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The Secret Life of a Tour Leader

A felucca is an open-air boat, fashioned with a sail and Nubian river captain at the helm, who chartered our course for the three day trip. We swam, played games and swapped travel stories to pass the time. After mooring on the banks of the Nile, the cooling evening air was warmed by fire-light, mirrored by a vivid galaxy above, drinks shared and ear drums filled with hypnotic Bedouin beats. It was magical and basic; and just another day at the ‘office’ for a tour leader.



Life of a tour leader

Life for an adventure tour leader is magnificent. As I reminisce from the confines of my underground carriage in London nine years after hanging up my boots, a smile spreads across my face. Wonderful memories and colourful personalities reappear in waves of gloriousness as I ponder my time leading tour groups in Egypt, Jordan, China and Japan. I was the perfect age, bursting with energy, open to new experiences and a morning person – which helped more than I could have imagined.

Me and my mate on the Great Wall of China
Me and my mate on the Great Wall of China

Upon accepting the tour leader role, I picked up my marketing and advertising study manuals, casting them into the rubbish; unfinished due to waned interest. Ready for the next chapter, my friends took great delight in taunting me with tales of my frayed patience, questioning how I would hold back my tongue. You see I have little tolerance for people who are unable to see the good in foreign travel, who find it a necessity to drag out the negative in new experiences. Yes guiding tours was a magnificent job; a brilliant way to spend two and a half years but not without its ups and downs as with anything.

It really isn't pretty!
It really isn’t pretty!

I was saying I was the perfect age to guide tours. Any younger, I would have been too immature, any later and I may not have the fearless youthfulness, however at the ripe age of twenty-seven I landed in Cairo, Egypt with a bag of study notes. Would I relish the life of a tour leader ten years later? Yes, but back to back trips, I’m afraid not. I don’t have the patience I once did.
“Oh there are bugs in your room? Well look around, yes that’s right it’s the Amazon jungle.”
‘Your air conditioning is noisy? Well I’m sorry it is making it difficult for you to get to sleep as you relax in your comfortably cool room in the middle of the Jordanian desert!”
You see, travelling is a gift and should be enjoyed. Challenges and new experiences are part and parcel of foreign travel and we should grasp every opportunity to maximise what a country offers.

Always wash your hands after touching money
Always wash your hands after touching money

On the evening of day one having met my group of intrepid travellers, I would outline the tour (and its realities), what to expect, watch out for and generally excite them about the prospect of discovering a new country. At this point I would read their personalities, categorising them into sub-groups. For example:

1) Well travelled, easy going and adaptable
2) First time travellers needing a little reassurance
3) Travellers needing me to laugh at their jokes and pay more attention than the rest
4) Those that booked on, or were sold the wrong trip
5) And finally…the exception to all of the above is that some people are simply quirky

Having said this, I have met some outstanding people. One tour in Egypt delivered a lovely lady called Brooke – an American claiming to have had premature mid-life-crisis before emigrating to Australia in her thirties with children in tow. She filled the days regaling interesting stories, events and life experiences and opened her soul to those interested. Brooke who is still a Facebook friend is a salt-of-the-earth woman. To this day any time we make contact, she is aiding in Africa or travelling to amazing places and generally living the life of someone who has earned a bag of memories. I met an Indian man (was 5 years old but now in his late 70’s and still travelling) who met Ghandi who was walking through his village, and another lady who ended up randomly meeting at an Elvis Presley concert after party. Faces came and went but some people and personalities shone.


Benefits of being a tour leader

There are many aspects of tour leading I could recount and to be completely impartial they would need to be a combination of both positive and negative as with most things, however to put it bluntly, it was a magnificent experience which removed me from the confines of the normal world. Here are the top ten reasons which ultimately encouraged and inspired me to follow this path for years without a break.

1 – Desk Free Work Space
The melodic tapping of a keyboard, habitual coffee machine escape and timed lunch breaks were replaced by monuments which stood imprinted upon time, rubber-stamped with historical significance. This became my daily working world and often had me screaming at the top of my lungs in appreciation of the vistas unfolding before me. Simple aspects such as overnight sleeper trains in China with lights out at 10pm, invites to share a pot noodle with locals and crouching on the squat toilets as the train rattled by at top speed became the norm. Taking my group on donkey rides to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt or the Shinkansen bullet train system in Japan with its military precision and artificially cooled air. This became my normal, my world.

2 – Tour leader Pay Day Cheque
Although I didn’t receive the same financial rewards as an investment banker, I could live modestly, comfortably and still be able to save. Gone was the paying of bills and stretching the remainder across the month. In fact I saved the majority of my wages, surviving on tips from contented travellers and apart from the frequent splurge to dive beneath the watery surface in the Red Sea for a week, or buy a flight I was happy.

Diving the Red Sea
Diving the Red Sea

3 – The Daily Grind for a tour leader
I have always maintained that living and travelling in a country are two very different experiences. At first new cities can appear daunting, sprawling, grand and the feeling of the unfamiliar creeps from every street corner. However, living in a country and discovering pockets of the city, local eateries, places to smoke shisha, walking tours and colourful markets the familiar was reintroduced. As were the smiles of friendly faces from market traders who regularly sold me fresh fruit or rented me a bicycle. The daily grind of the 5 days on and 2 days off was replaced by 7 days on and the opportunity to make new friendships, learn and practice new languages as well as the freedom to get lost without a map to see what mischief could find me.

