Deirdre Opie, Tswalu’s head guide, is truly at the top of her game with a guiding career spanning 24 years and a raft of prestigious qualifications.
Deirdre threw herself into learning about animals from a young age, growing up on a farm and working as a volunteer at the Johannesburg Zoo while she was at high school. She went on to study Nature Conservation in George at Nelson Mandela Metropole University (formerly Saasveld Forestry College), and completed her honours in 2001.
Deirdre has achieved almost every qualification offered by FGASA, including Guiding Level 3 with SKS (Specialist Knowledge and Skills) in Dangerous Game, Birds and Wild Flowers. She is also a qualified FGASA trainer and assessor. Over and above this, she also holds a FGASA Tracker Level 3 qualification and is on an invitation level for the most advanced tracking qualification of all, Senior Track and Sign.
“To be awarded this, you need to achieve a 100 percent pass rate. I’ve attempted it six times, and missed it by one percent,” she says. No doubt, it is something that this determined, focused industry leader will accomplish before too long. “To achieve the most senior tracking qualification in South Africa would be a huge personal achievement,” agrees Deirdre. “There are very few women who have ever done this.”
All of these achievements require a dedication towards studying and learning, years of practical guiding experience, and thousands of hours on foot.
Tracking is integral to guiding at Tswalu. “It’s fantastic to see how much guests enjoy being part of the process. Given the vast distances and the fact that everyone is privately guided, we have the luxury of time to spend all morning tracking a high-profile species, like black rhino or brown hyena.”
Before coming to Tswalu, Deirdre guided in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Waterberg and spent over eight years working at a senior level for Singita Lebombo in the Kruger National Park. She also travelled extensively through Africa, working as a guide for Nomad Adventure Tours. Covering 10 different countries in three years, she was able to tick off iconic destinations like the Masai Mara, Ngorongoro Crater, South Luangwa National Park, Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta. ‘The ultimate highlight was gorilla trekking in Uganda!’ she says.
It was while working as a freelance guide at Tswalu that Deirdre fell in love with the reserve and the Kalahari’s true sense of wilderness. “The beauty here lies in the landscapes – they are forever changing. One minute you are driving along the base of the towering Korannaberg mountains, the next through thick, red Kalahari sand dunes.”
Deirdre’s role as head guide of Tswalu Kalahari includes mentoring and training her team, and carrying out FGASA assessments on site for guides working towards their next qualification.
‘The thing I love about the bush is that you never stop learning. Each day brings something new, and each biome you go to brings with it new species. I am passionate about all things, great and small, and believe that including all of them in a guided experience is important. My main areas of interest are birding, tracking, and botany.’
All images by Deirdre Opie