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The Ivory Trail

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The life of the legendary Bvekenya

as told by his son Isak Barnard to Dave Edgcumbe

The continent of Africa has for a long time produced its share of bush stories, some carried down generations, others more recent. Out of this great tapestry of experience are people, who because of circumstances, luck, fortitude or determination, have a greater story, not necessarily good or bad, but exhilarating, entertaining and often inspirational. Some preyed upon Africa’s resources without contrition, whilst in others recognition grew that the bounty of Africa was not endless, and a desire was kindled to conserve and to utilize more responsibly that which was left.

 African stories of the past, made up of adventure, danger and humour are sweet to the ears of the hunter and outdoorsman alike, and if out of experience there is a change for the better, then the story becomes sweeter still.

These are snippets from one such story, probably told and retold many times in the past, but with the etching of time not as well known now.

It concerns one Cecil Barnard who rose to notoriety as an elephant poacher and blackbirder, and if during his life his surname meant little, his Shangaan name of Bvekenya (the one who swaggers when he walks) became legendary in South Africa and the then Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa.

Bvekenya’s life and exploits as a poacher, blackbirder, outdoorsman and perhaps surprisingly for some, a conservationist, were described somewhat romantically by T.V. Bulpin in his book “The Ivory Trail”. Whilst Bulpin’s book is authoritative, we at African Hunting Magazine were indeed fortunate and privileged to talk to one of Bvekenya’s surviving children, Oom Isak Barnard, a grand old man who still lives with his wife on Bvekenya’s original farm in the Western Transvaal. He kindly told us his fathers story and gave us a valuable insight into “the man who swaggers when he walks”.

In the far north of the Kruger National Park lies a triangular piece of bush and riverine forest, bordered in the north by the Limpopo River and in the south by the Luvuhu River. Its apex nestles against the international boundaries of South Africa, Mocambique and Zimbabwe. It was to this area, early in the 20th century that Bvekenya and a mix of colourful characters were drawn, some seeking the solitude of the bush to conduct their activities and others to evade the law. Their common denominator was to be as far away from civilization as possible, and “Crooks Corner” as it became known offered them a sanctuary. It was here that Bvekenya rose to fame, and with Crooks Corner as his base, he operated as an illegal hunter of elephant over vast areas of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia, successfully smuggling his ivory past the law.

The Beginning

Bvekenya, christened Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard by his parents of Scots and mixed Dutch-Irish descent, was born on a farm outside Knysna in 1886. He was there just long enough to be fascinated by tales of elephant hunting in the Knynsa forests before the family relocated to a farm in the Schweizer-Reneke district of the Western Transvaal. Barnard’s father was lured by the offer of cheap land and for a while struggled to make a success of his venture before losing all his cattle to the rinderpest for which there was no cure. The Boer war followed and Barnard Snr. as a resident of the Boer Republic was compelled to serve with the Boer forces. In his absence the farming load fell on Mrs Barnard and the children. Sickened, she apparently died in a concentration camp. Bvekenya struggled to care for his siblings and on his father’s return left to make his way in the world.

After a three year stint with the South African police the lure of the outdoors became too much and remembering boyhood Knynsa elephant stories, Bvekenya resigned, took most of his savings and equipped himself for the bush.

In 1910 he set out with a wagon and donkeys along the Great North Road until Soekmekaar where he turned north-east to Klein Letaba. From Klein Letaba the trail led through Punda Maria, Klopperfontein, Baobab Hill and finally across the Luvuvhu River to Crooks Corner. The hub of Crooks Corner was a store named Makhuleke Store, named after the local Shangaan chief, and owned by Alec Thompson.

After being given advice on elephant hunting by Thompson and another inhabitant, William Pye, Bvekenya set off across the Limpopo River into Portuguese territory, his destination being the Portuguese administrative post of Massangena on the Save River, 150 miles away. Here he wished to obtain a hunting licence for elephant, but his attempts were fruitless as the Portuguese had a closed hunting season. Before leaving Massangena, he noticed an unpleasant Shangaan policeman named Folage who in a sense became instrumental in changing Bvekenya’s life.

Bvekenya travelled up the Save River, thinking to make his way up to Arusha in Tanzania where a cousin, A.A. Pienaar had begun a farming venture. Such a long trip was only prudent once the rains had broken, so Bvekenya established a camp and spent a time learning the ways of the bush. It was in this area according to Bulpin, that Bvekenya met another hunter called Fred Roux who soon went his way after disagreeing about most things. Oom Isak mentioned Fred Roux as a later member of Bvekenya’s party, and that the two of them tamed and ran a herd of eland for milking on the Portuguese side of Crook’s Corner. Fred Roux was caught by the Portuguese police, and despite Bvekenya’s efforts to rescue him, taken to Inhambane where he disappeared and was never heard of again.

