An unlikely friendship between two men with very different backgrounds became the foundation for one of the most successful African conservation stories.
The deeply rooted bond between Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela outlasted a lifetime and brought immense change to the African game reserves. Despite the 32-year age difference, the friendship superseded race, culture and religion. Together, the pair dedicated their lives to protecting, understanding, and conserving wild nature while proving to South Africa that all walks of man could come together as one.
While Ian certainly had the drive and passion to assure that wilderness remains a constant reality, he fully credits Magqubu for expanding his spiritual understanding on the fundamental and physical aspects of life on earth. In his book, Zululand Wilderness: Shadow and Soul, Ian says, “I was on an inward journey led outwardly by Magqubu. He began to change my view of the natural world through patient instruction on the mysteries and the history of this important landscape.”
Magqubu had no formal schooling but he was a highly intelligent, dignified, and deeply religious man. Knowledge of animals and bird behavior came naturally to him. Ian, on the other hand, was highly determined and motivated to put his life toward something he deeply believed in. He rebelled against the idea of following in his father’s footsteps working in the mining industry and decided he would rather be able to see the sun.
Long before this friendship began, however, their ancestors were connected not through friendship, but through conflict. Magqubu’s father and Ian’s grandfather both were participants in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, fighting on opposite sides. This six-month long war is known for its particularly bloody battles over the fight for regional power. The war resulted in a British victory, marking the end to Zulu dominance in the region.
The relationship Ian established with Magqubu, is what he says could serve as a valuable example of black and white co-operation.
Ian explained how for far too long South Africa has been blinded by the “inequality of opportunity.”
“My time in Zululand with Magqubu had brought a slow but dramatic change to my attitude and feeling for landscape and to my relationship with the black people of my native land,” Ian said.
“South Africa is the one country in Africa where Eurocentric and Afrocentric cultures could meld and become an examples of philosophical understanding for the rest of the world.”
Through the shared desire to protect and preserve wild nature, their friendship serves as a South African example of beginning to work toward overcoming historical baggage.
Together, the men spent countless hours in the wilderness sleeping under the stars against the Mhlopeni cliffs, developing a bond rooted in a journey to discover a spiritual understanding of the relationship between nature and man-kind.
Magqubu’s ability to tell stories provided comfort in the rough and sometimes dangerous bushland. But above all, Ian explains how the stories left him with valuable lessons about man and animal that followed him throughout the rest of his life.
Magqubu frequently spoke on the importance of respecting the animal. When the men encountered a black mamba, an African snake that is universally feared for its speed and deadly venom, Ian described how his first thought was to shoot and kill the potentially deadly animal. Yet, the mamba in this instance had done them no harm. Magqubu explained that the mamba respected them and let them pass, and humans must do the same in return.
This idea became the foundation for their wilderness conservation efforts throughout the years to come. Ian explained, “Everything that Magqubu had seen or heard in his life was a lesson in how to live with the natural world. If you lived well with the animal world, then you lived well within yourself.”
With respect of the land comes understanding. “We were reflected in the landscape, and the landscape was reflected inside us,” said Ian.
Magqubu and Ian’s partnership grounded in integrity allowed for them to push boundaries in conservation and successfully make change.