FGASA is super excited to announce that Brenden Pienaar has been awarded Scout status. What an accolade, well done Brenden ! Content producer David Batzofin gets to chat with new Senior Tracker & FGASA Scout Brenden Pienaar about his recent Scout achievement.

DB: Congratulations on becoming the 10th FGASA Scout. What does it mean to you to be part of such an elite group?

BP: It is still a bit of a surreal thought. One that I am extremely humbled by, especially if you read through the other nine names and their associated resumes on that list. I feel a great sense of achievement considering the time (and failed attempts) it has taken me to meet the criteria, especially within the tracking component. Nevertheless, it has been such an enriching and valuable journey that I can highly recommend to all FGASA Field Guides. It genuinely transcends a qualification and flows into a set of skills, principles and values that will stand you in good stead no matter where you end up in life.

Although I feel a bit like a new Grade 8 student in High School, I must say that the structures and support are all in place and that the FGASA Scout qualification is completely achievable. It will however require some serious “dirt time”.

DB: Take the readers back to Brenden in Grade 12. What were you like at school and did you know what career path you wanted to follow?

BP: It would be an outright lie if I said studious. I was always more interested in sport and recreational activities after class than in academics, especially maths and the sciences. Although I was always physically present in class, my mind sauntered through the Central Kalahari and Moremi Game Reserves where we had spent so many school holidays previously.

I do not recall a specific point at which I chose to spend my working life outdoors, in my mind, it was just always going to be that way. A Diploma in Nature Conservation was the obvious next step after school, but at that point, Field Guiding was not even on my radar.

DB:  Take us through the steps that have brought you to this point in your career?

BP: After completing the two theory years of the Nature Conservation Diploma I was positioned in Skukuza (Kruger National Park) as part of our final experiential year. The exposure to conservation management practices I had during that year (and my adventures) was unmatched. From early on in that year (2004), I knew that I wanted to stay. It would however prove to be a tough task to find work within the conservation sector of Kruger National Park, primarily due to a lack of experience.

By the end of that year, however, I had all my FGASA requirements in place to take up a Junior Field Guide position in Olifants Rest Camp. I mostly conducted guided walks and mountain bike trails from the camp in 2005 while continuing with BTech Nature Conservation and relevant FGASA qualifications. Somehow, towards the end of that year, I managed to participate in an activity that changed the way I thought of Trails Guiding. It was on the last night of the Olifants River Backpack Trail recce that I set my sight on a career in multi-day Trails Guiding.

Kruger National Park launched the Olifants River Backpack Trail in April 2006 and I had since handed in my resignation as a permanent guide at the rest camp and  I became a stable fixture on the Backpack Trail roster. Two more Backpack Trails would be added to the activity list and I made sure that my name was on the schedule as frequently as possible for a total of 13 years (2006 to 2019).

I continued working through my FGASA and Cybertracker qualifications at the same time and also completed my Master of Science (MSc Ecology) at Wits in 2015. It was at the end of that year that a friend and colleague (Wayne te Brake) and I started looking into a Trails Guide business venture together.

I completed the FGASA Specialist Knowledge and Skills: Dangerous Game (SKS: DG) qualification in 2018 and the Cybertracker Trailing component in 2020.

DB: Where are you currently working and is there such a thing as a typical day for you?

BP: Wayne and I started Lowveld Trails Co. in January of 2016 and thankfully things are going better than ever before. We are a FGASA Specialist Training Provider that provides Trails Guide Training, Mentorship and Assessments. We also offer our own ‘Primitive Trails’ in Balule, Timbavati Private Nature Reserves and Makuya Nature Reserve (far northern Limpopo Province).

A typical day would be spent out in the field (usually multiple days at a time) either with FGASA Trails Guide candidates or Primitive Trail guests. When I’m in the office, I manage our social media content and platforms.

There’s no ‘typical’ when it comes to full-time Trails Guiding and managing a business. Every day brings a new challenge, but we like it that way. I like to remind myself of the following now and then. “No amount of security is worth the suffering of a mediocre life chained to a routine that has killed your dreams” – Maya Mendoza

DB: What role and how important has FGASA been to you and the various levels that you have achieved? I know that you already have Trails Guide, Mentor and Assessor qualifications in your impressive badge collection.

BP: First we must recognize FGASA’s mission – they set the higher standard and level of professionalism in the guiding industry (southern Africa). To achieve this they have constructed an incredible framework of qualifications. The standard of these qualifications are ultimately set and maintained by the associations’ assessors. The assessors themselves have adopted a ‘peer review’ approach, thus validating the quality of the entire process. It has become pretty evident to me that such a guiding framework, associated qualifications, resources and support are unmatched globally.

