By Charl du Plessis

(originally published in Playboy South Africa August 2011)

Interview Ian Player 2011 05 Aug

Darting of a southern white rhino during the early days of “Operation Rhino”

He set the wheels in motion more than 50 years ago, with Operation Rhino, to save the southern white rhino from extinction. Environmental hero, war veteran, founder and winner of the inaugural Duzi Canoe Race. Author of an impressive list of books, public speaker and thought leader on leadership, values and the environment. Older brother of South Africa’s most famous golfer, Gary Player. PLAYBOY travelled to Dr Player’s farm, Phumazoya, in the KZN Midlands, to talk about canoeing on the Duzi, the fate of humanity, dreams and Jung, snakes and spirits, rhinos and plenty of other snippets from Dr Player’s colourful life. The 24-page curriculum vitae an assistant puts in my hands upon departure makes me realise how little of all of it one can capture in just one interview.

PLAYBOY: What is the biggest challenge facing humanity today?
IAN PLAYER: Overpopulation. What are we now? Seven billion people? This planet cannot sustain these populations and many already face absolute misery because there are just too many people.

PB: What will make people wake up?
IP: I keep on reiterating that the environment now supersedes general politics. It is by far the most important issue facing humanity. All else pales in terms of significance. In the past 50 years we have developed a greater understanding of the problems, but we are nowhere near to solving them. “Homo non-sapientes” need to face up to the realities. Food prices keep rising, indicating shortages. South Africa is a dry country and will run out of water for its population. There is a next big disease waiting to hit us, the same way as how the Great Plague in the 1600s culled the UK population.

PB: Can we pull it off?
IP: I have absolute faith in nature to restore the balance, but because we bipeds have brains, we should be working with nature. Once upon a time, diseases such as malaria skimmed the population and kept the balance in check. But now we do not allow nature to do its work and it will wreak havoc on a scale beyond our imagination because we are throwing the world out of balance.

PB: In all of nature, what has made the rhino so special to you?
IP: In 1952, I was a relief ranger with the Natal Parks Board. No one else wanted the job because it involved a lot of moving around, yet that suited my nature. I remember clearly, one misty October day on the slopes of Masinda Hill, some rhino came out of the bush, covered in flies and the steam rising from their flanks. I was awestruck by how primordial they were, a real remnant of the dinosaurs, and here I was in this very close encounter. One has these intuitive flashes in your life, and I knew there that my life would be associated with them.

PB: Tell me about your work with rhinos over the years?
IP: In the 1920s, Vaughan Kirby did a count of the white rhino in Umfolozi Game Reserve and there were a mere 50 left. In 1953, Ranger Hendrik van Schoor and I did the first aerial count of the white rhino, and we counted 437. At that time there was an estimated 60,000 black rhino across the continent,
with Congo, Sudan and Uganda home to about another 2,000 northern white rhino. It was a very accurate count, as we were flying with Van der Westhuizen; a pilot who used to do all the tsetse fly spraying in the area and who knew every nook and cranny. By 1960, due to the good work in looking after the game reserve done by people like Steele and Potter, the white rhino population had grown to 600. But, on the western side of the Umfolozi, cattle and their potential anthrax spore were encroaching. So, we decided to catch and relocate some rhino into their former habitats. Did you know that prior to that, the last white rhino in the Kruger area was killed in the 1890s? And that today, there are none in the Congo, Sudan or Uganda? Where there is civil war, the rhino suffers. We had huge resistance, as the white rhino was seen as the ace in the pack for the Umfolozi’s continued existence, and here we were about to give up our most unique animal.

PB: Did you have the know-how at the time to catch and relocate?
IP: Dr Tony Harthoorn, a British vet, developed a rudimentary drug with which we could dart the rhino from very close-up. He later developed M99; a miracle drug which enabled us to move rhino to our own parks in Natal, as well as to the Free State, Botswana, Zimbabwe and, of course, the Kruger. By the 1970s, our Zululand population was doing so well that people were talking about culling. I said “no” and travelled to the UK and the US where we managed to sell and settle 20 and 300 rhino respectively into so-called Safari Parks. Since the 1980s the global population of white rhino has grown past 20,000, but now we are faced with another problem, namely that there are only 4,800 black rhino left in the world. In South Africa alone, on figures I saw just yesterday, 197 have been poached. This is unsustainable and I have come to believe that the only way we will win this battle is to legalise and regulate the sale of rhino horn.

PB: I assume that position will not be very popular with all conservationists?
IP: Correct, but this is really about control. Almost the way De Beers did first with the CSO (Central Selling Organisation) and now within the conflict-free diamond regime. It is time to go into the business with the Chinese – it is the only way to go.

