From gangs and drugs to barnacles

Sea barnacles have an astonishing sex life.

I’ll spare you the intimate details, but under that hard impassive shell lurks a tiny throbbing beast. I know this thanks to Dalfrenzo Laing, an excellent guide who makes marine life even more colourful than it already is.

Laing is impressive with his star gazing too, trotting out the scientific names for each fanciful constellation. Then he makes the fynbos and proteas positively bloom with the fascinating facts he tells about them. All done with the glint of several gold teeth, a couple of scars, a cheeky grin and an entertaining accent.

Laing is the head guide at De Hoop Nature Reserve on the south coast’s whale route, and he’s so knowledgeable that you imagine he must have a solid academic career behind him. “Naah,” he says. “I used to be a petrol pump attendant.”

Laing’s first 20 years didn’t auger well for a successful lifestyle, with a background of poverty, drugs and gangs. But he’s made up for it in the past four years, and is now one of South Africa’s best Marine Guides, a breed even scarcer than the whales he’s pointing out. He’s also a Level 1 Nature Guide, earning both qualifications from The Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA).

Laing was born in Robertson but grew up in the quiet town of Napier, and still plays rugby for the local team. He matriculated from Napier High School in 2008 in second place overall, beaten only by his friend Clayton. Jobs were limited so he became a petrol pump attendant, until the recession tightened and he was retrenched nine months later.

“The manager brought me into the office and said you are young and don’t really have any responsibilities so I have to let you go,” Laing remembers. “I hadn’t walked more than 100 meters when a woman approached me. She worked at Napier Tourism Office and she asked me if I wanted to join a guiding course. I didn’t know what that was because I’d never been to a nature reserve in my life.”

Laing isn’t sure whether the tourism officer bumped into him by accident or by design. Her office was next to the petrol forecourt, and she probably knew jobs were being cut. Perhaps she also knew Laing had studied tourism at school. “It was lucky she bumped into me that day. It was a perfect opportunity so I said I’d love to attend,” he says.

Laing had been recruited for the first Marine Guiding Course to be offered in the country, but first he also had to convince the trainer he was a good candidate. “I had to explain to him why I wanted to do the course. The only thing I could say is I want to improve my lifestyle and get out of the poverty I’m in, so this is an opportunity I can make the best of. He said fine, he’ll accept me, and did I know anybody else who could attend. So I called my friend Clayton.” The pair of them took an eight-month course at De Hoop with recruits from vastly different walks of life. “There were about 16 on the course with ex-lawyers, ex-real estate agents, a priest and me, an ex-petrol pump attendant.”

Laing’s participation was funded by Aghulas Bio Initiative (ABI), which sponsors people from local communities to improve themselves and strengthen conservation. His training included practical experience at various nature reserves and working in restaurants to learn hospitality skills.

After eight months Laing gave a final presentation to the course directors and William Stephens, the owner of the De Hoop Collection that runs the accommodation on the reserve. Laing said De Hoop could be improved if it had some trained guides, and promptly found himself employed. He is now the head guide with a team of four.

He leads land and coastal tours around the reserve and gives talks to groups including schoolchildren, encouraging them to protect and enjoy wildlife and perhaps consider it as a career.

His own school days were troubled before he found his direction. “I struggled with diseases when I was much younger,” he says. “I had an accident and fell on my head when I was six and I struggled with epilepsy until I was 13, so I always think I could have been more clever than I am now.”

He outgrew epilepsy at just about the same time his father left the family. “At that point I just had to be the man of the house,” he says. His mother moved them back to Robertson, where Laing got involved with drugs and gangs. “For three years I was involved in heavy stuff. Then I made a mess of one year of my school career and got slapped by my mother. We came back to Napier to get me away from the gangs and the drugs, and from that time I was mostly on the straight and narrow.”

In Napier he attended a Model C school, but the family ran out of money and he had to study for matric by candlelight. He tells his story with humour, humility and no self-pity. Instead there’s a layer of wisdom that combines with his extensive knowledge to make him seem far older than 24.

One very important moment in his life came when the school principal addressed the pupils at the end of his final year, he says. “The principal says a long speech and you have to take something out of it, and he said life gives you 1,000 chances. All through your life you have 1000 chances on average, and the only thing you need to do is grab one and commit and make a success out of that one. So for me it’s like a motto I have and I try to do the best I can.”

He’s making up for his earlier lack of ambition with determined plans to increase his guiding qualifications and move up the conservation ladder, by taking his Level Two Nature Guide qualification and a Nature Conservation Diploma. “I’m also working towards becoming the general manager of De Hoop,” he grins.

“By character I’m a dreamer so I always have a few ideas in my head which I want to achieve and where I want to be.”

He’d also like to bring his mother to the reserve to show her where he works and what he’s achieved. But he’ll probably get a slap if he tells her about the sex life of the barnacle.