Overlanding for a living

Someone asked me recently what it was like being an overland tour guide. These are my thoughts, and they’re dedicated to my fellow comrades, either now safely home or still enduring the road.

Hope you’re all having one of those days!

Travel, adventure, a little bit of danger and a whole lot of fun…these are things which come to mind when people think of overlanding

Overlanding for a living certainly has its perks, I admit. I cannot think of many other jobs which require you to travel the world at your employer’s expense and have as much fun as you possibly can while you’re at it. But don’t be fooled; the challenges are colossal, and not just physically. As a good tour guide you should be: a best friend, a confidant, a mother, a therapist, a babysitter, a security guard, a pilot and the main chief of operations. You’ll be the first to rise and the last to rest, you’ll have to party every night, yet be alert and energetic every day and, to top it all off, you’ll have to know everything about everything. Trust me…when the shit hits the fan, there’s no amount of money that could justify the headaches.

So money’s not why you do it. You do it because most of the time you’d still rather be here than anywhere else. Because those not-so-rare moments when all hell breaks loose actually don’t last very long and soon enough you’re sitting back, congratulating yourself on having diverted yet another minor cataclysmic crisis.

Furthermore, there are also those exceptional days of pure bliss, when you think you’re the luckiest person on the planet. Those moments are what make you spring out of bed (or the truck floor) every morning, hoping this…is one of those days.

That’s not to say that sometimes you don’t wish you could seal-shut the tent zipper, lock yourself with a bottle of Vodka for a few days, and rock yourself to sleep whilst sucking your thumb and crying out for your mum. There are also those moments when you must struggle with your most fervent instincts to throw someone off a moving truck, or drown them in the washing up bowl…all in the name of a more selective gene-pool for planet Earth. You are now convinced that there is a condition, commonly known in the industry as an ‘overlanding lobotomy’, whereby sufferers remove a huge chunk of their brain to make room for more souvenirs before they leave home. This condition is also known as ‘stupid-question-rage’ or, more colloquially, a tour-guide-burnout.

It all starts innocently enough. During a pre-departure meeting, that magical first encounter when you must set some ground rules and make sure everyone is fully aware of what to expect, you notice some young things are looking a little confused. You take a deep breath, count to five and then enquire as to what the problem may be.

“Ohh…do you mean camping…as in tents and stuff?” you’re asked.

You try your best to muffle a laugh as you answer in the most diplomatic way possible.

“Yes that’s correct. Overlanding is all about camping and participating in the tour. You’ll be split up in teams for food shopping, meal preparations and truck cleaning.”

“But I don’t like camping very much…” is the inevitable answer.

So what would you say to that? I know what you want to say: “Hm, well then you’re stuffed aren’t you?” But what you end up saying is “Well, perhaps you should have actually read the whole brochure…” and then you move onto something else.

Unfortunately, it has only happened to me once that someone came up to me at the end of the pre-departure meeting and said “Look, thanks for all the info but this is not for me.” Back then I did all I could to assure her a refund from Kumuka, if more people were like her it would save us all a lot of grief.

The biggest mistakes I ever made were, of course, right at the beginning. When I first arrived in South America I had an insatiable desire to please everyone; I picked up the slack and tried not to make a fuss, until I was exhausted, the rest of the group resentful and the whole mood tethering on icy. I’ve since smartened up and even though I’ve been called a ‘Guide-Nazi’ on a few occasions I take it as a compliment. If I can manage to instill mortal fear on my subjects on day one, then the hardest part of my job is over. I am blessed with a loud voice and firm tone and although I am friendly and accommodating, I have developed a low-patience-threshold to laziness.

“Our number one objective” I normally say “Is to keep the tour guide happy. If she’s happy…then everyone’s happy.” I usually arouse a roaring laughter from everyone at our first meeting, and I normally allow a smirk to emit from my lips. However, I use a tone which leaves just a little doubt in their mind and after a few seconds, when I have time to explain what I mean, the smiles usually fade.

“The only thing that pisses me off is when someone decides that he, or she, will simply sit back and let everyone else work. That’s not what this is about, that’s not what you picked when you booked this tour. Participation tours…are just that. They can work beautifully and smoothly. Yet it just needs one lazy bastard and the whole thing’s ruined, for everyone, me included. You get out what you put in…it’s very simple. We’re either going to have an amazing adventure together…or you’re going to get dropped off in the middle of nowhere because my patience has run out. And if you think I wouldn’t kick you off the truck…think again. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again.”

