Who Guides the Tour Guide
This article first appeared in Birds Illustrated
I’ve been lucky enough to go on a several foreign birding forays, some self-directed, sometimes leading others, and sometimes being part of a professionally led group and I am always struck by just how different leaders are; in birding skill & experience but, more importantly, in their idea of what a guide should do.
I thought it was time to share some guidelines for guides as, sadly, the right motivation, people skills and organisational ability appear to be as rare as Roc eggs! Incidentally, grumpy I may be, but I have had some brilliant trips with guides who have since become friends and whose service I would, and indeed do, recommend to others.
On the other hand…
Naming no names and carefully disguising circumstances so as not to embarrass anyone, I offer some guiding golden rules.
I went on a trip with a group of disabled birders. Our guide had many years experience, however, on an outing to a world famous migration hot spot he wandered off for half an hour. He returned to tell us he had been checking out a path but it was not suitable for wheelchairs, however, it had been worth checking as he had picked up a lifer for himself! Needless to say this was a much wanted species that none of the group managed to catch up with.
Rule 1 – The guide is there to enable the group to see birds, NOT to extend his own life list!
On another trip, after a long and tiring day in the field, our guide unilaterally decided that we should all stop at a local hostelry for a pint rather than head back to base and, when it was suggested that the group should be consulted he took off at break-neck driving speed scaring some participants half to death!
Rule 2 – Guides should consult participants before changing itineraries
On one occasion we arrived at 10.00 pm and waited for an hour before the guide turned up – in a small saloon car that three of us had to cram into the back seat of. He told us it would take 15 minutes to reach the hotel… one and a half hours later we were hammering on its door trying to rouse the owner. I can think of very few times when even good guides have been accurate about travel times.
Rule 3 – Always over-estimate travel times; customers are pleased to arrive early, if you underestimate times clients get fed up always being late
Another guide spent all his time running down ethnic groups and banging on about the football club he supported. He laughed at his own [rather childish] jokes, but never understood the groups’ humorous remarks.
Rule 4 – Don’t assume that group members share your political leanings, sense of humour or other proclivities
It’s hard to give the next rule anonymously – so I’ll just tell it like it happened and hope he either doesn’t subscribe to BI or takes this on the chin.
The guide [who also drove] would stop to get himself a coffee. After this happened a few times we suggested that group members [most of whom had difficulty getting in and out of a vehicle] might like to be asked if they needed a drink, or to use the restrooms. Having conceded this the guide began to buy himself mini doughnuts and only sometimes shared these with the group. The last straw came when he bought back a box of doughnuts and said “these are for treats later in the day” and went off to use the facilities. Without a word being exchanged the group instantly devoured every last crumb from the box.
Rule 5 – Birders like to be guided, not dictated to
We were doing our own thing in Thailand but decided that one site would be better worked with local knowledge so we asked our hotel if they knew a guide. They contacted a local chap who agreed to meet us next day at first light. We rose very early for the 40 minute drive into the park. On arrival the Park Centre was closed and deserted. No one appeared and after half an hour, seeing some huts we timorously tapped on the door of one. Our guide for the day opened the doors bleary-eyed and clearly very hung-over. He emerged half an hour later and took us to several spots in the park where we didn’t see any birds and where he tried to describe partial human footprints as tiger pugmarks.
Rule 6 – Get recommendations from other birders when hiring local guides
There are of course, too many rules to cover in one article, so I’ll confine myself to one last tale of woe.
Half way round the world we birded with a guide who had written glowingly about his Lodge’s air-conditioned, en-suite cottages, dining room and bar set amidst extensive grounds. On the drive from the airport it became clear that the man had only recently acquired his bird knowledge and was certainly no better at spotting or ID than the rest of us… but he knew the country and took us to places where birds abounded. We ended a long day arriving at his place. The cottages turned out to be converted steel containers on blocks and the air-con was a fan the size of an aircraft engine welded on to one end with a mesh window at the other. His interpretation of en-suite was an old fashioned one – the ‘facilities’ were tagged on one end and required one to step out into the world to use them. But it was the dining room and bar that really staggered us. It seemed like an old aircraft hangar [perhaps the man was the king of recycled air-force surplus] and had a couple of tables at one end, a pool table in the middle. At the other end was a table-sized hot plate used to cook everything, in, it appeared, the same grease used to lubricate the air-con. Around a flood-lamp in one corner buzzed literally thousands of moths, flies and uncountable other insect varieties in a mesmerising whirl. We headed for the nearest hotel the next morning!
Rule 7 – Try telling it like it is, honesty is always appreciated, that way realistic choices can be made
I’d love to hear from other world birders about their experiences of being guided… maybe other people’s sunny dispositions had meant they have been better served.