Each week, Elisabeth Easther gets the story of people in the Kiwi tourism industry. This week, she speaks to the director and tour leader for Tours Direct Mandy Page.

My father was in the military, so by the time I was 21 I'd lived in 21 houses and been to 11 primary schools. I have three sisters and one brother and I think we managed quite well. My father had this wonderful idea that we should go on holiday when all the schools had gone back so wherever we went, we'd be put in the local school, which is quite a good idea because you don't have to look after the children.

When I was in my last year at university, I got a travel scholarship. Called Bridge in New Zealand, it was to do with the Zionist movement but I'm not Jewish so I was very lucky to get it. At 21, in the 1980s, I started in Israel, living on a kibbutz, and I loved it. But I didn't realise how cold Israel could get, especially in the desert and I packed very basic clothes but sometimes it snows in Jerusalem. I also went down to the Red Sea, where I thought it'd be great to live under a palm tree for a while - boy, was it cold at night - but I still slept under a palm tree for a few days. Then I decided to try the whole wilderness thing, to go to the desert to fast for a few days, only I got completely lost. Then I popped over the sand dune and found all these Bedouins by their Mercedes Benzs. I was always up for adventure, still am.

That travel scholarship was how I became an independent traveller. I spent two months in Israel, then one month travelling in Egypt. I remember catching a barge to Abu Simbel ... floating on the water and eating watermelon ... hearing the men get up early to do their prayers ... the stars sparkled so closely you could almost touch them. But I got very sick in Egypt and had to go to England to recover, then I went all through Europe and home through America. I didn't stop because I was sick.

Twenty-two years ago, when I was pregnant with our second child, my husband decided he'd go to university, where part of his course involved writing a plan for the business he wanted to start. And that's our business today, Tours Direct. Our average client is a person who's just retired and wants to do the adventure they've been putting off while working. So I take them on holiday and make sure there's no hassle, that they have lots of fun and time to play. They get to the airport and there's the transfer, they get to the hotel and the keys are ready - it's so nice not to muck around. My groups are usually quite social, gin and tonic every night at 6pm.


We call it "soft adventure". We're not staying in dumps. We're active every day. We keep people busy so they're not just sitting on a bus. I did a trip last year, we were in Lithuania, and we looked out the window and saw hot air balloons and the next day we did that because we allow time to be spontaneous.

I've been to probably 90 countries and I do four or five overseas trips a year. If you do too much travel, you're just tired and that's no good for the clients. There's something wonderful about walking through the countryside, slowing down your life. You never know what's around the corner.

My dream itinerary? Can we zig and zag across? Well, then we'd go from Iceland to Greenland via the Galapagos for the wildlife. Slovenia is the most beautiful little country, we'd go to Bhutan just for the people alone, and the backblocks of Myanmar, those people are extraordinarily kind. And maybe we'd end up in Antarctica after which we'd warm up by going to Iguazu Falls.

I'm a vegetarian and in lots of these places they think that's a bit odd. Often when my meal comes and I explain I don't eat meat, they just take the dish back to the kitchen and scrape the meat off. I was once offered sheep's eyeballs at a Nubian wedding in Egypt.

That wasn't great.

I was in a Michelin-starred restaurant once, with a very dear passenger who wasn't feeling very well, so I tried to take her outside and she collapsed on the floor with her eyes rolled back. And the waiter came up all concerned and I said, "Get me some water." And he said, "Still or sparkling?" But she was fine, just dehydrated.

My best travel advice? Keep your sense of humour.

Further information: see toursdirect.co.nz