Confessions of a Tour Guide

Published in BBC Wildlife, November 2010

I never meant to become a tour leader. It only happened because, in the mid-1970s, after writing a book on trekking in the Andes and then founding (also accidentally) Bradt Travel Guides, I contacted a fledgling company in California.

They were pioneers in adventure travel, and I knew a bit about it, too, so perhaps I could work as a consultant? They weren’t keen, but did admit that they needed tour leaders, so would I be interested? Of course, I said yes. To be paid to travel to some of my favourite parts of the world, and comfortably too, it seemed like a dream come true.

I started by leading treks in Peru and Bolivia, and graduated to natural-history tours of the Amazon, Kenya and Madagascar. My job, I soon realised, was to give the clients the impression that they were having an adventure, while making damn sure that they didn’t. But the problem with the developing world is that it throws up challenges that test even the most sunny-natured of people.

Noël Coward wrote:

“Travel they say improves the mind,
An irritating platitude
Which frankly, entre nous,
Is very far from true…
Why do the wrong people travel
When the right people stay back home?”

Oh yes. I’m not thinking just about the moaners and arguers, but people who would stand out as completely bonkers in any environment, let alone the remote wildernesses of Africa or the frigid heights of the Andes.

Take Martha, from a care home, who somehow made her way to Madagascar, where she wandered through a thief-infested market with her handbag open, and screamed “Get this monkey off me!” when a lemur jumped on her shoulder in Berenty.

Then there was the woman who passed out if anyone smoked within about 10m of her – and smoking is the favourite pastime of most people in the developing world – and the chap with a physical disability and a mental illness who signed up for an extreme adventure itinerary.

But the disastrous trips put the good times into focus. When the group gels, there is no better way of travelling. Sharing the discovery of a rare animal, exulting in a gorgeous view or telling tall tales and falling about with laughter will all happen if you’re lucky, and make you feel on top of the world.

I have a rich bank of such memories: in Madagascar, the glimpse of a tiny mouse lemur dozing in tangled vegetation, the discovery of a twig-mimic snake and sharing the thrill of the song of the indri. Then, from Ecuador’s Amazon region, there’s the view of an ocelot stretched out on the limb of a tree overhanging the river.

In fact, that trip went very wrong at the end, but the group sailed through the challenges with beaming smiles. I still have the letter one 76-year-old sent me afterwards: “Dear Hilary, I love ya. I loved staying in the whorehouse in Lago Agrio. When are we going to travel together again?”

So, yes, there have been wonderful holidays when the right people travelled to the right places, or – even better – when the wrong people travelled to the right places and were transformed. But when the wrong people travel to the wrong place (for them), and that wrong place throws up all the disasters it can muster… oh, you wish you’d stayed at home.

In the 1980s, I led several trips to Peru and the Galápagos Islands. Nothing ever went wrong. Or not seriously wrong. Altitude sickness in Cusco and seasickness in the Galápagos were par for the course, but in general those two places knew what tourists wanted and came up with the goods: Inca ruins and blue-footed boobies.

Mind you, I do remember one rather embarrassing moment on the first day in Cusco, when we were returning to the hotel from our tour of Sacsayhuamán, the extraordinary ruins above the city. I was holding forth about the Inca stonemasons when someone tapped on my shoulder. “Just a minute, let me finish,” I responded, a bit irritably.

“But it’s Mary, she’s running behind the bus. You left her behind!”

The person I remember most vividly on one of these trips was Joyce. She was tiny, rotund and in her mid-seventies. Recently widowed, this was her first big trip (“My husband wasn’t interested in travel”). At the start of the journey she handed me a note: “If I should die on this holiday, I would like to be buried in South America according to local custom.” It is either a demonstration of my callousness, or how well we got to know each other, that I took her to the Inca museum to look at the mummies and decide which position she favoured.

The Galápagos delivered its usual gifts: dancing blue-footed boobies, cavorting sealions, sleek penguins, sanguine marine iguanas and phlegmatic giant tortoises. And beaches of the finest white sand.

On Bartolomé Island, there’s an isolated beach which, back then, was seldom visited. It was one of those hot, still days that makes swimming irresistible. But Joyce couldn’t swim and hadn’t brought a swimsuit. When I suggested skinny-dipping, egged on by her new friends, she was dubious. Nobody, not even her husband, had seen her naked in daylight. If anything proves that travel does, indeed, broaden the mind, it’s this: Joyce, eyes closed and wearing nothing but a beatific smile, holding hands with two women as we bounced her over the waves like a child.

The wrong people in the right place

You can’t get much righter than a safari in Kenya. Even rather silly people, such as the woman who only wanted to see sheep or the man who told his video camera “Here is the king of the jungle”, tame down nicely when parked next to a family of cheetahs or a herd of elephants. Except, that is, for Tom.

I had met most of the group at Nairobi Airport, but one was missing. Then I recognised the luggage label on a bag carried by an elderly man who seemed intent on avoiding my eye. I stepped into his path and smiled. “Are you Tom?”

He stopped abruptly. “Yeah?”

“I’m Hilary Bradt, your leader,” I explained.

Tom’s jaw dropped. “But I thought you were a man!” he exclaimed. Then: “Well, I hope you know how to use a gun.”

Tom admitted that he hadn’t got round to reading about the trip. He just thought that it would be interesting to see Africa as he enjoyed hunting in the USA. This was his first experience of the developing world and, as we shopped in Nairobi for essentials, he made his opinions clear: “Jeez, we could teach these guys a thing or two.” He didn’t trust Africans, and wasn’t afraid to say so.

Once we started out on the game drives, I learned that Tom didn’t have a camera and wasn’t interested in watching animals. So I put him in the front with Jim, the driver and guide, a Kikuyu in his fifties who’d met enough tourists to be unfazed by anything that Tom might say.

