Dear Rob, Wim, Frank, Dave, Greg, Judith, Mike, Richard, John, Carl, Annabel, Alan & Fiona Thank you for your emails on this subject which were fortunately forwarded to us by a friend of ours and I am glad to have this opportunity to respond (slightly delayed due to the holidays.) Many relevant issues have been raised by Rob and everyone else who has responded on this thread and I would like to clear the air somewhat and throw in my 2 cents worth. Some of the matters I would like to raise are specific to Rob and the Rockjumper PNG tour in which he participated and others are more generally related to birders, birding and the bird tour industry. Firstly Rob states that he gave us this feedback, but as far as our records indicate he did not send us a detailed feedback after the tour, this is what he wrote to us ³It was my first bird tour and I did not enjoy it at all. I would never go on a bird tour again. Eric and Glenn are great guys and it was not their fault – they tried their best to help me with 9 others who were too old, unfit and incapable to bird watch in the PNG. The group was too big for a forest trip with many shy species and most the group couldn’t spot an ostrich in their own garden! As a professional ornithologist it was a painfall experience for me – but despite the tour I did see a lot of birds – most of the difficult ones on my own.² When we asked Rob for more detailed feedback he curtly replied ³No enough said for now.² Rob¹s brother is the deputy manager and senior tour leader of a competing bird tour company and it has made us wonder whether this has anything to do with this scathing and in our opinion at times unfair, public airing of his grievances of the tour and of Rockjumper Birding Tours? Secondly as Wim so correctly surmised, Rob probably went onto this tour with unreasonable expectations, especially considering it was his first birding tour as a client and that he is a hardcore birder and professional ornithologist. He had originally signed up with the tour company his brother works for but their tour was cancelled, due I believe to undersubscription, and he then signed up with Rockjumper. I believe Rob may have anticipated some of these problems beforehand as he wrote before the tour ³I have seen just over 5000 species in the world and this is my first tour as a participant – I have led a few trips and I am a bit nervous being a client! I am booking a tour in PNG for a) safety and b) I don;t have time to organise it myself.² Various birding tour companies aim to satisfy various niches within the birding market. The tour company that Rob had originally signed up for generally aims to satisfy the more hardcore spectrum of the birding market, whereas Rockjumper¹s standard tours (as we classify this PNG tour) are aimed at the keen birder who wants to see as many birds and as much wildlife as possible without extreme effort or arduous hours in the field ie the average birder. We do offer ³Mega² tours that are advertised as hardcore birding tours with much long hours in the field, however this particular tour was not classified or marketed as such. Thirdly and Rob¹s major complaint were the other participants (who in Rob¹s own words were ³too old, unfit and had virtually no birding skills or knowledge² and mostly ³couldn’t spot an ostrich in their own garden!²). I am glad that Rob later retracted his complain on age as it would be dangerous waters to determine a cut-off maximum age for allowing birders onto a tour. With regards to fitness Judith also wrote ³BUT it is false advertising if they advise that a moderate to high level of fitness is required and then accept bookings from people who cannot keep up with the itinerary.² And ³Apart from anything else, one would imagine the company is in breach of a duty of care if it accepts bookings from people who lack the capacity to withstand the rigors of the trip.² I would be very eager to hear suggestions on how tour companies can ³audit² the fitness of their participants. We clearly stated in the tour information given to participants before they sign up ³This tour does require a good level of fitness and participants should be in good general health, as much of the forest birding will be done on foot and may require walking for several hours at a time. Should you have any physical limitations, please notify us in advance of departure.² If participants do not raise the issue or make us aware that they might have physical limitations, what can tour companies do? Should tour companies ask everyone for a full body photograph or a doctor¹s certificate or a sworn statement that they are fit? How do you define fit? I am not sure how this can be classified as ³false advertising² or ³breach of a duty of care² if we state that the tour requires a good level of fitness and then people arrive who are not fit. Should they be sent back at the airport on arrival if our tour leader or one “fit” participant judges them unfit (if this were the case Rob would have wanted all other 9 participants shipped back home with no stops en route!)