Confessions of a holiday tour guide

Robert Skinner

People on a bus tour can be hard to please—but luckily this seasoned guide has a few tricks up his sleeve.

On the first day of the centre Australian tour that I regularly ran, someone would always ask what time we were going to arrive at camp. Because the camp was 370 miles away, it was a good opportunity to set things straight.

“Look,” I’d say, “there are rogue cows, flat tyres and headwinds like you wouldn’t believe.” I’d stare wistfully out the window. “In some ways, we’ll be lucky to get there at all.”

I tried to leave it at that one morning, but the girl who asked kept looking at me expectantly.

I sighed. “What time? I dunno. About six-thirty, seven?”

“OK! Thank you!” She turned to her friend. “He says we’re arriving at 6.37.”

A tour guide shouldn’t say too much on the first day. A week is a long time and you don’t want to devalue your own currency. A critical job for any tour guide is to bond the group. The best way is to go bush camping. With the sun low and the cockatiels bursting from the trees, we’d head down some dirt track. When we stopped in a clearing, sometimes there’d be confusion.

“But there’s nothing.”

“I know! Isn’t it wonderful?”

Bush camping worked for many reasons—chief among them that no one wants to die alone. Strangers would go off to pee together and come back friends, or scatter in twos and threes to collect firewood and get bitten by ants. Those were the best nights, with no one else around and the Milky Way smeared brightly across the black sky. We drank beer next to the fire. People really started talking, and slept closer to one another than on any other nights.

There are other ways of getting a group together. I know a guide who, if he sensed malaise, would fake a flat battery and make everyone push-start the bus. I once tried to fix a radiator leak with chewing gum I passed around. If you can get 21 people chewing for a common cause, what you have is a family.

Sometimes, if I felt they could benefit from a sense of occasion, I’d tell them this was the very sand dune from which 19th-century explorer William Gosse and his party first laid eyes on Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock). People oohed.

“But couldn’t they have seen it from the sand dune just over there?”

There’s always one.

“You raise a good point, madam.”

 

 

"One should never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

 

 

I never had qualms about butchering the European version of things. For one thing, most of the best places are just named after some bloke. What are you going to do—stand in front of that beautiful rock with its 30,000-year-old cultural history and talk about So-and-so Ayers who once governed South Australia and had certain hobbies?

One should never let facts get in the way of a good story, because no one remembers facts anyway. The best tour guides will turn an explanation into a story that’s entertaining even to someone who cares nothing for the subject.

You’d hear spiels of other guides: “The canyon is made up of Carmichael sandstone, which is more than 400 million years old, and Mereenie sandstone, which is 360 million years old ...”

If there was ever a more boring sentence in the English language, I didn’t finish reading it. What exactly are the tourists being offered that they can’t get themselves with an encyclopedia and a tranquilliser dart?

You should never, or almost never, give your tourists the choice between two options. This is a mistake inexperienced guides often make. Are you not the leader of this expedition? Have you not been here a hundred times before and know what it’s about?

You have to start early. If you start the walks too late, it’ll take them a whole day to recover from that heat. By 11am, there’s no more birdsong, just the sounds of buzzing flies and sobbing. You explain this to your passengers well in advance; you want them to feel like they’ve made the choice (though there is no choice), so they feel like mavericks in the early morning, and not like suckers.

The other thing to do in the summertime is sneak people into a five-star hotel and its pool. I used to arm everyone with back stories to explain how the ragtag bunch could afford a five-star hotel. Then I would drop them off in twos and threes at various locations and staggered intervals. I’m not sure any of this was necessary, but it helped with the sense of occasion.

It almost doesn’t matter what you show them, if you feed them well. German girls will commit heinous crimes for Nutella at breakfast. Europeans in general will not eat white bread and you shouldn’t bother making them try. The smallest girls from Taiwan and Korea will eat twice as much as any man. And although some Italian men might be incapable of opening a can of tomatoes, they will nevertheless have strong opinions on how to make the Bolognese.

At Uluru, we'd cook up a big gourmet barbecue and have a candlelit dinner. Once everything was ready I’d hit the lights and play Marvin Gaye. The difficulty was not cooking the dinner—but getting people to eat it. They all wanted to take photos of it.

 

 

"There's a subtle but important difference between taking care of your passengers and serving them."

 

 

However, it should never look difficult. I still cringe about the night I made quails wrapped in sage and prosciutto, and spent two hours trying to balance them over coals in a potbelly stove. No one wants to see their guide running around like a desperate MasterChef contestant—it’s unbecoming.

There’s a subtle but important difference between taking care of your passengers and serving them. In gaining a servant, they lose a leader. You’re taking on expectations that can’t be met, and they’ll resent you for it. They’ll start blaming you for the flies and the mediocre sunsets.

Two days after the quail incident, 25 miles out of Glendambo, I smelled burning oil. I almost didn’t stop—by then the tourists and I were engaged in psychological warfare and I didn’t want to lose more ground. But I pulled over to take a look. The underside of the bus was sprayed in oil.

I opened the engine block and saw where it had come from: a big round hole that should have had a cap screwed over it. I knew this because I’d taken it off the night before to top up the oil.

By some miracle, the cap was still sitting on the engine block.

“Folks,” I told the tourists, “we’ve got ourselves an oil leak.” (Which was technically true.) “In the gasket region.” (Which was not.)

There were outraged groans.

“Now listen,” I said, holding up my hands, “I’m pretty sure I can fix it.” I was sure I could fix the leak—insofar as screwing the cap back on.

We had just enough oil to make it to Glendambo. While everyone prepared lunch, I told them I was off to fix the leak. I parked the bus behind the roadhouse and sat enjoying a quiet drink and reading Moby-Dick. Then I judiciously applied some engine grease to my face, and drove back to the lunch spot.

“Guys, I fixed it!” And it really felt like I had—a small victory.

I speak fluent German. I thought it would be a secret weapon, but in six years of tour guiding I almost never eavesdropped on anything interesting.

At Uluru sunsets there was a lot of, “Ja, I have been thinking the same thing! Why does he cut the tomatoes so thick at lunchtime? Sometimes thicker than the bread even!” What sounds like complaining is really just Germans having a good time.

Once I was doing paperwork outside the Cultural Centre. I was sipping a cold lemonade. A German girl and her friend plonked down at the table and stared at my drink.

The girl said to her friend, in German, “I’d give anything for a drink like that.”

I was thinking, What’s wrong with you? They’re pennies in the gift shop.

“Would you like the rest of my lemonade?” I said.

She looked at me with wide eyes and grabbed the drink. Then she said to her friend, in her native tongue, “Wait. Do you think he’s diseased?”

Something snapped. I shouted in German, “After  everything I’ve done for you, now this?!”

She was pleasantly surprised. “You’re German! That’s why you have such good ideas, like the pool!”

On the last morning, we’d hike Kings Canyon together. The group would climb up “Heart Attack Hill,” look across the desert and feel that they’d survived the outback. And that they did it together.

Once, when we returned to camp, I got everyone coffee and French toast, which the French couple insisted was just toast, then snuck off into the bushes for a power nap. I told the group we’d pack up and hit the road to Alice Springs by 11.30am.

I woke up groggy and confused to the sound of the bus horn. Somehow it was 11.30am. I ran back to camp.

They were all sitting on the bus. “For the love of God, guys,” I started to shout, “we’ve got to pack this place up!”

And then I saw the swags tied on the roof. The food boxes, bags, cooking equipment had been packed into the trailer; our hut was swept. The only thing left in the place was a cup of fresh coffee with my name on it. They were beeping the horn because everything was done, and all they needed was me.

 

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