June 24, 2003
The Tour from Hell
I was sick. Not hung over sick, or tired sick, but honest and truly sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, and sore throat sick. All the classic flu-like symptoms that made me want to crawl into bed and sleep until I died, or at least, felt better. But, instead, I was leaving on a 5-day "camping-under-the-stars" tour of Kakadu National Park, at the Top End of Australia near Darwin.
Now, some may question my sanity in making the trip. You are not alone - I questioned my sanity many times throughout the trip, starting on Day One and continuing through Day Five. However, the tour was pre-booked and pre-paid and the tour company would not allow me to post-pone the trip until their next scheduled departure. I was told that if I could not find someone to take my place, and I did not go, I would forfeit the $650 I spent on the tour. And, so I went. Armed with a belly full of chicken soup and an assortment of OTC flu pills and throat soothers.
In hindsight, I imagine that the travel insurance policy I took out might have covered me for this type of situation. In hindsight, I imagine that I could have asked to talk to the owner of the travel company and pleaded my case. However, as I had been sick for a couple of days, and hadn't really slept in 48 hours, these ideas did not occur to me at the time.
After traveling with friends for the past few weeks, I was back on my own and eager to meet some fun new travel companions. My tour was billed as "adventure travel for young, fit people between the ages of 18 and 35" which sounded perfect. Except, looking around at the faces on my tour something wasn't right. Over half the group was more than 50 years old! Now, while I actually enjoy an eclectic mix of ages when I travel, this was a bit much - especially considering the expectations I had when I booked.
Our group of 10 travelers was made up of a young English couple, a 30 year old American girl and myself. The oldies included an elderly librarian/birdwatcher and her friend, an Aussie grandmother and her second husband, and a fit but mature New Zealand bushwalker.
Sick from the start, I was able to commandeer the front seat, the only thing that made the over 1000 km round trip manageable. However, this gave me a front row seat for the vehicle breakdown we had about 2 hours outside of Darwin. The tour guide, a white woman with an Aboriginal name, whom I will call Flower Blossom (not her real name) was completely inept at vehicle repair, even though the brochure had advertised that all drivers were "mechanically inclined."
Five hours later we were still sitting there, waiting. The police had come and gone. Other vehicles had pulled over and tried to help. In between there had been sparks and shocks coming from the battery since Flower Blossom did not know the proper way to attach positive and negative jumper cables. We had lunch. And I spent the majority of the time curled up on the benches in the back of the van, raising my pounding head occasionally to ensure that we were still stuck and that if the van caught on fire someone would wake me up.
You know it is going to be the trip from hell when you are counting down the days and the hours and you aren't even 200 km outside of your departure city.
After the break down, Flower Blossom lost confidence in the vehicle. We lost confidence in her. And the tour went downhill from there.
Back on the road, I started telling Flower Blossom about a previous tour where we had encountered a number of dead kangaroos. She silenced me halfway through my tale. "Tour guides are very superstitious," she said. "There are three things you never talk about or tell stories about - vehicle breakdowns, dead animals, and injured people. At least, until the tour is over."
I apologized and was silenced, but in the back of my head I was already thinking - hmmm - we've already broken down. I wonder how long before we hit an animal or someone gets hurt? Looking back at the oldies in the van, I assumed an injury was our next order of business.
I was wrong. Less than an hour later, a large black and white bird came swooping down near the windshield. Flower Blossom did her best to avoid him, but to no avail. SMACK! The bird's body hit the window, feathers flying. "Damn it!" the guide said, and then, turning to me accusingly, said, "See - what did I tell you? You can't talk about those things!" Did I mention that it was still Day One?
By the morning of Day Two, I had lost my voice completely. The dysfunctionality of the group showed when it took most people until our lunch stop to realize that I simply wasn't speaking. No one said good morning, no one asked how anyone else had slept, people just ate their breakfast in silence, washed their dishes and got back into the truck for the next destination. This was not my idea of fun, but without a voice, I couldn't do much to change the dynamic of the group.