? Where people have been forthright and stated their concerns, we have given our honest opinions and we have discouraged many a potential client from signing up on particular difficult tours. If I were one of Rob¹s fellow travel companions on this birding tour, I would feel insulted by Rob¹s statements. As an aside, the tour company that Rob had originally planned to travel with rates their PNG tour (which is very similar to Rockjumper¹s but is probably run at a faster pace than ours) as ³Tour Category: Easy to Moderate³ so I feel that Rockjumper¹s disclosure was honest. With regards to lack of birding skills and knowledge, as Wim states, many participants on birding tours do not possess professional birding skills or study up for weeks beforehand so they can identify every bird they see, but I would consider it unfair to make this as a reason to reject or discourage people from signing up for a birding tour. One of our tour leaders¹ tasks is to assist less experienced birders to gain the experience, expertise and knowledge to become better birders if they want to learn these skills. In my opinion, if participants have the physical ability for that particular tour and obtain pleasure from birding, then they are welcome on Rockjumper¹s tours. Group size is another major complaint of Rob¹s. Our group size for this tour is 10 participants and 2 tour leaders (and sometimes we are accompanied by 1 or 2 local guides.) I completely agree that this is a big group for narrow trails. However we haven¹t just arbitrarily chosen this group size, it was selected after very careful consideration and lengthy debate. Most other tour companies offer a group size of 8 participants and 1 leader on PNG tours and I would like to put on record that many of Rockjumper¹s rainforest birding tours have a group size of a maximum 6 to 8 participants plus 1 leader. However we chose to increase the group size to 10 and add a 2nd leader to this tour because we know that PNG can be logistically difficult and potentially an unsafe destination. At times one of our leaders is kept occupied with a logistical problem and has to divert his attention away from the birding in order to solve an issue and ensure there is minimal disruption to the tour program. If we only had 1 leader on the tour, then there would be no-one available to bird with the tour group under these circumstances, and we can assure you that hiccups do happen in PNG, anyone who has been there will attest to this! I can hardly imagine Rob¹s complaints in the situation of 1 leader who then has to take an afternoon off birding to sort out a problem, and I can assure you this will happen regularly on tours to PNG with a single leader. Also in potentially unsafe areas our policy is that one leader must always at the back of the group to ensure that any lagging participants are safely cared for. Of course it would be better to have 8 participants and 2 leaders, even better to have 2 participants and 2 leaders but sadly economics rears its ugly head and we have determined that a group of 10 with 2 leaders is the optimal size for tour logistics, tour safety, birding and tour cost. We do realize this will mean some of the group will miss birds on narrow trails, however we feel that an equal number if not more participants in a group of 8 with 1 leader will miss birds in this situation than a group of 10 with 2 leaders who are both assisting the participants on getting onto birds. Furthermore on this tour, we do limit as much as possible time spent on narrow trails, as well as placing group participants in an advantageous as possible position for everyone when we tape in a bird on a narrow trail. In our experience, which spans over many years and dozens of tours, more birds are found with 2 tour leaders than 1 tour leader irrespective of group size. So in summarizing the above three major points that Rob raised, I do understand and sympathize with Rob¹s frustrations with regard to this PNG tour. I however cannot sympathize with some of his rather unkind and sweeping comments re the other participants. But yes, Rob did end up with a group of birders that were well below his level of fitness and birding hardcoreness. However I believe Rob suspected this when signing up for the tour and in retrospect, this might not have been a wise decision for him considering his level of expertise, fitness and birding requirements. Rockjumper does offer private birding tours (in fact almost 50% of our tours are of this nature and we customize these tours to match the requirements of the participants) and we ran several private birding tours to PNG in the 2011 season. If Rob had really wanted a hardcore birding tour at the pace he prefers, with the full focus on the birds he wanted to see, then this is the route he should have gone, rather than signing up for a tour with 9 other birders who as can be expected had varying levels of fitness and birding hardcoreness. Continuing on with Rob¹s list of complaints with some comments from our perspective: a) ³Some trails were not even attempted² according to our tour leaders the group birded every trail that we had time to bird and no trails were left out because of any physical abilities of the participants. Our group attempted to find every bird in the itinerary so any trails that were not taken would not have materially affected the end results of birds observed as any extra trail taken would have meant another trail sacrificed. Erik Forsyth who was the senior tour leader for this group wrote: ³I skipped a steep trail at Varirata due to muddy and slippery conditions. I also avoided a trail at Mt Hagen due to the slippery nature of that trail and the great possibility of a client or guide falling on rocks. These trails that we took in the place of these trails offered the same birds and no bird sightings were lost as a result². Our leaders made the decisions on which trails would maximize the group¹s birding based on their expertise, this is one of the reasons that people pay extra money to go on birding tours rather than do it alone and thereby risk wasted time in the wrong locations. Our tour is not planned or advertised as an 18-hours-a-day birding marathon, but as a wisely paced birding tour that will maximize the average birder¹s opportunities at seeing as many bird species as possible under the time constraints and conditions to which the group is faced. b) ³took a huge amount of time to see the birds. This was mainly because there was 1 scope between the 10 people and most had poor eye-sight.