June 2015


The art of tour guiding

By Robert Skinner
When you’re driving a bus full of tourists through the Australian outback, a packet of chewing gum may be your only hope

Tour guiding in Australia is easy on some levels: you feed your charges well, take them to the right places, and try to keep their feet warm. But extreme weather, mechanical problems, flies in the daytime, mosquitoes at night, the Germans, the lack of sleep, the feelings of deep existential loneliness … all these things will conspire against you.

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? Don’t go inflicting the misery of democracy on them. It may seem generous and noble, but in the middle of an Australian summer I have seen some people reduced to tears.

An outback tour is not a luxury cruise. A cruise liner gives the impression that everything is taken care of, and available. This is impossible when you’re the sole driver/guide, and it doesn’t make for a good experience anyway. I prefer to give the illusion of barely contained chaos. It contributes to people’s sense of adventure and togetherness. When it’s going well, it will feel like you’re the captain of a pirate ship.

If a family of native mice sneak on board your bus, and are only discovered when you’re barrelling down the highway, don’t stop. If there is screaming and hopping and running about, smile ruefully and say, “Welcome to the outback.” This is the most important phrase in your arsenal. Keep driving if you can. Maybe shout some words of encouragement, as the tourists round up the mice into saucepans.

On the first day of a central Australian tour that I regularly ran, someone would always ask what time we were going to arrive at camp. Because camp was 600 kilometres away, it was a good opportunity to set a few things straight.

“Look,” I’d say, “this isn’t the Deutsche Bahn. There are rogue cows, flat tyres, and headwinds like you wouldn’t believe.” I’d stare wistfully out the window for a moment. “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 the question just kept looking at me expectantly.

I sighed. “What time? I dunno. About 6.30, 7?”

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

A tour guide should try not to say too much on the first day. A week is a long time and you don’t want to devalue your own currency. By the end of a tour, no one remembers the first day anyway. Put some music on and start driving.

An older guide once said to me, “It’s like cards. Don’t throw all your aces down on the table at once. You gotta play them one at a time.” (This is a profound nugget of tour-guiding wisdom, but spectacularly bad advice for actual card games.)

A critical job for any tour guide is to bond the group. You want them to feel as though, for the next six days, they’re all part of the same story. The best way to do this on an outback tour is to go bush camping. With the sun low and the cockatiels bursting from the trees, we’d go plunketing down some dirt track. Occasionally I’d play songs from The Lion King because, for some reason, hearing an African-themed soundtrack while bouncing through the Australian bush made people feel more at home.

When we stopped in a clearing and turned off the engine, sometimes there’d be confusion.

“But there is nothing.”

“I know! Isn’t it wonderful?”

Bush camping worked for many reasons, chief among them that no one wants to die alone. The tourists would come out of the bus in small groups and look around. It was like a small-time survival camp. 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. I watched it all proudly from the top of the trailer.

There’d be a German guy saying, “Don’t you have a chainsaw? For making the firewood?”

“Hell no!”

Sometimes I hid the matches, to make it even more fun for them.

Those were always the best nights, with no one around and the Milky Way smeared across the black sky. We drank beer and cooked paella with chicken and chorizo 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, of course. I know a guide who, if he sensed malaise, would fake a flat battery and make everyone get out and push-start the bus. That’s good as gold, as far as bonding goes. So is getting bogged and digging the bus out with salad bowls. I once tried to fix a radiator leak with Blu Tack, but didn’t have any Blu Tack, so I passed around packets of chewing gum. If you can get 21 people all chewing gum for a common cause, what you have is a family.

Most tourists book the tour to see Uluru, but it’s the experiences in between that really make the trip memorable. Your job is to provide the context in which a tourist can enjoy or appreciate them. Take Coober Pedy, for instance. Some guides treat it with disdain, or like an overrated lunch spot – and their tourists inevitably go away feeling the same way.

The town itself looks like a dusty Hobbiton. It’s a hot and sandy moonscape, an “after” shot in a film about global warming. The first thing you see when you’re coming into Coober Pedy from the south is a lone wind turbine resolutely not turning.

