by Hannes Wessels

Ross Hildebrand died in Mutare on the 14th September. Another chip falls from the solid old block that buttressed a once great country. This is not an obituary in the true sense but rather a paean to an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life through extraordinary times and writing about him provides an opportunity to tell a bigger story.

Born in 1939, son of Algy and Heidi, he grew up in the Burma Valley on the Mozambique border. Then an untamed wilderness where life hung on a thread. The heat, humidity and tropical lushness provided the perfect incubator for all manner of tropical diseases; snakes, spiders and predators were constants and the town of Umtali was a full days drive away. The homestead was ‘pole and dagga’, toys were empty tins, refrigeration was a charcoal cooler and the bath was a movable tub. A battery-powered short-wave radio that was turned on once a day at 8.00 pm to listen to the BBC World News was their sole connection to civilisation.

A farm and a future was hacked out of adversity, the family prevailed and a modicum of prosperity followed. A very small number of black people lived in the Valley then and they moved to more favourable climes which later presented the farmers with a labour shortage. Eighty years later the government of Robert Mugabe announced the land in the Valley had been ‘stolen’ from the real owners and Ross became another casualty of the so called ‘Land Reform’ policy that would cripple the country.

In many ways the epitome of a Rhodesian. Ross loved beer, the odd brawl, sport, hunting, fishing, women and also speed. He jealously guarded his record time for racing the 50 miles on a ‘Matchless 500’ motorbike from Umtali to Hot Springs Holiday Resort in the dead of night on a strip-road where animals abounded when fully drunk.

He acquired notoriety in Mozambique where he briefly sought fame and fortune as a matador. Attending a bullfight in the neighbouring town of Vila da Manica he tired of watching a tepid display from the Portuguese professional, leaped into the arena brandishing unarmed and launched a full frontal charge on the bull which confused and subdued the animal but enraged the Portuguese spectators. Guzzling wine with alacrity he refused to surrender the limelight despite loud booing from the crowd and eventually the local constabulary was summoned to restore decorum. When he squared up to the lawman thinking he might add to his new found stardom by flattening a police man a pistol was drawn from its holster, brawn gave way to a little residual brain and Ross was dragged to the stands and told to behave or face jail.

The excitement over, acute nausea struck and the ‘Burma Valley Bullfighter’ suddenly found himself unable to control a convulsion that sent vomit spewing a considerable distance in a perfect arc to descend upon a beautifully coiffed lady to his front. Adding to the gravity of the offence she was also the wife of the District Administrator and therefore a lady of significant local standing. Where hair had once been grey it was suddenly drenched in a runny red mess and some say her screams were ear shattering. This was the final straw and he was then removed from the stands and tossed into a nearby woodland by the disgusted Portuguese who were unfamiliar with this level of inebriation.

Arriving late for work on the farm on the Monday, Ross managed to convince his father that his tardiness was the result of him being a casualty of food poisoning at a restaurant in Vila da Manica. His father reluctantly accepted the explanation and he was excused any punitive action but this was only temporary. On the Friday Algy journeyed to town and was astounded on purchasing the weekly edition of the Umtali Post, to see a photograph of his son being led out of a bullring in Mozambique the previous weekend at the point of a policeman’s pistol. Unbeknown to him his antics had made international news.

When I last saw Ross we found mutual agreement around the fact we both loathe Bono and Bob Geldof. He lamented the fact that we, who were blessed and cursed by being born in Africa were universally condemned as the bigots; guilty of a history of abuse and violence, being products of the colonial era, while the world celebrates these two wealthy charlatans as the luminaries of the ‘left’ who deserve a special place in history for their selfless generosity. Both have benefited massively from their association with Africa but how has Africa benefitRossed from them we asked?

Ross, typical of his breed, was not prone to celebrating multi-culturalism but he spent his life trying to help the African people he lived with and loved. He did not do this with platitudes or songs like Geldof and Bono, but with his hands and by his actions in the real and unruly world that is Africa. As he struggled through the adversity of war and hostile rule he was ever mindful of his commitment to the black people, despite the leadership they preferred and he fought against.  There was no bitterness, only empathy; he lived and worked with them and for them and never forsook them.

In similar vein he was a hunter who loved animals and while the thrill of the chase attracted him, barely a day went by when this man did not reach out in a meaningful way to try to save a tree, a flower, a bird or an animal and the ecological damage recently visited upon his beloved Burma Valley following the ‘occupations’ was a source of daily anguish.

Ross was a big man, with a big heart and he was very brave. Whether it was his community or his country that was under threat he was a smiling stalwart who never wavered, seldom complained and raised the morale of all in his range.

In the modern, celebrity obsessed world where perceptions are driven by Hollywood and the media he would be considered an outcast while the likes of the Kardashians and Kanye West have the world in their thrall. This, in a simple but startling way tells a bigger story about the twisted minds that are typical of the multitudes that elect leaders that are out of touch with the important values that count and are untroubled by old fashioned standards of integrity, common decency and loyalty.

Life, for many of us will simply not be the same again now Ross has gone.


5 thoughts on “Ross the Lion-Heart”
  1. Another great story There were a lot of characters , especially our older generation, who had really interesting stories to tell , now gone unfortunately.

  2. It takes an article like this to remind us of our good fortune in having enjoyed some of the best years of our lives in one of the worlds greatest countries, Thank you Hannes

  3. Hello Hannes – was wondering if you would mind me posting this for my friends (mainly ex Umtali-ites) on Face Book. A wonderful ‘obituary’ – thanks.

    Am currently enjoying your book ‘ A Handful of Hard Men’



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