On August 16, 2019, Rockjumper turned 21! It has been an incredible journey, and to celebrate we thought we would share 21 of our favourite stories from the times we’ve shared so far. So, every week for the next 21 weeks, we will be adding a new story from a Rockjumper Team member, tour leaders and office staff alike.
Rockjumper is 21 years old this year!
The world has changed so much in the last 20 years, the population has grown by nearly a quarter, and the global urban population has risen by 1.6 billion between 1994 and 2014. More than half of the world’s people now live in towns or cities, and our city lifestyle has caused so many of us to lose our connection with nature, our communities and sometimes ourselves. So, for me it feels good knowing that I am part of a company that is obsessed with making a difference, from its conservation partnerships and initiatives to providing the ultimate birding experience by making sure travel dreams come true.
This gives me more than a job or career; it gives me purpose.
I’m 3 years into my career with Rockjumper, and I can categorically state that whilst it has been the most fun I have had during my entire 20-year working career, it has also been the greatest continuous learning curve that I have experienced. We are constantly learning from each other or the market, deep diving to understand root causes that enable us to take better actions in the future. As a PROGRESSIVE and dynamic team, we continuously challenge ourselves to tough targets and work tirelessly in our teams to achieve our goals, learn and adapt. Each period growing in personal and business confidence and strength.
The super stars of Rockjumper, namely the passionate tour leaders delivering our guided tours and our dedicated office staff who make everything happen seamlessly behind the scenes, have all collectively contributed to us achieving this noteworthy 21st birthday milestone. Our teams across the world regularly go above and beyond the call of duty for our guests, as our remarkable 21 stories will all showcase.
It has been an honor to see how our senior management team has transformed over the last 2 years through the guidance and mentorship of our founder, Adam Riley. He has helped shape us into the solid team that it is today. Each team member brings his/her own unique set of key skills and perspectives, thereby aiding innovation and generating creative solutions.
For my story, I thought I’d share a bit on each of our management team:
George Armistead (far left) heads up our Conservation Tours Department and is our Chief Networking Officer. He is based in the USA and focuses on strengthening our conservation partnerships, which is affiliated to one of our most important core values: PROTECTING and celebrating biodiversity. He not only runs our USA operations but co-manages all marketing initiatives with Keith Valentine. George is an enthusiastic speaker and author. Birding is in his blood and his warmth is felt by all the people he interacts with.
Keith Valentine (middle) is our Managing Director for South Africa. He has been with the company for over 14 years and brings his unique empathic skills to the management team. He is an exceptional storyteller, regaling staff and guests alike with interesting stories and anecdotes of the world of birding and Rockjumper. He has been a passionate birder since a young boy, a top-quality guide for many years prior to management, and constantly inspires the teams to be PASSIONATE about our work.
Clayton Burne (far right) is our Operations Manager and our most important and astute team member. He is our voice of reason as he pushes us to question the HOW, focus on the detail, and drives us to turn strategy into action. He has been instrumental in taking Rockjumper into the digital era by improving our efficiency through automation and has achieved this by equipping all our service departments with the necessary tools to be PEERLESS in our service. A costing and pricing master, Clayton has ensured rapid time to market and only the best value for money tours are offered to guests.
Adam Riley (middle right) founder, coach and mentor. Adam has empowered his senior management team to take ownership, set strategy and implement initiatives throughout the company. His trust and confidence in the management team, tour leaders and office staff reflect his ability to turn everyone that is hungry for the challenge into the next generation of leaders through continuous knowledge sharing. A great example of this was providing his management team with the opportunity to attend the prestigious 18-month Fasttrack program. Through him, we have been tested to step out of our comfort zone and realize our hidden talents.
Life will never be the same again, working with these crazy, fun but incredibly committed people. I might not keep a personal species list, but I’ve found my purpose by being part of a company that strives to make every tour a unique and memorable one for our passionate clients who understand how important nature and conservation are for all generations.
Never again will I lose my connection with nature, my community or myself.
As a non-birder, the prospect of working for a company that’s entire business revolves around birds and birding was steeped in irony. So, naturally, I embraced it with open arms.
When I started working for Rockjumper as their editor and marketing assistant, the only experience I had had with birding was watching David Frankel’s ‘The Big Year’, and the distant memories of my father calling out bird names as we drove through Kruger National Park – which, as a five-year-old, I showed no interest in, as I was far too engrossed in trying to see a lion hunt or something equally as epic. So to say my experience with the activity was ‘lacking’ would be appropriate, and perhaps even understated. However, as my time here has progressed and I have had the opportunity to read about all the adventures and stories of our tours, my interest has been piqued and my knowledge of the world’s birds has grown exponentially.