I have chosen to make use of this unique ‘instrument’ to build my skills, knowledge and experience. It has provided me with a career and still now challenges me to expand and grow further. I cannot describe how valuable it has been to me and struggle to understand why some choose to ignore this unparalleled ‘instrument’ for growth and development in our field.

DB: This is the highest Trails Guide qualification and is referred to as the “Scout” qualification. It is a combination of the FGASA Specialist Knowledge & Skills: Dangerous Game (SKS: DG) and Cybertracker Senior Tracker qualifications. How achievable is it?

BP: Correct, it is a combination of two disciplines – Trails Guiding and Tracking. I chose to follow the Cybertracker qualification for the tracking component, but it is also possible to become a FGASA Scout by achieving the equivalent Tracker Academy qualification. These are the two tracker qualifications that have been recognized by FGASA.

Oh, it’s achievable. It’s not an honorary designation in any way. The roadmap is clear and transparent. The major cost is time, the amount of time it will take to log the minimum required walking hours (and potentially dangerous game encounters) and the time it will take to master the art of tracking.

DB: What have been the high lights and lowlights for you along this path to Scout?

BP: The highlights have been spending time out in the field with mentors and other like-minded people. There is a real sense of community within the Trails Guide and Tracker space that fuels the learning process. It’s clear that the mentors are extremely passionate about the industry and they share their skills and experience with enthusiasm.

Eish, the lowlights. I attempted and failed the Specialist Trailing component (one of the two tracking disciplines) multiple times. It was tough not to meet the standard that has been set, especially as the evaluations at this level do not take place regularly. It was challenging to find the motivation to get back out there and keep improving after such great disappointment. Anyway, I ended up meeting the standard eventually and learnt a lot about myself and life in the process.

DB: Who do you see as your mentors?

BP: Many of the other Scouts. In no particular order – Robert Bryden, Lee Gutteridge, Colin Patrick, Andreas Liebenberg, James Steyn, Juan Pinto, Adriaan Louw and my friend and colleague Wayne te Brake (he is the one that keeps me in check ).

DB: How supportive have family and colleagues been?

BP: It would have been impossible without family support, especially from my wife. Tamsyn must be the most patient person that I know. If I didn’t have her support, this would never have been a possibility.

DB: Given the standards that FGASA have set for the various qualification, is the guiding industry in a good place currently?

BP: Our industry has been extremely hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has lead to a loss of businesses and associated jobs. I suppose it has shown just how volatile an international market can be, which in turn has already created opportunities within the local market. We are therefore likely to see a more balanced market approach as we start rebuilding. Furthermore, I believe that a growing number of people will seek experience-based travel (especially Trails and Tracking) than in the past. Guides are therefore well-positioned to add greater value to this ‘new’ travel model and its associated opportunities, especially with such a wide range of qualifications within the FGASA framework. We are likely to see more guides become entrepreneurs. Hopefully, we will also see employers give more recognition to their guides moving forward, which will allow them to share in the benefits of a more dynamic and resilient industry.

DB: Would it then be correct to say that it can now be seen as a profession that can support a family, rather than a gap-year activity?

BP: We are certainly moving in that direction. Guides are becoming more qualified and more professional. There is a serious movement among guides that deserves recognition and appropriate remuneration. Institutions that employ Apprentice Field Guides at disrespectful rates will continue to experience high turnover and will start feeling the pressure from other establishments that invest in their Guides’ development.

Guests don’t know that they have had an average Guide until they have had a good Guide. That is when and where the pressure will become apparent. With the higher standard and level of professionalism in the guiding industry and a reduced market, guides are likely to be valued to the point where they can support a family.

It’s not unrealistic at all. Many have done it already. As an example, I have managed to turn Trails Guiding into something that pays for a house and our children’s school fees. If I can do it, so too can others.

DB: I see trackers as having a superpower, is this a correct assumption or is it hours of work in the bush?

BP: It certainly is an exceptional skill. I remember seeing experienced trackers follow suggestions of tracks through the landscape only to connect with their quarry. It seemed like a type of superpower and something that you either have or you don’t. However, it can be achieved with some dedication and a serious amount of practical application. One of the things I love most about tacking is that there are no shortcuts. In a modern world of instant gratification and quick fixes, tracking has remained uncorrupted and true. It takes honest ‘dirt time’ to develop this ancient skill. You can only develop this “superpower” over many years, David.

DB: Do you have any words of advice for those who are close to this qualification, yet are not certain if they can tackle the final hurdles?

BP: If I can do it, so can you. It’s a long-term goal so don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t forget to have as much fun as possible along the way.

DB: Where to from here for you?

BP: I’m going to keep working on my Primitive Trail facilitation techniques and will look to improve my tracking skills. I see this qualification as my new starting point, not the endpoint.

Lowveld Trails Co. will also be receiving a great deal of my attention as the demand for regenerative travel is growing exponentially.

Well done Brenden, you can be so proud, FGASA is !