Text and photographs by Bryony Rheam
Mzilikazi, the King of the Ndebele, originally set aside the Hwange district for his royal hunting ground. However, the arrival of the colonists in the latter part of the nineteenth century saw the wildlife greatly denuded through rampant and uncontrolled hunting. It was then divided into farmland, but the area’s fine Kalahari sand and poor rainfall was unsuitable for agriculture. An English prospector and trader, Robins had travelled widely in Southern Africa. After failing to enlist for World War I he invested £10,000 in ‘Little Tom’s Spruit’, in what is now the northern part of Hwange National Park. Having bought the property sight unseen, he was initially very disappointed with his purchase, finding the land barren, the farm remote and the road connecting it to Wankie town horrendous to use.
Nevertheless, he stayed on and farmed an extensive herd of cattle. He made leather from giraffe and cattle skins, using salt from the pans to cure the hides he sold in Wankie town. Essentially a lonely man, the situation of the farm suited his reclusive nature and he very rarely left his property. One visitor described him as having an ‘apprehensive spirit’, as a fence barricaded his house and he kept a pack of fierce Great Dane dogs, which attacked him on one occasion, nearly killing him.
Although initially wary of visitors, once he had made their acquaintance he often enjoyed their company and wanted them to stay, entertaining them with colourful stories of his experiences… leading an expedition to find tin deposits in the Belgian Congo and prospecting for gold, diamonds and other precious minerals in Angola. He had even executed a murderer. A visiting farmer, J. Cumming, found himself forced to extend his stay with Robbins by two extra nights, recording how ‘he clung to my company with the tenacity of a bulldog’.
Travelling round his farm with an enormous flask of tea, Robins often forgot to eat, but at home ordered meals with little regard for the time of day. Periodically, he would indulge his taste for whisky to excess. Such times were recorded by the hundreds of bullet holes in his doors…