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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Marumbini Incident-October 1968

Above: My temporary patrol camp at Chilojo, from where I had sent the game scout anti-poaching patrol out.

During the early stage of our wildlife careers, young cadet–game rangers merely boosted ant-poaching patrol numbers, although we were expected to control and delegate. A situation our loyal game scouts seemingly accepted without reservation. If we proved more of a hindrance than an asset, they never made mention of it or grumbled.

Shortly after the last of the isolated kraals of Shangaan’s had been removed from the Gonarezhou, the senior ranger at Chipinda Pools departed for his annual leave, and left me with a fairly demanding program to be carried out in his absence. This included completing the building of an ablution block at the newly demarcated tourist campsite at Chilojo, where I had a temporary base and patrol camp. It was from this camp that I usually deployed the game scouts on patrol.

My diaries from that period show on October 13, 1968, the game scouts returned from patrolling the lower Sabi/Runde River confluence area at Marumbini with three gill-netting fish poachers who they had arrested. The fourth poacher, one Tomaz, had made good his escape while the group slept the night of 12 October in the bush, on the north bank of the Runde River en-route back to my camp at Chilojo.

We kept the apprehended poachers in our camp and on 15 October I handed them over to the BSAP in Chiredzi. After returning to Chilojo on 17 October, myself, Sgt Hlupo, game scout Dofas and game scout Tivani, plus his brother Sam who was my cook, drove back into the Sabi/Runde confluence area. Our plan was to conduct a patrol onto the Sabi River east bank and re-arrest the escaped poacher Tomaz.

His kraal location was already known to game scout Tivani. Tomaz had been fairly clever in his escape on the night of 12 October. At some stage he had observed how Sgt Hlupo kept the handcuff key in his uniform shirt pocket, and due to the heat at that time of the year, before he and his colleagues had gone to sleep, Hlupo hung his shirt over a nearby mopane stump.

Ironically there often seemed to be an element of acceptance between poachers and game scouts once arrests had been made. During the return to base (invariably a fairly long walk), there was constant banter and ongoing discussions between law and lawless alike. They even shared duties such as cooking etc. On this particular occasion it was no different, and having handcuffed their charges individually, game scouts and poachers shared a communal meal before all went to sleep. Except of course the wily poacher Tomaz, who had no intention of going to prison again.

Once the camp had settled down and everyone was asleep Tomaz quietly arose and tiptoed across to where Sgt Hlupo’s shirt hung on the mopane stump. He then removed the handcuff key and fled into the night. Even in the dark, the bush-wise Shangaan tribesmen of Gonarezhou were not in the least intimidated by the prevalence of dangerous game. Once he was a suitable distance downstream from camp, Tomas unlocked and discarded the handcuffs.

Next morning, and much to the consternation of the three game scouts, they noticed Tomaz had absconded. After tracking him for a short while with the other poachers in tow, they found the discarded handcuffs. Of Tomaz there was no sign. It was a subdued and extremely embarrassed patrol that had then arrived at my Chilojo camp on the afternoon of 13 October, their embarrassment more from loss of face than anything else.

On Thursday 17 October 1968 we made our way by Land Rover into the Tomboharta Pan area that lies in the triangle formed by the junction of the Sabi and Runde Rivers. An impressive area of marula trees, grassland, and illala palms, imposing baobabs, and elephant. Once the rains came it changed from ochre dusty dryness and trampled yellow grass to an emerald green carpet of verdant grass, and water teeming with waterfowl. With hindsight, it was here where perhaps I should have been more decisive. Nevertheless, at the time the game scouts felt my conspicuous white skin would jeopardise the exercise if I were seen crossing the Sabi River with them. And as a result, it was decided it would be best if only Sgt Hlupo and Game Scout Tivani crossed the Sabi River in an attempt to re-arrest Tomaz.

Above: A section of Tomboharta Pan at the time about which I write.

