Sitting on the veranda of the restaurant at Sinamatella Camp in Hwange National Park it is difficult to ignore the silence of the landscape. Beneath us, the great sweep of open bush stretches far into the blue haze of the distance. A dry riverbed cuts through the land: earlier this morning lions were seen drinking from one of the tiny remaining pools of water, but they are long gone. The heat of the day is characterised by the sound of pods snapping open and the skittish movements of skinks through dead leaves and grass. Dassies play in the trees and on the rocks; otherwise, all is quiet. A scan of the area reveals nothing but a kite gliding slowly through the sky.
I remember a quote from Doris Lessing: ‘Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, like other creatures, in a larger landscape.’ For many of the men who left Europe in the late nineteenth century in search of fortune and fame, Africa was a canvas on which to paint their dreams; they came to make of it what they wanted; to mould it into their own expectations. In the Hwange area, no one has left more of a mark of his aspirations than Herbert G Robins.
Mzilikazi, the King of the Ndebele, originally set aside the Hwange district for his royal hunting ground. However, the arrival of the colonists in the latter part of the nineteenth century saw the wildlife greatly denuded through rampant and uncontrolled hunting. It was then divided into farmland, but the area’s fine Kalahari sand and poor rainfall was unsuitable for agriculture. An English prospector and trader, Robins had travelled widely in Southern Africa. After failing to enlist for World War I he invested £10,000 in ‘Little Tom’s Spruit’, in what is now the northern part of Hwange National Park. Having bought the property sight unseen, he was initially very disappointed with his purchase, finding the land barren, the farm remote and the road connecting it to Wankie town horrendous to use.
Nevertheless, he stayed on and farmed an extensive herd of cattle. He made leather from giraffe and cattle skins, using salt from the pans to cure the hides he sold in Wankie town. Essentially a lonely man, the situation of the farm suited his reclusive nature and he very rarely left his property. One visitor described him as having an ‘apprehensive spirit’, as a fence barricaded his house and he kept a pack of fierce Great Dane dogs, which attacked him on one occasion, nearly killing him.
Although initially wary of visitors, once he had made their acquaintance he often enjoyed their company and wanted them to stay, entertaining them with colourful stories of his experiences… leading an expedition to find tin deposits in the Belgian Congo and prospecting for gold, diamonds and other precious minerals in Angola. He had even executed a murderer. A visiting farmer, J. Cumming, found himself forced to extend his stay with Robbins by two extra nights, recording how ‘he clung to my company with the tenacity of a bulldog’.
Travelling round his farm with an enormous flask of tea, Robins often forgot to eat, but at home ordered meals with little regard for the time of day. Periodically, he would indulge his taste for whisky to excess. Such times were recorded by the hundreds of bullet holes in his doors.
Eventually Robins tired of cattle ranching and decided to keep game. He dealt ruthlessly with poachers and severely beat his staff if he discovered they’d been setting traps. Despite his hermetic existence, he eventually cleared sixty kilometres of roads so visitors could come to his farm to view game.
By 1928, the Rhodesian government had begun plans to create Wankie Game Reserve. Robins, one of the few farmers left in the district, was determined to hang onto his farm and resisted the government’s urge to incorporate his land into the reserve. Indeed, his private reserve was more popular than Wankie, seeing three hundred visitors a year by 1932.
By 1933 Robins, increasingly suffering from illness and fatigue, was tiring of the constant stream of tourists and the detrimental effects of having them on his land. After seeking legal advice, he made the decision to bequeath his land to the Rhodesian government after his death. In return, they covered the expenses for him to build a new home. The house, which now comprises the National Parks’ office at Robins Camp, is unusual in that it is a tall tower, designed to provide a vantage point from where to look out for poachers and lazy farm labourers.
Today the tower houses the H.G. Robins Memorial Museum. It is stuffy and dusty and looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for fifty years. Various yellowing notices in frames tell the story of the man who once lived here. Photographs show a gruff, unsmiling man with a huge beard looking suspiciously at the camera. Remnants of his life litter the room: a tin bath, a decaying writing desk, a gun and a telescope. A rickety flight of steps leads to the top of the tower where a swallow has built a nest above the door. We tread carefully on the boards, certain that at any moment we will crash through them into the museum below. Up here is a large map table, the sides marked with the bearings of various places of interest to Robins. Whichever way you look, the bush stretches out into eternity.
Robins died in 1939; his grave is located just outside the entrance to Robin’s Camp. He was undoubtedly a controversial figure. He could be extremely generous and he could be very hard. He wanted to be alone, yet longed for the company of others. For years after his death, his staff and their families would leave beer on his grave, believing that if they pleased him it would rain – and it did. This assimilation of an Englishman into the African ancestral belief system is perhaps the greatest proof of his status within the community. It is hoped that his ardent desire to preserve the game of this area will live on.
Text and Photography by Bryony Rheam.
Bryony Rheam is the author of This September Sun (2009). She lives in Bulawayo with her partner and their two children. Her latest novel, All Come to Dust, will be published this year.