Bvekenya’s sojurn on the Save River nearly cost him his life. He was attacked one night by a group of Shangaans led by the policeman Folage, and after a vicious fight succeeded in escaping by blinding the leader in one eye, leaping the thorn stockade and swimming across the crocodile infested river. Nearly naked and all his possessions stolen, Bvekenya set out to walk back to Makhuleke, 150 miles away. Oom Isak in his interview states that his father actually walked to Soekmekaar, considerably further. It was in any event the most amazing display of stamina and courage. Half delirious from sunstroke and fever, possessionless except for a spear that some sympathetic Shangaans had given him, he staggered through the wilderness back to civilization, with a raging desire not only to avenge his misfortune, but to recoup his losses by poaching elephant particularly on the Portuguese side of the border. Gone was the idea to join relatives to the north – that could wait – he needed money and ivory was a valuable commodity, and if during this time he could track down and punish his attackers on the Save River then so much the better.

Bvekenya’s survival and determination to return to the bush after replenishing supplies from his meagre savings in Johannesburg astounded even the most hardened adventurers in Crooks Corner. All predicted his demise or at least capture by the Portuguese police. Bvekenya was unmoved and so began a period of hunting and ivory smuggling which lasted for years.

Ivory and other things

Bvekenya knew that to run a successful ivory smuggling operation he would need the aid of Shangaan tribesmen and his first act on returning to the bush was to find the village of men who had shown him kindness after his attack on the Save River. He found the village, a poor place north of the Save, with the villagers in the last stages of starvation. His gun was their reward and he stayed awhile, supplying them with meat until they regained their strength. They in turn gave him the information he needed to hunt elephants, and his return to Makhuleke with the first load of tusks was something of a celebration. Makhuleke also provided Bvekenya with a degree of security for it was at the beacon where three international boundaries came together that he had a camp. He had prised it loose, and by moving it a few metres could change the country in which the camp was situated.

It was in these early days that Bvekenya first felt the stirrings of a conservation ethic during a trip into Rhodesia via the Lundi River. He was so taken by the multitude of game that had concentrated in an area after rain, that he wrote to the Native Commissioner of Chibi in the Fort Victoria district suggesting the establishment of a transfrontier park.

It would take nearly 100 years before officialdom in South Africa, Mocambique and Zimbabwe would even discuss the matter as a concept.

As time passed Bvekenya’s thoughts were never far from revenge, and with the aid of loyal Shangaan followers he hunted down members of Folage’s gang mostly north of the Save River. His modus operandi was to walk into a village on his own at first light, tie up the culprit/s and administer a thrashing with a hippo hide whip.

News of his activities spread far and wide over the next few months with Rhodesian and Portuguese authorities issuing warrants for his arrest, these apart from warrants for poaching and any other misdemeanour that they could think up.

Shangaan tribesmen on the other hand, from the Limpopo River to north of the Save River viewed him with awe. Was he not a supplier of meat in a land where hunger was a daily reality?

His domination became so absolute that no one would testify against his activities. Sometime later at Makhuleke Bvekenya came face to face with Folage’s second in command, Khambanyane, and with his fists sated his desire for revenge. Khambanyane, as soon as he had recovered sufficiently well reported the matter to the Transvaal police who lost no time in issuing a warrant.

Bvekenya’s poaching activities continued unabated, with his ivory and ivory of others figuratively marking the way of the trail that he had followed on his first journey down to Crooks Corner. No one really knows how many elephants Bvekenya shot during his poaching career.

Bulpin gives a figure of over 300 while Oom Isak is not sure. He ( Oom Isak ) maintains that Bvekenya was very particular about his quarry, ascertaining with his Shangaan trackers the age of the elephant from the dung firstly , and then only shooting it if it was past its prime. Nothing was wasted on the carcass which would be stripped within a few hours by rejoicing tribesmen.

In the vast area in which he operated, between the Limpopo and Save rivers, Bvekenya needed a centralised and permanent camp. He chose an area on the Tshefu River, hidden deep in the bush, to which he and his staff would retire for rest and for the working of skins and the manufacture of wagon whips and sjamboks which were very profitable.

Bvekenya was tough and self-sufficient. He needed few comforts and drew many of his requirements from the bush. His ability to live off a harsh land, often in drought, full of danger and disease and avoid police raids reflects a stamina which is rarely encountered.

Both Bulpin and Oom Isak attest to his fortitude and determination, underpinned by a sense of humour and a likeable personality. Many were his hunting adventures and encounters with wild animals. Many were his attempts to tame animals for human benefit and much thought was given to using the natural resources of Africa rather than the importation and utilisation of alien species.

In about 1912 Bvekenya still interested in joining family in East Africa, travelled by Portuguese coaster up the east coast bound for Malindi, Kenya. According to Oom Isak’s recollection the voyage was taking too long for Bvekenya’s peace of mind. Words must have been exchanged with the captain and Bvekenya was put ashore at Bagamoyo in Tanzania. He walked all the way back to Crooks Corner! What a display of endurance.