Our temporary base was in a well-hidden area of reed beds and riverine trees on the Runde River, just upstream from the confluence. As soon as the late afternoon sun was on the wane, Sgt Hlupo and Tivani departed the camp, leaving behind Dofas, Sam, and myself. Both game scouts were wearing their normal khaki uniform shorts, although they had removed their uniform shirts, kepi’s, boots, and puttees. In place of shirts, they were wearing white vests. Our main concern at this early stage was that if the game scouts were recognised when crossing the Sabi River, Tomaz would be warned and flee to Mozambique. However, at that early stage of proceedings we had all anticipated a speedy end to an inconvenient glitch in our patrol program.

Keeping well hidden in view of our proximity to the human habitation on the Sabi River’s east bank, we refrained from lighting a fire. As a result, it wasn’t long after sunset before the three of us were forced into the confines of the Land Rover cab by swarms of mosquitoes. Sam and Dofas eventually decided to get into the back of the vehicle, where they huddled under their blankets. This left me to stretch out as best I could across the front seat. There was elephant and hippo movement all around us, with hyena vocalising off to our north.

Eventually, I managed to fall asleep, but not for long. At about 22h30 Sam’s banging on the vehicle cab woke me up. He claimed he and Dofas could hear shouting. So, we stood listening. Ears cocked against the wind. And sure enough, emanating from in the far distance to our north along the Sabi River’s west bank was the periodic sound of a distinct human shout. It was loud but far off and getting cut short by the wind that had by picked up by then, ridding us of the annoying mosquitoes.

As we continued listening the shouting was repeated. Slightly closer, and sounding desperate in tone. Sam, my cook, immediately became agitated, and began to fidget out of concern for his brother Tivani. Climbing back into the Land Rover I started the engine and turned the vehicle around. With it facing north and the headlights on bright, I blew the horn every few minutes. The calling in the distance continued, all the while drawing closer. Soon, Sam and Dofas were able to identify the voice as that of Sgt Hlupo. And within minutes he had staggered into the beam cast by the vehicle headlights. His clothing was in tatters, and he looked in total shock, perspiring heavily. Slumping down, he called for water before exclaiming in a rush, ‘Tivani is dead, and Tomaz killed him!’.

Above: The indomitable Sgt Hlupo in one of our patrol base camps.

This disquieting news and the manner in which it was delivered, caused Sam to moan loudly in anguish before collapsing to the ground alongside Hlupo. Due to the state of shock Sgt Hlupo was in, trying to find out exactly what happened wasn’t easy. He had experienced a traumatic incident on the east bank of the Sabi River, and had also become disoriented in the pitch dark during his attempt to get back to us. This led to him spending a few hours dodging hippo and elephant, unarmed, and on his own. That alone, says something about the dedication and loyalty of the Shangaan game scouts of that era.

After he had drunk his fill of water, Hlupo told us what had happened. He and Tivani had crossed the Sabi River without mishap or compromise. After finding their way through the mass of tangled brush and reeds that grew along the riverbank, they had eventually found a network of footpaths. At this point they had rested and discussed their plan of action. It being that once they had arrived at Tomaz’s kraal Tivani would enter alone. And if only women were present, he would ask for water and use the cover story that he was making his way to the gold mines of South Africa (an acceptable cover given many Shangaan tribesmen worked as contract labourers on the South African goldfields).

Without knowing if Tomaz would be there or not, the game scouts could plan no further than this initial approach. Just before Tivani entered the kraal Hlupo crept into the thick bush on the outskirts, and sat down to watch and wait. Despite it being almost dark he had a good view of both the kraal and all approaches. Tivani then brazenly walked in amongst the cluster of huts and found Tomaz’s wife bent over the fire preparing the evening meal. He greeted her as was custom and after she had returned the greeting, the game scout made small talk. So as not to arouse suspicion Tivani spoke about going south to work on the gold mines, and mentioned that a colleague of his knew her husband, and had requested that he look out for him. She remained shy and non-committal continuing with her chores alongside the fire.

