by Nancy McDaniel
How many of us are fortunate enough in our lives to meet someone who has been a true hero of ours? Not a known hero such as a parent who selflessly raised us safely and successfully. Not an unknown but “everyday” hero such as a firefighter who risks his or her life everyday to protect us, but a larger-than-life hero whose books are twinkling stars of words that light up the pages and whose accomplishments in the natural world make life better for all of us. Even for those of us who don’t even realize it.
I just did. His name is Ian Player, Dr. Ian Player. His Zulu name is Madolo, “The Knee.” Knowing him has changed and enriched my life. Just as reading his book and learning about him in the past year had already begun to change my life.
His brilliantly written book Zulu Wilderness: Shadow and Soul is a tribute to his mentor, guide and forever friend Magqubu Ntombela. So, too, this is my humble attempt to write a tribute to Dr. Player, an inspirational hero, whom I now feel fortunate to call my friend as well.
Who Is Ian Player?
First I have to tell a little about how I came to know of this remarkable man. About a year ago, a friend in South Africa sent an e-mail to introduce me to a book she felt I must read. She knew of my intense passion for the African Bush and told me that the book Zulu Wilderness was the inspirational and moving story of a white South African game warden and his longtime Zulu tracker. She said the story was remarkable in so many ways, not the least compelling of which was the close relationship and love that developed between these two men throughout all the dreadful apartheid years. Their friendship deepened and lasted some 40 years, until Magqubu’s death a few years ago. Based on Jane’s heartfelt recommendation, I found the book on Amazon.com, ordered it, unpacked it, and put it on my “African book shelf” to read at a later time. Frankly, I sort of forgot about it for many months as I lost myself in the press and flurry of my everyday City Girl life. (Remember the tale of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse? Well, I’m sort of both. There’s the City of Chicago Girl and the African Bush Girl, happily co-existing inside me.)
Then it came time, as it always does, for African Bush Nancy to reassert her presence; it was time for me to find my way back into the Bush. So last May, I went to Botswana on what turned out to be the Very Best Safari of my life (read A Safari for My Senses). Sitting around the campfire late at night, our guide Russell would tell me tales of his hero and mentor when he was a game guide in Kwa Zulu Natal. He told me the stories and spoke of the man with more awe and respect in his voice than I’ve ever heard before. From anyone. About anyone. In my career, I had never revered a boss or mentor in such a way. He spoke of Dr. Ian Player with reverence, due to his nearly lifelong passion to save the wilderness – and the white rhino. All of a sudden, I realized that this man about whom Russell spoke was the same man whose book was still sitting on my bookshelf. I made myself – and Russell – a promise to read the book as soon as I returned “home” from the bush. I also knew the book would keep the African Bush Nancy alive inside the City Girl Nancy for just a little longer after I returned. That it would help keep me centered as I moved back into the hustle and bustle of my everyday world.
The Book Spoke To Me
I had no idea of the depths of my involvement with the book. Or the profound effect it would have on me. I read it greedily with highlighter in hand. The eloquent words of Ian Player, his passionate feeling for the Bush and the people and animals who co-exist on the wildest land staggered me in their intensity and beauty. I was deeply moved by the book and Ian Player’s words. Humbly, I realized that my much more recent, much less schooled and sophisticated feelings were much the same as his. I felt an overpowering need to connect with this great and obviously sensitive and caring man.
Won’t You Please Be My Pen Pal?
So I sat down and wrote him a letter. Just like that. I ferreted out the address of his Wilderness Leadership School in Durban, South Africa from a friend who lives there. The letter I sent was an unabashed fan letter, the type I probably used to write to Ricky Nelson or maybe Pat Boone in the 50s. It had no real purpose other than to tell Dr. Player how moved I was by his words, how much I admired him and how highly Russell the guide had spoken of him. I sent him a little of my writing from Go Inside (also read The Solar Powered Bush Baby and A Life Turned Inside Out and Upside Down). I told him of my passion for the Bush. I asked if he would like to be my “pen pal” (yep, I actually used that term and had the audacity to ask. Imagine a 52-year-old woman in Chicago inviting a 70ish year old conservation hero to be her “pen pal.”) I had no idea if I’d ever hear back from Dr. Player. But in the typically polite, kind and helpful South African manner, he wrote back. He even called to follow up. He thanked me for my letter, my writing, my interest and my compliments on his writing.
