Connecting with a legend of conservation, Paul Dutton, at his Shangri-La
It’s a big and blue day on the beach at Salt Rock on KwaZulu-Natal’s North Coast, the kind when the air shimmers and you can see right through the water.
My dear friend strolls along the sand. He greets a little girl and shakes her hand. She studies him with some caution. Suddenly, her eyes light up. “Are you Paul Dutton?” she asks. She’s the daughter of a colleague, Johann Lombard, at Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, where he consults on promoting the park, which is in restoration after a bush war that left behind it more anti-personnel mines than wildlife. Paul has just happened to bump into Johann at Salt Rock.
The little girl knows all about this man who has been called a conservation legend, even a living legend. “That’s not really the kind of news one wants to hear,” he told me with a chuckle earlier while we’d talked about the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA). He is one of the last of the original 11 founder members of the GRAA, which now has more than 1,800 members throughout Africa.
It takes us 40 minutes to walk 100m across the beach. That’s not because of Paul’s age – he’s a mere 86 – but because he stops to chat. Often.
He chats to fellow strollers, friends from the village. He asks an oyster collector in isiZulu whether he has a licence and wishes him well. Here, properties stretch right up to an eroding beach, and Paul stops a gardener from hacking away at dune vegetation that is trying hard to stop the dune from blowing out. “He’s just taking off the top,” the homeowner explains. “That’s the fastest way to kill it: it’s now exposed to the salt and wind,” Paul replies. They chat amiably and the owner is convinced.
Gifts of age
“Age has made me much more diplomatic,” Paul tells me. “Twenty years ago, I might have yelled and probably not achieved much.”
He is more likely, however, to speak his mind. Age, he says, has also made him more forthright, and that’s why “I don’t think my neighbours always understand me”. But I’m not convinced he is unpopular after our stroll on the beach – respected, yes; authoritative on matters of conservation, yes; outspoken, yes.
Personally, I can’t remember Paul yelling at anyone – and I met him close to 35 years ago. I remember the charm that is still so apparent and I remember his utter passion for the wilderness and its wildlife that is possibly even stronger now.
Flying machine partner
I first met Paul in the old Transkei “Bantustan”. Younger then than I am now, he was the coastal planner for the Transkei and I was a new newspaper reporter. Largely because of him, I sought out conservation stories and he generously shared his knowledge. Often, he would take me with him when he flew his Piper Super Cub – called Spirit of the Wilderness – along the Wild Coast to check on something or other. His beloved flying machine was a solid partner, taking him safely in and out of some of the wildest places in southern Africa.
Paul taught me about coastal dune forests, mangrove swamps, eating in the forest, sleeping on the beach, ecology, life. And I still learn from him. As we walk back to his home, I spot a silver oak (Brachylaena discolor). “Those things are nuisances,” I remark. “Oh no, they’re not,” he says. “They’re one of the most important pioneers in a dune forest.” I’ll look at the silver oak in my own garden in a different light now.
Paradise on Earth
Paul’s home today was once a derelict building in a Salt Rock forest. It was perfect for what he wanted – his own piece of wilderness, a place to rest. He pretty much rebuilt the house to suit his needs, and it nestles among toad trees, Natal mahogany, wild frangipani and towering quinine trees. Birdlife is abundant, including rarities, such as the green malkoha. At night, it is alive with the cries of thick-tailed bushbabies and the sonic calls of epauletted fruit bats.
He calls his wetland forest “Shangri-La”, his secluded paradise on Earth. In the afternoons, he does yoga on the veranda that stretches into the forest and then does vigorous aquabotics in his algae-vegetated pool.
Global swarming and warming
To get to Paul’s Shangri-La, I’ve had to drive along the N2 because my favoured, more scenic M4 is just not there (in places). It’s gone in a landslide in heavy rain. “Nature fighting back,” Paul quips.
