The former back-row runs Rama Organica organic farm in Costa Rica
One day Joe van Niekerk’s search for a new life took him to the jungle of Costa Rica.
It wasn’t like the 52-cap Springbok and former Toulon captain spun a globe, put his finger down and picked a new home-home at random – though he laughs that it could have been like that – but he had needed something new. Marie, his “life partner”, and him had searched on the internet, looking for a new opportunity in a field of existential exploration that caught their eye, and there, in all it’s pixilated glory, was an organic farm that they could breathe new life into. That was three years ago.
Today, van Niekerk talks about the services he and his cohorts can provide at Rama Organica, the organic farm in the Southern Pacific zone of Costa Rica where they offer ‘transformational retreats’. He believes in eating off the land and plant-based medicines. He thinks deeply about empathy and compassion, about cleansing your soul and paying forward help to those who need it most (and those who may not know how much they really need help).
But before you get to all that, you have to understand how the former South Africa star started on this search, not long after another European Cup win for Toulon in 2014.
“I had a bit of a spiritual awakening when I was coming to the end of my career,” van Niekerk explains. “I was always one of the team men, you know, I was there for the boys the whole time. And I’d been kind of a central figure but then in the last six months of playing I wasn’t really in the mix. I was playing like one game out of four.
“Slowly but surely that guy started to go ‘wow, what’s going on? I’m kind of on the outskirts now.’ That feeling became a little bit of a launching into unknown territory. And then about two or three months towards the end of the season the boys were winning every week. So I was supporting them and I was there for them and behind them 120% but there was something inside of me that couldn’t be going and celebrating. I mean I was celebrating for them but I wasn’t going celebrating.
“I went through and we had a big night (after Toulon’s second European Cup win) and then the next day, I woke up and I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m able to do this anymore.’ It changed my life basically, from that point.”
If you had seen him thrum into contact or sheer off a scrum seeking action, you would understand why an all-action Bok would want to call time on a career at the brutal end of the game with a year left to go on his contract. Van Niekerk explains that he wanted to physically heal his body after a career of bangs and competitiveness, but he also wanted to attain new focus, too. So he began looking at “different healing modalities”, like fasting, and when he started on the spiritual path he now follows, he began considering what more could be done for others.
He now sees himself as a community leader at his retreat in the jungle and he reiterates a few times that he is not looking for a grand return. It’s about the pursuit of helping others find peace and striving for something else, working with nature. He explains that Rama Organica uses no GMO or pesticides and that about 30% of the food they eat is grown on their land and they have a goal to eat up to 80%. Their approach, he says, is also very much ‘farm-to-table.’
He also wants to help other rugby players when they step off the elite treadmill and no one is shouting their names any more.
He explains: “I know what it’s like when you’re in the limelight and everyone loves you, and you’re in all the newspapers, in the press, and you’re this, you’re that and you are all these things. And then when that gets taken away, what happens next?
“It’s tough. It’s tough for any rugby player, any sportsperson, when it has been that way for 15 years and then it gets taken away. I’ve seen what it takes to pull yourself out of there, because it’s very easy to get into a depressive state when you don’t have that gift any more. You’re running out in front of 60,000 people and that adrenaline lets you just move, then you don’t have that any more.
“So you’ve got to kind of transmute that energy and you’ve got to find a new way, find a new passion for yourself. Where I feel the most comfortable is with people and when I can help and when I can be of assistance.”
For many it can be hard to relate to van Niekerk’s lifestyle. We are conditioned to feel uncomfortable about new-age views or the holistic or when someone else talks about inner truth, searching for answers, meditation and yoga or the ‘spiritual realm’. Yet, you cannot deny van Niekerk’s enthusiasm. The 39 year old certainly has energy when talking about his jungle project.
It is a dynamism many will recognise from his playing days. Picked to be a Bok back in 2001, his Test baptism came against the All Blacks in a match so tense spectators could feel the blood thumping in their temples (it finished 12-3 to New Zealand). His finest performances in green were pockmarked with moments of him hitting the gain-line close to the opposition’s in-goal, or for him supporting team-mates on impossibly-long breaks. In Europe, later in his career, he revelled in a plan to turn a seaside squad in Toulon, that was coloured as pampered old pros, into something more meaningful.
On a recent stop-off back in France on his way to visit his mother, the former back-rower paid old pal Carl Hayman a visit. Just cruising around with his former Toulon compadre, memories of his on-pitch exploits came flooding back.
He says that he would not change a single thing about his playing career.
He exchanged wallops in the colours of Western Province, the Stormers, the Lions as well as with Toulon and the Springboks, and he is grateful for all of it – after all, that rugby run led him to Costa Rica, eventually. Yet, he admits, it took a while to relinquish his old mindset when he threw himself at the new calling.
He wondered if he was caught up trying to be the “best meditator” or the “best at yoga”. He was still tenacious, but at times it must have felt at odds with the desired goal. Even setting solid goals, come on, that’s rugby talk we assume.
The way he explains it, by letting go of that competitiveness but still committing, he could harness so much more energy.
Yet, for all the talk of seeking something new and how you can never really find an end to the search, the question remains: has van Niekerk suffered dark times too and is that part of what pushes him to help others?
“I’ve noticed that each one of us, we have our little stash (of darkness) that we hide,” he says. “We are human beings and I think that the more that you can show compassion – and compassion for yourself as well – the better. I would listen to my own words when I speak you know, because self love is power and it’s important to really love yourself.
“It’s like you you’re discovering new things inside yourself. I’ve realised more and more what the truth is of who we are but I also know that (you have to work on yourself) on a daily basis.”
At the core of a lot of it, van Niekerk adds, is actually letting go of your own story. He concludes of our dark stashes, “I truly do believe that when you’re able to serve people selflessly, without an ulterior motive, that opens up another dimension.”
There is so much to explore that half an hour of talking with the former flanker zips past. The rich irony of course is that while he is saying you should stop obsessing over your own story, his story is so fascinating.
The journey is not over – it never can be. And throughout his time talking with Rugby World, van Niekerk repeats his hope that others out there can come to Costa Rica for a little bit of help. He’s willing to lend a hand.
There are those who will be fascinated about transformational retreats, plant-based medicines and the yearning for community. For others, the idea of seeing what the jungle can provide will intrigue. Then there’s the natural cave on site you can visit or the impressive residences with a fair few mod cons.
Whatever the reason and whatever you believe, should you head out to meet ‘Jungle Joe’ at Rama Organica it will not be a run of the mill excursion. This ain’t no typical rugby trip, guys.