² ³One leader’s scope (the other leader rarely took his because it wasn’t working properly).² The poor eye-sight I cannot comment on as this is Rob¹s personal assessment of his fellow birders in this group (and I do not care to further elucidate my thoughts on what Rob has said about the other participants), however I can comment on the single scope and this is what our senior tour leader Erik Forsyth wrote about his scope ³Rob is referring to the time when my tripod leaver broke and my scope fell onto the ground. It took 2 days to be able to find the material to fix the tripod and thereafter it was available almost daily. We did not carry 2 scopes into the forest interior due to lack of space but we almost always had 2 scopes available for birding in open areas and a large proportion of our birding was done in more open areas.² We also recommend to clients that it might be useful to bring along their own scope as Rob wisely did the following is copied from our PNG itinerary ³Telescopes can be very useful in open-area conditions there were several opportunities in the past where participants were very pleased to have use of their own scope (RBT leader(s) will also have a telescope).² c) ³they made night birding a complete nightmare² here Rob was referring to the other participants. This group had 7 nocturnal evening and predawn birding experiences (in 18 days) and some of their sightings as a result included Hook-billed and the highly sought-after Shovel-billed Kingfisher (the former at dusk and latter predawn), Papuan Boobook, Marbled and Papuan Frogmouth, White-throated and Archbold¹s Nightjar, two species of owlet-nightjar seen (Wallace’s and Feline two others (Barred and Mountain) were seen on day roosts) and one heard (the very rare Starred Owlet-nightjar). In my opinion this is incredibly successful for PNG night-birding and one would struggle to find a PNG birding tour that has done better than this on night birds. d) ³I actually had to be left alone in remote locations in PNG jungles for many hours on end to see difficult species – such as Papuan hawk Owl.² Our tour leaders feel this comment is an absolute slap in the face. Our leaders went to great efforts to arrange extra birding for Rob during group rest periods and time off. Erik wrote ³I arranged several trips to birding sites for Rob so that he could bird during lunchtimes, at the Tari Gap twice, Benson¹s Trail and at Mt Hagen twice. The understanding was that Rob wanted to bird through lunch and wanted to remain on the trails we had completed that morning. I made sure that Rob was aware that additional birding during lunch was at his own risk and he perfectly understood this and agreed to the terms. Rob said that he had visited PNG before as he has an office in Port Moresby and so understood the security issues of the country. Generally our group would return to the lodge for lunch and our driver would fetch Rob again at around 2:30pm. I also always ensured that the locations where we left Rob were safe in my opinion as well as that of our local guides and staff.² Did Rob expect our tour leaders to sacrifice their lunch break so that they could accompany him on his extra midday birding? Our tour leaders had 9 other participants to look after and such a request would be unreasonable. With regard to the Papuan Hawk Owl incident that Rob refers to, the group had been out nightbirding (a 3 hour nocturnal excursion). When it was time to return, Rob begged the leaders to leave him behind so he could continue searching for this bird which the group had only heard despite attempts to see it. The area itself is near a lodge and perfectly safe so Erik agreed to let Rob stay as long as he stuck to the trail, Erik also left a boatman with Rob. There seems to have been a miscommunication error as the boatman did not walk with Rob but stayed at the dock which was 200m from the area where Rob was birding. The main local guide and boatman then took the rest of the group back to our lodge and immediately returned to the location where Rob had been left. Rob did end up seeing this extremely difficult bird and the whole experience between when the group left him and when he was picked up again was 1 hour. Personally I would think Rob should be thanking Rockjumper and our tour leaders for making the arrangements for him to stay out longer than the rest of the group so that he could chase and see a very difficult bird. I would call this excellent service by our staff who went above and beyond their duties, and in return, their reward is this criticism. e) ³These trips are NOT for real birders. They are for OLD people who are generally happy to spend 1 second looking down a telescope to tick something. If they glimpse a bird, a shadow etc. most of them count what they are told they’ve seen.