PB: Moving on, may I ask what you like best about being in the wild?
IP: The solitude. The earth is speaking.

PB: Is there magic in this world?
IP: Certainly. There is magic. I have sat in caves in the Drakensberg in the late evening when going into a meditative state and I could hear the Bushmen singing. My sculptor friend, Andries Botha, went hiking in the mountains around Carnarvon, with a farmer and his dogs. The dogs would not go into a particular kloof. The farmer said that there were Bushmen graves in the kloof and his dogs knew it. It was a place of spirits and they did not want to go near. Magic, yes of course.

PB: Who and what shaped your values?
IP: My mother was a great influence. At about the age of 12, I hurt my knee in such a bad way that it terminated my sporting career. My mother encouraged me to overcome that by reading. After St John’s College in Johannesburg, I joined the army at the age of 17 during World War II. During November 1944, in the Middle East on our way to do battle in Italy, my mother came to me in a dream telling me that she was going to die and that I should not worry. By the time we reached Italy, I received the sad news that she had indeed passed away. This started a lifelong interest in Jung, the subconscious and my own dreams. I am now on my 61st anthology of my own dreams that I write up and then interpret.

PB: Tell me more about your dreams.
IP: After this dream about my mother and her death, my dreams became an important part of my life. Last year, I had a dream of being on a boat on my way to the island of Iona, on the west coast of Scotland, a very spiritual place. A stewardess burst into the cabin, announcing, “The ring of Hermes is about to be served.” Almost a year later, I dreamt of an envelope arriving with the message, spoken by a voice, saying “The ring of Hermes has been served.” Now, the ring of Hermes dreams just preceded the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Then one month ago, I dreamt of being with a group of people and a voice saying, “The earthquake at Fukushima is a mere tremble compared to what will happen to religion. The tsunami will be a mere puff of wind compared to what will come.” This, to me, is part of what Jung called the “collective unconscious,” some of the same phenomenon that saw first tribes in the US bury their warriors sitting upright, just as the Zulu warrior goes to the grave – without there ever having been any contact between these two groups of people.

Dr Player with Magqubu Ntombela, his great friend and mentor.

Dr Player with Magqubu Ntombela, his great friend and mentor.

PB: What truths would you like each young man to discover early in his life?
IP: Pay attention to your dreams. It is the most important thing anyone can do. They are a daily guide. And I would suggest they use Jung’s method of interpreting dreams. It is important to understand the completely autonomous unconsciousness within us. There is a link between dreams and what my dear old friend and mentor, the late Magqubu Ntombela believed were the voices of the ancestors. The only difference was in the interpretation. He believed the voices of the ancestors were the real fathers still talking to him, while Jung believed the same thing to be the father within all of ourselves.

PB: You walked many miles, in every meaning of the phrase, with Magqubu.
IP: Magqubu was very respectful of the spiritual world. In my book, Zululand Wilderness: Shadow and Soul, I tell the story of how the two of us encountered a black mamba. Until then, ours was a relationship of boss and servant, but there he sat me down and gave me a long speech that would forever shape our relationship.

PB: Could you share the story?
IP: This was somewhere around October 1958. We were in the veld and walked past a cairn of rocks. He stopped, picked up a rock, spat on it and added it to the pile, while I walked past. When he reprimanded me, I told him it was his belief, not mine, to appease the spirits. This is when he sat me down and talked me through his beliefs and the need for respect for the elders. After I dutifully found a stone, spat on it and placed it with the rest, we walked further. Not far from there we were stopped dead in our tracks by a mamba, standing upright and almost 10 feet tall. It hovered over us, and then slowly withdrew and slithered away. My dog was sniffing around and had not yet spotted the mamba. He now noticed the snake and started barking. The mamba got agitated and for a second time raised its dangerous head over us. We stood for what felt like forever, and then he left us alone. “See,” said Magqubu, “you would have been finished if you did not place that stone with me.”

PB: You have lived alongside fascinating people. Were you and your brother Gary good friends as kids?
IP: I am nine years older, but we have always been great friends. He has also been very generous to me through the years, as when he bought me this farm after I left the Natal Parks Board. Currently, his Black Knight company is paying for the archiving of more than 60,000 documents in my collection.

PB: Who had the prettier girlfriends?
IP: Gary always had the most admiring women.

Interview Ian Player 2011 05 Aug GaryPB: After school you joined the army and then ended up in Natal. How did your idea for the Duzi Canoe Race come about in 1951?
IP: It was the night before we were due to storm the enemy in the Apennines. I was with the 6th South African Armoured Division, attached to the American 5th Army in Italy. This evening a group of us sat around talking about what we would love to do if we survived the war. My wish was to canoe all the way from Pietermaritzburg down to Durban. I was lucky to survive the war, and in 1950 I finally realised that particular dream..