He said he couldn’t take on a “pen pal,” as his business correspondence was so overwhelming that he barely had time to stay in touch with his family (of which famed golfer Gary Player was part, Ian’s brother in fact). That was OK with me; I never really expected that he would accept my offer. I was just thrilled to have heard from him, so much so that I even saved his message on my answering machine to occasionally hear the lovely South African accented voice saying “Nancy McDaniel, this is Ian Player….”
City Mouse In Charge
Some time passed and I busied myself being City Mouse again. But my dream of living in the African Bush still was alive, hibernating just below the surface. My khakis and hiking boots were in the basement closet, having their place upstairs taken by linen suits and flowery summery dresses. But, as always, the dream was not far away.
One day in August, I received another letter from Dr. Player, telling me that he would be making a trip to the United States in October. He said that I should call his colleague and associate in California, Vance Martin, to find out if Chicago was on the itinerary, as he’d love to meet me if he would be coming this way. I excitedly picked up the phone and called Vance, who was President of the WILD Foundation (www.wild.org) which Ian had founded to help further his work to protect the wilderness. Vance informed me that, unfortunately, Chicago was not on Ian’s itinerary for this trip. He also wondered how I knew Dr. Player, who had mentioned I would be calling. “Well, I really don’t,” I said, and then I told Vance the whole oddly circuitous journey of a story that had led me to him. We spoke several more times, as I tried to figure out a way that I could host a fund-raiser so that Ian might come to Chicago. But there was just no way I could quickly put an event like that together and give it the importance it so deserved. So, if Muhammad couldn’t make it to the City Mouse, I had to move the Mouse to see Dr. Player.
Dr. Player’s Traveling Road Show
Vance invited me to join the “tour” (the logistics of this trip for Dr. Player seemed much similar to what it must be to put together a Rolling Stones concert tour, but with different stops: The United Nations for a luncheon inaugurating The WILD Awards, a reception at the United States Capitol, and stops in Atlanta and Texas.) I eagerly signed on to be a Player Groupie (instead of Arnie’s Army, it was sort of Ian’s Admirers). But no hanging around stage doors or golf courses for me – I was actually invited to attend the events and spend some time with Dr. Player! I have seldom, if ever, been so excited about a trip in my life.
About two weeks before the events were to take place, I found out that my mother had developed a medical condition that would quickly require surgery. The surgery was scheduled for the very same day as I was supposed to fly to New York (I guess the surgeon must have been more familiar with Gary the Golf-Player than Ian the Conservationist-Player.) I was heartbroken but I knew that my priority was to be with my mother. I had to cancel the trip to meet Ian.
One of my friends reminded me that The Player Traveling Road Show was making a stop in Atlanta the week before the East Coast trip and my mother’s surgery. Vance kindly arranged for me to be invited to both Atlanta events. Help from new friends in Atlanta in getting me a room in an inn near the event, and from my seamstress friend Denice in altering my animal print bustier for the Wild Weekend Gala and I was on my way! Not to the UN and the US Capitol, but to the home of the owner of Bush Homes African Safaris and the Fulton County Government Center, a much more than fair trade, as it turned out.
Who’s In at The Inn?
Who should also be staying at the beautiful old inn but Dr. Player himself, Vance, Jim Fowler and his lovely daughter Carrie. Yes, THAT Jim Fowler (Remember this? Marlon: “And here’s Jim, wrestling down the angry anaconda. How’s it going, Jim?” Jim: (amidst thrashing sounds): “OK, Marlon, I think everything is under control.”) When I arrived and checked in, I met Vance and he told me the schedule of the evening’s events. We would meet in the lobby at 6:15 for the short drive over to Phil’s home, where Ian would be speaking at a cocktail reception. Fortunately, I was my typically ready-early self, because at 6, someone called from the reception desk to say that Phil Osborne was here to pick up Dr. Player and would I like to join them? I fairly flew down the steps; I was really going to finally meet this man. My heart beat wildly (it really did), excited but not really knowing what to expect.