So the conversation turns to the fires consuming Australia, where, he says, “the original Aboriginal people left a very light footprint”. The fires “are happening because global swarming is causing global warming, with the planet now overloaded with CO2, overheating the oceans and melting ice caps.
“Australia’s principal tree cover is about 200 species of Eucalyptus trees and shrubs. These all have highly inflammable oils that explode into flying, raging fires called ‘birds’ … way ahead of the main fires. The heat vaporizes aerial moisture and high winds result in the complete destruction of endemic wildlife habitat.”
Paul does not mince words, and I am reminded of why I miss our conversations so much. “We are all complicit in this dialogue in which plastic plays a major role. We once believed the oceans capable of attenuating our plastic waste, but that is no longer an option. It’s now in our circulatory system.
“Nature is trying its best to save the planet from imminent catastrophe, but vital water catchments and wetlands worldwide are now crowded with Homo sapiens, millions of whom are victims of floods and massive mudslides.”
He admits it’s a dim view and adds that, as an ecologist, he tries to take a dispassionate position on Earth’s environmental challenges. “Learning more about the causative impacts of too many humans is for me a form of catharsis, rather than becoming a doomsday advocate.”
So there is no retiring for Paul (“How do you spell that?” he shoots back when I say the R word). He visits Gorongosa National Park each year to witness restoration of its ecosystem and wildlife through partnerships with private players, government and local communities – “an example of how eco-healing can be achieved through sensitive management”. Gorongoso has been called “perhaps Africa’s greatest wildlife restoration story”.
Paul, once a game ranger in Zululand, fears “that our official protected areas will lose both rhino species in less than a decade”. So he has joined forces with Project Rhino on its inspiring programme, RhinoArt, where more than 8,000 schoolchildren in KwaZulu-Natal “are encouraged to cry out for their rhino”.
But right now, on his veranda, we are enjoying coffee made with beans from the rainforests of Mount Gorongoso – and it’s really good. The packet reads Raparigas Movem o Mundo, which means “young girls move the world”. The coffee trees grow alongside and protect indigenous trees. About 20,000 coffee trees and 50,000 rainforest trees are being planted each year. Profits from Gorongosa Coffee go back to the park and its people.
A remarkable life in conservation
It was at his Shangri-La that he completed his autobiography, titled, naturally, Spirit of the Wilderness. Writing this book about his life in conservation took 24 years. He knew it was time to start writing it, he tells me, when a bunch of coconuts almost fell on his head in Bazaruto (more people die of coconuts falling on their heads than of being bitten by sharks, by the way). He knew it was time to stop when he almost died after swallowing a bee lurking in a plate of imfino (wild spinach).
And it has been a remarkable life. I recommend that you read his book – it’s an easy page-turner with heaps of stories. They cover, among other things:
- His long and deep friendship with Ian Player
- A nine-week detention nightmare in Mozambique in 1981; he was released after lobbying by Sir Laurens van der Post at the urging of Ian Player.
- “Doing the Duzi” (the canoe race down the Umsinduzi and Umgeni rivers) in the pioneering 1950s when “canoes were primitive and the clothes lacked brand names”
- Years of conservation work and campaigns in Lake St Lucia, iMfolozi and Ndumo in KwaZulu-Natal, and Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago, where he discovered a new species of lizard, Scelotes duttonii, and an undescribed coral reef formation, now called Volcanus duttonii
- The “holiness” of the wilderness experience … “Personally, I find words that try to describe wilderness as amorphous as trying to catch a tokoloshe (wild spirit),” Paul writes. He does not try to. But he quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins (1881): “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be felt, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.”
- Doing his Master of Science degree (“Arriving forty years late for university”) as the oldest student at the University-upon-Tyne.
He misses his flying partner every day. “I get a lump in my throat, each time I see a yellow Piper Super Cub caressing the sky,” he writes. Today, I understand that I was enormously privileged (and possibly a little dippy) to have been his passenger on a few flights on Spirit of the Wilderness in the Transkei of the 1980s. And I am deeply grateful.