I’m happy to report I haven’t actually kicked anyone off the truck due to laziness, although perhaps I should have.  I once made a guy cook dinner for 24 people…all on his lonesome. He’d been finding 101 reasons to disappear whenever there was a job to do and his team-mates had had enough. By the time I approached him, I gave him two options: either pack your bags and leave, or do one whole dinner, on your own. He pulled his finger out after that and I never had reason to reproach him again for the rest of the tour.

While the majority is informed and co-operative, there will inevitably be at least one or two who will push the boundaries, spend most of the time bitching and moaning and try their hardest to not contribute.

I’ve heard every excuse under the sun, and some may even be plausible…if only they hadn’t actually booked the trip themselves.

“I shouldn’t have to cook, I’m on holidays!” is a personal favorite.

Yes, granted. But YOU chose a holiday with self-catering you idiot. You liked that the trip was cheap, but somehow forgot to read the part about you having to cook and clean. Selective reading some may call it. Like the girl who hadn’t realised this was a budget camping trip, showed up in high heel boots, no sleeping bag and complained that the hostels we stayed in ‘were not to her standard’. I mean, seriously princess, you can’t expect a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget.

Fortunately, this hard-line attitude is completely unnecessary with most people; majority of the time the tours are brilliant, and so are my pax. They’re energetic, helpful and very co-operative. Long tours and big groups are preferable; both conducive to a much more fun atmosphere and the dilution of personality conflicts. My role as ‘group entertainer’ becomes obsolete so, strangely enough, the more pax on my truck, the more time to myself. The only major drawback to the job is the complete lack of privacy or personal time: campgrounds, hotels and activities must be booked, confirmed and re-confirmed 27 times, menus must be organized, budget and accounts must be kept up to date daily, catfights amongst girls must be diffused, boys must be supervised whilst cooking, the driver needs to be kept fed, coffeed-up and happy, grocery shopping must be done at midnight, minor emotional-breakdowns must be attended to, love-triangles amongst the pax unraveled and then, when it’s all done, you should really get at least four hours’ sleep a night. The shower, valium-taking and leg-shaving will just have to wait another day.

Every available moment, free of obligations, must be grabbed heartily and swiftly.

There’s plenty to learn on the road too. I’ve since noticed that males thrive on group work a lot more than females, especially when there’s heavy lifting involving. Perhaps it’s a left-over trait of the Neanderthal days: they suck in their stomach, flex their pex and a few have come very close to beating their chest with their fists. Females usually look very impressed and no-doubt glad they don’t have to lift their severely overloaded backpacks on the truck every morning on their own. Two million years have passed and all evolution advances seem to cease when it comes to truck duties. Young boys look at an onion with disconcerting horror and girls couldn’t start a fire to save their lives. Luckily there are enough jobs to go around and it can all easily turn into an unforgettable adventure; when truck breakdowns, insanely long drive days and the occasional two-day-long mud bogging actually add to the allure and the exhilarating experience.

On a more personal level, the most important lesson learned is something which is uttered often enough, but I don’t think most people actually believe.

Every problem has a solution.

To be a guide you must be a problem-solving junkie, and if you’re not one before you start you certainly will be by the time you finish. Unless you’ve made a major cock-up, a tremendous error in judgment and you were sent home.

The beauty of it is that when faced with an enormous challenge, given time and some lateral thinking, you can actually come up with various solutions. What you then do is rate them according to their difficulty, expense and time-sucking attributes, until you come up with plan A, B, C and D.

Sometimes plans E and F must be thought of on the spot, but by then you’ve thought of every eventuality and the pure fact that I’m here, writing this now, means I am still not stuck in a meter of mud on a remote part of the Bolivian Salt Flats, or trying to safely get us all out of Lima during a violent political demonstration or, God forbid, at the bottom of Lake Titicaca because the barge we were on ran out of fuel about 200 meters from shore.

Overlanding is not for everyone, but if you want to enjoy the journey, as well as the destination…welcome on board.

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