The river runs through his life

2013-07-24 00:00

THE first-ever Dusi Canoe Marathon (as the race soon came to be known) started in Alexandra Park on 22 December 1951, with four pairs participating. Pearce and Naude, Basil Halford and William Potgieter, Fred Schmidt and Denis Vorster were in double canoes, while Ian and his partner Miles Brokensha had lighter single canoes. There was a spirit of fierce competitiveness: each team claimed to have a secret weapon. Ian’s was an oilcloth bag to replace the heavy paint tins. All their clothes and food were safe from the continual dunkings, and as he observed, sleeping well in dry kit was the best thing for morale.

Mounting interest in the race made Ian nervous that it would be a flop: all the newspapers had made it a headline story. A crowd of about 300 people gathered on the river banks to watch the spectacle as the mayor made a brief speech, prophesying that the race would become as popular as the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. At 8am Ernie Pearce and John Naude set off, followed at four-minute intervals by Brokensha and Ian, Basil Halford and William Potgieter, then Fred Schmidt and Denis Vorster.

The race produced the same hardships as the initial expedition: rapids, waterfalls, portages, searing heat, exhaustion. But this time the hardship became positively nightmarish as Brokensha suffered a serious gash above the eye as he was swept down the rapids in the flooded Umgeni. Also, his feet swelled up alarmingly. Ian was amazed at his courage and endurance. At the end of the third day when they reached the Mfula trading store, the night’s stop, they also received the astonishing news that they were the only ones left in the race. The others had all withdrawn for a variety of reasons — smashed canoes, exhaustion and injury — by the afternoon of the first day. But Brokensha could not continue, and a lift to Pietermaritzburg was arranged for him.

Ian had to decide what he would do. If nobody finished the race, its future was doomed. His ideal of bringing numbers of people into experiencing the thrill of canoeing plus the thrill of wilderness would come to nothing. He simply had to carry on. But heavy rains had brought the river down in flood. When he went to have a look the next morning it was a frightening sight. He would never get out of it alive, he thought — if one of those logs tumbling through the waves were to hit him, it would be the end. He returned to the store having made up his mind that he could not face the journey alone.

The store owner was drinking coffee. A strong cup would put Ian right, he said earnestly: “You’ve come a hell of a long way. Now, to cap it all, the river is in a raging flood. Don’t let it put you off. This canoe race is going to be something great. You’ve started something and a lot of people believe in you — including me! Don’t let them down: get into that canoe and go!”

Ian drank the coffee and accepted a hearty breakfast. The encouragement and the food brightened his outlook, and with the store owner’s help he carried the canoe down to the river: “Once again, I was almost overcome with fear of the dark brown water; I desperately wanted to stay at the store, secure, but it was too late. In a daze I shook hands … and then climbed into the canoe. One gentle paddle — the boat shot forward into midstream. It was impossible to turn round to wave, so I held my paddles aloft …

“After a few yards all my confidence surged back and I cursed myself for the display of cowardice at the store. ‘You dirty yellow bastard,’ I repeated aloud with increasing intensity. ‘Haven’t got the guts of a white mouse! Why didn’t you break down and blub like a schoolboy?’”

The swollen Umgeni bore him swiftly enough toward the coast. But the nightmare was to get worse. On a portage he was bitten by a night adder, a seriously venomous snake whose bite requires treatment at the best of times, let alone when the victim is in a low state, totally exhausted. Ian was still in a remote tribal area, far from medical resources. He took the canoe ashore and set out along a dirt road looking for assistance, vomiting and with a splitting headache. Feeble and semi-conscious, he managed to flag down a bus and the Indian driver took him to a rural police station where a sergeant injected him with snake-bite serum and he was given a room to rest and recover — or perhaps die.

Incredibly, he was recovered enough to take to the river again next day. He was violently ill several times as he paddled the 17 miles to the coast but the salt smell of the sea gave him fresh heart. As he paddled into the Umgeni mouth, seven days after setting out, a small group of holidaymakers stared at him as if he were a freak. They knew nothing of the Dusi.

Ian caught a Pullman bus back to Pietermaritzburg that very night and spent the next few hours suffering from dysentery and cramps. Next day at work he was in trouble. He was two days overdue from leave. He was summoned to the company secretary’s office, where he received a prim lecture. Yet the secretary knew very well what had happened, it was in all the newspapers.

Ian refused to apologise. The secretary — who had had no intention of firing him — started to back down. But Ian insisted all he wanted was a month’s pay in lieu of notice. He knew this phase of his life was over. He had, he was sure, found his path to TE Lawrence’s seven pillars of wisdom.