In the meantime, Sgt Hlupo suddenly heard a person approaching the kraal through the bush. In describing this to us Hlupo described it phonetically as him having heard ‘cho cho cho’ as the person’s feet crunched over the dry leaf matter. Without being seen Hlupo recognised the person passing his hiding place as Tomaz. He was carrying a hunting bow, traditional axe, and a dead cane rat slung over his shoulder. Tomaz walked straight up to the fire and demanded of his wife who the stranger was. At which point Tivani spun around, grabbed Tomaz, and snapped the handcuffs around his wrists. At the same time identifying himself and informing Tomaz that he was being re-arrested following his escape on the night of 12 October.

While Tivani was still identifying himself to Tomaz, the poacher’s wife suddenly bent down and lifted a heavy burning mopane log from the fire. And then with all her strength she forced it into the small of the game scout’s back. Shouting in alarm and agony, Tivani spun around to protect himself from this woman gone crazy. By doing this, he gave Tomaz opportunity to grab his recently dropped axe, and with a heavy blow he drove the blade into the base of Tivani’s skull. The severely injured game scout immediately collapsed across the burning fire.

It was at this point, Hlupo, who had witnessed the happenings leapt from cover and shouted, ‘Tomaz, you have killed a government game scout and for this you will surely hang!’ Showing his utter contempt, Tomaz raised his voice and shouted to the neighbouring kraals that he needed help to chase the dreaded ‘Mabunu’ (derogatory term for representatives of the white government, the word originates from South Africa). In next to no time, a horde of angry Shangaan tribesmen carrying bows, knobkerries, and accompanied by their dogs converged on Tomaz’ kraal. They then chased Sgt Hlupo into the dark, and shouting death threats pursued him all the way across the Sabi River. As the terrified game scout sergeant fled west, he became disoriented and only after he was sure he had shaken his pursuers off did he start calling out in the dark. At the same time, moving and stopping periodically to beat a stone against tree trunks in order to warn elephant of his presence.

After Hlupo had told us his story, I again asked him if he was sure Tivani was dead, and he replied in the affirmative. Realising we had a serious crisis on our hands, I decided to try and cross the shallow Sabi River by vehicle and find Tivani. Dead or alive. We set out with Hlupo willingly walking in front of the Land Rover and Sam standing on the back with Dofas. By then it was well past midnight and our attempt to cross the river was an exercise in futility. Reed banks, water channels, and dense riverine bush thwarted our every effort, and at 03h00 we found we had driven in a complete circle and were back at our starting point. I then called it off, and we settled down to await first light, at which point we crossed on foot and found our way to the kraal where the attack had taken place.

Upon entering it a strange sight greeted us. Sitting on a chair across the fire from us was a solemn, regal looking old Shangaan. He was wearing a sweat stained pith helmet, and a heavy grey trench coat. His arms were hidden from view in the folds of the coat as he sat staring at the glowing embers in the fire. He hardly even acknowledged our arrival. Lying alongside of him on the ground not far from the smouldering embers was a blanket covered form. It was distinctly human and lying on its side, knees drawn up, the head totally covered. It was motionless, with no sign of life from beneath the blanket.

Hlupo and Sam greeted the old man on the chair but he barely nodded, preferring to continue staring at the fire. Kneeling next to the wrapped form, I grasped the edge of the blanket and pulled it back. The sight that met my eyes wasn’t a pretty one. Tivani lay with his eyes closed, his head and upper body horrifically scorched. The hair on his head and moustache had been singed away. Gently squeezing his shoulder, I spoke to him and in response he moaned quietly. Pulling the blanket further away from his body I was appalled at the extent of his burns. The base of his skull showed a gaping axe wound, and it was with a profound sense of relief we had found him alive, but for how long we didn’t know. Sgt Hlupo managed to elicit from the old man that he had been attracted to the scene by the noise of the altercation from the night before. However, he arrived after the assault on Tivani, and after Sgt Hlupo had fled the scene. In the immediate aftermath too, Tomaz’ and his wife had also fled the scene.

