One of my favorite aspects of publishing Wandering Educators is meeting really cool and interesting people. One such person is our new South Africa Editor, and the author of Frommer's Morocco, Darren Humphrys. We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Darren about his travel company, Compass Odyssey, life, and travel. Here's what he had to say...
Darren Humphrys joined the Aussie backpacker pilgrimage to London back in 1987, and has been wandering around the globe ever since. In 1997 Darren traveled on an overland tour through eastern and southern Africa. A “life-changing” experience, he loved it so much that by the end of the tour he already had a job as a guide. Since then he has been leading tours through much of Africa and the Middle East for various travel companies including Compass Odyssey, which is the passion of Darren and his partner, Kate Hassall who also hails from Australia and specializes in environmental and tourism management and planning. Compass Odyssey (www.compassodyssey.net) is a multi-faceted company that encompasses sustainable travel and tourism that provides memorable experiences for each traveler, whilst making positive contributions to the environment and communities in which they travel. Darren is also the author of the prestigious guidebook, Frommer's Morocco whilst his images have appeared in the Bradt Nigeria guidebook, and numerous magazines including Geographical, Time Out, and Africa Geographic.
WE: Please tell us about your travel company, Compass Odyssey - and how did it start?
compass n. device for determining direction
odyssey n. a long adventurous journey
All good things start with a dream, and my dream is to journey to the four compass points (N, S, E and W) of each of our continents. In other words the northern-, southern-, eastern-, and western-most locations of Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, North America, Antarctica, and Australia. I would travel by local transport only - be that bus, donkey, train, boat, camel, on foot or whatever – and although the destination is integral to the journey, it is the journey that I really dream about.
I’d already thought of the name “Compass Odyssey” for my journey-to-be (I also have a little pipedream of having a film crew accompany me, so thought I’d best have a catchy name) when I met Kate, who begun to turn my thoughts into actions by suggesting we start a travel company and see what direction it takes us. Within a few short years Compass Odyssey has become our livelihood, encompassing travel and tours, multi-media, and some community involvement.
Acrobats from the villages of southern Morocco, performing for their bread on Jemaa el Fna square, Marrakech
Compass Odyssey travelers wandering through the dyer's souk within the medina of Marrakech, Morocco
WE: What sort of travel and learning experiences do you provide?
DH: I’ve been very fortunate over the past 12 years to have been entrusted by fellow travelers to accompany and guide them on their travels. Being responsible for a person’s holiday is something I take very seriously. Operating tours in Africa, both Kate and myself are very aware that for most, if not all of our clients, this is their dream holiday. Perhaps they watched a wildlife or cultural program on National Geographic when they were a small child, and finally they have arrived on African shores entrusting us to help their dream become an unforgettable memory. This is a challenge we embrace and a responsibility we readily accept.
We loathe the sort of ‘hop-on, hop-off’ and ‘fishbowl’ tours that we often encounter on our travels. We feel that travelers are only apprehensive about getting up close and personal because they aren’t being informed or inspired by their tour operator and/or guide. We make every effort to offer each of our clients the opportunity whilst on tour with us to reduce that distance between visitor and local, to really get to experience the country they have come to visit. To achieve this, we make sure that our itineraries offer plenty of time for personal exploration, but that each client has been given the confidence to do this by being reliably informed and assisted by myself.
In addition to this, we are also aware that our clients have booked on an organized group tour, and that they expect value for money from us by having some of the usual travel niggles taken care of. On our tours, we make sure that each of our client’s basic expectations – hot showers, clean accommodation, group punctuality, expert local knowledge – are taken care of. This is why we entrust the on-tour guiding of our tours to no-one else but myself, because no-one else will have the same commitment to our Compass Odyssey clients.
On our website, we declare the Compass Odyssey “Spirit of Travel”. What we’re basically trying to say is that we believe we understand the concerns and expectations of most travelers, be they independently- or group-minded. During our tours, I try to take care of each traveler’s needs and deal with each of their concerns, to enable everyone to get on with the business of enjoying their holiday, and having some meaningful, insightful, and fun experiences.
