On my trip through Venezuela, I had the chance to see if my dream of being paid to travel was as good as it sounds. I led the tour group for a couple of days and interviewed the leader, Kim Owen.
It’s safe to say, whilst being a tour leader is pretty close to being ‘the best job in the world’, it is also far more nuanced than that. Like any job, it is hard work and had its pros and cons.
Kim has been professionally working as a tour leader for Oasis Overland for four years, after spending two years as a geologist, following university.
Having always wanted to travel, especially to see East Africa, Kim saved up and bit the bullet, going on an overlanding trip from Nairobi to Cape Town (find out more about what overlanding is like here). By the end of the tour, she had ‘fallen in love with the whole thing’ and sent a job application off to Oasis’ head office. She spent the next two years working in Africa, including going from Cape Town to Harare, before being sent to loop around Central Asia, Iran and Turkey – where I first met her – and then to South America.
It all sounds rather glamorous. The cliché that every day is different could not be more true than for a Tour Leader, with a huge variety of work environments. She says that it often doesn’t feel like work as it’s so sociable – she usually becomes good friends with her customers – and she has a permanent tan. She loves the self-sufficiency of being an overlanding tour leader, as it gives her the flexibility to improve the itinerary as the groups travels. I experienced this first-hand in Uzbekistan, when Kim worked out a way to take a rather long and last-minute detour to the shore of what was the Aral Sea, full of rusty, disused boats. It was very much a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see something of monumental environmental significance.
When everything is running smoothly and all the passengers are happy, she says it feels more like a lifetime of travelling with friends. But then, you go to countries like Venezuela or Iran and it’s all substantially more stressful, as she is responsible for making sure the trip is as safe as possible in places where things can be far from ‘safe’.
Kim was keen to stress that ‘it’s a harder job than it seems’, tour leaders will work all day every day for months at a time. There is no leaving the office at 5pm and no weekends. You continuously must try to meet your customers’ needs and expectations, which can ‘vary wildly’.
On an especially memorable occasion, Kim was awoken at 2am by a passenger who had their passport stolen whilst drunk. She spent the next 3 hours ‘making consular bookings, researching processes and necessary visas problems before trying to wake the now hungover individual at 7am to go get a police report for them’.
She found it hard to not have a personal life, it’s expected that she won’t be able to be there for friends’ birthdays and weddings now, or even be able to go for a drink after work with them. It is also certainly not a career that will make you rich, but on the flip side, it means everyone who does that job, does it ‘for the love of it.’ She adores being able to show people places she’s been and ‘seeing their excitement’ and ‘experience it with them’.
So What Does She Actually Do?
The tour leader role is ‘pretty broad’. Before a trip starts, there is a lot of planning, as Kim will get in touch with all of the local contacts and make bookings with them months in advance. This also means the itinerary must be planned down to the day – a challenge on a 6-month trip across Africa, for example. There’s a lot of budgeting and research involved too, to ensure the books are balanced and the group won’t end up somewhere they shouldn’t on a public holiday, for example.
When on the trip, it’s about the logistics of getting passengers across a continent unscathed and happy, always being one step ahead so she can answer their many, many questions and generally making sure everything runs smoothly and to plan. Then there is the basics of organising meals and activities, cleaning, cooking, setting up camp and driving. With security issues, she and the driver will make a decision on the ground, with information from local contacts in the area, and advised by head office. In Venezuela during some major protests, this meant changing the itinerary to avoid a certain area altogether and re-planning an entire section of the trip. Kim will also keep trip and driving notes, to pass onto the next tour leaders for the route; detailing exactly what time we left somewhere, how long it took to get to the destination and what we did along the way provides a reliable roadmap in incredibly remote areas of the world.
After the trip has finished, there is a fair amount of paper work and finalising the accounts, as well as often having to transit the truck to the starting point of the next trip or to a base where it can be stored. This can involve days more of driving. From Turkey to London or Cape Town to Cairo, for example.
What Did I Actually Do?
Very little, compared to all of that!
Kim asked me if I’d like to have a go at leading the group for a couple of days after we had crossed the border from Venezuela into the safety of Colombia, for a short excursion to Tayrona National Park, as she had to plan the next section of the trip in a nearby town. The national park is an area of pristine jungle and white sandy beaches lined with palm trees, that can only be accessed by foot, with no phone signal or WiFi. My job was pretty simple; to get the group there and back, check them into accommodation and generally be as helpful as possible.
All did not go to plan. Actually, that’s an understatement.
It was a complete car-crash.
The other members of the group had been travelling together for three to six months and were not so keen on the idea of the break from tradition. This is an understandable perspective, and I very quickly learnt the lesson that you cannot lead those who do not wish to be led! There is a difficulty in transitioning from friend to a leader that can understand and manage clients’ expectations. I was reassured to learn that this is an issue that actual tour leaders can also face, when taking over from a group when the original leader flies home due to illness or a family emergency, for example, Kim explains.
My experience of tour leading, therefore, came mostly from shadowing Kim directly, rather than leading the group myself. This is something I regret, as whilst I got a very good insight into what’s it’s like to do Kim’s job, it’s not quite the same as doing it yourself.
Being a tour leader would certainly fulfill my dream of being paid to travel and in the short term, it’s something I really could see myself doing. There would be absolutely no risk of getting bored in the mundane 9-5, I would constantly be experience new things and meeting new people. It would be a challenge, especially in the less ‘safe’ areas of the world that companies like Oasis take passengers to. I’d find the problem-solving aspect and the direct impact I’d have from customer service rewarding. It is a hard job though, much harder than it first appears and there are a lot of compromises that would need to be made.
On balance, I’d need to find a way to combine it with something that is more of an intellectual challenge too, which is certainly not impossible. Hypothesising here, but maybe I could be a tour leader that is also a freelance political-travel-writer and journalist? Who knows!
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Travellers should check the FCO advice for Venezuela before deciding to visit, due to ongoing instability. Official travel advice has changed since my visit, to ‘advise against all but essential travel’ with some areas of ‘advise against all travel’.