When the opportunity arose for me to join in on a mega twitch, my curiosity took over and I accepted the offer immediately. A Malagasy Pond Heron had been seen in Phinda Game Reserve, near Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal. Usually over-wintering much further north on the continent, in areas like Kenya, Tanzania and northern Mozambique, this was the first-ever confirmed sighting of the bird in South Africa – easily over 1,000 kilometers south of where it usually occurs. The confirmation sparked chaos in the South African birding community, and birding fanatics were very quickly traveling from around the country to see it. Because the bird was settled in a privately-owned section of the reserve, access was limited to two game drives a day (one in the morning and the other in the afternoon) so getting an opportunity to see it required some quick phone dialling and a bit of luck. Thankfully, we had both, and soon the next available safari vehicle was booked, which was to head out the next morning.
To get where we needed to be on time, David Hoddinott, Andre Bernon and I left almost immediately after work, first picking up some essentials like jackets and binoculars and then driving several hours, well into the night, to reach our sleeping point in the town of Empangeni, where Andre’s parents reside. (Our co-workers and safari vehicle companions, Clayton Burne, Megan Taylor and their eight-year-old daughter, Kaily – our good-luck charm – decided leaving at midnight and driving through the night to reach the reserve gates on time was the better plan). We arrived, dropped our things off, and paid for the safari vehicle before taking a quick trip to extract as much information as possible from David and Andre’s friends, who had seen the heron that afternoon. Once we knew what we needed, I was regaled with a myriad of twitching stories, since this was my first. Hearing the tales of what some people went through (or how much they paid) to see one bird blew me away, and I definitely didn’t comprehend, what seemed to me then, an incredibly unhealthy obsession (One story recalled a man who had ruined SEVERAL of his marriages throughout his twitching career). Stupefied by what I had heard, we retreated to our beds in preparation for an awakening at what was, especially to someone who was still a student only a year prior, a completely ungodly hour! (I lay a while, trying to determine if what I felt for the people in the night’s stories was some twisted form of respect or just disdain for their level of passion – I’m still not sure).
We woke up on time the next morning (surprisingly, for me), and, fuelled by a strong cup of coffee, drove the last hour and a bit to get to the reserve well before sunlight. Just as the sun reared its head over the distant horizon, we climbed into our safari vehicle, blankets in hand, and embarked on our journey to the lake where the heron had been seen. We started off by exploring the northern side of the lake (this was where the bird was seen the previous afternoon). Our driver, Brendan, would stop the vehicle regularly to allow us to scan the reeds and water’s edge in search of our elusive target. Eventually, we reached a point on the edge of the lake where we couldn’t continue further, and we still hadn’t seen the bird. With confidence beginning to dwindle, we all made an effort to stay positive and elected to try our luck at the southern end of the lake.
As soon as we reached the southern edge, we began scanning once again, applying the same tactic as before. Once again, our efforts were for nought. Feeling significantly less confident now, we decided to head back, recharge with some coffee, and tackle the northern side of the lake one more time, where hopefully the heron would come out to bask in the warmth of the sunlight. As we headed back, now slightly despondent, David and Andre took to mentoring me on some of the birds we had seen in the area, from Kittlitz’s Plovers, Black-winged Stilts and Striated Herons to lovely Malachite Kingfishers; it was great to experience some of the birds I had only previously seen in pictures.
Suddenly, in the middle of my field crash-course, David spotted a heron about 80 meters away, on the water’s edge across from where we were driving. Instructing Brendan to stop the vehicle, he set his binoculars on the mystery bird and within a second called out: “That’s it!” in a child-like daze of excitement. The rest of the car quietly erupted into feelings of elation as we all got our own binoculars and cameras onto the incredibly camouflaged bird. Happy that we had all seen it and taken photos as proof, we took a moment to send high-fives all-around before refocussing our attention to enjoying the bird. It stood motionless for quite some time, emulating a Shoebill as it waited for unfortunate prey to come past. Some did, and we got to watch this special bird feed!
After enjoying extended periods of time with this bird, and spotting a group of rare Lemon-breasted Canaries in the interim, we decided it was time to head back. As we started off, the bird took flight, revealing incredible amounts of white. Cameras went into rapid-fire before it landed only 20 meters from its original position, now in a much more open bit of land. Photography continued, and soon, so did we, when it took flight again, landing on a lone stump over the water this time, providing even better views before flying again, the white still just as striking to me as the first time.
Happy with our time with the bird, and not wanting to disturb its peace any further, we headed off to enjoy a much-needed and much-deserved cup of coffee and some cookies. The good mood of the group was palpable, it was great to enjoy such a rare occurrence in person, and I’m happy that my first proper birding and twitching experience was such a success. (I think mainly, though, I’m just happy that I avoided a long and very awkward 5-hour trip home with some very upset birders!).
