Alden Boon

Karlee “Willow” Davies on Finding Her Calling as a Tour Guide


The sun’s golden shafts pierce the mackerel clouds. New Zealand is one of the first countries to welcome a new morning. An eclectic posse of guests throngs the cosy lounge area of Haka Lodge, Christchurch, some still jetlagged, their eyes droopy. Tour guide Karlee Davies — known affectionately as “Willow” by her peers — is identified by the Haka Tour logo emblazoned on her black jacket. She is ready to hit the road for 16 days with her new friends.

Before she was a tour guide, Willow worked a desk job, putting together travel packages for destinations such as Australia and the South Pacific. “You sit in front of a desk, and you answer your emails, phone calls and whatnot. There isn’t much social interaction.” For the self-professed beach person, the routine was humdrum. Willow’s affinity for the ocean developed at a young age, and she was raised swimming with the sharks and jellyfishes. “Amongst my hobbies are swimming, paddling, fishing and surfing. I’m in harmony with the ocean.”

It took a gap-year trip travelling across Canada to forever alter her life perspective. Together with her cousin, and throwing caution to the wind, she began working odd jobs. From summer-wedding preparations to cherry picking and farming organic apples, they did it all. Volunteer works also exposed her to the raw side of Canada. “I became intrigued by the unconventional ways people live. I saw how houses run on zero power; how people manage to carve out a self-sufficient life.”

When she returned home circa 2012, she had to figure out a new career path. The internet was her starting place. Yearning to turn her snowboarding passion into a job, she typed “snow” into the search engine. A long list of job vacancies returned. Before long she was working at a ski lodge, cooking breakfasts and dinners for guests. For the rest of the day, the snow-clad mountain was her playground. “I didn’t draw a huge salary, but it was a lifestyle choice that I made. I got to tear down the mountain at breakneck speed.”

Of course, leading a carefree lifestyle is not always pragmatic. When summer nears and the snow melts away, ski lodges are a ghost town bereft of activity. Willow had to seek a part-time job for the summer months. It was then she decided to become a tour guide. To get her feet wet, she undertook an eleven-day voluntary guiding stint.

Willow and her boyfriend, whom she calls her pillar.

Brainstorm and jot down your interests. Back then, my interests varied from travel writing to lodge management and teaching — I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Network with industry people, and spend time walking in their shoes. 

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 Tour guides are ambassadors of their countries

“It would take me an entire day to spell out my duties,” quips Willow. “The basic ones range from driving to stocking up the breakfast box and bus maintenance. I answer a myriad of questions a day. For the most part, it’s about showing my guests a good time, so that when they leave New Zealand they do so with fond memories.”

While her guests experience New Zealand for two weeks, Willow gets to imbibe her beauty all year round and in different seasons. The routes she takes are fixed, but she tweaks the itinerary every now and then. In December 2016, she visited the Nelson Market — replete with artisanal handicrafts — with her tour group for the very first time. “I throw in new things, partly for my own sanity. It also keeps the vibe more spontaneous.”

“Everyone who comes on tour has a story,” says Willow. “I had guests who had just lost loved ones, such as their children. They are trying to press the reset button and move on. I take care of their needs so they can get a breather; a two-week pause so they can reflect on their lives and begin the healing process.”

The impact tour guides can evoke is not at first obvious, but it is far reaching, like a hummingbird spreading a flower’s pollen and helping shape the world’s beauty. “I spend a lot of time pushing my guests’ boundaries and getting them out of their comfort zones. I’m tricky: I give them an honest account of what an activity, be it hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing or bungy jumping, was like for me. But I never tell them how they’re going to feel after; different people will experience different emotions. I give them the booster they need to say ‘Yes! I can jump off that rock.’.”

Some travellers who come on tour are at a crossroad. As tour guides, we are integral to helping them forge a new pathway. We change people’s lives.

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Not always a bed of roses

A tour guide’s seemingly-bohemian lifestyle begets envy: posing arms akimbo, backdropped by stunning waterfalls. Dinners by the lake under a swift sunset. But things are not always so peachy. Willow’s day starts at 6am, and does not end until 10pm, sometimes even stretching to mid-nights. She also has to spend weeks away from her family and friends. Add to that difficult, niggling guests. Willow recalls having one of these personae non gratae on her bus. “This particular guest had her own emotional baggage of a divorce, which was fine, but she was hell-bent on making everyone else miserable: she would hog the front seat and subject others to her songs.”

The final straw came during a group dinner, when said guest was unhappy with her burger: She had expected it to come with shelled mussels instead of a minced patty. The lady blamed Willow for the disappointing order — some travellers are wont to blame all hiccups on their guides. “She shoved the food in my face, and started swearing at me, saying I was ‘useless’; that I wasn’t working hard enough. I decided I wasn’t going to own that problem, and I walked away. What else could I have done? A tour guide cannot be confrontational.”

The incident reduced Willow to tears, but thankfully she had the backing of her other guests, who offered to handle the situation. “It’s not easy, when people try to exploit you and expect more than what you’re already giving, which is 200% of yourself.”

You have to be slightly crazy to be a tour guide. You need to be okay with things going wrong. You give so much of yourself, and you don’t always get it back.

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In times like these, massages and hiking mountains are Willow’s panaceas. She also falls back on her goals to keep going. Her goals remind her why she plays hard, and works harder. “Buying a house is my dream, and I want to be close to my family. Eventually, I hope to settle down and raise my own family. And maybe do a bit of travel writing.” For now, the guide is contented with her lifestyle of skydiving, kayaking, canyoning and meeting people from all around the world.

Enjoyed this story? Read Icelandic tour guide Haukur Thorsteinsson’s exciting life on the (off) road.


Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.