Off to greener pastures

2011-05-13 00:00

NEWLY retired Jeff Gaisford (62) finally looks relaxed after a frenetic existence in which he contributed energetically to the body of knowledge on KwaZulu-Natal wildlife and helped in the making of hundreds of wildlife documentaries.

“We all contribute in our own way. My own contribution was managing our media interaction, mainly through documentaries, especially those involving sea turtles. I’ve assisted in over 100 documentaries on sea turtles.”

Together with his colleague at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW), Maureen Zimu, he managed about 200 media groups a year.

“I tried to make sure the media got the best information they could. For documentaries, this meant the best interview with the best person available on the subject, and for hard news, as much good information as possible. If we were upfront about things there was no reason for speculation. If we made a mess-up, we would admit it and talk about steps to ensure it never happened again. That earned respect.”

Gaisford says it has been over 20 years of constant news events, from the announcement that dune mining at St Lucia was turned down, to the declaration of St Lucia and the Drakensberg as World Heritage sites. Rhinos were constantly in the news with just a couple being killed each year initially, to the horrific numbers that are being slaughtered now.

“There have been some emotional stories too, especially involving Berg rescues. One stands out, where five youngsters hiked from Lotheni and there was heavy snow. They had been missing for five days and I was communicating with their distraught families. Hope was fading fast. On the day before the search was to be called off, their fathers came into my office on the way to the Berg to help in the search. Moments before they arrived, I received word that they had been found alive. I got the youngsters on the phone and the fathers were weeping on the phone to their sons. Even the hulky ‘Parkies’ in the office were emotional and crying.”

Then there were others that ended sadly. “In one case, a man climbed the chain ladder at Royal Natal wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase. He never returned. His body was found some time later with empty whisky bottles in his briefcase. He had obviously gone there to commit suicide.”

Being used to working at a frenetic pace, Gaisford will be wanting to keep busy during his retirement.

“I have written an adventure novel which I hope will earn me big bucks soon,” he chuckles. “You write about what you know. What I know is Zululand and its history. It took me over 20 years to write the book after an idea came to me while working at St Lucia where it’s set. I won’t tell you the plot. You must read the book.”

He reveals it has two sex scenes. How did he write those? “I believe you should call a spade a spade. Euphemisms won’t cut it.” Gaisford says the book is soon to be sent off to a publisher.

His immediate plans are to assist his sister at Greyton near Caledon in the Cape. “She runs a nursery and needs some time off.” He also has a foster son whom he plans to spend time with. He has no other fixed plans but would like to travel.

During his time at EKZNW, Gaisford has seen changes in the style of the organisation. “It was very militaristic, for example, with emphasis on the uniform being worn correctly and much saluting. Colonel Jack Vincent was the first director in 1947, an ex-military man who employed a lot of ex-soldiers. They understood the need for discipline and applied a military style. It worked for a time but was seen to be aligned with apartheid practices, when in fact we had started to unbundle apartheid by building facilities for other races at both Midmar and Umfolozi long before 1994. The new generation wanted to get rid of the military style, but I think pride in the uniform has suffered. There used to be a strong, distinct corporate identity, like all the cars being painted green.” He maintains that “for the old Parkies, it was not just a job”.

Having spent so much time in the wilds of the province, he got to know the best natural spots. His favourite is at Cape Vidal. “I spent 10 years in St Lucia building up display stuff at the Crocodile Centre there in the seventies and eighties. Cape Vidal is the access point to the beach. They gave me a two-wheel drive Ford Cortina bakkie and I had them fit it with special tyres. Driving up and down the beach, often at night, I had some thrilling times. If there had been storms, the dunes would be badly eroded and I would drive along a narrow shelf with a towering dune above me, knowing the whole lot could come crashing down on my head at any time, or I would drive along hoping the dune I was on wouldn’t slide into the sea. It was very thrilling. Through these trips I got to know the beaches very well and grew to love them.”

Gaisford lives in Hilton and enjoys the “wonderful feeling of community there”.

“I drive along and people wave. They know my car. And I know the shopkeepers and petrol-pump attendants. It’s a lot more intimate than inner-city life.”

The frequent power failures don’t worry him much, he says, as he is well equipped with a gas stove and paraffin lamps. What will he miss about his work, the organisation and the people at EKZNW?

“I will miss the sense of purpose that most colleagues have and the companionship and contact with the such down-to-earth friends.”

It is certain that the organisation and media industry will miss him too.

 

• He is a Reiki master, and hopes to be able to devote more time to healing while retired.

• He is a Sufi priest, aligned to the ancient Persian universal religion, and can counsel and give religious guidance. “People interested in Sufism are generally a bit disillusioned with organised religion. It suits independent people very well.”

 

Gaisford’s best indulgence is his Land Rover, a rare 1959 Series 2 model. Originally used as a Kenyan police car, he bought the gem for R25 from a farm near Johannesburg where it was sacrilegiously being used as a hen house. “I gave it to my dad as a Father’s Day present. It cost him R300 to get it up and running. In 1983, my own car was stolen and I took the Land Rover over and have driven it every day since. It’s a hobby and my transport, and it gives me immense pleasure. It’s a classic.”

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