Elery Hamilton-Smith, Department of Leisure Studies, Phillip Institute of Technology


The central element which determines the quality of the visitor experience in caves is virtually always the quality of guiding. Although other factors, such as the quality of paths or lighting are important, a good guide can make a badly lit cave exciting, while a bad one can make the finest sights utterly boring. In fact, I think we take the importance of the guide for granted so much so that I suspect the major problem in adequately establishing a selfguided cave is that we fail to take sufficient account of the basic change in thinking which is necessary.

Even if we look at things historically, we find there have been guides virtually as long as there has been travel. Herodotus depended not only upon guides, but in fact upon guides who spoke his language (Casson 1974:104). Just as today, guides gave misinformation (p104), pestered visitors and obtruded upon their enjoyment. To cite Plutarch, "The guides went through their standard speech, paying no attention whatsoever to our entreaties to cut the talk short ..." (p265). So, both guiding and criticising of guiding have a long heritage.

Over the centuries, the functions of the guide expanded. While the guide in the ancient world had to be a pathfinder and also served as a transmitter of information, the guide of the 19th century Grand Tour was expected to be a mentor, adviser or even tutor.

Today we find whole range of functions being filled by guides, ranging from the villager of Northern Thailand, or some other relatively unmodernised area, serving to show foreigners where they can best find what interests them to the uniformed and trained escort of many urban centres (Holloway 1981, Cohen 1985).

My purpose in this paper is to analyse the functions which are, or might be, performed by the contemporary cave guide, and to suggest ways in which these can be made more effective. Previous papers on these issues are few - the only ones which I have found of real value are those of Austin and Chaney (1977) and of Rohde (reprinted in this volume). Both of these look very much at the guide and how the guide might improve the quality of his/her performance. I want to place more emphasis on the manager, and what the manager should do about guiding. But firstly, let me examine the issue of functions.


As a lead-in, it is instructive to look at Holloway's research. He spent a lot of time travelling on daytour buses in the United Kingdom, essentially watching guides. One of the key elements to emerge from his analysis is that every guide is subject to a variety of demands, and that these demands may well be conflictual. As a simple example, visitors may want to spend more time at a specific point of a tour, or to hear more information, but the guide knows that management demands tight time scheduling, and that the tour must move on. In Holloway's work, he found that the guide could be torn between the demands of the tourists, the coach driver, the management, the site itself and the local people, and his/her personal needs. In other words, the guide is often expected to play a number of roles, some of which may conflict with others.

One thing we know about helping people handle role conflict is that ignoring or trying to hide the conflict is counterproductive. So, in examining the various roles which might be demanded of the cave guide, it is vital to identify potential conflicts and seek ways of resolving these. If not resolved, they are likely to adversely impact upon the visitor, conveying either boredom and apathy or aggression and dissatisfaction, neither of which are desirable messages.

It appears to me that the majority of cave guides have five basic functions:

Obviously, the relative importance of these will vary from one tour to another, but I contend that none should ever be absent. Now, using the shorthand names for each role, let me describe each one a little further.

Interestingly, the conservation role is one that is uppermost in the minds of many managers, and Rohde (this volume) points out that guiding was first used in the US National Park Service to "counteract those persons who would selfishly destroy park values". Similarly, the appointment of 'caretakers' to at least some Australian cave parks (certainly at Jenolan and Naracoorte) was essentially as a counter to vandalism.

All too often, the guides whom I have experienced assume that their conservation role is simply one of telling visitors that it is an offence to damage speleothems, or at the best they might explain why one shouldn't do so ("it takes 100 years to grown an inch"). They fail to convey any sense of a broad conservation ethic, or to relate the protection of the cave to its wider environment. Even within the cave itself, they rarely convey the importance of anything other than speleothems, even though the muddy floor may in fact be far more significant in other ways. And, of course, they ignore the impact of widespread managerial vandalism which is on ready view in many caves.

Now this is not a tirade against guides; it is simply a report of my own experience. But that experience is a reflection upon the quality of management. Guides cannot be expected to convey the conservation ethic unless they understand it, and they cannot be expected to make it meaningful unless the physical care of the environment is a responsible and responsive one. If we are to convey the conservation ethic, an understanding of it must underlie the whole of management, not just the words which the guide mouths.