It looks a bit like a dump, frankly, but I’m inordinately fond of it, and that’s contagious. Most houses have assorted junk piles in their front yards, which take on a majestic rusted glow at sunset. People have built themselves terraced front yards from old car tyres. There is half a space ship on the main street and a tree that appears to be made from scrap metal. The early miners built the tree for their kids, apparently, who complained constantly about not having any decent trees to climb. Even when it was built, though, they could only climb it a few months of every year without getting second-degree burns on their hands and feet.

I always liked to take my tours to the Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Course. Sometimes it’s hard to find the golf balls among all the similarly sized rocks. The rest is baked clay and sand, and the players have to carry around their own patch of turf to play the balls off. But it’s the only golf course in the world to have a reciprocal membership arrangement with the world-famous St Andrews Links in Scotland. There’s a sign by the sixth hole that says “Keep Off Grass”, which sums up the whole town nicely, I think.

From Coober Pedy to Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park it’s about 700 kilometres – not a lot by Australian standards, but enough of a drive to demoralise most international tourists. In these circumstances, try to surround yourself with good people up the front of the bus. If it doesn’t happen by chance on the first day, suggest that swapping seats every morning is a great thing to do. Drink coffee and eat apples like a fiend to stay awake, tell stories over the microphone, and play games.

There are signs up and down that highway with sage, big-lettered messages like “POWERNAP NOW” or “FEELING SLEEPY?” Those signs will make you indescribably angry. You have to try not to think about sleep at all, because it’s something that can happen very easily: you check in your mirror to make sure the swags are still tied down, you start thinking about your own swag and how comfortable it is, and suddenly you feel your eyelids drooping. Try to think only of very active things, like being chased by wolves or robbing a supermarket.

On the way to Uluru there’s a flat-top mesa mountain called Mt Conner. It’s a much more common formation, geologically speaking, than Uluru, which is why Uluru has its own airport and Mt Conner has two toilets and a barbecue. But Mt Conner stands majestically by itself on the desert plain, so it’s often mistaken for Ayers Rock. (Locals call it “Fool-a-roo”.)

Everyone gets excited and goes reaching for their cameras, because it’s a good-looking mountain. One time, when we were stopped in the car park and I explained how it wasn’t actually Uluru, I saw a Swiss couple put away their camera without even taking the photo. I was outraged. “Guys, it’s the same mountain! It’s the same mountain it was 30 seconds ago when you were all in a tizzy about it!”

But people want the rock they paid for. You can’t just go springing a mountain on people and expecting them to fall in love with it.

The last hour before sundown is a beautiful time in the outback, Uluru or no. A sudden aching softness comes to a landscape that just five minutes ago seemed barren and unrelenting. I always felt beers were important at a time like this, because you wanted everyone to slow down for what was going on. You could tell the non-drinkers because they were impatient for something to happen. (Like what? Uluru miraculously spewing lava?)

Sometimes, if I felt the whole thing could benefit from a sense of occasion, I would tell them that this was the very sand dune from which William Gosse (a white dude) and his party first laid eyes on Uluru. People really liked that. They 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.”

I never had qualms about butchering the European version of things. For one thing, most of the best places are just named after some dude. 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 matter.

Then you’d hear the spiels of other guides: “Now, the canyon is made up of two types of sandstone: the Mereenie sandstone, which is 400 million years old, and the Carmichael 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. No one’s heard of the Mereenie or the Carmichael sandstone. Furthermore, no one can properly imagine how old 400 million years is, or, for that matter, 360 million years. What exactly are the tourists being offered that they can’t get themselves with an encyclopaedia and a tranquilliser dart?

You have to start early in the mornings. If you let the tourists sleep in and start the walks too late in the day, it will take them a whole day to recover from that heat. The desert is alive in the early mornings, more alive than most can imagine. As the morning goes on, the shadows shorten and the sun drains the colour from the trees. 11 am brings the death of hope. 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 have 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. Shady trees, deckchairs, and waiters delivering poolside cocktails – luxuries like that are wasted on the rich. I used to explain the layout of the place to my crew and arm everyone with elaborate backstories to explain how such a ragtag bunch had come into enough money to afford a five-star hotel. Then I would drop them off in groups of twos and threes at various locations and staggered intervals. I’m not sure any of this was entirely necessary, but it helped with the sense of occasion.

