I have just read “Into the River of Life” – Graham Linscotts’ biography of Ian Player. It reminded me of an experience I had with Ian and his great friend Maqubu Ntombela on a Wilderness Leadership School trail in Umfolozi Game Reserve. As lead guide of the then Transvaal Branch of the Wilderness Leadership School, I was able to get friends onto greatly sought-after trails with Ian and Maqubu.
One night we were sitting around the fire on the banks of the White Umfolozi River listening to Ian talking about the spiritual value of wilderness. The background music was wilderness – crickets, owls, whooping hyenas and lions roaring in the distance. Suddenly from across the river came a very loud distress call – we fell silent and listened. The distress calls grew gradually fainter, then silent……..
As one our eyes swung to Maqubu, the question was obvious – what the hell happened there? Maqubu looked at Ian and said ‘Madolo that was a male bushbuck being killed by a python.’ No Ways we chimed – how could Maqubu know that! Ian scowled at us, tapping his boot with his stick. ‘Now you have ruined my plans for tomorrow!’ he growled. ‘Because you have questioned Maqubu’s knowledge, he will first show you before we proceed in my planned direction!’. Sorry Ian, Sorry Maqubu we chimed, secretly delighted that we would see a true master of the African wilderness in action. I swear there was a twinkle in Maqubu’s eye upon accepting our very weak apologies!
As predicted, the next morning Ian pointed downstream with his stick and said to Maqubu ‘Siya lapa namhlanje’ – we go this way today. ‘Cha!’ replied Maqubu pointing in the opposite direction with his rifle, ‘Siya lapa’ No! We’re going this way. A very happy trails group set off behind Maqubu, leaving Ian muttering and following behind.
We walked along the river, a crocodile shot off a sandbank into the river. Maqubu suddenly stopped and pointed at tracks on the ground ‘Nangu inkonka’ – this is the bushbuck. He looked intently across the river, took off his boots, shouldered his rifle and began wading in the direction the tracks took. We hastily followed suit. We rebooted on the other side and Maqubu picked up the trail. We entered the riverine margin and Maqubu again pointed at marks on the ground. ‘inHlwathi’ he said – python. About 25m away he found the python engorged, bushbuck horns protruding from its distended belly.
Wow! We crouched looking upon the site in awe, giving Maqubu copious thumbs-ups. He smiled.
After a while Maqubu stood up, looked at Ian and said ‘Madolo, manje siya lapa’ pointing downstream. Ian muttered about a late start and a delighted group lined up behind Maqubu and we set off sandwiched between two truly great African wilderness men.