How did this man turn the outback into his office?

"I'm very good at not being stressed."
Surveying the landscape from Kings Canyon rim walk © Oliver Pelling
By Oliver Pelling

Of all the places one could choose to be a tour guide, Australia's Red Centre would have to be one of the toughest. In summer, temperatures barely drop below 20 degrees and typically reach anywhere between 30-40 degrees during the day.

Those kind of temperatures are fine if all you're doing is lazing by the pool, but if you're taking groups of up to 16 passengers on regular and unrelenting multi-day trips of the place, you'd surely begin to feel the burn. But for Justin Burrill, who's been leading tours of Uluru and the Red Centre for Adventure Tours Australia for over a year, the early starts, long drives and intensely arid climate are all part and parcel of the job. And boy, does he love the job.

During our trip with Justin, he was the epitome of a good guide. Always smiling, always on hand, always working. He was the first one awake (even when our wake up call was at 4.30am) and the last to go to bed. He was passionate, talkative and full of knowledge: constantly eager to share everything he knows and loves about the iconic Uluru and the Aborignal stories attached to it. But contrary to what his 'bushman' appearance may have you believe, this isn't a bloke who was born in the outback, no, he's from Melbourne.

One night, after a long day of driving, I sat down with Justin to chew the fat on life as a guide and the importance of Uluru.

Uluru through Justin's windscreen © Oliver Pelling

What drew you to tour guiding in the first place?

I’ve always had the travel bug, probably because I was fortunate enough to travel a lot with my family growing up. I was getting itchy feet working down in Melbourne in hospitality, and I came up here on holiday, which was my first time in the Northern Territory. I did a Darwin to Alice Springs tour, and I fell in love with the country, but also the idea of being a tour guide. The guides we had were awesome, and at the end of the tour I just wanted to know how I could get into it.

So what did you do?

I asked the guides how to be one, and they told me that anyone can do it, you just have to commit, have the right mindset, and you’ve got to train. So I went back home, finished up at my job, did my first aid training and got my bus driving license, packed my car and drove up to Alice Springs.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

It doesn’t feel like a job. People often talk about jobs as things they have to wake up, go to, push through the day and forget about on the weekend. The only tough thing about this job is the exhaustion – we work really long days. But that’s the only thing that gets me down. For me, getting up and driving out into the bush with a new busload of passengers – a new group of mates – showing them around this amazing country, mate…it’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle, and it’s an awesome one at that.

What has tour guiding around Uluru and The Red Centre taught you?

For me especially, coming from Melbourne, it opened my eyes to the Aboriginal culture out here, which is truly fascinating. For how ‘primitive’ they were, they were so advanced, how they respected and looked after the land, it really opened my eyes to such a special culture. So many Australians are deprived of that knowledge. They go overseas to find that experience, they experience other cultures around the world, but they’ve got it right here on their doorstep. And unfortunately in Australia, people are very close-minded or don’t know enough about Aboriginal culture.

I think the future of Aboriginals in Australia relies on more people trying to understand the culture. Uluru is a really special place – just being out here in the real bush, the nature of it, is awesome.

Justin and co. take a breather © Oliver Pelling

What’s the career progression for a tour guide look like?

The potential of work I can do around Australia and the world is endless. I’ve got every corner of Australia I can tap into. Once I’ve got it all under my belt and have a bit of a name for myself as a guide, I can go all around Australia and find work with the seasons. And through it all I can learn a lot about my country and meet some awesome people from all over the world.

I don’t have a set plan, other than to travel to every corner of the world before I drop. I’m so fortunate I went on that particular holiday to the Northern Territory – it changed my life.

Red Centre safety: stay hydrated, stay cool © Oliver Pelling

Do you get homesick?

Not really. I miss my family and I go and visit them, but I don’t feel an overpowering need to go home. I’m going to keep moving on. I’ve always said there are two things that’ll stop me: I’ll either drop dead, or I’ll find the right place. And that’s it.

What’s the most exhausted you’ve been on the job?

Pretty recently, actually, but you take measures to manage that exhaustion. You make sure you sleep, you eat healthy, you drink a lot of water, you know your limits. I’ve always had a die-hard mentality – I like working super hard. I’m not a glutton for punishment, it’s just that if I think I can do something mentally, I know I can do it physically.

Life on the road © Oliver Pelling

What’s your favourite spot or activity out here?

I really enjoy watching a good sunrise or sunset, for sure. I see the Uluru sunset every night and think, ‘wow, I’m sitting in my office right now and watching this.’ You get the satisfaction of sharing it with new people every night too. I even feel guilty at times – we get back on the bus and people are thanking me, and it’s like, honestly guys – I’ve done nothing!

I love the socialising too. There are a lot of awesome people out there and I get to meet them all. I mean, there are narky people too, but hospitality’s taught me that the customer’s always right. So I’m well versed in the art of keeping everyone happy. If I can have a cold beer at the end of the day, I can get through anything.

I haven't met many younger Australians out here yet - do you get many of them on your trips?

Not really. It comes back to the stereotype of Aussies waiting until they retire to see their country. Then again, a lot of Aussies will do it themselves: they’ll hire a car and drive around themselves. I actually see a lot of younger people doing it themselves – the trouble with that is that they’ll miss so much information and knowledge by not having a guide. I bet you $100 they don’t really take it all in.

Is having a good support network of fellow tour guides back in Alice Springs important?

Absolutely. Alice is a quiet little town – I miss the nightlife, cafes and coffees of Melbourne – and without the tour guides out there, it’d be a pretty hard place for me to live. There isn’t much to do during the days, save for staying out of the heat. So having mates around is super important. You are in the middle of nowhere, after all.

That said, being out here you’re completely detached from news, the media, fashion, the to dos and to don’ts – none of that exists out here, so you can just relax. That’s what I love about Alice, it’s a collaboration of misfits who are just who they are without any pretence. Everyone’s accepted.

What’s the most stressful day on the job you’ve had?

Luckily I haven’t had anything really bad happen on one of my trips. We’ve had a sprained ankle and a close call with dehydration, but that’s it. You’ve always got in the back of your mind the things that could go wrong out here, but that keeps you on edge and ready to go. You’re trained for it. Otherwise, I’m very good at not being stressed.

What advice would you give to people who want to get into tour guiding themselves?

I can only speak from being a guide here in the centre, but it’s 80% personality and 20% knowledge and skills, and anyone can tick those boxes. It’s the personality that counts. You’ve got to be really good with people, dealing with situations – no matter how big (injuries) or small (“can you get the bugs out of my tent!”).

You can be on the road for a long time, and you need to be ready for that. You sacrifice things – you can’t hold down a stable relationship if you’re a tour guide. That said, I know a bloke up here from Adelaide who does 14 days on whilst his wife is back in Adelaide, so people figure it out I guess, but it’s a lot harder. There are no weekends – your days off are your days off. It just comes down to you being an all round good bloke or Sheila. It’s all in the personality. I’d recommend it to anyone – it’s so much fun.

Experience Uluru with Justin on selected Adventure Tours Australia departures.

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