And then there he was. THE Ian Player. A legend of a man, with the heart of a lion, the eye of an eagle, the bravery of a honey badger and the story-telling skill of a bushman. A giant of a man, but not large in physical stature, who walked with a cane due to a long ago knee injury, thus lending him his Zulu name Madolo (The Knee). He was a man who firmly shook my hand and, in doing so, made my heart skip a beat. We chatted briefly on the drive over and then at Phil’s before the invited guests arrived. The name tag printed up for me said: “Nancy McDaniel, Guest From Chicago Who is Passionate About Africa.” I pinned it on proudly, the best nametag I have ever worn. How thrilled I was for that to be written about me. Now everyone I met would know exactly how I felt (although once I opened my mouth to speak, it was patently obvious anyway.)
When Ian Talks, People Listen
I talked with other people, “networked” about Africa and learned what the gathered friends and supporters of Ian and The Wild Foundation were working on and interested in. It was a lovely evening. But I was (im)patiently waiting for Ian to speak. After Phil introduced him, referring to him as the Man Who Saved the White Rhino, Ian humbly took the spotlight and began to speak. His voice is powerful and strong, although he is actually quite shy. He told me later he doesn’t much like talking about himself. But even he enjoyed this talk, because he spoke of some of his favorite historic topics: the Zulu people, the Zulu and Boer Wars, the pain and horrific unfairness of apartheid. He spoke hopefully about the new government and the future of his beloved South Africa. He bemoaned the loss of white South Africans who still continue to leave the country; he was dismayed to discover that 30,000 South Africans are living in Atlanta alone. (Not because there is anything wrong with Atlanta; rather, he felt this was a loss to South Africa and her future).
He told a lovely, sweet story fondly remembering Magqubu. It was about the time in the UK when they went together to a formal military dinner held by the Welsh guard. Ian was concerned about the multitudinous silverware and how his dear friend Magqubu, who was well-schooled in Bush knowledge but not of things formal, would cope with the complicated cutlery. Magqubu cleverly imitated his host, picking up the proper fork or spoon. Ian then followed Magqubu’s lead and all was proper in Wales. He also told the story of how Magqubu’s uncle and Ian’s grandfather fought on opposite sides in the Zulu War. As they discussed it, they opened up to one another and sewed the seeds of what would become a deep friendship that would last forever. In general, one of Ian’s themes was how we can, if we just open our eyes – and ourselves – learn so much from other cultures and how important it is to open ourselves to these experiences.
One of the things so amazing about Ian was his demeanor. As my good friend Dave observed, there seemed to be a sense of peacefulness around Ian. He seems so at home in his own body, in his own self. “Tranquil” may be another word to describe him. He seems to be utterly at peace with his life. Perhaps it is because he has made peace with the natural world and knows that he has done so much FOR it, not TO it, unlike so many others. I imagine he sleeps softy at night, without fear or worrying if he had done enough.
The Loving Friendship of Two Men
Dave talked to Ian about his own sense of wonder, as a man, that Ian could have written so moving a book about the friendship, bonding and, yes, in fact, love between two men, a difficult thing for most American men to admit. Our men are so conditioned not to express their friendship and love for one another, so discouraged from discussing their feelings for the fear of not being “manly.” How much more “manly” could a man be than Ian and Magqubu? The book displayed Ian’s obvious admiration and respect for Magqubu; his words are genuine and sincere.
As I listened to Ian, I was moved, inspired and awestruck. Further, I knew there was a reason I had come to Atlanta and was meeting Dr. Player. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew that something important was happening to me. When he finished talking, I leapt to my feet and led the sustained standing ovation, with tears in my eyes, quietly rolling down my cheeks. I knew that I was in the presence of A Legend, Madolo, The Knee.
