Nairobi-based Darlene Adaji is one of Intrepid Travel's most experienced guides in East Africa. A pioneer for women in tourism in the region, she was the first female to lead tours to experience gorillas in Uganda, and uses her role to educate travellers not only about the environment and animals but what life is like for women there. When not on the road, she's busy at home "being a chauffeur and a chef - just like being a trip leader!" to her 13-year-old daughter.
In conversation with Intrepid Travel's Darlene Adaji
Why did you become a tour guide?
Growing up, there were two careers I was really interested in - tourism and media. I was inspired by the Kenyan journalist Catherine Kasavuli, so I wanted to follow in her footsteps. Then, in high school, I started learning about the environment and animals and realised I love travelling. After school, my cousin, who had been in the tourism industry for many years, asked me to host his guests from overseas. One of them said that I was a very warm person and they hoped I'd follow my cousin's path, as "you are made for this". That changed everything.
What do you love most about your job?
I get to connect with and meet so many different people. I love to people-watch and see my travellers' mannerisms and personalities, and how excited they get when they see an elephant for the first time. My job has allowed me to create a network of international friends. I think I could have a bed to sleep in and hot food in nearly every country in the world.
What are some of the challenges in your work?
The nature of my work means that I can be faced with many different challenges, from vehicle breakdowns to long days, managing guests' expectations and weather disruptions. Every day is different.
You were the first woman to lead a tour to see gorillas in Uganda. Can you recall the first time you saw one in the wild?
The first time I saw a gorilla was in Rwanda in June 2017. No matter how many times I see them, I get the same feeling as the first time. Being in the mountains, the air is pure and fresh and touches your lungs differently. When you're walking through the forest and finally see the gorillas, it's a humbling and emotional feeling. Every time I see them, I fight back tears - and still end up crying.
You describe yourself as a feminist. How does this impact your work?
In Kenya, people generally don't understand what being a feminist is. I do not shy away from identifying myself as a feminist, but it can be challenging in the tourism industry as I am a female leader in a man's world. When I'm leading trips for Intrepid Travel, I use my job to educate travellers on what life is like for women in East Africa. I talk to them about what it's like to be a single mother - which still faces a stigma. I teach them about female genital mutilation and other challenges for women here.
How do you see your role in tourism?
I want to inspire more women to join the tourism industry. The numbers are growing, but the job is not always easy for us. Some women's partners don't like them being away for long periods of time, and women can be judged for being married and on the road, or they don't return to work after getting pregnant. I want to advocate for women to break the barriers in this industry. If I can do it, other women can, too.
What are your top three unmissable experiences for visitors to Uganda and Kenya?
First, gorilla trekking in Uganda. It's exhilarating to see the majestic beings right there in front of you. There are also amazing chimpanzee and golden monkey treks. Then, explore Kenya's national parks. There are so many landscapes and animals to see. You can climb Mount Kenya, the second-tallest mountain in Africa, in Mount Kenya National Reserve, or walk through Hell's Gate National Park.
When you need some beach time, where do you go?
We have an amazing coastline in Kenya along the Indian Ocean. I would recommend Diani Beach, south of Mombasa; it is beautiful and not as busy or exploited as the northern beaches.
What do you like to do when you're off-duty?
I am in full-time mum mode! I am also a big foodie and in Nairobi there are many places to go for delicious food and a live band. I'd recommend Ranalo Foods, where you can enjoy an authentic Kenyan meal and local music.
What's a great day trip from Nairobi?
The Ngong Hills are beautiful and serene, and great for a day hike of six to seven hours. You can also visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where traumatised elephants are rehabilitated and then released back into the wild. The Gira e Centre cares for endangered Rothschild giraffes.
What's one thing that always surprises foreign visitors to East Africa?
A traveller on my last trip summed it up when she said she was sad to be going home, where people never smile. Foreign travellers love the smiles they get from everyone they encounter in Kenya and Uganda. It's part of our culture to welcome visitors and they are always surprised by the warmth of locals.
What's next for tourism in the region?
I want to see tourism expand to more of the country. In Kenya, we have 47 counties and everyone has something to offer, from waterfalls to fishing villages. We also have a way to go to reach equality between men and women in the industry. I want to see more women not only as leaders but in managerial positions. It would be great to see more women be confident to travel and explore Africa and the world themselves, too.