• Kev Thomas Writes

Where it All Started - A Rhodesian Boyhood on a river called Sabi

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

In Zimbabwe they call it the Save River, (pronounced sarve and meaning sand), during my youth in pre-Zimbabwe colonial Rhodesia it was called Sabi and that’s how I prefer to remember it. For a bush mad boy growing up along that river was truly paradise. I first started fishing along the pools and backwaters near the Chibuwe Irrigation Scheme’s LDO’s camp (Land Development Officer’s). At the time my late dad, Des Thomas, was the LDO. The river at that point was nearly 1km wide and during the mid-winter months we were able to cross it without any problems because it was mostly only ankle deep. Granted, there were deeper channels but they could be avoided by simply moving up or down the river bed.

Those deep channels and the still backwaters afforded great angling for bream and catfish. My first rod given me for a birthday present is still vivid in my mind. It was a 6’ 6”’ yellow fibre glass rod with a cork handle, the reel was a spinning reel or what was referred to as a ‘coffee-grinder’. My dad filled the reel with light 3lb nylon line and when fishing the quiet pools, I always used a float, normally made from a porcupine quill. My terminal tackle was a tiny hook baited with an earthworm and held steady beneath the surface with a small lead shot plundered from one of my dad’s 12ga shot-shells.

Invariably we caught Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus), they weren’t only good eating they’d also put up a brave fight, and on light tackle were great sport. Occasionally too, we’d catch a few Black tilapia (Oreochromis placidus) but in the Sabi River they weren’t as prolific as the Mozambique tilapia. Due to my young age at the time one of the golden rules of my being allowed to wander the river in front of the camp and fish, was that I had to have a ‘minder’ with me. He was a black lad called Muzi, whose father Mhlanga (pronounced Mm-shlan-ga) worked for my dad in a supervisory capacity. Muzi was a good few year older than me.

The Sabi River had a healthy crocodile and hippo population although in the vicinity of the irrigation scheme they were nomadic seasonal visitors’ more than permanent residents. Both species would normally arrive at the tail end of the rains as the river water was subsiding, and forming pools in the reed bound backwaters. Further south along the river, from Chisumbanje to the Mozambique border, crocs and hippo were numerous and each year a few tribe’s people fell victim to both species.

Over the years my dad shot a number of crocs deemed to be a threat to the tribal people and their livestock. He had two rifles, a 7x57mm Mauser and a .303 Lee Enfield. Although he wasn’t an ardent sport hunter, he was a deadly shot, and with us living on the banks of the Sabi River for much of my boyhood, the old man couldn’t pass up shooting any big crocs that dared to come out onto the sandbanks in front of our house. For this task, he preferred the 7x57mm Mauser.

Whenever Muzi and I went fishing we’d attract a following of like-minded black kids. Quite often there’d be at least eight of us walking along bare-footed and ankle deep in the river, seeking out the good fishing spots. Being white I’d be the only one carrying a conventional fishing rod. My black colleagues all had homemade rods cut from the tall pragmytis reeds which grew in abundance on the islands dotting the river.

Their floats were made from a sliver of the same reed type and were called a zwi-tupi-tupi (my spelling) and they all carried nifty little hand-woven worm baskets made from the stripped dry leaves of the illala palm. These basketware worm containers were carried by hanging them on a thin plaited palm leaf string, slung diagonally from the carrier’s one shoulder, across the chest and down to the opposite side of their waist. They also had a lid which slid up and down on the palm leaf string, and the container was full of damp mud and earthworms. In this day and age of commercial tourism into Zimbabwe those hand plaited worm containers would probably be worth a few pennies.

En-route our fishing spot we were a rowdy lot and made plenty of noise, my yellow Lab Shandy was always right alongside of us romping in the water and chasing any waterbird he could find. About two years later, and after our house had been built a few kilometres downstream of the camp, I was away at boarding school and Shandy, probably bored, went for a solitary romp in the river below the house. He was lucky, Fred the gardener heard him yelp in agony and hurried down to the water’s edge where he found a small crocodile with its jaws clamped tight on Shandy’s right hind leg. Fred later related to my dad the croc was only about 4’6” and when he leapt into the fray belting it repeatedly about the head and eyes with a garden rake; it released my stressed-out Lab and departed the scene.

The water where Shandy had been caught was only about knee deep and was one of my regular swimming places when home from boarding school. Shandy suffered deep puncture wounds to the inside and outside of his upper right thigh, and these were treated with sulphur powder. After he’d recovered, he was always wary about entering the water unless a human was present.

It wasn’t only crocs that we had to be careful of as youngsters growing up along the river; snakes were also plentiful including black mambas and puffadders. Once when I was playing in my tree house. A mere jumble of loosely nailed planks secured across two parallel branches of a tree leaning out over the river’s edge. Toby our Boxer was sniffing around in the torpedo grass growing out onto the water surface off an island opposite me, and about 80m away. He suddenly yelped and when I looked up, he was rearing backwards with a hefty puffadder attached to his lower lip. As I scrambled out of the tree the dog shook the snake loose and immediately came bounding through the shallow water towards me.