² Another unkind generalisation, not only about the other participants but also about Rockjumper Birding Tours. I have elucidated my feelings on birding tour groups and don¹t feel its necessary to delve into that again. I do take exception to Rob¹s statement basically alleging that Rockjumper¹s tour are not for real birders, just old people who don¹t really have the intelligence or birding ability to appreciate or see the birds that our leaders put in the telescope (and they seemingly only ever see birds that are in the telescope, never through their own binoculars!) The birding tour industry is highly competitive and Rockjumper has been the fastest growing of the larger bird tour companies and virtually all the feedback we receive is superb. We would not have survived 14 years in this business (and expanded through the recession, running close to 150 tour per annum) if we only catered for pretend, old birders who don¹t care what they actually saw. In fact we can count many of the world¹s top bird listers, as well as many high profile birders, as very satisfied clients who have returned for tour after tour with Rockjumper. Many of our tour totals are record breaking for the destinations and we have pioneered several new birding destinations and found new bird populations, massive range extensions, numerous new country records and recently even a possible new bird species in Angola. Some of our tour leaders are amongst the mostly highly regarded and experienced birders in their region¹s of expertise. I¹m sorry Rob but I strongly protest against these statements of yours. Furthermore this particular tour that you were on recorded some amazing birds, 325 species including 20 species of birds-of-paradise (including Black Sicklebill, King, Twelve-wired and King-of-Saxony bops), Lesser Melampitta, Crested and Loria’s Satinbird, Hooded and Red-bellied Pitta, Wattled Ploughbill, Palm Cockatoo, Greater Sooty Owl, Pesquett’s Parrot, Gurney’s Eagle, Southern Crowned Pigeon, Long-billed Cuckoo, Mountain Nightjar, Torrent-Lark, Archbold’s, Macgregor’s, Yellow-breasted and Flame Bowerbirds, Little, Galatea and Brown-headed Paradise Kingfishers, all 3 Jewel-babblers besides the birds mentioned above. Any hardcore birder would admit this is a mouth-watering selection indeed and the full trip report for this tour in question can be viewed on this link: http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/wp-content/media/Trip-Report-RBT-PNG-II-201 1.pdf f) ³Add to the above the amount of time we stood around waiting for buses to show up because the agent didn’t have control of what was going on (we lost many, many hours of birding time)² I would first like to paste a warning that we make in our itinerary before further responding to this comment of Rob¹s ³New Guinea is always a challenging place to visit, and it is not unusual for logistics to go awry, so please do expect some hassles along the way – we will, however, do our utmost to make this tour run as smoothly as possible. Delays, sometimes significant, should be expected when taking the several internal flights that are necessary to access these remote locations; weather or airline problems, for example, might cause delays that are out of our control.² PNG is not an efficient developed country that is easy to travel around, nor do some of the local service providers and their personnel have the same concept of punctuality and professionalism as is experienced in more developed countries. If this were so, Rob would have arranged this trip himself. We used one of the most established and reputable local ground handlers in PNG for the logistics on this tour and despite this, I am the first to admit that some aspects did not run smoothly. In fact we had major problems with our ground handler last year and we will not be using him again. It¹s only thanks to immense efforts on the part of our tour leaders that the tour did run reasonably well and so successfully. Here are our senior tour leader¹s comments on transport delays ³twice we had problems with a driver at Tabubil. The main problem was on our arrival in Tabubil. Our ground handler was told the plane was going to land in Kiunga (the next closest airport) instead of Tabubil due to heavy cloud cover, however the pilot managed to land in Tabubil on his 3rd attempt. This meant that our bus was 4 hours away. I arranged a transfer to our lodge where we had lunch and an opportunity to shower and rest, while we waited for our bus, which finally arrived. We still managed to get to our scheduled birding site that afternoon and found our target birds including Salvadori’s Teal, Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo and Eclectus Parrot. I remember Rob was very upset about this but there was no alternative transport available. Our driver was very late on another morning, however there were very few other major bus delays, so the statement that we lost many hours is incorrect and exaggerated.²
