Life & Work

Tour guide who escorts the rich and famous


Paul Kirui, Chairman, Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association (KPSGA). PHOTO | COURTESY KYM ILLMAN

There are only 20 gold standard guides (the highest ranking) in the country. Paul is one of them. Conde Nast Traveller, UK’s leading travel magazine, voted him one of the top 25 best tour guides in Africa early this year.

Trained at KWS Training Institute, Utalii and in South Africa’s Ingwazi Rangers School, Paul has had the chance to work in all the parks in East and South Africa.

He has also worked with the BBC’s Big Cats: Truth about Lions programme. He is also a professional wildlife photographer who recently has taken to using drones as part of his photography kit.

His passion for touring and for game started in his childhood in Kilgoris, Transmara, where he grew up herding cows at the edge of Maasai Mara. Now he traipses around the country, guiding mostly high net worth clients.

We met at Eka Hotel where he had just brought back a group of American tourists from a 14-day safari.

To be a Gold certified guide must be huge, Paul! What exactly do you have to do to be certified, climb an elephant’s back?

(Laughs) No. There are about 4,500 registered guides in Kenya under us. We have 200 silver guides, 4,280 bronze and 20 gold holders. To move from bronze to silver you have to have practised for a minimum of three years.

In short, silver holders must know many things like differentiate sounds of birds, identify animal droppings, their skeletons, their social structures etc.

To get certified to be a gold holder is more gruelling; you are tested by being taken for a game drive and asked many questions to do with fauna and flora.

The examiners also put you through scenarios in the wild to see how you handle yourself. You also have to have knowledge in automobile mechanics, first aid and your response time to scenarios has to be in a way that doesn’t allow errors.

You know, I have met a few quacks in your profession who can’t speak a word of English or can’t tell a dik dik from a gazelle…

(Laughs) You are right. What we lack is proper training and accreditation process. To get a certificate from the KWS you only need a certificate of good conduct, a Form Four certificate and an ID.

Anybody from the streets can be a guide, which is unfortunate. We need stricter regulatory measures.

Is the lion still the king of the jungle or has that bush propaganda been exposed for its elaborate sham?

You know, I have seen buffaloes bully lions. Even kill them. I have seen hyenas chase away a pride of lions and even take away their kill. But still, no animal is as feared and ferocious as the lion. Every animal in the wild fears the lion. He is still king.

How was the experience with the Big Cat Diary producers from the BBC?

Phenomenal! I learnt a lot. It taught me endurance and patience. To film animals doing anything exciting meant sitting and waiting from 5am to 8pm! Sometimes the animals would do nothing the whole day.

In filming The Truth About Lions with the BBC guys, I would drive the car at night with headlights covered with red gel to allow the crew to film using infra red lights.

Visibility was almost nil at night when driving and we would follow lions for over five kilometers using thermal imaging cameras. I learnt a lot about lions and their behaviour as I did about leopards for a different project. The dedication of this film crew was amazing.

In all your years guiding, what is the most extraordinary thing you have seen in the wild?

I have seen a lot. (Thinks). There was this time two notorious cheetahs we named the Magariyan brothers (chuckles) who would go for anything including wildebeests ran into a gazelle with its baby.

The gazelle ran off leaving the baby who these brothers played around with until it was too exhausted to move. So they both lay with it, side by side, and after a while they left it there unharmed. I found that extremely unique. Left me with a lot of questions to date.

You are a father, how many kids do you have?

I’m Dorobo; we don’t count the kids we have. Neither do we count the cows we own.

What is always your greatest fear while in the bush?

That one of my guests might fall sick in the middle of nowhere. When I’m with guests in the bush they are under my care and thus my responsibility; their safety and health is on me.

Which is Kenya’s hidden treasure?

Forget the Maasai Mara or Lake Nakuru; the best gems are Shaba and Meru because of their diverse habitat which holds countless species of animals. Meru had a problem of poaching but now it’s rising again. Kenyans should visit these places, truly magical.

So what’s your personal favourite spot?

A place called Sarara camp in Namunyak conservancy. It’s the wilderness in every sense. Leopards roam into tents; you have your morning breakfast a few feet from elephants. It’s a place that reminds you of the bush’s danger, which is the whole point. Lodges there don’t have doors or windows.

Twenty-two years as a guide in the bush, what has been your career highlight so far?

Guiding VIPs. Most of my clients are well-to-do from abroad, but I remember guiding very high profile clients like the president of Zambia, Mukesh Ambani – India’s richest man, ministers from various countries in Africa and even our own president, twice, when he was in local government.

Is it very stressful guiding these high profile people? Do they demand to see a leopard and they want to see it now!

(Laughs) No. It’s challenging because their security dictates where the van goes, so control is mostly taken away from me. They will decide the terrain you can or can’t go to.

Some might ask for something that isn’t available in the bush so we have to sometimes ship things from far away, like diet Coke. I think since they are used to a certain level of comfort they expect it in the bush as well and we have to try and oblige.

What is the oddest request you have witnessed from a VIP?

Well, odd may not be the word but when I was guiding Mukesh Ambani he mentioned that he wanted Indian food. So I quickly radioed the hotel to convey this and the chef frantically started running around putting it together given that Indian food wasn’t part of their fair.

So when a buffet was laid out at dinner, Mukesh asked, “but where is the pasta?” (Laughs). So the chef had to frenziedly put together some pasta. We all had a good laugh after, but he was appeased so all ended well. It’s always so satisfying when we meet their needs.

What was President Kenyatta most keen to see during the two times you guided him? If you say a giraffe it will shatter everything I think of him.

(Laughs hard) No, the two times he was with his family and he always let the kids decide what they wanted to see. He was excited when they were excited at seeing a particular animal.

I’m told you guys sometimes get some insane tips from clients. What’s the most you have ever been tipped in your career?

(Cautiously) Well, people indeed get even cars bought for them…but I can’t say…you know, to be honest, for me it’s never really about the tip I have been given but how it was given.

The most special tip was five bars of chocolates that this old lady gave me once. It’s all she had. I valued it more than any tip given.

Do you prefer sunsets or sunrises and why?

Sunrises. This is when most of the activity is unfolding, when the predators are still roaming. Sunsets are old.