The old Boers knew from long experience on their hunting trips into the vast wildernesses of Africa in the 18th and 19th century that it took time for a man’s persona to drop and reveal what lay behind the mask. They knew too that the friendships that grew on the wilderness treks created a bonding that would be there until the end of their days, so they said you could not claim to know a man until you had eaten a bag of salt with him.
I was reminded of this recently during a journey to Ndumu game reserve, a place that has a permanent place in my heart because of the many deep friendships made in that little wild corner of northern Zululand. I had been stationed there in 1954 and promoted to the new post of senior ranger in the Natal Parks Board.
Part of my duties lay in training the junior rangers who were beginning to join the service. One of these new men was Ken Tinley, a tall fair haired and magnificently built young man of 17. He had worked in a bank in Pietermaritzburg after leaving College, but soon angered his employers because he became so bored he began drawing birds on incoming cheques. He and the bank soon parted company and he arrived by train at Mkuzi station in, June 1954.
I had spent six months almost alone at Ndumu and was not looking forward to having to carry on long conversations. But I was soon swept up in Ken Tinley’s enthusiasm for birds. As every ornithologist knows, Ndumu is one of the richest avifauna areas in South Africa and not a day passed without Ken seeing a new bird and letting out a wild exultant whoop. The Tonga people loved him for his enthusiasm and he became particularly close to a man named Nqabango, an outstanding natural botanist. To watch the two of them together was a joy to me. Nqabango knew his plants, trees, grasses and herbs and Ken knew his birds. When Nqabango found a grass Ken did not know, Ken would find an obscure cisticola or warbler and pointedly ask Nqabango, “Now there is a most common bird, every umfaan in Tongaland knows that bird, even the women know it, you of course will remember it.”
Nqabango would smile and say, “Of course I do, but do you know the name of the reed it is sitting on? “Even the most unobservant white man who knows nothing about the bush knows that reed. Why, even the women at the mission station know all there is to know about that reed.” ‘They were quits and they would shout with laughter, and hold onto each other like two schoolboys.
We used to cross over the Usutu River to Mozambique in a leaking punt poled by one of the sons of old Solomon Gumede who had a big kraal opposite Catuane village. Solomon would ply us with mgano (marina beer) mangoes and bananas. Ken and Nqabango argued about who was the best poler of a punt. While the argument raged and got louder as the mgano took effect — it could be very heady stuff — the young umfaan, probably aged no more than 10, skilfully guided the punt across the wide and swift Usutu, dropping the pole periodically and bailing with a leaking gourd, impassively unconcerned about the argument.
Eventually Ken would grab the pole and begin guiding the boat upstream, laughing gleefully if water came pouring over the edge and Nqabango shouting that thank God the crocodiles had more sense than to eat the Tongas but how good a young, well muscled white man would taste.
Then he would snatch the pole from Ken and with great dexterity make the punt almost waltz across the water while singing some lovely tribal song. As old Solomon Gumede said, it was as good as a bioscope.
When we reached the Mozambique side we would walk up to a Goanese Indian store that had everything from a sewing needle to the latest red wine from the Verde Islands. We would drink Cereveja beer brewed in Lourenco Marques while the storekeeper buttered small bread rolls and filled them with Portuguese sardines and a liberal sprinkling of peri-peri sauce.
Tongaland is hot country and the peri-peri was even hotter, so this meant more Cereveja. Ken and Nqbango would be arguing over some minute detail of an ansellia orchid, testing and teasing each other all the time. When it grew dark, hordes of bats came shooting out from under the eaves of the various buildings and the air would be heavy with the smell of bat dung.
Ken would talk about the bats and Nqabango would contradict him. So Ken would point to an exotic tree in the street and triumphantly ask, “That tree, now what is that, it is the most common tree in Tongaland.”
So this banter would go on until we made our way back to the Usutu River a little under the weather, and get into the punt for the risky journey back to the South African side. Hippo would be grunting downstream or in the pans and tiger fish jumped, slapping their tails on the water. Nightjars called, bats swished past and there was the scent of reeds, sycamore figs, wet planks and the fragrance of an orchid a faint light behind the Lebombo range was the last of a brilliant sunset. Another Tongaland day was over. Ken and Nqabango laughed all the way back to camp.
This was a friendship forged in the wild that tragically ended when Nqabango was murdered one night. It devastated Ken Tinley and it took him a long time to recover from the sadness. Nqabango had become as close as a brother.
Ken Tinley has gone on in life to become one of the greatest and most innovative ecologists in South Africa, working in Namibia and Mozambique, the Cape and now Australia, and writing lucid scientific papers. Whenever I read of antagonism between black and white people in South Africa, I always think of Ken and Nqabango. There are many like them who have shared their bag of salt.