Deep in thick bush,
close to Crooks corner at the far north-eastern
corner of the Kruger National Park, lies the grave
of South Africa’s most notorious ivory poacher,
Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard, better known
by his Shangane nickname of Bvekenya (‘the
one who swaggers as he walks’). Anyone familiar
with TV Bulpin’s book, The Ivory Trail,
would immediately argue that Bvekenya is buried
on the farm Vlakplaas near Geysdorp in the North
West Province. And so he is. The crooks Corner
grave, which Bulpin clearly knew nothing about,
is empty. Bvekenya’s son, Izak, explains
how it came about. “My father was once so
sick with malaria hat the Shanganes thought he
was going to die, so they dug the grave for him.
When I visited the site with my father in 1952,
it was still two feet deep”. The grave is
just one of several sites that Izak, his daughter
Lientjie, niece Hester, and nephew Fanie recently
went to Crooks corner to rediscover. They were
on a mission to locate and, with the help of GPS
handset, pinpoint and record each of the places
where Bvekenya left his mark.
“We have to do it
before it’s too late,” says Izak,
“as many of the people who knew the locations
are no longer around.” There are
two other graves close to the unused one of Bvekenya.
According to the concrete slabs covering them
they belong to Hendrik Hartman and William Pye,
who also feature in The Ivory Trail.
Hartman had an unusual death – he contracted
sunstroke after becoming stuck up thorn tree.
He had been cutting branches from the tree with
which to create a sheep kraal, and failed to realize
as he threw them to the ground that they’d
prevented him from climbing down. Bvekenya later
found and rescued him, but he died a day later.
Pye died from influenza in 1918.
When Bvekenya arrived
at Crooks Corner in 1910, it was true frontier
territory – a wild place that had
acquired its name from the number of outlaws living
there. Situated right where South Africa. Zimbabwe
and Mozambique meet, it was an ideal place for
fugitives from justice to skip over the border
into another country. It’s said the outlaws
survived on a diet of quinine and whisky while
etching out a living by poaching ivory, blackbirding
(illegally recruiting labour for the mines), and
trading animal skins and sjamboks. The living
was hard. If the animals didn’t get you,
the malaria would or eventually the whisky.
Bvekenya quickly made a name for himself as an
elephant poacher and was soon on the wanted lists
of both the Portuguese and Zimbabwean (then Rhodesion)
authorities. But as hard as these countries tried,
they couldn’t catch him. “When my
father first started hunting, he uses a .303 rifle
with a shortened barrel,” says Izak. “To
be effective he had to get close to his prey,
sometimes within five meters or less. He told
me stories of elephant actually falling on hunters
because they were so close to them.”
According to Izak, Bvekenya wasn’t the ruthless
poacher he was sometimes made out to be because
he sought out older elephant that were already
slowly starving to death. “He’d recognize
them by their dung. If it was coarse, he’d
know they had lost most of their teeth and couldn’t
chew their food properly. These were the animals
he concentrated on.” Over the years the
bush has reclaimed most of the places mentioned
in The Ivory Trail. Close to the graves of Hartman
and Pye was Makhuleke village where several of
Bvekenya’s friends lived, but next to nothing
remains of it today. The only signs that people
once lived there, are the scattered remains of
a bicycle and the concrete floor of the Makhuleke
store. A piece of an ox wagon that might have
belonged to Bvekneya himself has also been found.
The store features strongly in The Ivory Trail.
It was an important supply point and also a meeting
place. People would travel long distances to it
to stock up on everything from ammunition to gin,
and to catch up on the progress of the ‘Great
War’ (World War 1) in Europe – or
to laugh at the latest attempted by the government
to stamp its authority on Crooks Corner.
The store was owned by Alec Thompson and later
managed by a Canadian Tomas ‘Buck’
Buchanan. Apart from the floor, two rows of mountain
syringe tree, probably planted as a windbreak,
mark its site on a hill overlooking the Limpopo
Towards the end of his stay at Crooks Corner,
Bvekenya did a little blackbirding himself, but
he also worked legally for the mines. During this
time he built several roads and drifts in the
area. The remain of one of the drifts can still
be seen at Klopperfontien, while at Boabab Hill,
between Punda Maria and Crooks Corner a road of
his can be made out winding its way past the big
tree that lends its name to the hill.
Bvekenya eventually left Crooks corner in November
1929. According to Bulpin, he gave up his nomadic
hunting lifestyle after successfully tracking
down a legendary elephant known as Dhlulamithi
(taller than the trees). It was described as “the
mightiest elephant in all the land”, and
shooting it had become an obsession with the poacher.
But when he finally got the tusker in his sights,
he had a change of heart. And so he settled down
and took up farming at Geysdorp. The only time
he returned to Crooks Corner was in 1952 when
he went there with Izak. “He wanted to lay
the concrete slabs on the graves of Pye and Hartman.”
Izak says. Bvekenya introduced Izak to Crooks
Corner, showing him the places he’d frequented.
They were even able to track down Buck Buchanan,
who was living in a hut near Louis Moore mine,
close to Giyani. “I believe he died a few
years later,” says Izak.
Bvekenya died in his bed on his farm on June 2,
1962, but his legacy continues through his son.
A year and a day after his father’s death,
Izak began taking safaris into the Kalahari. The
safaris were unique for the time as customers
did not come to hunt but to experience the area.
Izak, in fact, pioneered ecotourism. He later
set up Penduka Safaris, which still operates today.
Like his father, Izak has also become a legend;
particularly through the work he’s done
wit the San in the Kalahari.
As for Dhlulamithi, the
elephant that mended Bvekenya ways, nothing more
is know. According to Bulpin’s book
Discovering South Africa, in 1967 an elephant
that was thought to be him – was shot in
Gona-Re-Zhou (ironically meaning ‘refuge
of the elephant’) National Park in Zimbabwe.
It yielded tusks amongst the largest ever recorded
south of the Zambezi.
The actual location of Crooks Corner is on an
island in the Limpopo, close to where the Luvuhu
River flows into the Limpopo. There used to be
a beacon on the island that marked the spot, but
recent floods washed it away. Across from Crooks
Corner is Ypie’s Island, named after Bvekenya’s
favourite mule, which was marooned on the island
for several weeks.
Bvekenya had his camp on the South African side
of the Limpopo, near to the historic Ivory Trail
that followed the river down to Sofala in Mozambique.
Bvekenya knew this trail well, having traveled
it on countless occasions with packs of donkeys
laden with ivory to be sold at the port town.
Today Bvekenya would have difficulty recognizing
the Limpopo. The once ‘great, green, grassy’
river is now a shadow of its former self. In winter
it becomes a mere trickle, thanks to extensive
irrigation on the South African side. In 1986,
Izak erected a memorial to his father near the
site of Makhuleke village. It reads: In memory
of Bvekenya and his wild companions who followed
the ivory trail. “I
dedicated it not only to my father, but also to
all the men like him who lie buried somewhere
in the bush and are long forgotten,” says
The memorial erected by Izak Barnard
This also commemorated Bvekenya’s 100th
Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard - ‘Bvekenya’
The Concrete slab of the Makhuleke store
Crooks Corner - Bvekenya’s camp was under the
trees straight ahead
The memorial erected by Izak Barnard
This also commemorated Bvekenya’s 100th Birthday