He called him mzee, an expression of respect for an older person, and gradually they began to chat. For the first time in Tom’s life, he forgot about race and colour and talked to the man. They exchanged stories about their homes, their wives and their kids.
I remember one day in the Masai Mara when the two men were so engrossed in their comparisons of the state school system in New York with that of Kenya that the rest of us had to ask Jim to start his engine and move on. The two cheetahs we’d been watching were long gone. None of us minded, though.

The unhappy traveler

I had similar misgivings about June when I met her at the airport in Madagascar. She was so overweight that she had difficulty getting on and off the bus or walking more than a short distance, and she showed no interest in talking to anyone during the three-day drive to the south of the island. She also exhibited an intriguing variety of tics and grunts. She remained on the bus during excursions and refused to join the group for meals, preferring to work her way through the boxes of chocolates she’d brought with her. She was not a happy traveller and there was nothing I could do about it.

Then we reached Berenty. In those days, the ring-tailed lemurs were accustomed to being fed by tourists, and there was usually a troop hanging around waiting for the next tour group. Not today, however, so I suggested we go on a short walk in the forest where we would be sure to find some. June was furious, because she wasn’t up to it, but undeterred we left her in a deck chair outside her bungalow, sulkily tucking into another box of chocolates.

In the forest, the sifakas danced and a parade of ring-tails filed past with their babies on their backs. I felt sad for June, but on our return an extraordinary sight greeted us: June wreathed in smiles and covered in lemurs. “These are my buddies,” she said, grunting vigorously. Then I understood. To a ring-tailed lemur a grunt means “Hello, I’m your friend” and June’s grunts, so inappropriate for human communication, had drawn the lemurs to her.

The transformation was remarkable. She stopped complaining, became interested in Madagascar’s conservation issues and made a large donation to a lemur project. She returned to Washington in a state of elation that lasted for months.

The wrong people in the wrong place

It’s rare for the majority of a group to be the wrong people, but this happened in Bolivia when I was new to leading tours. I wasn’t too worried when I saw that the group was composed of nine women and one man, because women often seem more willing to put up with hardship than men, and we were about to undertake a new, untried trek that I knew would be more challenging.

I became more concerned, however, when I learned that seven of the women had picked that trek because they were militant feminists and wouldn’t tolerate a male leader. Then the other two women confessed that they had signed up hoping for romance and the lone man, Charles, eventually told me that he was a cocaine addict and looking for a ready supply of coca leaves.

The trek was an unmitigated disaster. Our guide, a French mountaineer called Jean-Paul, told me that he hated Americans and hated women; the muleteers told me that they hated Jean-Paul because he didn’t pay them enough; and the feminists hated me because I had allowed a journalist to join us, and they hated the ‘normal women’ who were competing for Jean-Paul’s attention (his dislike of Americans didn’t prevent him from having sex with them). And they all hated the Andes. The only exception was Charles, who walked in a cloud of euphoria, chewing his coca leaves.

The trek itself was far from trouble-free. The muleteers sold our food to the communities along the way; the unfit women walked too slowly for us to reach the planned camping sites, so there was nowhere to put the tents; and I lost four of them overnight. They ended up sleeping in a village school, following which one of the feminists threatened to emasculate Jean-Paul with her Swiss Army knife.

And that was just the early stages. I then learned that there’d been a military coup, so there would be no bus to retrieve us at the end of our journey; torrential rain delayed the arrival of the mules and our luggage; and I had to accommodate the soaked and fuming group in a mining-town whorehouse where the only loo was out of use because a monkey was chained to the seat.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that the entire group ended up suing the company for mental anguish.

Madagascar is my favourite place in the world, and these days it dishes out superb holidays. But in the 1980s and 90s, every trip I led seemed to be a disaster. For some reason, the dottiest people signed up for tours of the island, and even sensible folk became a little unhinged trying to cope with it.

Madagascar madness

There was Maria, who during the trip suddenly decided that her parents were going to die because her tarot cards had predicted a long journey followed by death. After nearly flying home to be with them before their impending demise, she decided to stay and spent the rest of the trip seeking out village astrologers for advice about the future – and sunbathing topless, to the delight of local fishermen. The natural world was a constant surprise to her. “Is that a reptile?” she asked when I showed her a scorpion.

Sometimes, however, you do end up with people who rise to the challenges posed by travel in countries with (relatively) lowly infrastructure. On a trip to Ankarana Reserve to see lemurs, I’d been told by the local guide, Hubert, that the walk to the campsite was just 1km. I told the group to expect a half-hour walk and pack accordingly. This was one of the driest parts of Madagascar, I added.

We arrived in torrential rain to find four sodden porters and a charming guide called Angelique who said it was actually a 14km walk. Hubert sternly bargained him down to 7km (it turned out to be about 10km). We arrived well after dark, with one client threatening to faint from exhaustion and several avid birdwatchers missing altogether.

Two search parties eventually found our unfortunate birders huddled together with a porter under a banyan tree, twittering with excitement about the scops owl they thought they’d heard.

Then Jo, the oldest in the group, tripped over a root and sliced her shin to the bone. Luckily, four of the five doctors (Jo was the fifth) on the trip rushed to her aid and she was expertly sewn back together.

But that was the bad day. The rest of the trip was full of lemurs, bathing in cool rivers and mind-boggling rock formations.

And that pretty much sums up tour leading. It can be the best of times and it can be the worst of times. Leading a bunch of strangers through some of the world’s most challenging environments is never going to be easy, but it’s given me plenty of memorable experiences to reflect on in my old age.

[note: some names have been changed]

© Hilary Bradt

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