As a young woman travelling to Europe for the first time, Kate Forsdyke did not expect to end up behind the wheel as a tour driver for one of the most well-known youth travel companies in the world. What started as a six-month working holiday adventure turned into a five-year journey of self-discovery and self-empowerment and that Kate says gave her more life experience than she could ever have imagined.
We found out from Kate how it happened and what it was really like on tour:
‘I was 23 years old and living in a very secluded part of the Drakensberg working in a hotel when I decided I wanted to go abroad. I had asked my parents for a return flight to anywhere in the world for my 21st birthday and felt this was the time to cash in that present. I resigned and started making plans to go to Europe, hoping to find any random jobs to pay for my independent travels.
My mom, who has always supported my free spirit, suggested that I should apply for a job with Contiki. When we looked at the application page online I initially ruled out being a driver as I was far from qualified for the job. There was one position that caught my eye: being an on-site rep. It involved cooking and cleaning for clients as well as socialising with them, all while being stationed on one of Contiki’s sites around Europe. It sounded perfect. I applied and they offered me an interview, as long as I could get to London for it. I hopped on a plane, crashed on a friend’s couch, went to my interview, got the job, and was placed in Rome a few days later.
The next three months were a blur of partying, incredible food, new people, trips to Rome, eye-opening cultural experiences (including a trip down to the Amalfi Coast), with some work thrown in, too. I was placed in an amazing city with a fantastic team of like-minded people and couldn’t have been happier.
…But I wanted to travel more
Towards the end of the season, Contiki asked if we would be coming back the following summer. It wasn’t an easy job entertaining up to 350 clients every day, but I had fallen in love with the brand, my colleagues and the people I got to meet as I travelled. I wanted to stay with the company but I wanted to explore more. A lot of people I spoke to recommended being a driver. I had met a few female drivers and felt inspired; if they could do it, so could I.
I just had to get my UK bus driver’s licence and once that was done I started training in the Netherlands with a handful of other drivers, myself being the only woman. We were taught to drive to the standard that Contiki expects, which is really high. During training we moved to Italy then Paris, before heading back to London after two weeks.
For the next two summers, I drove shuttles in Italy. My job was to fill in for drivers doing European trips during their compulsory rests. I got a taste of what driving on a trip felt like and got to know some of the clients and be a part of their experiences. I bonded with the trip managers, saw loads of Italy and was lucky enough to spend quite some time in Paris too, but I still wanted more.
So I applied to become an official European tour driver. I had to go through a grueling 66 days of training all over the continent. A coach full of newly-recruited drivers and trip managers set out through Europe together and we were pushed to our limits, emotionally and physically. We learned as much as we could about Europe and how to successfully run a trip. The standard was set incredibly high and many dropped out. This experience really got me out of my comfort zone and I learned a lot about myself, but most of all it prepared us for life on the road.
Life as a bus driver
Contiki offers ski packages during the winter months based in an Austrian gasthof in Hopfgarten, a stunning little town on one of the biggest ski welts in Europe. Each season the gasthof is run by a freshly handpicked team of Contiki staff that have proven themselves during the previous summer. There are only 12 (highly sought-after) spots available, and I was lucky enough to be chosen. I got to live in Austria and learned how to ski. Working for Contiki was really full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Europe is an incredible place. No country is alike, even most cities within a country aren’t alike. From taking a train to the top of Europe in Lauterbrunnen, to playing in the snow in the middle of summer, and marveling at the artwork of the Sistine Chapel, there is something for everyone.
And then there’s the food. I had never really enjoyed tomatoes or olives until I moved to Italy, escargot became one of my favourite starters, and I got to taste gyros the way the Greeks make them. Sipping an Aperol spritz on the rooftops of Venice while watching the people below wandering through the cobbled streets, is a memory that will forever warm my heart.
I still pinch myself when I think of all the things I have done and seen. I discovered that I didn’t have to follow the norm of what society expects and had the power and the choice to create my own life. I can now say that I have been to 32 countries in the world – and counting. I have driven 10 trips around Europe ranging from nine days to 46 days. I have paraglided off the Austria Alps in summer and winter. I have been bobsledding. And I have driven a huge coach! I saw what most people only see in travel brochures but, most importantly, I really found myself and truly discovered what I am capable of.’
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