The last days of Hans Schwabe


The huge Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – the setting of much of the book – straddles the South African/Botswana border in the far south of Botswana. It began modestly with the proclamation of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa in 1931. From then on, a family, called Le Riche, became synonymous with the management of the new national park. A few years later, when Britain proclaimed a game reserve across the border in Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Joep Le Riche was asked to manage that also.

Thus, a very small group of men protected a huge area of semi-desert. Even in the apartheid years, the two countries co-operated. There was no choice.

When Michael first visited the area as a child in the 1950s, Joep Le Riche was keeping a firm hand on the South African area and a keen eye on what would later become the Botswana Gemsbok National Park.

At that time no diamonds had been discovered in Botswana, although there is a rumour that De Beers knew about at least 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 (now Namibia) named Hans Schwabe. He regularly travelled through the south of the Kalahari Gemsbok National
Park and sometimes visited Joep Le Riche on the way. On the afternoon of 20th October 1958, he joined Joep for coffee as he often did at his home at Twee Rivieren – the gateway to the area, where two large, dry rivers meet. However the conversation took a strange turn. What did Joep think of the possibility of finding diamonds in the Kalahari? Hans enquired. 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 rumours. He had lived there all his life and seen nothing. As for prospecting, it was strictly forbidden in a national park. He went on to tell Hans that he had recently evicted a prospector from the area. He was particularly scandalized that the man was on horseback. To lions, horses are prey. Hans feigned a lack of interest.

Shortly after that Hans took his leave. He drove off along the Auob river bed towards South West Africa as Joep expected, but shortly after leaving the camp he hid his car in a clump of blue pea 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 to prospect for diamonds.

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 recognised it as 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. Joep checked the radiator. It was full. Water was at Rooikop, 15 km south. But by the tracks, Hans had walked 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. 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.” The grave can be seen to this day.

We first heard this story from our friends Peter and Salome Comley in Kasane, then again from Jill Thomas at Berrybush Farm. A friend who enjoys following the trails of the old explorers through Namibia and Botswana – Wulf Haake – showed us the above account (in Afrikaans) in the book Gee My ‘n Man! by Hannes Kloppers published in 1970 and long out of print. It’s an intriguing story leaving many questions unanswered. What were these lone prospectors looking for along the dry Nossob River? Why did Schwabe pretend to be out of water when such was obviously not the case? 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? And another conundrum. The accounts differ in some respects but all put the date of the visit to Joep on the 20th or 21st of October, while the note said ‘Monday 8am’. Yet the 20th October was itself a Monday.

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