The Shangani River (1953 – 2001)

After the October full moon and the blessing of first rain in Zimbabwe, the Shangani River rises as rivulet on hillside near Gweru , meandering slowly downstream through savannas stippled with anthills , passing water logged mopane forests along the way , growing into a brown frothing expanse of water that empties into the Gwayi River on a journey down the mighty Zambezi to the Indian Ocean.

This perennial river captured Oupa Neels attention when he first visited Karna Block in 1953, at this time it flowed all year around , “with water we can farm ” he told the family when he returned to Mooidraai North of Kuruman. During the Tsetsi Fly eradication era , he fought hard to try and save the giant Acacia Trees found along the shady sandbanks , but did not win this battle, they were all ring barked and died becoming silent sentinels who watched over us , sharing memories of fishing trips , family picnics and laughing children skipping stones across clear pools with shimmering reflections. With out this river , the Van Wyk family could not have lived in this 45 000 acre wilderness, it gave life to the forests , our cattle and wildlife.

In 1973 after the inter tropical convergence zone rumbled in and rained for days, we watched the river rise and flood for the first time ,silently creeping across the garden towards our home , a frightening , brown mass of water you could not contain. Dad worked frantically filling sand bags to place by doors and bricks under all the furniture, Mum taking it all in her stride and humor, blew up our water wings and lifted us onto the pontoon .Loaded to the hilt, with all the dogs , rabbits, our favorite chickens in boxes ….which we insisted on taking with , dad poled us through the flooded green Mopane forests, cheered on by shrill song of thousands of cicadas and the hoarse croaking of happy bull frogs.

On New years day in 1988, Pierre invited our neighbors Hennie and Thuis De Vries from Lions Den Ranch near the Dete Vlei to join us on an expedition down the river to Lubimbi Bridge. Meeting at the crack of dawn , young, bold and fearless …. we set off on an adventure never to be forgotten, One cannot explain the exhilaration of being part of a massive body of water….. gurgling ,churning and foaming , our small boats were carried by the torrent of water downstream. No one had ever done this trip down the river before and we had no idea what to expect , you could not help feeling trepidation as the fast moving currents carried us towards the bridge. In the distance we heard the roar of rapids and our boats were not designed for this kind of water…. with no way out of the situation we were faced and no idea of what to expect …. we all paddled for our lives and made it through, the swirling , angry water and rocks without flipping, only loosing one oar along the way . With no cell phones or radios , Mum waited patiently for us at the Lubimbi Bridge , along with a whole orchestra of swarming mosquito’s ….. time slowly ticked by, as the dark of night closed in, she finally heard our singing and laughter as the river carried us safely to meet her. Sunburned, hungry and wet we forged memories that have lasted a lifetime.

The Shangani River has a hundred year old story to tell … in 1893 on banks of this river , not far from where we lived, Alan Wilson’s Patrol lost their lives , many Ndebele warriors died that day too – while Lobengula and the Ndebele warriors go down in history as winning this battle – they lost their land to the British and Cecil John Rhodes? In 1991 Thousands of white farmers were driven off their land by the war veterans of the Chimarenga, these men saw the land as rightfully theirs and with changed rule of law , it was. A century later we paid the unfair price of politics and history .

On the 10th of June 1991 we hosted a picnic under the shady Acacia trees on the sand banks of this great river to celebrate Mums 60th and Tana’s 2nd Birthday, little did we know , this was to be the last gathering of the Gwayi community as we knew it then. This community has been scattered to the four winds but the river continues its timeless journey to the sea.

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