In his 13 years working as a tour guide for Kipu Ranch Adventures, Troy Shanks estimates he has met 50,000 people.
“I probably have a place to stay in every state in the United States and about 10 different countries,” he said. “I’ve met people who have become really good friends of mine. I’ve taken them around the island or have been able to go meet up with them in their state.”
He’s met people from Australia, Japan, India, Italy, France and China.
“I feel like everybody in the world at one point wants to come to Hawaii. When it comes to islands and beaches, it’s probably a safer choice,” Shanks said.
Kipu Ranch Adventures hires eight full-time tour guides. It offers three tours — a waterfall picnic tour, ultimate ranch tour and a jungle waterfall tour.
“The jungle tour is the shortest tour and the cheapest tour,” Shanks said. “It’s also the easiest tour for people who don’t want to go on such rough terrain.”
Shanks, who has been driving ATVs since he was about 13, said he’s always learning something on tour.
“Just because you were born or raised here doesn’t mean you know everything,” he said. “I go out on a tour ready to learn, not just to teach.”
How long have you been at Kipu Ranch?
It’s kind of fuzzy because when I was 16 or 17, I started washing bikes for them. My dad is one of the owners of the company, but interestingly enough, he didn’t want to hire me.
So Antone (Teves), who is his partner, gave me a chance and gave me a job washing bikes. When I was in junior high, he was like an older brother. He taught me how to surf and mountain bike.
They didn’t let me be a tour guide yet because I wasn’t 18. When I turned 18, they let me be a tour guide.
And you’ve been doing it ever since?
After working here for a summer, I went to UH Manoa for a year and came back after that first year. I went to Kauai Community College full time and worked here full time.
Do you have to go through a training process when you’re hired as a tour guide?
We’re putting people in charge of a vehicle. So I went through three months or so of being a back guide — where you close gates and watch the back-end of a tour.
We actually have to go through a full manual for our machines and even a safety video so we are able to coach people through it because it may their first time. The training can be long or short, depending on how social you are and how quickly you pick up the stories. But the safety side is the most important.
There’s a big mix of what we’re trying to teach the guests. We’re trying to present a history, but there’s a safety side to it. And we have an entertainer side of it.
The narration is a whole other side to it, but fortunately for me, I grew up on the property, so I had a lot of it in my history. My dad started this as a blacksmith shop in 1987. I was 3 years old, so by that time, I was hanging out here.
What’s it like, seeing this place grow?
When we started, we only had four machines. And we had single ATVs, but now we mostly drive UTVs, or Utility Train Vehicles. All that means is that it’s a passenger-type vehicle. We went that direction because we noticed a lot more families wanting to come out. And obviously we’re not going to put a kid by themselves on a $10,000 vehicle.
This started as a way to get locals out here. When I was in junior high, everything was still sugar cane. It was our main industry still. And as that faded out, tourism began to take its place.
It’s a sad end to an era, but I tell people I’d rather be a tour guide than work in the sugar cane fields. It’s a funny yet truthful thing — most people would probably rather work in a hotel than a sugar cane field.
When I became a tour guide, tourism started being the obvious economic power. So watching just that alone, not just being a part of the company, but watching it grow on the island, it’s been crazy.
Throughout the 1800s, there were hundreds of people living on this property. During the sugar cane years, there was a hospital, general store and school here. This was a hub on the island and there’s books of people who were born in these forests.
Then it became private property and my dad and the other owners approached the landowner to figure out a way to get people back out here.
We teach people how to drive, but we’re more of a tour than a ride or a way to get dirty. We’re more of a historical and cultural tour and take people through 300 years of local Hawaiian history.
What are the main stories you tell people on the tour?
We talk about Princess Ruth Keeikolani, part of the Kamehameha family who had once owned this place and sold it to the Rice family. When she was looking to find someone to take over the land, because her own children died, she knew and trusted them and sold it to them.
We talk about sugar cane here. For 150 years, sugar cane was king on Hawaii. It was the biggest industry here. After that, cattle started to become bigger and bigger here. So we talk about the cattle a little bit.
Then we talk about what other animals are on the property today and what might have been introduced and what was native. We also talk about plants and what was introduced and what is native.
And of course all the movies that were filmed here. They keep coming back to Kipu. I think it’s easily accessible for them and they can turn it into South America, Asia, or whatever.
They can turn it into some Third World place without leaving the United States or deal with lions, bears and snakes.
Have you seen or met any famous people?
We have them come and go and I’ve gotten to take a few of them out. And I was an extra in “Tropic Thunder,” so I got to meet Ben Stiller and Jack Black.
What are some challenges to being a tour guide?
For us, the biggest of course is that we’re not driving. They can ride with us, but for the most part, they are driving their own machines. So we’re dealing with people who might have their own machines and think of this as a race track, which it’s not.
And then you have the people who maybe have never off-roaded in their lives and it’s kind of cool thing to be able to teach them and get them doing something for the first time.
So it might be challenging to teach a beginner, but the reward in the end is someone who might be a lifetime off-road enthusiast because of our tour and maybe got over some fears.
That’s one of my favorite parts, actually. Someone who never though of off-roading now wants to be out there. And at the same time, knows how to care for the environment.
What is it about this place that makes you keep coming back?
I’m more of an outdoors person to begin with, and I like this better than being in an office.
But the land, people talk about certain areas where they feel at home, and I’ve always felt at home at Kipu.