Off the track

 

 

Nowhere in the world that cannot be explored with the help of reliable local guides. Livingstone might have become the greatest name in the history of exploration but he would not have been able to do what he did without the help of his unshakable guides Chuma and Susi. Where would Hillary have been without Sherpa Tenzing or Lewis and Clarke without the fearless Indian woman Sacajawea?     

I’ve mounted more than a dozen solo or team expeditions into uncharted (or barely explored) parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In areas with at least some tourist infrastructure there will be national park authorities or tourist information offices that can recommend guides. The following tips however relate to more off-the-beaten-track locations where you’ll have to find your own expedition crew.

The following tips could prove invaluable in finding the perfect guides and, perhaps, to mounting an expedition that could very well turn out to be the highlight of your round the world trip.  

1. The police force hasn’t been formed that is more effective than community or tribal law. There are few better ways to find reliable guides that to ask a village headman to hand-pick them for you. A guide who is aware that he is custodian of the honour of his village – and that he will have to answer to tribal law should anything happen to you – is likely to be the most helpful and trustworthy you’ll ever find.


2. If you want to get from A to B with a minimum of delay arrange to pay for the trip rather than by the day. This can work best if, for example, provisions might be in short supply on the trail and you need to make the journey before food or water runs out. You might be surprised, however, to realise just how fast local people can move even in dense jungle. You could be in for quite a race!


3. If, on the other hand, soaking up the experience is more of a priority, arrange to pay by the day. This way your guides will be in no hurry and (as long as you have provisions) you can even extend the stay longer or make detours. Be ready however for unreasonable excuses for early stops to camp or seemingly unnecessary rest days. Make sure that your provisioning plans take into account a longer stay than you originally envisaged.  


4. If re-provisioning is likely to be needed part way through the trek take extra guides. Few guides will agree to walk solo through the jungle to carry provisions back from a village. Recently I lead an expedition in Chiapas. We were trekking through an unexplored part of Monte Azul Bio-reserve and, because of the area’s protected status, would not be able to hunt for meat. We took extra guide/porters in case a re-provisioning run back to a village was necessary...and we also took several live hens for fresh meat.


5. On longer expeditions it can be necessary to take a hunter with a gun. But if you really want him to be able to bring in meat you must be prepared to travel slower, allowing enough time for him to be able to hunt in the evenings or early morning. With a long, noisy column crashing through the bush don’t expect wildlife to be easily visible. Most important, give strict guidelines as to what can and cannot be shot: I had to convince my Kuna guides in Panama that under no circumstances were they to shoot jaguar for meat and in Borneo I was not sorry to arrive in a hunters camp too late to partake of their meal of orang utan!


6. Before departure try to research the community obligations of your guides. Few pastoral people will be prepared to guide you (whatever incentive you are offering) during one of those crucial periods of the year when the herds need to be moved. This was a lesson that I learned the hard way when I arrived in central Borneo just as the rice was being harvested...and spent three fruitless weeks travelling between various jungle villages and longhouses, unable to entice anyone into an expedition.   

    
7. Don’t skimp on porters. These days most backpackers are aware of the plight of the overworked, overloaded and underpaid porters who used to suffer in great numbers in trekking destinations as far apart as the Annapurna Circuit, Kilimanjaro or the Inca Trail. Hire enough guides, porters and camp assistants (or cooks) for your needs.


8. Listen to your guides when they advise what provisions are needed. In Asia few guides will be willing to travel without their pre-requisite ration of rice (frequently three plates each per day). In parts of Africa it might be mealie-meal/sadza/fufu. In the Andes you will have little chance of getting together a team of mountain guides unless you make an allowance for a sack of coca leaves. Unhappy and disgruntled guides will not add to the experience on any expedition...and, in the worst scenarios, an expedition that is not functioning well as a team could potentially be dangerous. In almost all areas a few cartons of imported cigarettes do wonders for team morale.


9. Don’t rush the delicate period of haggling. In many traditional communities it is considered the height of bad manners to launch straight into business without the prerequisite period of chit-chat. Haggle reasonably hard (but always with good humour and a smile) to fix the rate but make it clear that a good bonus will be offered on arrival if you are thoroughly happy with how the trip has gone. You will get a gut-feel about how to handle the payments from your guide’s personalities. If alcohol seems to be a problem within the community, perhaps offer half payment upfront the morning of departure – the rest on completion of the trek. This way there is a better chance that at least some of the money will make it into the households rather than be frittered away in bars on return from a long, thirsty trek.


10. Don’t skimp on porters out of some obscure obligation that you must carry your own pack: the last person who will thank you for this is the poor soul who loses a good pay-packet because of your - albeit laudable - scruples. For many years I refused to let a porter carry my kit...until at some point when I was already working as a professional photographer (I’m no longer sure but think it was somewhere in the jungles of Sumatra) I realised that for a few extra dollars – which some local guy was extremely grateful for – I was freed to move with so much more agility. Loaded only with my camera equipment I was able to chase the shots and angles that I was supposed to be there to get. I was freer to do my job effectively and he could do his.

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh