Michael - Alternate Thursdays

Red sands of the Kalahari

 I'm currently in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a magnificent game reserve that is shared between Botswana and South Africa. Hopefully, when you read this, I will be at the Fish River Canyon in Namibia. I'd hoped to share some pictures and experiences from the trip, but unfortunately the internet access here isn't up to that. Next time. In the meanwhile, here is some background from a blog I wrote more than ten years ago:

The Kalahari is a huge semi-arid area, a sand-filled basin in the west of the southern African subcontinent, covering almost a third of it. The name Kalahari is derived from the Kgalagadi word for 'the land which dried up', 'the dry land' or 'the thirstland'. It doesn’t sound attractive, but desert areas are very special, rich with rare and interesting creatures and plants. And people. The Kalahari is among the last refuges of the Bushman or San peoples.

Bushman with hunting kit

The animals that live there are remarkably adapted to the area. The Springbok – South Africa’s national animal – can live off the arid vegetation in the sand dunes right through the dry winter months without drinking, finding enough moisture in the water-hoarding plants to keep going. The magnificent Cape Oryx (known locally as the Gemsbok) is widely distributed and successful in the Kalahari. There are even elephants who manage to find a living in the desert in Namibia. 

The Kalahari game reserve has an interesting history. The le Riche family has a long relationship with the area. In 1899, Christoffel le Riche and his wife Martie moved just south of the existing reserve. In 1899 their first son Johannes was born, and in 1904 their second son Joseph (later known as Joep).

After considerable excitement but very little action during the first world war – this part of the Kalahari borders what was then German South West Africa - the area was proclaimed as a National Park in 1931. Johannes le Riche became the first game warden. Le Riche and his assistant – Gert Januarie – patrolled the area on horseback. This was not the safest activity in the world because although lions tend to leave humans alone, horses are regarded as fair game. Staying on a horse in full flight from a lion is certainly not something I intend to attempt! (Actually staying on a horse under any circumstances is beyond me.) Nevertheless, although they had many adventures, they survived for three years.

Auob river, dry (as usual)

Their deaths were extraordinary. The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park – as it was then known – is bounded by two rivers the Auob and the Nossob. Auob means ‘bitter water’ and Nossob means ‘dark clay’. The river beds stretch between the sand dunes and calcrete ridges and are natural migration paths for animals, and now roadways for visitors. Subterranean water flows below the surface supporting the acacia trees and other vegetation along their banks. What they don’t do often is flow with water on the surface. That happens about every fifty to a hundred years.  But in 1934 they came down in flood. Johannes and Gert didn’t drown, but they succumbed to malaria in the heart of the Kalahari desert.

Johannes’ brother Joep agreed to become warden on a temporary basis. He stayed for another 36 years. One of his many achievements was to recommission the water holes which had been drilled during the war, thus supplying water points in the beds of the Auob (bitter or not) and Nossob for the animals and so encouraging them to stay in the game reserve. Another was towing my parents’ car back to camp after we had broken down fifty miles up the Nossob road. In those days he knew every visitor and where they were supposed to be. Don’t try it today.

I was eleven at the time. I remember the midnight journey as bumping through a perpetual cloud of the finest grey river dust with almost no visibility. The only highlight was a nocturnal aardvark flashing across the road between the two vehicles.

Joep met many interesting characters and had many tales to tell. 

A few years after that Britain proclaimed a game reserve across the border in Bechuanaland (now Botswana), 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…

I promised an update on the Platinum Rhino Breeding Project auction. When it closed last week, no bids had been received. Some behind-the-scenes negotiations are apparently taking place, but there is really no investment case. So where does that leave the the 2,000 rhinos who live there???  


  1. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, isn't it, Michael?

    1. Absolutely. The old saw about the difference between fiction and biography - the former has to be believable...

  2. Simply the name Kalahari sings out to me, Michael. I should learn to follow the music...but until then look forward to your photos.

  3. Henrik Linnemann-SchmidtMay 13, 2023 at 3:46 AM

    Lucky you, Michael.
    The Kalahari is probably the most fascinating place I have ever been to - 1966-67, working for the vetenary dept. in Gabs. I only wish I could go back once more.
    When I read and translate the Kubu books into Danish, I dream and envision myself back there. And the translation of 'Death of the Mantis' which is the result of the story you tell here, is almost finished.