The Discussion Continues
After the party ended, we “inn-stayers” made our way back to the inn where we had a long and free wheeling discussion over cups of tea. We talked about wildlife and the wilderness and the interaction of humans and animals and the land. Jim Fowler spoke eloquently and at length about the Natural World and our intrusions and disruptions to it. Ian chimed in as well. Every once in a while, I had to remind myself of where I was and with whom I was having these discussions. I held my own, I am proud to say. Finally, we all said good night and agreed to meet for breakfast at 9. I sadly went to bed. I was so tired but, just as when I am in the bush, didn’t want to miss a thing. I knew we all needed to sleep as we had a busy day to anticipate, but in my brain, I was back around the campfire in Botswana, sharing stories. But this time, not with Super Guide Russell, but his Hero – and now mine – Ian Player. I wanted it to go on and on and hear all the stories. Maybe tomorrow. I slept fast.
Outside my open window, I awoke to the sounds of birds. Not bulbuls and boubous and shrikes, but sweet birdsongs nonetheless. Not birds found in Roberts’ Birds of South Africa but in the Audubon Guide to the Birds of the Eastern United States. Lovely songs eased me into the day. I got up fairly early, went down to the living room, had coffee and waited for my new friends to join me for breakfast. I was like an excited schoolgirl. I was hungry, even more for more conversation than the bacon and eggs.
The Wilderness Men Get to Know Nancy
Jim and Ian and Vance finally arrived at the breakfast table and we had a great conversation. Somehow it ended up moving from Wilderness and The Wild to getting to know a little more about Nancy. And they ended up giving me dating advice. Now, how great is this? Three giants in their fields are advising and teasing me and we are laughing like old friends. I’ll never forget that breakfast.
“You Know” What I Did?
Ian and Vance conferred and asked each other “Should we tell her?” “What?” I asked. “What you did,” they said. My heart sank and I wondered what major faux pas I had committed. Had I gotten too comfortable and said something ignorant or impolitic or just what? They explained they had a club called “NYK” which stood for “No ‘You Knows’”, as their pet peeve is when people say, “You know” as a sloppy form of speech. I had no idea that I did this so much (they said 3 times already, so I owed them $3 so far, $1 per occurrence). I was horrified, we all giggled, and then I became self-conscious and tried to think harder before I spoke. $2 later I finally gave up. But since that conversation, you know what? I consciously try to avoid saying “you know.”
We all went our separate ways for much of the balance of the day. Vance and Ian had meetings, Jim and Carrie had appointments, so I went for a long walk and to the art museum. Later I discovered Ian sitting in the living room and we had some more time together to talk. We covered a variety of subjects: his loathing for tuxedos and preference to wear a kilt, my passion for the Bush, how I came to love it and why I wanted to work there, a mutual South African friend currently living in Chicago, various books we had read, my writing, a letter to the editor I had written objecting to a gorilla being referred to as having “human qualities” (in which I challenged the assumption that humans are kinder and more nurturing than other animals). My conversations with this remarkable man were natural. We were beginning to speak as friends might, covering wide-ranging subjects, getting to know each other. My respect for him increased, as I explored somewhat the man behind the legend. Madolo, the Knee. A Giant Mountain of A Man, but an approachable man. I continued to be in awe of him, but no longer shy around him. I even found myself teasing and joking. His smile and laugh were my best rewards, as they more frequently surfaced. Once again, I hated for our conversation to come to an end. I was sure we would pick up again shortly, and head to yet another subject.
Ian Gives Me A Pep Talk
Ian told me he was sure I would be able to find a job somewhere in the Bush, that between my writing, my background and my personality, it should be easy (but remember, this is one of the three men that thought I should have no trouble finding a date or a boyfriend either so although I value their opinions…..). However, he also questioned if I would really be happy or if I might get bored and maybe should consider just going on holiday to the bush as often as feasible. I said he may be right but it is something I feel need to try. I still feel I must follow my dream and that dream is to spend time living and working in the southern African Bush. Somewhere. Doing something.