Day Two also included our first injury - the Aussie grandmother twisted her ankle during our long hike at Kooplin Gorge. This was not a shock - of the five oldies, it was apparent that three (the grandmother, the librarian/birdwatcher and her friend) were not truly fit enough for the hikes - some of which were 8-10 km per day. Our pace was slowed considerably, which made for some very late nights. We didn't make it into camp once during daylight hours, and I don't think we ate before 9 p.m. any night. The bickering grew (especially from the birdwatcher/librarian and her friend) and extended to the tour guide, who was quickly losing patience with everyone. I remember thinking, if I get my voice back tomorrow, I might just pretend I don't - just so I don't have to talk to anyone. Sad.
On Day Three, still without a voice (legitimately) I volunteered to sit in the back seat, not wanting to hog the front seat for the whole trip. It only took about an hour on the dry, dusty roads for me to start coughing. Coughing so hard that I couldn't control the coughing, could hardly breathe, tears, snot and saliva dripping down my face. The guide stopped the car so I could get out and collect myself, after which point I was put back into the front seat. The coughing fits continued however, and I found the only way to keep myself sane and breathing was to wet a bandana and breathe through it any time we were in the car and during dusty parts of the hikes. My level of misery was growing and there was nothing I could do about it but keep moving and count down the hours until we were back in Darwin.
Without a voice I was powerless - that is, in addition to not being able to communicate effectively, I could also not defend myself. Some of the tour members apparently thought that my lack of voice also meant a lack of hearing. I overheard more than one unkind word about my participation on the tour while I was clearly ill - and my coughing keeping the camp up at night (even though I sequestered myself as far away from everyone as I could). I cried myself to sleep that night.
By Day Five I finally had my voice back, though I sounded like a cane toad and didn't speak much unless it was necessary. Thinking we were in the home stretch, I relaxed a bit, actually enjoying the last day's boat tour over crocodile infested waters. Maybe that had something to do with the boat tour guide - who actually explained to us what we were seeing, vs. Flower Blossoms minimal commentary, mostly in response to questions.
Pulling away from the boat tour we traveled down a dirt road toward the main highway and our final stretch back to Darwin. Suddenly, from the bushes a wallaby (similar to a kangaroo but smaller) jumped across the road. Flower Blossom slammed on the breaks and tried to swerve but at the last second the wallaby hesitated. THUNK. His body hit the front of the truck and it was all over. Flower Bloom was heartbroken - she turned the truck around so we could go back and check on him. His tail twitched twice and then, nothing. She got out of the truck and grabbing him by the tail, pulled his body over to the side of the road. We were all silent for a while, and even though I tried to stop it, I couldn't help but think, "the perfect end to the perfect trip."
As we neared Darwin, Flower Blossom turned to me and only half jokingly said, "You know, if I get sick, I'm blaming you." I looked at her for a minute with surprise, and then said, "Actually, if you get sick, its is your company's fault. I knew I was not fit to go on this tour, but they told me my only option was to go or forfeit the money. So if you want to blame someone, blame your money hungry boss." By now I had lost all patience with the group and couldn't wait to get out of the truck and get away.
I had a feeling that Flower Blossom felt the same way. I'm willing to bet any amount of money that for the next 6 months, when she talks about the "tour from hell" it will be a blow by blow description of our trip. And, I don't blame her. Even in my misery I frequently felt bad for her and what she was going through - don't let anyone tell you the tour guide's life is all sunshine and roses.
The irony of the trip is that most of this was completely lost on the birdwatcher/librarian and her friend. During our last night (Day Four) both a bit tipsy on their boxed wine, they proposed a toast, "To us - we've been a great tour!" Flower Blossom looked at them incredulously and then, quite sarcastically said, "You're the best tour group I've ever had." Most of us laughed, knowing the truth. However, the birdwatcher/librarian and her friend didn't get it. "What are you laughing about?" she said. "I think we've been a great group - we haven't complained at all - even though people kept us up all night with their coughing and others slowed us down because they were hurt. I think we've been great - to us!"
If I had a voice at that moment, I think I still would have been speechless.