During my 40 years’ involvement with conservation I have met many remarkable people ranging from princes to scientists and political leaders. But my beloved friend, mentor and wilderness guide Magqubu Ntombela was unique. He taught me the real meaning of hlonipha (respect) and ubuntu (compassion).
Through the most patient instruction he introduced me to a new cosmology. We worked together capturing rhino; he was with me as I crept up and fired the dart gun from very close range. On long patrols fighting poaching gangs and talking to recalcitrant law-breakers Magqubu was always at my side.
Coming as he did from a long line of warriors, he was afraid of nothing. His grandfather had served Shaka Zulu and his father fought in Cetshwayo’s Zulu army at the great battle of Isandlwana in 1897 with the Ngobamakosi regiment. Our early friendship grew out of that war because my grandfather in the Natal Hussars fought at Inyezane on the same day as Magqubu’s father was fighting at Isandlwana. Together in 1987 we made a pilgrimage to Brecon to the headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Wales, where we were entertained by the colonel and his officers.
Magqubu, born in a humble kraal on the green Ongeni hills between Hluhluwe and iMfolozi game reserves, quickly won the hearts of the soldiers. He captivated them with his stories. He spoke only Zulu, but no greater communicator through mime and imitation ever lived.
For two days Magqubu made headlines in the major newspapers in Britain. We went to America to attend the Fourth World Wilderness Congress, where he spoke to more than one thousand people.
Mrs Gro Harlem Bruntland, Prime Minister of Norway, was enchanted with Magqubu and again he won the respect and admiration of everyone he met. Wherever he went he carried his little three-legged cooking pot that he had bought in 1925 for five shillings.
To smart hotels or into the wilderness, the pot went with him. Once we were attacked by lions and he put his pot down as we were retreating.
When he decided he was going back to fetch it we had a furious argument. I said his life was more valuable to me than the pot. He ignored me, braved a wounded lion and returned, smiling, with his pot. Together we took more than 3 000 people into the wilderness areas of iMfolozi and Lake St Lucia game reserves on foot.
He always fearlessly took the lead, following the rhino paths, stopping at vantage points and telling the trailists about the history of the landscape.
To Magqubu, the hills and trees lived. The animals and birds were his brothers and sisters. His eyesight was phenomenal and his hearing so acute that he would wake from a deep sleep to the sound of a hyena or a leopard passing the camp. He had extra-sensory powers which enabled him to anticipate danger.
He could not read or write, but he always smiled with teeth in perfect condition at the age of 93, and said, “My lips are my pen, my ears my books.”…..
Source: part of an article written by Ian Player upon Maqqubu’s death (“his last walk west” as a friend wrote) in 1993.