Rolling Tivani away from the flames, the old man had covered him with the blanket retrieved from a hut. He then spent the night sitting watching over him. It appeared the old man was a retired chief’s messenger or similar. His actions had undoubtedly saved Tivani’s life, although the stricken game scout was still a long way from being out of danger. Following a hasty discussion, we decided to leave Tivani in the care of his brother, Sam, while Hlupo, Dofas, and myself attempted to apprehend Tomaz. After casting around for spoor the game scouts headed south down river towards Mozambique. We moved quickly, but each isolated kraal we came to was deserted, aside from the odd surly old woman. I began to have reservations about ever finding Tomaz, and was quite sure he had sought sanctuary in the remoteness of neighbouring Mozambique.

Moving on we soon noticed the kraals were becoming further apart. Whenever we found humanity we were met with barely concealed contempt and sullen hostility. Although I was carrying my rifle, I soon began to feel it was time we terminated the follow up because I was deeply concerned about Tivani’s well-being. However, and being young, I was easily influenced by the game scouts determined vengeance for their fellow officer.

Suddenly, we rounded some huts set amidst a grove of mango trees, and there, sitting on the ground alongside the fire, still manacled from when Tivani had attempted to re-arrest him, was Tomaz. He was smoking a cigarette in hand rolled newsprint and offered no resistance at being re-arrested. Both Hlupo and Dofas immediately gave him a severe kicking, and beating with their truncheons and fists before hauling him to his feet. We then pushed him along in front of us, back towards where we had just come from.

There was no sign of his wife. The game scouts informed me Tomaz had relaxed once inside Mozambique, probably thinking we wouldn’t cross the border. Something I had no way of verifying since the border cut line was hardly discernible and we carried no maps. After we got back to Tivani and Sam, I took Dofas with me, and after re-crossing the Sabi River on foot we returned with the vehicle and carefully loaded a semi-conscious Tivani. And with slightly more energy, Tomaz. Upon our eventual arrival back at Chipinda Pools HQ, the station game scouts and their wives, expressing shock and anger at what had happened to Tivani, collectively attacked Tomaz who cowered from the blows under a bicycle in the back of the vehicle. Moving on to Chiredzi we dropped Tivani off at the hospital and took Tomaz to the BSAP station, where he was booked into jail.

According to my diaries, Tivani was only released from the Chiredzi hospital on November 8, 1968, although he never fully recovered from the assault. In time too, I heard he had eventually been pensioned out of the department on medical grounds. Tomaz duly appeared in court in Fort Victoria (Masvingo) where game scout Sgt Hlupo, the Chipinda Pools senior ranger John Osborne, by then back from his annual leave, and myself were present. Hlupo outdid himself in giving evidence. Immaculately dressed in his starched uniform and kepi, he vacated the witness box to re-enact the incident. At one stage stalking around the courtroom bent over at the waist and saying ‘cho cho cho’ to describe how Tomaz had approached the kraal, across the dry leaf matter on that fateful night in late 1968. Tomaz was duly sentenced to five years for GBH.

An incorrect story about the assault on game scout Tivani appeared in Colin Saunders 2006 book Gonarezhou A Place For Elephant. In it, the author writes that the notorious ivory poacher Shadreck (later romanticised in a book by ex Gonarezhou warden Ron Thompson) attacked a Chipinda Pools game scout Tiwone, on an island in the Sabi River. Shadreck reputedly then covered the game scout with grass and set him on fire. The injured game scout’s unnamed patrol partner purportedly then ran to Chipinda Pools where the senior ranger rallied his men.

Saunders version differs considerably from the true events which I have described in the above narrative, and is somewhat lacking in facts. I am not sure where he got his information from, however, game scout Tivani was certainly not assaulted by the ivory poacher Shadreck at all. His assailant was a low-profile poacher called Tomaz, who lived on the east bank of the Sabi River. Granted, Tomaz already had about three previous convictions for poaching, but they were all for illegal gillnetting, and when he did hunt, he snared, or used a bow, and was normally accompanied by three or four dogs.

Above: Game Scout Tivani at left, would eventually be medically boarded out of the department following his assault by poacher Tomaz.

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