The Australian tourism industry is overrun with white bread and overcooked sausages. If you learn to cook healthily for 21 people, with a bit of panache, and without it looking like a bucket of slops, you will go a long way.

It almost (almost) doesn’t matter what you show them during the day, if you feed them well at night. When things got rough I always carried a packet of Tim Tams with me, the way a cop sleeps with a gun under his pillow.

German girls will commit heinous crimes for Nutella at breakfast time. 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 tin of tomatoes, they will nevertheless have strong and vocal opinions on how to make the bolognaise. These should largely be ignored.

On the last night of our tour, we would cook up a big gourmet barbecue at Uluru and have a candlelit dinner. Once everything was ready to go I would hit the lights, plunging us into a darkness broken only by the flickering of candles, and then play Marvin Gaye.

The real difficulty in this circumstance was not the cooking of the dinner but the getting people to eat it. They all wanted to take photos of it: sometimes there’d be so many people jostling at the end of the table that there was no one left to photograph. Just me, sitting there like a schmuck, and a 60-year-old French woman saying, “I never did understand Facebook.”

However, it should never look difficult. Some of my worst tour incidents were precipitated by struggles with over-extravagant (and complicated) meals. I still cringe to think about the night I made quails wrapped in sage and prosciutto, and spent two hours trying to balance them over hot coals in a pot-belly stove. The problem was this: no one wants to see their guide running around like a desperate MasterChef contestant. It’s unbecoming.

There is a subtle but important difference between taking care of your passengers and serving them. When they see you running around like I did with the quails, it feels like servitude. And in gaining a servant, they lose a leader. It can spoil a group. You’re taking on expectations that can never be met, and they will resent you for it in ways they don’t entirely understand. They will start blaming you for the flies, the weather, the mediocre sunsets.

Two days after the quail incident, I was still feeling the shame of a bad parent. And then, 40 kilometres out of Glendambo, I started smelling burning oil. It had already been a trip filled with mechanical problems: we’d blown a heater hose and had to swap buses; we’d had flat tyres and an air-conditioning system that wheezed like an emphysema patient trying to get out his last words. Our exhaust had broken in two places and was held together with an olive oil tin. I was just trying to keep it all together. When I smelt the oil I almost didn’t stop – by this stage the tourists and I were engaged in high-level psychological warfare and I didn’t want to lose any more ground – but it did smell serious.

I got out and trudged down the back. The whole underside of the bus and the front of the trailer were sprayed in oil. I opened the engine block and it was absolute carnage; it looked like a Tarantino movie in black and white. But I could see exactly where the oil 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. And now we’d lost all of it through the same hole. By some miracle, the cap was still sitting there upside down on the engine block. I dropped the cover down on the engine block and cleared my throat.

The tourists looked at me with deep suspicion.

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

There were outraged groans. Someone threw his St Christopher medal out the window.

“Now listen,” I said, holding up my hands, “I’m pretty sure I can fix the leak.”

I was sure I could fix the leak, insofar as screwing the cap back on would pretty much do the trick, but there was still the problem of the oil.

We had just enough left to make it to Glendambo. While everyone was preparing lunch I topped it up and told them I was off to fix the leak. I parked the bus behind the roadhouse and sat there enjoying a quiet drink and reading Moby-Dick. I called my mechanic friend in Adelaide and asked her if she knew enough about gaskets to explain to me how I might pretend to have fixed one. Then I tastefully applied some engine grease to my face so it’d look like I’d been busy, and drove back around to the lunch spot. I was beeping the horn and hanging out the window: “Guys, I fucking fixed it!” And it really felt like I had. On some tours you will claim any victory you can in order to get you home.

When you get a bad group, whether it’s your fault or theirs, the first day or two can be funny. It can be entertaining to see the lengths some people will go to just to have a terrible time. But by the third day you can’t remember who your friends are or if you even have any. You go looking for love wherever you can find it.

