December 12, 2023

‘Nature is my mentor’ – a journey from despair to deep connection

Dalfrenzo Laing

I come from a family of two sisters, my niece and nephew. We all grew up in the same small household. There were times when we were evicted and had to move from one house to the other as we could not afford the rent. But what got me through were the words of my late grandfather: “You can either go down the wrong path or make something of yourself.” In moments of doubt, when I thought my future was bleak, I heard his voice guiding me.

Before I made the decision to completely change my life, I was in a very dark space. Between 2005 and 2008, I started using drugs — crystal meth and mandrax. I even sniffed glue. Being young, I was in the grip of some dark influences.

My grandmother was my saving grace. In 2008, she decided to move us from Robertson, an inland town in the Western Cape back to our roots in Napier, just over 100 kilometres away near the coast.

Things were not immediately easy. We struggled financially and I was trying to finish my matric. We didn’t have money for electricity, and I studied most nights by candlelight.

Yet, somehow, I finished school and got through some of the hardest battles of my life.

After I graduated in 2008, I worked at a petrol station and enjoyed it. When I was laid off just months later, I had just R500 in my pocket. I had no clue what to do. But faith and luck were on my side, and on that same day a lady named Michelle from the Napier Tourism Office approached me. She asked if I’d be interested in joining the first-ever marine guiding course in the country. I didn’t think twice. Sure, I didn’t know much about marine life, but if it meant a chance for a better future, I was all in.

The course wasn’t a breeze. The instructor, Louis Willemse, was a tough former navy guy. At the start of the course, I had to hand in an assignment and was running out of time. My grandmother walked the six kilometres with me to Louis’s house and knocked on the door to ask if I could have an extension. He said no. The assignment had to be on his desk the next day at 8am. “But sir,” my grandmother said, “My child doesn’t have a computer.”

Louis then made a plan for me to finish my assignment at the local tourism office, where I worked for 12 hours straight to complete it. The local doctor’s wife brought me sandwiches and coffee to keep me going. I handed in my assignment at 8am. Louis made me believe that nothing was impossible.

The eight-month course was intense, mixing marine education with nature training. The course was partly in English, and my home language is Afrikaans. That was intimidating, plus the fact that many of my fellow students were lawyers, pastors, psychologists. It was also my first experience of a nature reserve and I knew nothing about fynbos [local flora] and ocean life. I was just 19 years old. The only thing I knew was that as the oldest child, I had to pull through not just for myself, but for my family.

Eight months later, I stood transformed. Armed with knowledge, passion and a fresh perspective, I stepped into the role of a marine guide at De Hoop Nature Reserve. My life had taken a U-turn, and I was ready to inspire others. I became one of the most experienced marine guides in the country, and the first from my course to land a job. I also got certified as a field guide, excelling both at sea and on land.

I’ve learnt that passion is everything. It’s what makes my guided tours memorable. It’s not just about talking; it’s about feeling and experiencing. I get folks to hold starfish, jellyfish, sea cucumbers. I’m also passionate about bird-watching. I know over 200 bird species by their names, colours and calls. I share my excitement, involving visitors in the experience.
Looking back, I’m grateful for every step, every mentor, every challenge. My story shows that no matter where you start, with determination and the right guidance, you can turn your life around. We all have the power to shape our futures, no matter how tough the past might have been. And my transformation isn’t just personal – it’s a story that resonates with others. As an ambassador for guiding, I found my voice, sharing my tale of rising above adversity to embrace a life of purpose and conservation. My journey from gas-station attendant to guiding ambassador is a reminder that setbacks are simply setups for comebacks. And, ultimately, nature turned out to be the greatest mentor. And if I can help more young people connect with nature, I know it will change their lives.
The De Hoop Collection will soon offer visitors and learners to the De Hoop Reserve, a unique exhibition that educates us about our common past and allows us to see first-hand where and how our common ancestors lived and flourished. The Origins of Early Southern Sapiens Behaviour Exhibition*, will open up in mid January 2024.

“This exhibition will serve a big purpose. It’s so vital to understand where we are from and what we inherited from our past. It will grant an opportunity to educate the youth and the public through guiding. I am very excited about what the future holds and the exhibition’s role it will play to educate communities.”

To find out more about Dalfrenzo’s plans for community engagement work at De Hoop Nature Reserve, or simply want to connect with him, email him on: [email protected]

All photos courtesy of Dalfrenzo

*De Hoop Collection, in collaboration with the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, the SFF Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE) and the University of Bergen, Norway, are installing an exhibition titled ‘Origins of Early Southern Sapiens Behaviour Mother Africa-welcome home.’ The exhibition includes work from the Sea Change Project has been curated by Craig Foster and archaeologist, Petro Keene.
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