JP le Roux, a senior field guide at Singita Kruger National Park, nearly lost his life in a surfing incident - far from the bush. He broke his back and was bed-bound for three months. It didn’t stop him from embracing life’s adventures and staying close to nature - the way he grew up.
“I grew up in Gordon’s Bay, and for the majority of my life, up until around 23, I lived at the coast. I would work for a few months, then hitchhike up the coast, come back and work again for a few months. Very soon I gained a lot of knowledge about certain areas. People would often ask my opinion about certain places to go. Sometimes people would ask if I wouldn’t mind taking them there,” Le Roux reminisced.
He soon discovered a love for sharing information, never believing there could be a career in it.
“One day I was staying over at a backpacker, and there were three Swiss tourists there - a couple, and one girl. One half of the couple got ill, and had to be medically evacuated out of the back packers. The remaining Swiss girl asked me if I’d accompany her for the week that she had remaining in South Africa, just to make sure she got safely to places. I agreed. She offered payment, but I refused. I took her wherever she wanted to go, and eventually I decided to look into what it takes to become a guide.”
“In December 2000 I started studying to become a nature guide. I qualified in 2001, and I have been guiding ever since then,” he says. “In the beginning of my guiding career I didn’t have full-time employment. It was on and off.”
As it happens in life sometimes, chance encounters tend to steer one in various directions, or reinforce a particular path. For Le Roux it was the latter. An encounter with a birding enthusiast in Cape Town piqued his interest in the feathery creatures.
“One day I went into the city to visit the museum, and as I was hitch hiking back, somebody who gave me a lift said, ‘you must come with me, I will teach you about birds’. The guy insisted on having my number. I gave him a wrong number. Back then I was still supplementing my guiding work with restaurant work. Two or three weeks later the same guy walks into the restaurant with his wife,” Le Roux says.
The man’s wife didn’t really share her husband’s passion for birds and begged Le Roux to go bird watching with him.
“He taught me about birds, and insisted on me becoming a bird guide.”
What does it take to become a field guide, and what type of personality must you be?
“You need passion for people and for nature. You need to have a passion for working for people, and creating unique experiences for them. One of my biggest rewards is to see people leaving happy, and living up to the expectations that they have.”
Le Roux knows Singita’s 33000-acre private concession in Kruger National Park like it’s his own back yard. It kind of is, anyway. Just about every tree and hill is a landmark for a well-trained eye like Le Roux’s.
He shifts the Land Rover into gear, through riverbeds and between prickly bushes, moving effortlessly over the landscape in search of the magnificent beasts that inhabit this land. Witnessed in person his skills are more than a gift. They are honed over many years of hard work and dedication.
Training for a guide is no walk in the, er, bush either. It’s a multi-faceted regimen that ensures only the best and most capable guides get to work at establishments like Singita.
“The best way to start a career is to make contact with the Field Guiding Association of South Africa, and then get in touch with a training service provider like EcoTraining. They provide an intensive six-month training course.”
Of course, there’s nothing stopping an aspiring guide from taking the initiative.
“Make contact with a lodge and ask if it’s possible if they can just go for a week, and decide if this is what they want to do.
“Quite often it looks very romantic to do it, but it’s often hard work, that a lot of the younger guys don’t see. Many of them get the wrong idea,” Le Roux says.
He has some parting advice too for the young field guides.
“Give it your best, study hard and learn as much as possible. Be humble and always work to the next level of qualification to make sure you’re at the very top of what you can do.”