Hilary Bradt: Confessions of a tour guide

You may visit exotic destinations to see the wildlife, but it’s the antics of your fellow travellers that will make the trip memorable according to Hilary Bradt.

Confessions of a tour guide opening spread

You may visit exotic destinations to see the wildlife, but it’s the antics of your fellow travellers that will make the trip memorable, writes Hilary Bradt.

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, so perhaps I could work as their 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, 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.
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?”
I’m not thinking just about the moaners and arguers here, but the 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, 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 – smoking is the favourite pastime of most people in the developing world – and the chap with a physical disability who signed up for an extreme adventure itinerary.
When it's good, it's great
But you need the disastrous trips to 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 are guaranteed to 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 indri’s song. 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 places (for them), and those wrong places throw up all the disasters they can muster… oh, you wish you’d stayed at home.
But when it's bad....
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 a trip to Cusco, when we were returning to the hotel from our tour of Sacsayhuamán, the extraordinary ruins above the city. I was holding forth about Inca stonemasons when someone tapped 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!”
Meet Joyce
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 as her husband hadn’t been 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 that, 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.
But 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 the details of 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, our driver and guide, a Kikuyu tribesman in his fifties who’d met enough tourists to be unfazed by anything that Tom might say.


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