g) ³descriptions in the published itineraries which are at best ‘economical with the truth’² another sweeping statement. Our group attempted to observe every single bird mentioned in the itinerary and our itineraries are reviewed each year by our tour leaders for accuracy and relevance. We of course do not see every bird mentioned and nor do we mislead our clients into believing that we will. Our tour leaders did decide to skip one birding site mentioned in the itinerary in place of another which produced more endemic PNG birds. h) ³good local bird guides that Rockjumpers booked and paid for who were ‘unavailable’ e.g. Daniel Wakra was guiding others when he should have been with us² Daniel Wakra was booked (and paid) for 3 birding days with our group, two at the beginning of the tour and 1 at the end. He was with the group for the first two days but had taken a double-booking for the final day. The other two birders who also booked him did not have PNG birding experience so our tour leaders generously conceded that Daniel should take the other group and our group went with Daniel¹s brother Soloman, who is a bird guide but is not as experienced as Daniel. However since we had two fully experienced, professional bird tour leaders who knew the day¹s location and its birds, our leaders felt that the group did not suffer at all from this incident. I feel they handled this minor situation professionally and benevolently. There were no other local guides whom we had booked that were unavailable¹. I believe I have commented on all of Rob¹s points and I feel the only issue that I have not commented on re PNG is from Judith who wrote ³A friend went on a PNG trip a few years back and came across the same issue. However the response of the head guide was very different – if the itinerary said something was going to happen then it did (even if only 1 person in the group still wanted to do it) and those who could not keep up were left behind in camp.² Judith I¹m sorry but I have to disagree with you here and feel that you made this statement with very little knowledge of the actual situation on this tour. The fact that our group undertook every single activity mentioned in the itinerary that was possible (one site for instance had its access road washed out and was thus impossible to reach by us and every other tour company last year) proves that our tour leaders handled this issue professionally and as well as possible. Finally I would like to respond to Greg who also took this opportunity to criticize Rockjumper. Cameroon is another very difficult country in which to travel where we issue very similar warnings as above about the possibility of logistics sometimes going awry. This incident unfortunately happened in 2006 that Greg missed his airport pick-up when he arrived the night before the tour began, despite the fact that two other participants on the same flight were collected. This is what our representative reported of the incident ³Good day sir, I am Neville a colleague to .; I was at the airport to meet with clients for the Cameroon Trip. I was at the arrival gate on the 10/04/2006 with a sign “ROCKJUMPER” ten minutes before the first passenger descended from the plane; I waited there until the last passenger descended from the plane; during which time I met .. and we waited till the last passenger descended before proceed past the police to the arrival where we collected their bags. When I noticed Greg Roberts was not among the passengers I called David on my mobile and informed him on the state of affaires and he said he was going to mail in to find out!² That same evening I personally sent an email to Greg asking if he had missed his plane. When he contacted us and explained what had happened, we profusely apologized to Greg for this mishap and offered him a US$300 discount off a future Rockjumper tour. Greg responded ³Thanks for this. I’m aware that Neville met people coming off the plane and I accept that for some reason I did not see him (I was one of the first off the plane, and I was not expecting to meet anyone there, but rather as we left customs checks).² The tour itself was a great success and in fact Greg wrote ³And I do hope to travel again with you sometime because this incident aside, it was a very nice trip.²
As you might be able to infer from this detailed response, we at Rockjumper do take criticism and post-tour comments very seriously and we thoroughly investigate every issue to learn from any mistake we made and try to improve in future. We diligently respond to any of our clients who raise issues and we feel that we dealt with Greg¹s complaint fairly and generously, what happened to Greg was unfortunate, but it is one of those mishaps than can happen and was out of our immediate control. I do apologize for the length of this post, but I do feel its only fair that our side of the story is laid out and if you feel it has raised some interesting questions about birding and birders then hopefully this will generate some productive debate. My very best wishes to Birding-Aus members for a successful and bird-filled year ahead.
Adam Riley Managing Director Rockjumper Birding Tours CC (Reg 2001/059480/23) PO Box 13972, Cascades, 3202, South Africa Tel: +27 33 394 0225/ +27 33 394 0251 Fax: +27 88 033 394 0225 Mobile: +27 82 922 4773 Skype: adam.rockjumper Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Alternative email: email@example.com
³If you want to be successful, it’s just this simple. Know what you are doing. Love what you are doing. And believe in what you are doing.² Will Rodgers http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/
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