If Bvekenya made money from poaching, it was easily surpassed by his illegal recruitment of native labour for mines on the Reef. Blackbirding as it was called attracted the attention of many for there were big profits to be made, often at the expense of the labourers themselves. Blackbirders would recruit from anywhere they could, often enrolling tropical men who had not been acclimatised to the cold conditions on the Highveld. Many died from pneumonia and other diseases. Bvekenya went to great lengths to prevent sickness – he issued warm clothing to each recruit and ensured a slow rate of travel, allowing acclimatisation along the way. His intimate knowledge of the vast areas in which he operated, his secret paths and camps and his sway over the Shangaan people resulted in him becoming the leading recruiter and opposition from other blackbirders diminished.

In 1918 Bvekenya was at Makhuleke visiting William Pye when Rhodesian Police jumped the border and arrested him. He was taken to Fort Victoria and thrown in goal until a local bailed him out. It became clear that the police had little to charge him with until he was fined 5 for shooting a hippo on a trumped-up charge. His fine was paid for and he was lent money for re-provisioning.

On the way home, in typical Bvekenya style he shot elephant and recruited labour on the Rhodesian side of the border to make up for losses and inconvenience.

Bvekenya’s return to Makhuleke confirmed the reason for the Rhodesian Polices’actions. The mines had decided to base a recruiting depot across the Luvuvhu River from Crooks Corner and officialdom were determined to rid the area of illegal recruiters.

It was suggested to Bvekenya that he offer his services to the mines as an official recruiter, provided he could clear his name with the South African Police. At this time his sister Trixie Green was dying and Bvekenya travelled to Johannesburg to see her. An unhappy family reunion followed, as she died before his arrival.

Her husband Billy Green owned a farm near Geysdorp in the Western Transvaal. Green was desperate to leave the farm so Bvekenya looking to the future bought it.

During this period Bvekenya met with mine officials and the police and successfully cleared his name – the police, despite having spent many man-hours trying to arrest him, had no evidence in support of the charges in their files.

And so Bvekenya for a while gained respectability, serving the mines as a recruiter until 1923.

Change

Bvekenya’s marriage to the mines could not last. This was a life too constricting for an independant man who had lived freely for so long. As Oom Isak succinctly put it, in his environment Bvekenya could be the devil or he could be God. And so, back to the bush he went and hunted elephants for the next few years. As police activity against poaching increased, Bvekenya was forced to devise ingenious ways to smuggle his ivory to market.

The old ivory trail was closed down and Bvekenya had some narrow escapes. One by one the characters at Makhuleke disappeared. William Pye died of influenza and even Buck Buchanan, the manager of Makhuleke store moved away. Oom Isak met him later.

Bvekenya was changing. Whilst he hunted only for profit and derived no pleasure from killing, his thoughts turned more and more to the destruction of Africa’s resources and his part in it. In 1929 he tracked a huge elephant, thought to be the fabled Dhlulamithi, and was on the point of firing when filled with compassion he let it go.

This was his turning point – a climactic realisation that he loved Africa and its wildlife which needed to be sustained and used wisely. He had thought about all of this before, but this was the conviction.

Bvekenya retired from the bush and at the age of 43 went to his farm near Geysdorp, married Marie Badenhorst and together had 4 sons and a daughter. He only returned twice to Crooks Corner – once with his son Isak to revisit old memories, and the second time taking the author T.V. Bulpin.

He never went again and spent his remaining years in the Western Transvaal.

Did he miss the old life and how did he feel about the constraints of society? Oom Isak said that he did and that the rigidness of society took some getting used to.

He remembers his father saying that he had walked around the world whilst hunting, and maybe that is why Bvekenya eschewed riding whenever possible, choosing to walk wherever he wanted to go.

He would walk from his farm to the cooperative in Lichtenburg and back, a distance of 260km. He would walk to visit his sister who lived in Viljoenskroon, even further.

Maybe this was his way of remembering the months and years that he walked the Lowveld, of adventures, of loneliness, of triumphs and tribulations.

Bvekenya died in his bed at the age of 76. He is buried on his old farm near Geysdorp where Oom Isak still lives.

On his grave is etched the old ivory trail and next to him lies his wife Maria. The graves are surrounded by lonely thorn trees, and as I stood there contemplating the life of this amazing man I felt humbled and sad that his final resting place cannot echo the rumble of a distant lion, or moan of a hyena carried on the wind.

The Shangaans still wait for Bvekenya. On the Mocambique side of the Save River, it is said that land will not be given for hunting as it is considered Bvekenya’s land.

Dave Edgcumbe holds an advanced  biological sciences degree and is a dedicated hunter, conservationist and outdoorsman.

As a final tribute to Bvekenya, some years ago Oom Isak was in the Mocambique coastal town of Xai-Xai, a considerable distance from his father’s old hunting grounds. To his amazement his presence elicited excitement from a group of young Africans who proclaimed that he was Bvekenya.

They saw the father in the son, and these young Africans, generations later, who never knew Bvekenya , could still recognise the likeness – “the man who swaggers when he walks” .

Click here to watch a video interview with Isak Barnard, son of Bvekenya, himself a living legend.


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