Ian Player passed away last night and we are all the poorer for it. People like him leave gaping holes behind them, and somehow we never quite get to fill them again. I know he would chide me for comparing him with Nelson Mandela, but the truth is, he was to the animal and floral kingdoms what Madiba was to humanity. Were it not for Mandela, we’d have little conscience; were it not for Dr. Player, we’d have no rhino. Simple as that. And while both their legacies are under siege in a world that cares less, the reality is that there is a community of souls who are willing to give everything they have to defend them, while some have given their lives to do so.
Ian’s mother must’ve been some lady: in the horse breeding world, we call them “blue hens”. She produced not one, but two sons of international renown, the other Gary, to the sporting world what Ian and Madiba were to their respective constituents. A passionate racehorse breeder as well as South Africa’s most famous sporting ambassador, Gary Player has coined a few phrases in his time. Like “the harder I practice the luckier I get”. Last week, when Ian suffered the stroke that finally felled him, Gary had his own take on it: “My dear brother has launched his canoe into the river of life, and soon he will reach the other bank.” Ian Player founded the world-renowned Duzi Canoe Marathon, and in his quirky old way, still wore his Natal canoeing colours at most jacket-and-tie occasions.
While rhinos and the wilds were Ian Player’s “mother’s milk”, his uncanny attachment to and understanding of the natural world, endowed him with a unique wisdom on how the earth fits into the bigger scheme of things, it’s connectivity with and its accommodation of its species (and particularly its people), and what this meant for co-existence. This gift made him a man of great compassion, generous with his time and his knowledge, and unusually kind to young people. Both my son Nicholas, and Cheryl and I have been the beneficiaries of his learning, and especially his thoughtfulness; his lessons have not only informed our comprehension of life, they have served as the basis for the way we farm, our relationship with our environs, the weather, our soils and the creatures above and below them. “Mother Nature has plenty of time,” he would say,“ and in the end she will get her way.” So make her your friend, and don’t dare defy her.
Some 17 years ago, the Rattray family and ourselves formed an organisation known as the Land Of Legends. Its purpose is the celebration of the traditional, historic and cultural diversity of KwaZulu-Natal, and to champion the cause of environmental preservation and human upliftment. In its embrace of the cream of the province’s top hospitality and cultural establishments, it stands alone as a collection, and from its founding days when its first members were Hartford House and Fugitive’s Drift, today it includes Phinda Private Game Reserve, the Beverly Hills (just celebrated its 50th), the Oyster Box, Fordoun Hotel and Spa, Rocktail Bay, Ardmore Ceramics and the Rob Caskie Foundation, all of them icons of their respective trades. One of the Land Of Legends most worthwhile projects, was the inauguration of its annual Ingwazi Awards, which honour the good and the great of the province.
That Ian Player was the very first inductee, will come as no surprise to the readers of these columns, nor will the fact that Dr Zweli Mkhize, David Rattray, Lawrence Anthony and John Smit are fellow members of its august honour roll. Ian’s induction took place at Summerhill on a crisp, sun-filled winter’s day before 700 people from 23 different countries. His introduction was led by one of the world’s great business philosophers, Professor Nick Binedell, himself in the Ingwazi league if only he’d defer to being a Sharks supporter; it’s a tribute to Ian’s identity with the occasion, that this day was a commemoration not only of spectacular achievement, but especially of the great tribes that have made KwaZulu-Natal what it is today. That he knew, better than all of us that day, what this was all about, rests in the emotions that overcame him when this great son of Africa came to reply. None of us will ever forget.
A year or two ago, Cheryl and I were invited to attend the unveiling of a stone in the memory of Ian’s former field assistant, Maqubu Ntombela, in remotest Zululand. Given the times and the politics of the old South Africa, it’s unlikely this story of an exceptional man would ever have been told, were it not by dint of Maqubo’s working with Ian. That King Goodwill and Zweli Mkhize were there to honour this fellow of otherwise humble origins, is testimony to a relationship in which the roles of the players were in juxtaposition to their formal designations; Ian Player was the first to acknowledge that he was the student, and Maqubo the mentor.
It is a matter of considerable regret to Cheryl and I that we are on business in faraway Mauritius as I write, and that our purpose here prevents us being in South Africa to remember this wonderful life. We shall all miss him greatly, yet our pain will be nothing next to those nearest and dearest. It is a measure of this colossus, that people like Moyra Collyer and Cherryl Curry have dedicated their lives to him and his causes; God bless them all, and especially his lovely wife, Anne, whose canoe is still safely on our bank.