PB: You were bitten by a night adder in the first race?
IP: Yes, I stepped right on it as I got out of my canoe. But, I was very lucky because it was what you would call a “one-fang” bite, not one that struck really deep. I opened the wound and applied Condi’s Crystals from my rudimentary First Aid kit, and then I hitched a lift to the Inanda Police Station, with an Indian bus driver, and was given an anti-venom injection there. Also, because it was so incredibly hot in the sun on the water, I had my whole body covered in mud as sun protection, and part of that might have helped.

PB: But you went on to win the race?
IP: I had no choice. The race was my idea and by that time, I was the only one of the original eight contestants left. I wasn’t necessarily any better than any of the others, but my boat was and they had all developed problems of sorts by then. Anyway, I finished the race and it became a regular event on the calendar. I consider it one of my greatest contributions, because for many participants it is their first environmental experience.

PB: How did you end up in the wild working for the then Natal Parks, Game & Fish Preservation Board?
IP: Spending time on the water on an exploratory trip for the first Duzi made a very big impression on me. I was expecting to see plenty of game – not just the few duiker here and there. It struck me how scarce game had become. I still had my job at the aluminium works in Pietermaritzburg, even though the river and the race were becoming my burning passions. When, after I won the first race, I returned to work a few days late, I promptly got fired. Now remember, getting fired still carried a big stigma in those days and it was also all over the newspapers. A few friends tried to introduce me into other jobs, but the stigma was a hindrance. One friend eventually sent me to meet with Col Vincent of the Natal Parks Board. His first comments were: “Oh, so you got fired?” I thought that was it. No chance here. Then he went on: “Sounds like a great cause for celebration, not?” For the next 15 years I worked with Col Vincent!

PB: When did you leave?
IP: I left the Parks Board after the most fantastic 22 years of my life – with all of R3,000 and no pension in my pocket to show for it. No one can criticise me for having been in it for the money, now, can they? Anne and I settled at Phumazoya, and got the Wilderness Leadership School going. Magqubu was very helpful in the early days of the Wilderness Leadership School.

PB: How would you describe the ideal relationship between men and women?
IP: There is a famous quote from Nietzsche, who said, “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes for unhappy marriages.” PB: How is man different from animals?
Hmm. Neither man nor animals are monogamous by nature, and I tip my hat to 51those who succeed.

PB: What is the wildest thing you have ever done?
IP: (Lost in thought for a while). This is difficult to answer because there were so many. I would think likely the wild rapids of the Umkomaas. And of course, the early darting of rhinos where we had to get very close, within 50 feet, and where I once ended up in hospital after getting thrown by a rhino when I did not get away fast enough after administering the antidote. I had some really scary moments.

Interview Ian Player 2011 05 Aug 2PB: What is the most important skill you ever acquired?
IP: The ability to speak, to talk. I learnt much from Magqubu, who was a great natural orator, and also from Laurens van der Post, himself a phenomenal orator.

PB: What is your biggest regret in life?
IP: Not spending enough time with my family. I was spending so much time away and just did not have enough time.

PB: The most brilliant, happiest moment in your life?
IP: When my wife said “yes,” she would marry me. Ours was a long courtship, mostly by mail, as I was in Zululand and she was in ‘Maritzburg. She has retained all my love letters

PB: What would you want your tombstone to read one day?
IP: “I did my best for mankind and nature.” But, you know, my psychological type is that of the Hero/Saviour, and our fate is crucifixion. It happened to Grey Owl, an Englishman who went to Canada and worked with some of the first tribes to help restore parts of the wilderness. It happened to Lawrence of Arabia. Often, people use words like “fraud” or “liar” to try and discredit people who put themselves on the line and who take a stand for something. When you take a stand for something, you also take a stand against something, and people get jealous or feel threatened. I know my legacy will suffer the same fate from enemies I have made as a result of fighting for causes.

Editor’s note: As I prepare to say goodbye, a frail Dr Player takes the time to sign copies of three of his books for me. In the front of Men, Rivers & Canoes it reads: “Inscribed for Charl, who took the time and trouble to travel to Phumazoya to interview me. PLAYBOY magazine has become a legend in its time and to be featured in it will be an honour. With warmest personal regards – Ian Player, 30th June 2011.” His last comments to me are: “Get people to read – it’s the most important thing in the world.”

Photos courtesy of Black Knight International – Ian Player Archives

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