And so we adjourned again, until the evening Black Tie Gala, Ian to rest (perhaps to have nightmares of Tuxedos and bowties and cummerbunds strangling him as a snake never could), me to again ponder the magic of these two days.
I made a list of the friends to whom I wanted Ian to inscribe copies of his book and a little about each of them so that he would have an idea what to say. Finally it came time to get ready for the evening. Unlike Ian, I love to dress up in formal wear from time to time (remember the City Mouse?), especially this time because I had my cheetah and zebra print sequined bustier to wear with my tuxedo – how more perfect for a wilderness and wildlife party? When it came time to go, even I thought I looked about as good as it gets for me. I confidently went downstairs to wait for my friends. “The Girls” were going over separately from “The Guys” as they still had some business to meet about. However, we did get compliments from the men, as we were waiting for the group to convene.
Not a WILD Party, But a Party For The WILD
The party was nice, but the best part was spending more time with Ian and my new friends. Our group snagged a table so we could sit and listen to the various speeches. Unfortunately, the lovely atrium of the office building was “acoustically challenged” (to put it nicely. Actually, at one point, Ian leaned over with a twinkle in his eye and said to me, “I can’t hear a bloody thing, can you?” Nope). Ian made his way to the podium to speak. I think he was relieved that a tuxedo (nor kilt) had not surfaced for him to wear, so he happily wore a suit instead. Imagine that he was the only one whose voice carried in this cavernous spot. He spoke of Wilderness and the importance of preserving it. Then he did the thing which will remain with me forever. I get shivers and goose bumps every time I tell the story.
Ian softly and kindly gave a gentle stab at the acoustics of the Government Center Atrium. He said he had to do something that his dear friend Magqubu would want him to do. He was compelled to give the Cry of the Fish Eagle. He put two fingers in his mouth and proceeded to take me back to the banks of any river or any water hole in Africa and the sound thrilled my soul. I cried softly as Ian had taken me – and all of us who cared — with him to our Beloved Africa. The sound soared and reverberated around the atrium. It was impossible to believe that there was NOT a fish eagle in that place. It was one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced. In the exquisite novel, A Far-Off Place, Laurens van der Post (who was a dear friend of Ian’s) speaks of why Bushmen name the places they camp. His main character Francois says that “…the place can always feel that although they themselves have gone, they have left feeling that something utterly of themselves would always be there feeling itself part of it.” Thus, for me, the Fulton County Government Center will always be The Place Where The Fish Eagle Cries.
Jim Fowler spoke and brought a 6-month-old leopard and a young serval as well as a stunning owl and white backed vulture. The evening was complete. But even seeing these exquisite wild creatures did not diminish my favorite African animal of the evening: the fish eagle that soared and cried and was utterly there.
When the event adjourned, we went out for a late dinner and talked some more. We went back to the inn and talked even more. Then it was 1:30 and time for bed. I hated to go. I had a plane to catch in the morning. We all said goodnight. I hoped to say good-bye to my new dear friends in the morning, as I waited for my cab to take me away.
I Didn’t Want To Leave
I was up, packed, dressed and had breakfast alone while the entourage wisely slept in later than I. Vance, of course, had already been running. He told me that he didn’t think Ian would be up early, as it had been such a late night. I of course understood but was devastated at the thought I might not be able to say a proper good-bye to my new dear friend. But, another fortuitous thing happened; my cab was late! As I fretted about getting to the airport in time, Vance said, “Oh, Ian is at breakfast.” I beamed and ran into the dining room. I cried, “You’re here!” In a scene etched indelibly in my memory, Ian leapt out of his chair and dashed over to give me a giant hug and a kiss. With a catch in my voice and tears in my eyes, I thanked him and told him how very much I cared and that I hoped the next time we would see each other would be in His Place. In the southern African Bush. The Place Where The (Real) Fish Eagle Cries.
I got to meet my hero. How lucky I am. He is still my hero, even more than before. But he is also now a real person to me, whom I can call my friend.