Toby was lucky, he survived the bite although his head swelled up to almost double its size and my dad continuously injected him around the bite with ante venom until the swelling subsided. Strangely there wasn’t any tissue sloughing, as is the norm with puffadder venom. About six months later he and our Bull Mastiff, Charles, had a tug of war with an 8’ black mamba on the lawn outside my parent’s bedroom window. The two dogs killed the snake during the joust although they both died too. We’d arrived back from a weekend away boating and fishing at Lake Kyle to find our distraught staff anxiously awaiting our return. They’d left all of the dead combatants where they’d fallen, in case their story of death by snake-bite involving two of our three dogs wasn’t believed. Shandy the lab survived. Fred the gardener said he’d wisely stood to one side growling and whimpering excitedly when they’d shouted at the dogs to leave the snake. Mastiffs and Boxers are stubborn breeds and with some dogs snake killing becomes habitual although it can be costly. Charles and Toby had both developed a track record for finding and killing snakes and although we tried, we couldn’t break them of the habit. I guess the black mamba finally did. Permanently.

Visitations by elephant too, weren’t uncommon. They’d cross the river from the Humani Ranch side and always under cover of darkness. And then plunder the irrigated tribal plots behind our house, and at times my mother’s vegetable garden. Sugarcane and papayas were their favourite plunder and they’d invariably leave the plots looking like a tornado had passed through. The tribal plot-holders who each owned a 4 or 5-acre irrigated plot grew a variety of grain crops like sorghum and maize. They also grew cotton as a cash crop, and a number of them concentrated on growing sugarcane.

With the seed and grain crops too, queleas were a huge problem and swarms of the tiny birds wreaked havoc, so as a deterrent the tribesmen strung long lines of home made illala palm leaf rope over the crops at about 1m spacing. These were attached to poles on either side of the plot, and purposefully allowed to sag down into the crop, dropping to their lowest height at the midway point. Young boys of about 10 and 11 years old, and the women, who tended the crops, then manned these strings, and when a swarm of queleas alighted in the crop, they’d pull the strings taught, shout loudly, and cause the birds to take off in fright.

It was an ongoing battle and the plot-holders also sat on platforms of mopane poles raised above the height of the crops and from this lofty perch, if they saw birds going into the crop, they’d kick up a racket shouting and beating tin plates together. Strangely the idea of scarecrows never took hold and each time we tried one out all of its clothes got stolen by the tribe’s folk! With hindsight I guess an impoverished people can hardly spare clothing to dress scarecrows.

In time the game department started spraying the quelea colonies roost sights in the reed beds, which covered the islands throughout the length of the Sabi River. As a youngster I often stood with my father and watched from afar a number of these spraying programs, it was like crop dusting using an aircraft only this time it was tiny birds being sprayed, not crops. Millions of quelea were destroyed using this method and in time they no longer posed a threat to the Sabi Valley grain crops. By early 1968 when I spent a few months working on the vast Chisumbanje wheat and cotton estate, waiting to join the Rhodesian National Parks & Wildlife Management department, the big quelea swarms of my boyhood were no more. Hippo too, had disappeared from many of their haunts. In ’68 a small pod still dwelt in a pool near the Catholic mission station at Chisumbanje, although I’m sure by now they’re but a distant memory.

During our early years at Chibuwe Irrigation Scheme my dad commuted to and from the farming village of Chipinga on a weekly basis. We’d previously lived on the Chipinga Government Farm, an experimental station where he’d been the manager. He’d then resigned and joined what was called the Native Department. It later underwent a name change and became the Department of Internal Affairs, with the acronym INTAF.

During one of our school vacations I went with my father to Chibuwe and I still have fond memories of walking along the river bank in the shade of huge fig trees whilst he chose our house site. Eventually he settled on a beautiful spot with ample shade and good views of the river. Shortly thereafter the Public Works Department began work on our new home. Even though the house took about six months to complete, I enjoyed camping at the official Chibuwe camp site. It too, was under some tall trees and comprised a cluster of thatch rondavels, and a pole & dahga dining room with a waist high wall, situated on the bank above the river.

The Chibuwe camp was used by a cross section of civil servants whose work brought them into the Sabi Valley, because in circa 1959 it was still extremely remote. Game rangers slept over. BSAP policemen patrolling the valley stopped for a night or two. Veterinary officials, post and telecommunication staff, and a number of others, including regular visits by National Museums staff on collecting and research trips. For a young 10-year old boy this had been manna from heaven. I’d sit by the campfire with mouth agape and gawking eyes, while the adults spoke about hunting and fishing and other adventures. My favourite time, however, was always when a National Parks game ranger stopped by with his immaculately turned out game scouts. Danie Bredenkamp and Tommy Orford were two game rangers whose fireside yarns would have an influence on my ultimate career choice immediately upon my leaving school eight years later.

When I was about nine, I was given my grandfather’s old .22 Remington Long, it’d seen so much usage the blueing had worn off, and the butt and stock were dented and scarred. If that old rifle had been able to talk it could’ve kept me amused for hours, having started its shooting career in the Eastern Cape where my ancestry lay. Our ancestors having originally arrived in April 1820 aboard the British Royal Navy Storeship HM Weymouth. They’d come out to South Africa’s Eastern Cape from the Welsh Border Country as part of the 1820 British Settler Scheme.

Initially, and just after having been given the old .22 Rem and a 12ga twin pipe, I was only allowed to shoot vervet monkeys in the trees along the riverfront. They were considered pests and did a fair amount of crop damage. In time though, I began to wander further a field in pursuit of guinea fowl and spur fowl, of which there were plenty. Prior to being given the .22 and the 12ga I’d been using my trusty Falk 90 No 2, a hard-hitting airgun if ever. Using it I shot countless doves and similar. My late dad’s rule being that what we shot we had to eat. Chancing my luck one school holidays I shot an egret or ‘tick’ bird as we called them. True to his word he made me cook and eat it. I only ever made that mistake once.

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