Two Weeks as an African Overland (Trainee) Tour Guide

There’s been a bit going on around these parts lately, and a definite backlog, but I just wanted to write about this one now. A month ago, a good friend of my mums told me that one of the overland truck tour companies were desparately looking for tour guides. After a lot of “Apply, you’ll be great for it”, I conceded, applied, and a few days later found myself meeting the crew, and packing my bag on to the truck for a 2 week trial trip to Uganda.

For those who don’t know, overland trucks (NOT a bus, as you will be told) run tours, traditionally between Cape Town and Nairobi, or as far as Cairo. They are an organised way for travellers to see the “rugged heart” of East Africa, while camping in secure campsites with frequently warm water and cold beer, and working as a group to cook tasty western food. The largest concerns for the guests are where they will find internet, safe water, and washing services.

I don’t mean to sound cynical, or pretentious. Honestly. I’m just calling it how I see it.

Anyway, back to the training. I was one of two trainees, the other a cool Kenyan dude. There was a driver and the tour guide, and 6 guests (plus an awesome Welsh couple for one week of it). While I won’t go into the specifics, the two weeks was spent driving from Nairobi to Kampala over 3 days(with a game drive in Nakuru, which the other trainee went on while I went shopping), Kampala to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where I did see elephants and hippos, Q. Liz to Lake Bunyonyi, where I did very little around the allegedly second deepest lake in Africa (or first, or third), while the clients went gorilla tracking, Lake B to Jinja, where I did little, went on a booze cruise (free for crew) and went white water rafting again (also free), then Jinja to Nairobi.

From my two weeks, I came to a couple of conclusions.

Firstly, overland trucks do a LOT of driving. In the 14 day Ugandan circuit, we were driving 9 days, 8 days were between 4 and 8 hours of driving.

Second, you don’t sleep in. I logged maybe one day after 6am, probably four 4am starts, with a clear majority at 5am. I’m a traveller, I’m not used to this. It also makes it exceptionally hard to rise after some drinks, which leads into:

Third, you will drink a lot. I did, anyway. When it comes to alcohol, the constitution of my “nah I don’t need a beer tonight” is exceptionally weak, I succeeded 2 days in a row, and one was a result of me leaving the tour group early to get back to Nairobi to get my new passport, but I’m counting it. The real problem here, although disguised as a perk, is that, at least on my trip, the guests were always offering to shout drinks. Now, I’m a poor, young, Australian backpacker, it’s almost criminal for me to turn down a drink offered. But, it’s lucky they were shouting so many drinks, because my bank account is minimal, which wasn’t helped by:

Fourth, the pay is rubbish. Training wages (which last for 6 months, that’s 2 CT-Nbi-CT circuits) with my company, was $80US/week. And I was a lucky one, some companies won’t pay their trainees. Now, if I was paying my own beers, each weeks’ pay would have been drunk by Thursday. The maximum wage is $200/week for fulltimers ($250ish for part time), but the policy says one pay rise a year, based on performance, and it’s unlikely you would get a pay rise from the lowest to the highest straight away. They say you don’t get rich, and you do it for the love of it, but hell:

Fifth, as a trainee at least, you will be working from 4-5am (you have to be up 1 hour before breakfast) until you go to sleep, or leave the bar. By working, I mean you need to stay relatively personable, cheery, and polite, and can’t resort to your normal self, whether that be bitchy, drunk, or sweary. Basically, that means game face is on for 16-20 hours of the day, every day, for $10/day. I said it wasn’t about the money, but hell.

Sixth, a trainee is basically a glorified assistant. Your responsibilities seem only to be helping out with the setting up and breaking of camp, helping preparation of breakfast, lunch and dinner and cleaning, and mingling with guests on the drives. Not hugely laborious, admittedly, but I thought the idea of a trainee was that they were “trained” on how to do the job. Rather than teach us any of the accounts, or how to get groups through immigration, or organise local safaris, we were just used to make the boring jobs easier.

But, end of the day, it’s a paid way to see Africa. I mean, you get to travel from Nairobi to Cape Town, with accommodation, food, travel, and beer money (and some free beers) all covered. And when you arrive at a campsite, and everything is set up, the guests are free to go wander and explore, but:

Seventh, as a trainee tour guide, you stay behind to start on dinner, or try and get information out of the guide. When the guests go out on excursions and such, technically your time is yours, but if their return time is unknown, the guide training you probably wouldn’t be impressed to see you return After the guests, or not have started on dinner, or done anything productive.

It’s easy to see why it’s a “dream job” for some… Assuming you are ok with travelling with a mix of foreigners, all spending big money, and are ok with passing through numerous towns, mixing with a very limited handful of locals, and staying in secure campsites with other tourists every night. It’s a GREAT job, if you want to see the campsites of East and Southern Africa, drive through some villages without stopping, do cool activities for free, and get drunk and try to sleep with girls from other trucks. But that’s not what I was looking for.

As for me and my situation, while not the main reason for quitting, the final push was the fact that the tour guide training me and the Kenyan trainee, showed favoritism to the Kenyan. Call me petty or whatever, but when he lets the other guy go on the game drive in Nakuru while I’m left to set up camp and prepare dinner, and then chooses the other guy to go on the 3 day Maasai Mara excursion, while I’m told to stay in Nairobi due to a lack of space in the vans… that just didn’t sit well with me.

But, at the end of the day, the issue that kept nagging at me, was simply that it’s not the way I intended to travel Africa. I wanted to be out, hating life while cramped on local transport, getting stranded on the outskirts of random villages when the minibus breaks down, meeting locals in countries like D.R.C. and Burundi, and basically having adventures and stories I find to be worth retelling. I wanted to be out, riding the 3-4 day train from Dar Es Salaam to Zambia, volunteering with the IAPF (International Anti-Poaching Foundation) in Zimbabwe, and basically, having the freedom to make my own choices. I have never been a fan of the Contiki/Busabout type tours, where a bunch of travellers pile onto a bus and rush through an area, spending 1 night here, 1 there, drunk a lot of the time, and shopping the rest. As someone who has only observed, it appears that, on those tours, you see a place but don’t “see” it, and the overland trucks remind me of that, just with a grittier marketing angle. After all, it’s a truck, not a bus.

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6 thoughts on “Two Weeks as an African Overland (Trainee) Tour Guide

  1. Brilliant piece + last paragraph. Travel is about learning, and you can’t learn anything if you’re being herded around in a truck with other foreigners and then calling it a day.

  2. Excellent read, I totally agree. One day we will travel more together, and we can get into some fun the way traveling and learning new cultures is supposed to happen. P.S., you are welcome to visit me in Guatemala haha.

  3. Hallo to you all, am pursuing a degree in Tourism management from Makerere University and i wanted your help and offer me an internship or volunteer placement in your company..THANKS AND I WILL BE SO GREATFUL

    • Hey mate, I guess you didn’t read the whole article… I specifically said that I quit that job, and it was about 2.5 years ago… So might make it a little hard to hook you up with a job. But good luck in your search.. I would recommend thoroughly reading any job postings instead of skimming them 😉

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