This January the new post of park activities manager opened up in the Kruger National Park (KNP), and Andrew Desmet was delighted to step into the newly created position. Andrew has had a love affair with the bush since his childhood, fostered by his parents' love of the outdoors. Growing up in Randpark Ridge in Johannesburg, he was a prominent member of both his school's wildlife society and sports teams, enjoying a place on the water polo team and getting provincial colours for athletics.
Today this combination of interests is reflected in his fondness for the park's hiking trails, notably the new Olifants River backpacking trail which he helped develop. Andrew's first work experiences in Kruger came when he did his practical year for his nature conservation diploma in 1995. He recalls how his duties entailed helping the section ranger by day and helping with night drives in the evening.
"Guiding is much more of a profession now," says Andrew, going on to explain how one of his new tasks is to train and assess the 88 guides currently employed by Kruger. Although the park has moved on from the time when students with no tourism training drove guests around the park, there is still room for improvement.
Andrew is hoping to formalise the guiding structure in the park, ensuring that guides that have different skills levels are placed in suitable positions. Part of the training he will be carrying out involves helping guides get the message of conservation across to their clients, as well as explaining the park's latest conservation policies.
After finishing his diploma, Andrew got a series of short contracts working for the park. These culminated in his appointment as the relief bush camp manager for camps like Biyamiti, Talamati, Sirheni and Bateleur, stepping in when the permanent management couples went on their scheduled breaks.
However, his love for a woman won out over his love for the park, and he returned to Joburg in 1998 to get married to his wife, Linda. After a brief stint as a sales rep, where "the financial rewards were good but the job was not good for me", the couple moved on Madikwe where they managed a corporate lodge.
Although he says that Madikwe is a "special place", Andrew missed the lowveld and in 2001 returned to Kruger with Linda and his two girls, Cailin and Rebecca. Linda took up a teaching post at Fauna Park and Andrew took up a job as a day walk guide from Phalaborwa Gate.
From there he was appointed as activities coordinator for the northern region, helping develop the Lebombo 4x4 trail and later the Olifants River backpacking trail. With his new post covering the whole of Kruger, Andrew is delighted to be getting to know the park from north to south.
Although his position falls under conservations services, he will be responsible for helping develop new tourism products. One of the main things that is currently being looked at is the creation of more wilderness style activities, especially in the north of the park.
"We are looking at introducing mobile tented safaris." This concept involves creating a tented camp that has no permanent structures, from which walking and hiking activities can be based. However, the whole camp can be dismantled and moved to another location after a time to ensure that the veld returns to its natural state.
Other activities on the cards include rolling out more astronomy activities in the bigger camps, creating more birding products, starting in the Pafuri area, and improving the day safari products on offer.
Andrew adds that the cultural aspect of the park is also a priority. "We would like to promote Thulamela with a half day excursion that includes catering and a visit to other cultural historic sites." Although Andrew's new job puts him behind a computer more than he would like, making him yearn to be living his childhood dream of being a section ranger, he is delighted to be playing a role in helping the Kruger Park grow.
"We are in a very special period in conservation…seeing fences coming down to make space for wildlife… the changing conservation attitudes… the change in activities [in Kruger] compared with the past….There is a very bright future."