Elisabeth Easther talks to the Managing Director of Viva Expeditions.
I grew up in Whangaparaoa when it was a small community. In summer, we spent lots of time at the beach, and for holidays we'd often go on camping trips, up north to Matauri Bay. We had a decent-sized tent, a big, old canvas thing, and we'd dig a hole in the ground and that was the fridge for the next few weeks.
After university, my friend Helen and I went to London on a two-year work visa. I used to live off about £5 a week for food and £50 for entertainment because I wanted to save all my money to go on trips.
My first trip was to the Middle East, overland in a big safari truck. We went through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt and I loved it. Syria was one of my favourite places, the people were very friendly. I remember the old medieval market in Aleppo: it was huge, you could walk through for days. There were figs and olives, spices, textiles. And going out to ruins like Palmyra which have since been ravaged. Sitting high on a hill in Damascus and seeing all the mosques looking so pretty. It's so sad to see what's happening there now.
I went on a 10-week truck journey through Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa and that's how I met Brendan (my other half), who was the driver on that trip. After spending six months together in Melbourne, Brendan got offered a job overlanding in West Africa and he asked if I could come too.
The company said yes, I did a one-week training trip in Morocco and that was it, I was a tour leader. I learnt on the run. That was a 10-month season in Morocco, mostly camping, one or two weeks going around the main sites so we felt like locals by the end.
Next we did a year and a half in West Africa, that was the biggest adventure ever. We even went to Timbuktu. We had a vague idea of the main places we had to go but we had to figure out how to travel between them as there weren't a lot of maps. Driving from Mali to Senegal on donkey tracks we'd stop and ask people which way to Senegal. It was a bit crazy but they were great trips.
After another season in Morocco, we were both offered jobs in South America. These trips were massive, 105 days with 23 people, it was like Big Brother on wheels. You weren't just a tour leader, you were also a psychologist and the right word here or there could really diffuse a situation.
We bought a truck from Europe and went to Ecuador for six months while it was made into an expedition vehicle and then the GFC hit and we had a truck and no passengers.
We ran our first trip in 2010 and the following year we were getting reasonable numbers, but it was quite stressful to run. When you're a tour leader you're quite carefree, but when you own the business you take on all sorts of different pressures and responsibilities.
Today we operate a huge range of group and tailor-made tours throughout South America, Central America and Antarctica and we want our passengers to love those places as much as we do. We try to make people's travel dreams come true, we want them to come back and say they had the trip of a lifetime.
It's important to be able to notice an opportunity; a lot of places we've ended up weren't part of the plan. I was meant to go to England for two years then come home and be a physio but that didn't happen. Sure, exercise caution when you're out and about, but don't close yourself off because there are a lot of good people in the world.
More information: see vivaexpeditions.com