He applied for a post as a game ranger with the newly formed Natal Parks Board and received a letter from the then Secretary, Colonel Vincent, saying that his application would be considered. While waiting for an interview he sold insurance to earn a living. The experience was to stand him in good stead many years later when he went to the United Kingdom and the United States selling rhino. The first principle of a good salesman, he learnt, was total belief in the product he or she was selling.

“Through necessity,” Ian wrote, “I learned to play the political game. There was no hope of having any influence on national politics, but I knew we could play a part and have an effect on the politics of wildlife conservation, later to become environmental politics. Politicians of both main parties at that time were frequent visitors to the game reserves, and I learned the art of lobbying. My connections from my canoeing days with the English-speaking press were invaluable. Radio was controlled by the Nationalist government, but we found friends who at least helped to publicise our game reserves. There were two journalists in the Afrikaans press who appreciated the honesty of our cause and what it meant for the future of South Africa. Their help at critical moments was invaluable.

“A game ranger was at the bottom of the social scale, and the Natal Parks Board was disliked intensely. To walk into a bar was to invite a fight. New rangers were being appointed in Zululand, and they were resented by the old staff. I had to try to keep the peace yet ensure that we moved with the times. There were days on end when I felt physically ill with the strain. So much for the romantic notion of a game ranger. What we were engaged in was a battle for the earth, and we in wildlife conservation were fighting part of the rearguard action. I said this to Colonel Vincent, our director, and he said, ‘Yes, Player, but it will be a bloody good rearguard action.’”

As Ian Player rose to become Senior Ranger of Umfolozi Game Reserve, so the responsibility for the last remaining Southern White Rhino became his. A tremendous task lay ahead. From 1958 to 1964 there was no moment in which he was not concerned with the Umfolozi Game Reserve and the white rhino. “But at the age of thirty,” he wrote, “and in the peak of physical fitness and moral resolve, I felt confident of overcoming any obstacle.”

Gradually the effects of the wildlife holocaust began to be reversed at Umfolozi and elsewhere. As the staff complement of the Parks Board built up, resources were allocated, poaching was intercepted, a portion of the crown lands was incorporated with the reserve and fencing was erected — all of it the outcome of relentless lobbying by the rangers on the ground and their supporters on the Board. The wildlife began to return and the numbers of white rhino built up. Antelope and other species were captured, using nets, and translocated to other reserves and to private farmland. But as this happened, it became increasingly obvious that Umfolozi was too small to carry such numbers of white rhino, which also were increasingly in competition with other species for grazing.

The response was Operation Rhino — capture and translocation to other safe habitats — but it was preceded by all kinds of political infighting and Ian had to use all his balancing skills for the proposed operation to actually become a reality. There were several pitfalls. The Board of the day consisted of United Party supporters who were in opposition to the Nationalist central government. They were concerned that if white rhino were relocated from Umfolozi to the Kruger National Park, the central government could turn around and say there was no longer a need for a game reserve at Umfolozi. It could then divide that territory between tribal communities and ranchers. It was a valid fear, which Ian freely acknowledged, but he had long rehearsed his arguments in favour of the translocation in discussions with his close colleagues, particularly Nick Steele. In his book, Game Ranger on Horseback, Nick told of his horror when Ian first suggested that the time was approaching when rhino would have to be moved. On their long horseback patrols, he and Ian would argue back and forth, and in the end he acknowledged that something along the lines of translocation would have to be done.

Ian Player, Nick Steele and Norman Deane, the ranger in charge of Hluhluwe, now lobbied hard when Board members came on their frequent tours or on personal visits to the park. Other rangers like Singie Denyer, who was in charge of the seriously threatened Mkhuze Game Reserve, and Boy Hancock, ranger in charge of Ndumu, added their voices because they believed that having the white rhino in their parks would save them from being deproclaimed. Ian addressed the Board on a tour to Hluhluwe and argued that the capture and translocation of the rhino would lead to massive publicity from newspapers, magazines and radio. (Television was still a long way off in South Africa.) A clear strategy was outlined. When the methods of capture and translocation were worked out, the first rhino would be taken to parks inside the province; then the Kruger National Park would be offered rhino. Ian had been told by Kruger National Park staff that they were desperate to re-establish the white rhino, the last having been shot and killed in the Matamira bush in the 1890s.

• Edited extract from Into the River of Life, A Biography of Ian Player by Graham Linscott. Published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

• See page 8 for more on the fight against rhino poaching.

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