Packing it in to become a Tour Leader

It’s not that I didn’t like London, I was having a pretty wild time playing rugby with the lads and going out on the lash after the game. As well as my weekly sporting and drinking fixtures I spent some of my time engaged in more cultural pursuits. Visits to the British Museum in London, art zine launches in Leeds and a rather ill conceived late night taxi ride to Slough where I saw the building that features in the opening credits of the BBC comedy ‘The Office’.

During the weekdays I was managing website development and marking projects for an international executive training company. Day to day I sat in front of as many computers as I could operate at one time (usually 2, sometimes less after a big night at the Slug and Lettuce) coordinating various teams of web programmers, developers and data collection.

It was an interesting and challenging role and offered a lot of training and new experiences. Some of our teams were based in India, another in continental Europe. After a while I started thinking less about the work they were producing and more about where they were living and working. I tried my best to manufacture reasons to visit these teams but was unable to convince my boss to let me go. He and I were both expats living in London and he could see straight through my little scheme – I just wanted a paid holiday. Determined to get out on the road again if I couldn’t travel in this job I’d find one where I could.

I had seen ads in the street press advertising jobs with tour companies. That seemed like a pretty sweet deal where I’d be getting paid to travel constantly! I applied online and was asked for a phone interview soon after that. The interview went well. I was surprised at how very Aussie the two voices on the end of the phone sounded. I have since been told I had quite a strong English accent at the time. Before I knew it I was asked to pack my bags (which after months in London had grown to boxes) and head off to China. All in the space of a couple of weeks I was having the ‘break up’ talk with my boss, training my replacement and finding someone to take over my accommodation lease.

The theory part of training took place in Prague then I was to shadow another leader on a trip to see first hand what was involved with this gig. Just weeks before departure I learned the trip I was to take went through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and I would need visas for these countries. This was the first I’d learnt these countries existed and I had to find their embassies, get invitation letters, get the visas as well as turning up for training in the Czech Republic. At the time I thought this was another part of my training – a test on multitasking. Looking back it was all a very tame affair compared to visa adventures to come.

I was to work as a Russia leader. At that time the only trips in Russia were 3 week overland train journeys between European Russia and Beijing in China. This suited me quite well. Passengers travelling to these parts of the world had usually done a bit of travelling before and were looking for some adventure. Despite what at first might seem like tedious days on end trapped in a train carriage, the journeys were always fun. Everyone got the chance to bond, share travel stories, eat and on the odd occasion sample the local vodka. The train journey was broken up by stops at some really interesting places where, as we were well rested on the train, we could go full steam sightseeing.

In the two summers that I led in Russia and the odd trip in China I can recall remarking to passengers and fellow leaders on quite a few occasions that I thought tour leading with Intrepid was the best job ever. Towards the end of 2005 when the season was winding down and leaders who had been there for two years already were finishing up, I found it hard to believe anyone would want to quit this lifestyle and return to ‘normal’ life. I couldn’t see myself getting sick of it any time soon.

Even the ‘bad’ experiences weren’t terrible. There were times when passengers rocked up without visas or with visas that would expire before exiting Russia. In the end it always worked out. There are not many jobs out there where your ‘office’ can be a wooden deck on the banks of the world’s largest fresh water lake one day and Red Square in the heart of Moscow the next.

I led two seasons with Intrepid and after my contract ended I returned to an office job. Mostly to be with my girlfriend who I had met between seasons. I don’t regret hanging up the backpack and returning to my old stomping ground of Sydney. I am still working in the travel industry and daily dream of far off exotic places. It’s only now I understand how those leaders in my first year were able to leave. Yes, it is the best job in the world but it can’t be forever and that’s what makes it so special. It’s that one crazy, exciting, intense, epic experience that gives you so much but demands just as much. If it did last forever the experiences would start to become routines and cease being special.