Our Nat Hab Expedition Leaders truly do it all. They’re experts at logistics, skilled at navigating group dynamics, and well-versed in the nature, wildlife, culture and history of the areas where they guide. Although they make it look effortless, every guide was once faced with the daunting task of leading their first trip.

In this blog post, one of our newest Expedition Leaders, Daniel Blankenheim, recounts what it was like to lead his first Nat Hab trip in Portugal last season.

Woman kayaking on the Douro River in Portugal

From Farm Animals to Elephants: A Guide in the Making

I’m happy to have the opportunity to share my story as a first-time Expedition Leader with Natural Habitat Adventures last fall. It was a thrilling—yet challenging—experience! First, a quick history of what lead me to become an adventure travel guide.

You’ve probably heard it a million times: “I just love animals.” That’s certainly true for me, even though I come from a densely populated, industrial region in Germany. Luckily, growing up, I was able to make frequent visits to a small farm, where I bonded with the resident sheep, chickens and rabbits. These experiences led me to study landscape ecology at university. A few years later, I earned a master’s degree in wildlife ecology and management.

I got the chance to work as a tour guide for the first time in Thailand. It was at an ecolodge with a few domesticated elephants that had retired from forestry work. No one rode the elephants here—we just watched them take mud baths and helped wash and feed them.

I loved the job. I could see the sparkle in our guests’ eyes when they interacted with these smart and gentle animals. Scrubbing mud off the back of a massive elephant and hand-feeding it fruits was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of them.

The guests were also eager to learn about the elephants and their natural habitat. We went on excursions into the wild forests of Khao Sok National Park to explore the complexity of the animals’ ecosystem. And when we discussed conservation issues, I could see how these talks touched people after having established an emotional bond with the elephants.

Later, I worked for an outdoor education company that organized summer camps for children. Most of the kids came from urban areas (like me!) and had to be prompted to play in the dirt. I encouraged them to unlearn their domestication and reconnect to their wild spirits. To reclaim their playfulness in nature. By the end of the week, kids who had been extraordinarily shy on day one didn’t want to leave camp. Instead of crying in their parents arms, they were now clinging to our legs (and hearts)!

Finding Nat Hab: Love at First Sight

One day, on my endless quest to find a role that was both meaningful and that would allow me to spend time in nature, I came across a job posting for Natural Habitat Adventures. The company’s mission statement resonated with me immediately.

“Conservation through exploration: protecting our planet by inspiring travelers, supporting local communities and boldly influencing the entire travel industry.”

“Wow—that’s it!” I thought to myself. Nat Hab’s mission is essentially my life philosophy in a nutshell. My motivation to travel the world in search of a feeling of belonging and connectedness. It was what led me to Thailand for my first tour guide experience and what inspired me to become a leader at our wilderness kids’ camps.

The more I read about Natural Habitat Adventures, the more I fell in love with it. I was so excited at the prospect of joining the company’s efforts to sustain wild places on the planet by taking passionate travelers into nature and supporting local communities.

It took me days to write my cover letter, although the words flowed out of me naturally, driven by excitement, passion and anticipation. Then, the difficult waiting period. Finally, in February 2022, the waiting and biting of fingernails came to an end. I was asked to interview for an Expedition Leader position. Hurray!

Long story short, just two months later, I was scheduled for my first trip. I would be guiding our Paddling Portugal’s River of Wine adventure.

Preparing to Guide: A Crash Course

In many ways, this is not your “typical” Nat Hab adventure. Portugal doesn‘t have the vast swaths of wilderness or the diversity of wild animals that you’ll see on some other trips. But it’s a very active trip, with lots of kayaking through beautiful wine country, which attracted me. I hadn’t been to Portugal before, but I had wanted to travel there for a long time. This was my chance!

So, where do you start when preparing to guide a trip? There are so many aspects to every location: natural and cultural history, geology, geography and, of course, the guiding itself. And, for Portugal, I’d also need to take a crash course in viticulture: the science cultivating, growing and harvesting grapes!

Grapes at a vineyard in Portugal

The deeper I dove into the material, the more rabbit holes I went down, and the more questions I had. What might the guests ask? What would be interesting for them to know? How could I combine facts about nature with insights about their cultural significance? I read and read and read some more.

Group of Natural Habitat Adventures guides in Portugal

Nancy, Vitor, Pedro and Daniel in Portugal

Talking with Nancy Moore, who has guided in Portugal for around two decades, and with Vitor and Pedro, two of our local Portugal guides, also helped enormously. They offered valuable advice, and it was wonderful to feel encouragement and support not only from them, but from every staffer I interacted with at Nat Hab.

Watch Nancy’s webinar, What to Know About Your Portugal Paddling Adventure.

Shadow Guide: Learning in the Field

After months of reading, studying and getting certified, I flew into Porto. Vitor met me with his big smile and Portuguese warmth. He became my “Tio,” or “uncle,” quickly. I was finally here! On my first shadow trip (on which I trained with Nancy), a guest asked me: “How long have you been waiting for this?“ I hesitated and answered, “All my life!” Maybe it was a cheesy answer, but it was how I truly felt.

Porto, Portugal on the banks of the Douro River

Porto, Portugal on the banks of the Douro River

I watched Nancy closely, learning the ins and outs of the itinerary, soaking up everything I encountered like a sponge, observing and learning. At the same time, I was also getting to know our guests and connect with them.