It began as a beautiful, clear day on the 25th of June 2007, at the base of the Virunga Volcanoes in northern Rwanda – a legendary part of the world, as it holds some of the last significant populations of the critically endangered Mountain Gorilla. For most nature and wildlife enthusiasts, seeing a Mountain Gorilla in its natural habitat is one of the best moments imaginable, and this morning was going to be that morning. All went as planned through the early part of the day, with some members of the group doing gorilla trekking and others heading out to find Golden Monkeys. The sightings were exceptional, and by midday we had all returned to our accommodations for a hearty lunch and fantastic recollections of the morning’s adventure.
We were due to leave Volcanoes National Park today, and head south-west to the mighty Albertine Rift forests of Nyungwe, famed for holding a suite of the region’s most sought-after birds, and excitement was high. The only drawback was that a 6-hour drive awaited us. We were well aware of this, but still, it wasn’t exactly something we were thoroughly looking forward to. But then, in popped our local agent and proceeded to tell us about a potential boating option that we could do instead of the long drive. The boat trip would take around 5 hours, and we would get to see a completely different part of Rwanda from the waters of one of the great rift valley lakes – Lake Kivu. We quickly weighed up our options in front of us, and it was a unanimous vote, with the boat trip on Lake Kivu the unopposed winner.
After our delicious lunch, we made our way across to the edge of Lake Kivu to meet our skipper and board our boat. He was a bit late, but it was no train smash, as we were all excited about the new adventure that awaited us. Soon after boarding and finding our seats, the engines were started and we were puttering out into the lake proper, taking in the variety of sites and smells, passing small fishing villages and getting to observe Rwandan life on the banks of this great lake. Time passes quickly when you are having fun, and before long we could see the sun starting to dip lower and lower on the horizon. A clear evening then presented us with a beautiful sunset. This was quite simply paradise and we were getting to enjoy it in spades. A few minutes later we passed by a small island and were blown away to find a fishing White-backed Night Heron, a species that can be exceptionally difficult to find, and never occurs at high density anywhere in its range. Soaking up yet another magical moment, I turned to our skipper and asked casually how much further until we reach our destination. His reply: “We are about halfway there.” I was immediately taken aback and began to quickly do the math, which wasn’t looking good, as it was putting us in for a 10 pm arrival, far later than any of us envisioned. Anyway, what could we do but enjoy the last bit of light across the water and watch the local fishing boats start to come out onto the lake. As it got darker, what became immediately apparent was that we had no lights on the boat. Our skipper seemed competent, though, and the feeling was he probably drove about in the dark on the lake all the time. Still, it wasn’t the greatest feeling, but the moon was out and all seemed to be going okay until the wind started to pick up.
A swell began on the lake and it got more and more choppy. Our skipper then started to get more and more unhappy about the wind and, eventually, we pulled into a small bay. Here, we waited and waited for the wind to hopefully drop down while our skipper disappeared for an extended period. This was tough going now, as we had nowhere else to go, no dinner and no bathroom facilities onboard. Hours passed and eventually, at around 11 pm, he returned to inform us that the wind had dropped off sufficiently and we could continue our journey. With the almost unbelievable happenings over the last few hours, we were all delighted to hear the engine start-up and, despite the ridiculous hour of night, were thrilled to be back on the water and at least moving in the right direction. Over the course of the next few hours, our little boat whipped this way and that, skipping across the lake and weaving between the vast number of fishing vessels. We joked that we probably ended up spending a fair bit of time in neighbouring DRC territory without even knowing! Despite the hour of night and it being well into the 26th of June at this point, nobody was sleeping. We were all anxiously gazing out ahead for clusters of lights, trying to convince ourselves that this was finally going to be it – our destination. Too many times we were disappointed, but eventually the moment had to arrive. Twelve years on and those final minutes on the boat are all a bit of a blur, but the reality was that we had arrived at Cyungugu at last. I believe it was around 5 am. We immediately made our way across to our guest house, where we were greeted with shocked faces and an uncountable number of apologies. Given the time of day, we ended up doing what any self-respecting birders would do: grabbed a quick breakfast and made for Nyungwe Forest. Our morning of birding will go down as one of my most memorable experiences, largely due to the night that it was, as we racked up an extraordinary number of quality Albertine Rift endemics.
The tale of the infamous Lake Kivu boat trip is now rather legendary around Rockjumper circles. Those who were part of the ‘experience’ have retold it on numerous occasions around the dinner table and with close friends and family, and I have also been known to bring it up on tour occasionally. For four of the six people on board, this was only their 4th day with me in the field! We then proceeded to explore Uganda directly afterwards and have subsequently travelled to the ends of the earth together, from Cameroon, Ghana and Thailand to India, Malawi and beyond to the Remote West Papuan Islands of Seram, Buru, Obi and the Raja Ampats! I know that everyone involved will remember certain parts in greater detail than me, with different elements taking centre stage. For example, I could have included sitting on top of the fuel cans, with the incessant smell of diesel up our noses at 2 am, or some of the dialogue we shared with our local onboard assistant who we hadn’t met before the boat trip and who had never been on a boat before (if I recall correctly). Regardless, it is one of those stories that in the moment is far from fun; however, when looking back, realising that no serious harm was done, you can smile, even chuckle a little, and put it down to another memorable adventure in Africa!