Compass Odyssey travelers on a game drive in South Africa
Darren with one of the local purveyors of fine pastries in Morocco.
WE: What geographic and cultural areas do you explore, on your tours? How many people are in a typical tour?
DH: Being a small tour operator – there’s only the two of us – we are still taking ‘baby steps’ with regards to our tours. We want to be sure that we can give 100% attention and commitment to each of our tours, and to each client. This extends from the first initial enquiry right through to waving goodbye at the airport upon the completion of our tour. Therefore we keep our group sizes to a maximum of 20, with a preferred number of 8 – 12 travelers. At this stage, we offer one or two tours a year in South Africa and Swaziland, and Morocco – the countries we feel we know best. We intend to extend our range over the next couple of years however to our other regions of experience, with tours in Namibia and Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania, Gabon and Cameroon, and Libya and Tunisia. One day, we’d also like to include our former homeland of Australia to our list of destinations.
No matter the destination, we are always mindful of offering the expected sights and attractions, along with experiences that are a little different, fun, and hopefully inspirational. On our South Africa and Swaziland safari for example, we offer plenty of wildlife viewing because we know everyone wants to see the lions, elephants, giraffe and so on. However we also visit a village crèche, as well as attending a performance from a local boys choir.
Donating school equipment to iMpumelelo Creche
On tour with Compass Odyssey in the Drakensberg mountains, South Africa
WE: Are children welcome? How do you accommodate people with disabilities?
DH: Traveling on a group tour requires an attitude of flexibility and understanding from each participant. I always ask each of our travelers to “come to the middle of the road” whilst on tour with us. I often encounter other tour groups where I can sense a general unhappiness, and it’s usually because the guide hasn’t taken care of some small, niggly problem, such as the same client always grabbing the best seat, running late, or something similar. To answer your question then, we will always welcome onto our tours those travelers with a so-called disability of some kind. All we ensure is that we have been totally up-front to both the disabled traveler and the other travelers about what will be encountered whilst on tour, and what, if any, special needs will need to be accommodated. Having said that, we aren’t specialists in providing tours for people with disabilities, and we will always advise this to any prospective client so that there’s no misunderstandings or unfulfilled expectations.
This goes the same for children. We often wish Kate and little Henry could accompany me on tour, but we are yet to do this because our tours aren’t specifically child-oriented, and we therefore feel that we would be compromising our fellow traveler’s enjoyment. Should any prospective family wish to join us on tour, we would more than likely construct a tour that is specifically child-friendly and market this as a separate tour for families. This way, we can offer a tour that involves shorter driving days, more stops at child-friendly attractions, ground floor accommodation and so on.
Lunch with a Moroccan Berber family
Darren with some of the staff in the Compass Odyssey Hotel in Casablanca, Morocco
WE: What is your favorite journey (or place) to share with people?
DH: I get asked this question quite a lot, and I really struggle to narrow the answer down to one tour or place. My greatest desire for my own personal travel is to wake up in the morning and truly feel that I’m somewhere different. This can be in the South African bushveld with the sounds of teeming wildlife all around, on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar with the smell of the morning catch from the fisherman on their traditional dhows, or in the medina of Fes el Bali in Morocco as the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. I would think that this is how each of our travelers also feel, which is great because then my own enthusiasm blends in with their curiosity, resulting in all of us welcoming each day on tour with inquisitiveness and wonder.
I’ve also got a soft spot for our adopted home of Cape Town, which I honestly believe is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, and which I am always excited to share with visitors.
Juvenile Male lion
Compass Odyssey travelers with Kate and Darren in Cape Town
WE: How do you work to make your journeys ecologically and culturally sensitive?
DH: This is a good question, because I believe there are a lot of companies out there who have jumped on the “responsible & sustainable travel” bandwagon, without putting any extra effort to being faithful to the underlying principle. I believe that it is up to each tour operator and travel company to inform their clients of the impact – both negative and positive – that their journey has on their particular destination. We should always be making a committed effort to contribute to the sustainability and well-being of the people, wildlife, and environment from which we profit.
