Gone is a man who lived and let live
Tribute to Ralph Girdwood by a personal friend, Johnny Masson
Mapelepele - Ralph, or Mapelepele by his Swazi name, was born on October 2 1945, and was brought up and educated in Swaziland.
Like all young people, then as now, he was not over enthusiastic about the immediate choices of work and career prospects open to him. Although he worked on a sugar farm, on construction work, as a road surveyor and at some time obtained his pilot's licence, he had grown up as an outdoors lad, and spent most of his spare time at Mlilwane which his cousin, Ted Reilly, was establishing as a Game Sanctuary.
This eventually led to his being sent to Hlane Game Sanctuary to assist Ted, who had been appointed by His Majesty to supervise this large bushveld wilderness. In due course Ted was to write his own fitting tribute to Ralph. I will read it to you:
"Then as communications to Hlane improved and poaching problems grew, we seconded Ralph to Hlane to relieve the situation. He did an excellent job and he was absorbed later into the Mlawula operation with the National Trust Commission. Mapelepele was one of the earliest contributors to Swaziland conservation. Quiet, loyal, reliable and always there backing up a situation. Thank you, Mapelepele."
Ralph's stay at Hlane helped him to amass an enormous amount of knowledge on wildlife, indeed the whole flora and fauna of the bushveld. Unfortunately, most of his records were destroyed by the Domoina flood which swept away his camp site at Mlawula in January 1984.
However, he took this in his stride, as he did other misfortunes. Mlawula had been bought by the Trust Commission in 1979 and Ralph had the task, almost single handedly and with few resources, of developing the reserve. Most of the features of Mlawula which the visitor can appreciate today date back to those pioneering days.
He later moved to Malolotja Nature Reserve where he also made his mark. He was then appointed Director of Parks and Reserves. However, he was beginning to lose faith in the conservation ethic as he perceived it should be, and he resigned from the Commission in 1991, when with the help of a few friends he engaged in several business ventures. Although these were not particularly successful he carried on in his resolute way until he realised that the prospects of achieving long term viability were elusive.
Ralph then rejoined the Commission in 1996 as warden of the new Mantenga Nature Reserve and Cultural Village. However, because of his previous experience he was soon drawn into the wider works of the Commission and became Acting Director of Parks which post he held until the end.
Just a month or so before he went into hospital he had an operation to improve his eyesight, which had been deteriorating. This was instantly successful and gave him renewed confidence. It was tragic therefore that he was not to live to reap the reward of full sightedness.
Ralph was his own man who lived by the formula of live and let live. He was a gentle man whom I personally never saw aroused to violent anger. He was a concerned and balanced conservationist who has contributed much to the environmental welfare of Swaziland. His wide circle of friends will miss his quiet friendship.
I would like to conclude this short tribute by quoting an old saying, Welsh as it happens, not Scottish, which seems to express the suddenness of his leaving us:
"Death comes unannounced, abruptly he may thwart you; no one knows his features nor the sound of his tread approaching."
Farewell dear Ralph from all of us, you are in our hearts and minds for all time.
Hamba kahle mngani wetfu. Siyobonana kuletitako!!
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