4 – Tour leader coaching
Coaching new office staff was almost magically replaced by 18 eager travellers on day 1, still tripping over first day uncertainties. These magnificent people had studied the world map, traced the pulsing of borders along ridges, down valleys and up mountains passes – finally resting their finger on this country. They were keen to learn the intricacies and idiosyncrasies which lay within the borders, as well as the people who called it home. A good tour leader can take on the role of a can opener, prizing open, dishing out and dissecting the best bits to present to the hungry recipient. I had an interest in where I lead tours, going out of my way to learn as much as I could; equally I enjoyed revealing a side to travellers that couldn’t be found in the latest copy of the Rough Guide.

5 – Lunchtime Break
This became a wonderful, and at times a challenging exercise. Wandering through supermarket isles searching for a recognisable brand or product, tasting new fruit juices at the downtown markets, ordering a plate of deep-fried bees in China, picking apart pigeon for the meagre meat ration and generally never knowing what new cuisine sensations would awaken my taste buds. The late night fish and chip shop was replaced by street stalls grilling skewers of sizzling chicken (sometimes unknown meat) after a drunken night out tasting foreign beers.

6 – Answering Work Calls
The electronic buzzing of an office telephone was transformed into the melodic stringing together of words with strange new letters, syllables and intonation which danced with the pronunciations of new words. I wandered markets ordering with the basics of a newly acquired language. Over time looks of confusion were met with understanding smiles that stretched from ear to ear. A simple visit to a café rewarded me with treacle textured coffees and sweet smoky aromas which punctured the air as conversations were overheard and started by me in this strange new language.

7 –The Commute into Work
The commute to work became easier. Gone were the sweaty public transport journeys and dreary walks to the bus bundled in a winter coat. Instead these daily experiences were replaced by bike rides amongst rolling limestone karsts in China’s southern town of Yangshou, past villagers repairing tyres and stringing up bunting for a New Year’s celebration. Single steps lead me on rough volcanic scoria on the upward trail to summit Mt Fuji, and fine granular Bedouin sand slipped through cracks in my shoes as I wandered the timeless expanse of Petra’s lost city.

8 – The Trek Home from Work
The familiar roads which lead me from the office to home were replaced by the scouring of back streets, diverting away from the main tourist areas in favour of cobblestone roads with ornately crafted mosques and tradesman sculpting brass pots, barbers and questionable dentist surgery’s. In my free time I purposely lost myself in new areas; orienteering a new path to lead travellers down; one which hadn’t been circled in the latest copy of Lonely Planet. By studying the city and understanding the chaotic system of roads I could discover and deliver its beating pulse to my guests.

9 – Chatting with Work Colleagues
The vast disconnect of chatting with work colleagues verses hearing stories from travellers about their take on a country I was living in and at times, blasé about was incredible. New senses were awakened; taste buds ignited, eyes acclimatised and passions sparked. Meal times recounting the 360 degree rice terrace views of Longsheng, naked Onsen’s in Japan and aggressive tactics of the Aswan salesmen unleashed enthusiastic conversations.

10 – Escape from the Office
As good as it is to escape the office, it was equally as nice to take time away from my group and regroup. I liked nothing better than to enter the musical matrix with headphones firmly in place, block out the sounds of a strange country and create my own playlist. Music has the power to bring memories exploding back as guitar riffs and drums reignite thoughts.

I left tour leading when I felt myself appreciating my free time more than I liked giving it. It was a wonderful end to one of the most rewarding chapters in my life; one I still look back on fondly. Travel has changed a great deal since I lead tours, as have the people travelling. My tip for all group travellers is don’t be afraid to head off exploring for a day yourself, see what mischief you can find. Group tours are created with just that, a group in mind and we arrive knowing what we want to take from the trip so don’t be afraid to go searching for it – even if you don’t see any footsteps in the dirt ahead of you.

Happy travelling folks!

If you fancy reading some of my other Asia articles, click the links below:
Getting naked in Japan – you guide to naked bathing
Hiking the Great Wall of China
Wearing India like a badge of honour
Karni Mata – temple of rats
Up early with the birds for Tsukili Fish market in Tokyo
The Travellers Pursuit of Happiness



  1. October 4, 2014 / 11:03 pm

    Thank you so much for this post! I have only just made the decision to change my career, and get into tour leading. I am planning to save up some money this coming year, take a course next summer and then see where life takes me. I am so excited, so I am eating up anything and everything I can find written by current or former tour leaders. I am a little daunted by the fact that I am doing this at the age of 34, and your comment about being a morning person is another thing, since I am decidedly not! Still, I feel as if everything that has happened in my life so far has lead me here, so I can’t wait to get started!

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • October 4, 2014 / 11:06 pm

      34, my word you are at the perfect age. Try Tucan Travel and see if/where they send you. You’ll love it, it makes us all young again 🙂 thanks for reading

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