Kate and I are ever mindful that while on-tour there are many ways that Compass Odyssey can lessen our negative impact (reduce non-recyclable goods, use ‘clean’ fuel, no off-road driving, be water-wise) and increase our positive influences (use local guides, buy only local and organic produce).
This is again why I personally guide each of our tours, so that I can see if we are being true to our mantra of offering journeys that benefit both visitor and local. It’s not easy, and we often feel we’re not doing enough but as Compass Odyssey grows we believe we’ll be able to commit more time and money into being a truly “responsible” tour operator.
On safari with Compass Odyssey
Compass Odyssey travelers experiencing dinner with the locals on Jemaa el Fna square, Marrakech
WE: How did you get interested in Morocco and South Africa? Why are you passionate about sharing this with travelers?
DH: In 1997 I booked a one-way ticket from Australia to London via Johannesburg, South Africa. I caught a flight from Jo’burg to Nairobi (Kenya) and headed out on an overland safari that meandered for 2 months down to Harare (Zimbabwe). I won’t use the typical line of saying that I fell in love with “Africa”. This over-used expression baffles me because Africa is a big, big place that is home to almost 1 billion people living in over 60 countries…only when I’ve traveled the great majority of this continent will I be able to generalize “Africa”. Let’s just say that I felt an immediate affinity with the region of East and Southern Africa, and began working as a tour guide so that, selfishly I admit, I could get to know the area better. Some years later I finally made my way right down to South Africa. I was looking for somewhere to base myself and South Africa offered me my favored combination of developed and developing world. I was very happy to have found a home that was African, English-speaking, and served ice cold beer.
My eternal nomadic tendencies surfaced a few years later when a tour company asked me to guide their inaugural season in Morocco. I immediately loved the distinctive African-Arabian blend, and I immersed myself in the Moroccans’ way of life and soaked up the atmosphere of this Islamic kingdom.
I feel privileged to have been able to travel so much within South Africa and Morocco to the point that I feel like I really have fallen in love with both countries. As is my way, this also means that I want to share this affection with as many fellow travelers as possible. That’s why I will always try to personally guide our tours because I have this innate desire to show everyone ‘my’ South Africa and Morocco.
A Berber herbaliste in Morocco
WE: How can people best prepare, interculturally, to come on one of your trips?
DH: Kate and I are acutely aware of our fellow travelers’ concern about not offending the locals whilst on tour. For both of our current destinations - South Africa and Swaziland, and Morocco – we have prepared a detailed pre-tour dossier that includes information on religion, safety, health, and other general issues including photography. These dossiers are on our website. At the beginning of each of our journeys, I also sit down with everyone and run through a few general do’s and don’ts, which specifically in Morocco includes a chat about Islam and the Moroccans’ expectations with regards to customs and dress. For our journeys in South Africa and Swaziland, my chat usually centers around advising everyone not to be too condescending or charitable, as just because someone has nothing doesn’t mean that they desire a hand-out. A hand-up, yes, but not a token gesture like old clothes or half a sandwich. It’s only because I know the local people so well, that I have the confidence to advise our fellow travelers on these topics.
WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
DH: Before compiling this interview, I sat for a moment and asked myself how I would like to profit from it. In absolute honesty, this interview is not an attempt to gain business for Compass Odyssey (unless there happens to be an accommodating film crew who are reading this!). What concerns Kate and I is the amount of negative publicity and information that is easily available about the continent called Africa. We feel there is a sweeping generalization regarding Africa that is mostly negative and only serves to categorize the continent as a war-loving, disease-riddled basket case ruled by power-hungry dictators. Some of the bad news is definitely true and deserving of publicity, but many people in the ‘outside’ world never read about or are shown the amazingly positive things that happen every minute of every day.
If I can achieve but one thing from this interview, then it’s to have sparked an interest and curiosity in your readers to come and explore this wondrous continent for themselves. Anyone who makes that effort will be rewarded with an unforgettable travel experience at the very least, and maybe even have found themselves a new place to call home.
WE: Thanks so much, Darren - what an incredible interview! Compass Odyssey is an extraordinary company and philosophy - I am so glad to be able to share this with our readers!
For more information, please visit: