As told to Elisabeth Easther
My family emigrated to New Zealand from Kenya, so perhaps my wanderlust stemmed from there. After finishing school in Nelson, I trained as a mechanic but I quit the hour my apprenticeship ended and went travelling. In 1994, one of my cousins from Kenya was visiting when I had an idea to take Kiwis on bike tours of Africa. I designed a route and led my first tour around Kenya and Tanzania in 1999 with just one client.
The tour is much the same as it was when I set it up, although now we have several destinations – Kenya/Tanzania, China/Tibet/Kyrgyzstan, Colombia, Madagascar, Cambodia and Fiji and we're in the process of developing a tour in Namibia. All our tours are on bicycles and off the beaten track. They're mostly in developing countries, away from main tourist routes and three of our destinations have family versions.
In those early years, in-between Africa seasons, I would return to New Zealand and work as a sea kayak guide in Abel Tasman National Park or pick up odd jobs in Kenya. I even applied for a job in Iraq working with a landmine clearing team - luckily I didn't get that one.
Of all the tours, the African itinerary has the biggest wow factor with wildlife, culture, people and landscapes. It's not uncommon to ride through herds of giraffe. I've led the Africa tour more than50 times, so have a strong bond with the local people. We've been camping with one Maasai family for about 18 years. Watching the reactions of the different groups, how they respond to things, that's very special. In Africa, many local people don't understand why we ride bikes when we have a perfectly good support vehicle with us, they think we must be racing.
Our tours don't focus on distance, more on experience. Daily, we might do anything from 15km on rough, sandy trails to 100km on a gentle tarseal downhill. The trips aren't really hardcore, but they're all challenging in certain ways. They're for people who want to experience a country up close from a bike rather than just smash out huge kilometres.
Colombia is probably our most developed destination, and it is amazing. Yes, there is a history of violence and drugs but they have it sorted now. Colombians are bike mad. They love extreme mountain biking. They love road cycling and the Tour de France, and they love hosting people. Because tourism is quite new they work really hard at it and the people make the place. There are huge mountains, coffee plantations, cowboy towns. In the capital city, Bogota, on Sunday mornings they have a thing called Ciclovia and all the main roads close to make way for skaters, scooters and cyclists so people can get out and have fun.
We've had a few ups and downs. A volcano erupted in the middle of a tour we were doing in Chile. There was a bit of an uprising in Kenya in 2007
, which meant we had to reroute that tour to be only Tanzania for a season, and Ebola put some people off travelling for a while.
In 2008, when we led our first China/Tibet tour, there was a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan just weeks before we arrived. Ninety thousand people were killed and four-fifths of the region's structures were flattened. It has been amazing to watch that region recover and the locals thanked us for coming because the earthquake had a huge effect on people's incomes.
The Sichuan region of China is stunning. The mountains are huge and the Tibetan people live quiet, lost-in-time lives. But the area is developing so fast. Between tours, in just one year, we can return to a place to find a modern city where, the year before, there had been only farmland and a quaint little town. You have to see it to learn how fast a six-lane highway can be built.
One thing I have learned, you can teach skills, but you can't teach personality. So we're not too hung up on qualifications. When we hire we look for a great personality, good organisational skills, flexibility and a love of bikes. Our guides have pre-hospital care first aid and come from a wide range of backgrounds, including a former police officer and a former GP.
We're always thinking about the environmental impact of our tours and we work hard to keep our footprint as low as possible. On some tours, we do tree planting and we're also involved in planting and reforestation projects in New Zealand. We could just pay money to a carbon offset scheme but our goal is to plant 10 trees for each client and crew member and those trees entirely offset the carbon emissions from each tour.
For us, it's all about sustainability. We don't want to grow and lose the essence of what we do, and I don't want to be stuck behind a desk. Some people tell us that coming on one of our trips changed their lives and when we ask for feedback on ways to improve, generally, people just say: "Keep doing what you're doing."
John Etherington is the founder of Escape Adventures. escapeadventuresnz.com