When I started at Rockjumper, I had to move from Johannesburg to Pietermaritzburg, and came from a very corporate business line. I have always loved nature and camping out in the bush, but growing up in the ‘concrete jungle’ made me somewhat ignorant of what being out in nature actually involves. My dad has a soft spot for animals, but whenever I asked him to take me to Kruger National Park, his answer was always: “Why must I go driving around in 40-degree (104F) heat in the bush, hoping to see something, when I can sit in the comfort of my own lounge, with a beer in hand, and watch the animals on TV.” Who could argue with that?!?
I hate to admit this, but before Rockjumper I didn’t know that ‘birding’ was a thing.
I went for my job interview in Adam’s lounge, which was a bit creepy with all the masks decorating his walls staring down at me, but I found it sort of intriguing. The first thing I mentioned was that I am actually petrified of birds, especially parrots. I really don’t like the hissing, pupil-dilating thing that they do. This was almost frowned upon, but the office manager at the time laughed and admired the honesty, and I was hired soon after. Boy, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I started enjoying the office scene and how different my colleagues were. From suits and designer shoes to rough and rugged guys, mostly barefoot, and from stocks and bonds to tits and boobies (the birds…), I didn’t know if I was amused or petrified.
Slowly but surely, I started eavesdropping on the guide conversations, especially when returning from a tour. Their enthusiasm, their drive, their passion. Using lingo like ‘rarity’ and ‘lifer’, and ‘what a cracker’ when looking through photos. It was all so infectious. I started understanding the conversations more and more, and could eventually get involved. I was finally at home.
Okay, maybe I spoke too soon…
They soon set me off on my first birding adventure. Waking up at the crack of dawn to meet up with the group and the guide (who was the craziest character I had ever met), I was excited to meet our guests, but also very nervous. Thankfully, they were lovely and very welcoming, and we quickly boarded the vehicle and set off. I chose the seat right in the back corner. The sun was coming up and it made me feel relaxed and lazy as it warmed my little spot. I closed my eyes, sat back and was ready to enjoy the ride. Suddenly, the whole group started screaming “STOP, STOP.” The driver hit the brakes, everyone dove to the left side of the vehicle, grabbing bins, cameras, books, pens, and my heart just sank. My first thought: Oh my gosh, I think we just hit something, maybe a dog. I wanted to vomit. Then confusion set in hard and fast as high-fives were shared. Why is everyone so excited? I started shrinking back into my chair when someone grabbed my arm, yanked me up and said: “Look! It’s beautiful.” A Long-crested Eagle. I don’t know if I was relieved or flabbergasted. I sat back down, eyes wide open, and giggled hysterically, not knowing what on Earth was going on.
Later on, we got out of the vehicle and walked around in a beautiful little forest. This was nice! The group even tried to get me involved. “See what you can spot.” I thought: YES! I’m getting involved. But everything I spotted got me negative two points… Trash birds apparently… I gave up when I was on negative 100-and-something, and tagged behind the rest of the group, feeling hopeless.
At one point, I saw our guide fiddling with something, but didn’t take much notice. As I walked up next to him, I heard the most horrendous noise right next to my ear and immediately made a run for it, thinking some rabid animal was on the loose. That was when one of our guests clicked that I was clearly a newbie, and took me under his wing. He whispered: “The guide is playing a call that sounds like a bird we want to see.” In my mind, I thought there was no way that would bring anything in, but he just said to wait… Soon, there it came, a Knysna Turaco, stunning, beautiful colours – the most amazing bird I had ever seen. I picked up my bins and was excited to get a closer look. But. What on Earth is going on now? I can see out of my one eye but not the other! Worst bins ever. My hero came to my rescue once again: He walked up to me discreetly, popped the cover off the front, stood behind me and moved my head in the correct direction, then smiled and walked away. Embarrassed but grateful, I followed him like a lost puppy from then on. With a little bit of guidance and patience, I got the hang of it and was hooked!
I did not get fired and, yes, those guests do still travel with us…
12 years later, I’ve now travelled to Argentina, Antarctica, Uganda, Namibia, Egypt, Tanzania, Lesotho and England, and will be going to Madagascar soon; with the help of the legendary guides training us office girls along the way, I have a good number of birds on my list (penguins are still my favourite); I’ve become great at identifying calls, since I am blind as a bat (even with the bin covers off), and I couldn’t see myself being anyone or anywhere else.
And boy do I love coming into the office and telling the boys that I have seen a certain beauty that they have not – yet, of course.