The girls who like you will often watch you in the rear-view mirror while you’re driving. Sometimes they’re wearing sunglasses, which makes it hard to tell. I know a guide who, if he wanted to find out, would yawn deliberately into the rear-view mirror. He could tell by people’s psychosomatic responses (aka yawning back) who was watching from behind their sunglasses.

I tried the yawning thing once, but concerned passengers kept coming up to the front of the bus and suggesting we do singalongs or asking me if I wanted to stop for coffee. The gibber plains stretched out interminably.

Where?” I said. “Where would we stop?”

I can speak fluent German. I thought it would be a secret weapon, which I could use for good if I wanted to or evil if I needed to. 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 they are thicker than the bread even!” What sounds like complaining is really just Germans having a good time. They love bonding over logistical mishaps. It can really kill a good story, though, because they’re always laughing at the wrong bit. You start off setting the scene, explaining how you were in Sydney this one time, and you were caught in the rain because the bus was late, and suddenly the Germans are all falling about with laughter. “I know, I know!” they say, with tears streaming down their faces. “The buses are always late!”

At Uluru I was doing some paperwork outside the cultural centre. It was late afternoon but hot still, and the flies were getting their second wind. I was sipping a cold lemonade.

A German girl had been giving me grief for five days straight. Some people are just hard to live with. She plonked herself down across the table from me and started staring at my drink. Her friend sat down too.

Without taking her eyes off my drink, the girl said to her friend, in German, “Look at that drink.” Then she let out a little moan. “Ooooooh, what would you give for a drink like that? I’d give anything for a drink like that.”

I was thinking, What’s wrong with you? They’re $3.50 in the gift shop.

The moaning was making me uncomfortable, on account of its rising pitch.

I said, “Listen, would you like the rest of my lemonade?”

She looked at me suddenly with wide eyes and clutched the drink with both hands. “No, I couldn’t. I shouldn’t. Maybe I could …? Can I?”

Then, as she brought it to her mouth, she turned to her friend and said, in her native tongue, “Wait. Do you think he’s diseased?”

Something broke inside me that day. I jumped up and started screaming at her in German. I mentioned unmentionable things. I said, “Holy Christ, after everything I’ve done for you today, after all the things, the sneaking you into the five-star pool at great personal risk, etc., now this?!”

She was pleasantly surprised.

“Oh! Why didn’t you tell us? You’re German! That’s why you have such good ideas, like the pool!”

Usually I wouldn’t let on until the fifth or sixth day, when we’d just got back from hiking, and people were hot and exhausted and thinking of other things. I would plug the microphone in and just start giving the spiel in German.

On the last morning we’d hike Kings Canyon together. The group would climb to the top of “Heart Attack Hill”, essentially the final summit. They’d look back across the desert plains and feel – justifiably so, in some respects – that they had survived the outback. And they’d feel like they did it together. A long-distance tour is so much different from a day tour. The group takes on a character all of its own, and has its own hand in shaping the trip’s narrative. Four hours later, we’d traipse out of the canyon, and though they wouldn’t all be friends, even the villains and the sullen damsels would have played their part.

It’s only five hours from Kings Canyon to Alice Springs, but it was going to be a tough drive: we’d had a 5 am start and hiked four hours in the heat. I got everyone going with the coffee and the 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 camp and hit the road by 11.30.

Next thing I knew I woke up groggy and confused to the sound of the bus horn. Somehow it was 11.30 already and I’d missed everything. I jumped up and ran back to camp. I was irritated that they were beeping the horn instead of doing anything useful. When I got outside I saw that they were all just sitting there on the bus. “For the love of God, guys,” I started to yell, “we’ve got to pack this place up!”

And then I saw the swags tied down on the roof. I walked into our hut and everything was gone. The food boxes, the bags, the cooking equipment had all been packed into the trailer; the place was swept up and wiped down. It had never looked so good. They’d even scrubbed out the fridge. 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, it was taken care of, and all they needed was me.

Robert Skinner

Robert Skinner is the author of I’d Rather Not.

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