Porto is a fascinating city, but a city, nonetheless. And then, when we finally hit the Douro River: Silence. Just the wind, some bird calls and the gentle strokes of our paddles. I found myself smiling, basking in the serenity of the place. This is what I had been preparing for so intensively. I feel very grateful that I got to be Nancy’s shadow before guiding a trip on my own. It helped me grow in both knowledge and confidence.

After an amazing, eye-opening first trip with Nancy, I was ready to lead a trip on my own. She left, and only Pedro, Vitor and I remained. I knew I could count on them, and I trusted their expertise in every way. Both Vitor and Pedro made it clear that they wanted me to succeed, and I cannot thank them enough for giving me that feeling. It made my experience as a first-time Expedition Leader that much easier.

Natural Habitat Adventures guide directing kayakers into the Douro River in Portugal

Nancy shepherds the first group of kayakers into the Douro

Guiding My First Group (Finally!)

The day had come. It was time to pick up our guests—the first guests who would call me their “Expedition Leader.” It didn‘t take long for them to realize how enthusiastic I felt about meeting them. During our “Welcome to Portugal” talk, as people sat on comfortable sofas with glasses of wine and beautiful views over Porto, I quickly gained confidence, going over our plan for the upcoming trip. I knew it so well by now. I have to say, our travelers made it easy for me to relax and feel excited, instead of nervous. So many happy faces, and so much laughter and willingness to get to know each other and experience Portugal.

Being with Vitor and Pedro always gave me an extra feeling of assurance. However, I knew I would be on my own on the river. Luckily, the water was so kind to us on our first day: strong headwinds and no current for our longest stretch of paddling on the journey. Perfect conditions, right? Wrong! We probably could have sailed in the opposite direction, upstream!

It was a rough start, but with the hearts of lions and the promise of a glass of wine, a delicious dinner, and comfortable accommodations, we got through it as a team. In fact, the hardships served as a bonding experience: We had faced challenges and come out on the other side! This is the “Adventure” in “Natural Habitat Adventures.” This is the feeling of being alive and transformed through challenging oneself.

After this experience, I was sure that the rest of the trip was going to be easier—at least when it came to kayaking.

Kayakers on the Douro River in Portugal

As we made our way downstream over the next few days, we gazed at the terraced mountainsides, which stretched as far as the eye could see. It is humbling to witness these feats of human ingenuity—to realize the people of the past transformed an entire landscape to survive. The socalcos—the old stone-walled terraces—are a symbol of our adaptability and perseverance.

With this feeling of awe and wonder, we paddled along the banks of the Douro. I interpreted along the way and helped to keep the group together. But, most often, I just tried to help our travelers understand how special and unique this land is. It wasn’t a difficult task. There was the same sparkle in their eyes that I had seen in the eyes of my guests in Thailand so many years ago.

Getting to Know You

After a long day on the river, we always looked forward to a relaxing—and often enchanting—evening. Restored farmsteads, luxury guesthouses, stone retreats, historic manor homes: the places we stayed in were simply stunning. More important, however, were the connections with the local staff, who made them really feel like homes away from home. These relationships often go back years and years, and you can feel that in every interaction. They really care about their Nat Hab guests!

Infinity Pool at Casa do Rio in Portugal

The enticing infinity pool at Casa do Rio, overlooking terraces and the Douro

Along with paddling the river and admiring the beauty of the wine terraces, there was another aspect of my first guiding experience that I loved: getting to know our travelers. Sitting at dinner, sipping a glass of wine, looking out at the gorgeous views, I learned so much about—and from—our guests. I cherished the laughter and the warm, friendly atmosphere. It is immensely rewarding to watch a group of strangers start to care for and about each other—a dynamic that we always hope to help foster as Expedition Leaders.

Of course, during our excursions and our evening discussions, questions came up that I couldn’t answer. I had to be honest with our guests— and with myself—that I don‘t know everything. Not yet, and probably not ever! At the same time, I hope I showed them that I’m always willing to learn more. I have to admit, though: It can feel like a failure or disappointment not to know the answer. To overcome that feeling, I tried my best to come back to them as soon as possible with the answer and a smile.

Nat Hab guests gather for dinner in Portugal

Reflections on My First Trip—And More to Come

Perhaps most travelers would prefer a guide with years of experience and tons of completed trips under their belt. Someone who knows everything and who has done it all. And no doubt: Nat Hab has a multitude of exceptional and super-experienced Expedition Leaders. But it’s important to remember that all of those wonderful guides had to start somewhere! One adventure and one group always has to be the first—hopefully with many more to come.

So, should you encounter a new Expedition Leader on one of your trips, I hope you’ll welcome them to Nat Hab the way Nat Hab has welcomed me, with open arms. I’m certainly grateful for the way my group of travelers responded, when they found out at the final celebration dinner that this was my first trip: with warmth, a lot of surprise, and a round of applause.

I’m sure I’ll come back to Vitor and Pedro and their warmth and hospitality, which encapsulates the Portuguese soul so perfectly. I know the Douro Valley will see my smile again, as I kayak on the river of wine and gold. And I hope I get to see my first group of travelers again, whether in Portugal or on another adventure!

Daniel Blankenheim

All photos © Daniel Blankenheim