Similarly, safety is all too often a warning to watch your head as you enter the too-low entry door, to be careful of the paths because they are slippery (synonym for badly designed and sloppily constructed). Real safety in guiding certainly demands that such comments should be made as and when necessary, but much more importantly, that the guide watches for any signs of physical distress, makes it easy for people to back out at an early stage of the tour, knows exactly what to in any crisis, and in fact, doesn't need to do very much at all. The guide is the person on the spot and inevitably safety is part of his/her responsibility, but they can only carry that responsibility if the management enables them to do so.

Ensuring quality of experience is rightly labelled as interpretation only if we take a broad notion of what interpretation means. Having escaped from the fantasy era when all speleothems were presented as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Buddha, poached eggs and I-bet-you-can't-guess-what-we-call-this-one, we now seem to be entering a new era where every cave tour has to be a sort of boiled down high school science lesson. I suspect at least some of us are forcing visitors to jump from the proverbial frying pan in to a special kind of fire.

Interpretation, to me, is not just transmitting knowledge - it is just as important to help people feel and experience awe, beauty, wonder, management or any one of a lot of other feelings as it is to load them with facts. Some tours might best be conducted in utter silence, others might benefit from music, while still others might be right for the facts treatment, or, dare I say it, the full fantasy (to quote Zorba, "the full catastrophe!"). In other words, let us develop the idea that not only does each cave need its own pattern of interpretation, but that in turn must be matched to the mood of each separate tour.

The notion of the guide as a comfort to the visitor is not very much talked about yet it is probably fundamental. In some ways, it is the old pathfinder role of history - just as Herodotus relied on his Greek speaking guide to help him find his way through the mysteries of Egypt, so the cave visitor relies on the familiar speaking guide to help him/her find a way through the mysteries of the underground domain. This is not just knowledge - it is much more simply a matter of feeling secure in a strange or foreign environment. People look to the guide as their lifeline to the 'normal world', and they will cling to that lifeline (most guides know that very well).

The implications for management are obvious. If guides are to comfort others, they must themselves be comfortable with their role. So, proper selection and training should focus on ensuring that guides are going to be comfortable with what they are doing. I recall two contrasting tours which I have experienced, one in a cave of remarkable beauty, even majesty, with a guide who was obviously ill at ease, who mumbled, and whose face lit up when our party intersected with another - so that the two guides could (and did) go off into a corner and exchange jokes. The other was a most undistinguished little cave, with a guide of similar age and experience, who was obviously not only at home, but positively enjoyed being in the cave and sharing it with us. Both were memorable trips, but for quite different reasons. In fact, we left the second cave feeling this was one of the best tours we had undertaken for some time it wasn't until I tried to write up my notes that evening that I realised what a truly undistinguished cave I had just been in!

However, a good visit is not just a matter of feeling comfortable but also one of feeling stimulated or aroused in some way. One may be silent because of the beauty and awe of the experience, as I have seen visitors returning from the river tour at Jeita, or talking enthusiastically because of the interest which the cave and the guide have jointly generated.

In either of these situations, the common factor is that the tour has made a positive impact. This need has motivated much of the thinking of Austin and Chaney ("Boredom in Paradise", 1977) and of Kay Rohde (this volume) and led them to seek out better ways of preparing guides to do their task.

Finally, the marshalling role necessary in many cases, but this is one role where conflict most readily arises. I have often seen guides with an interesting party obviously in some real conflict about wanting to stay and talk, yet knowing that their supervisor expects them to maintain a strict time schedule.

It is also a role which has great potential for making the difference between a pleasant and unpleasant visit. A colleague of mine only last week visited a cave which has a narrow entry stairway and narrow path throughout, The guide sent quite a large party into the cave without first asking one member to take the lead and to move on to an appropriate point in the cave before stopping. Result no. 1 was that the leaders stopped at the foot of the stairs and prevented everyone else moving off the stairs. The guide could do little because he was then isolated at the tail of the party. Result no. 2 was that the long wait in the confined stairway generated panic in a very large visitor who was at the time halfway down. It took some time for the half of the party above her to extract themselves, and so on ... All of this was utterly unnecessary, but it very successfully destroyed much of the pleasure which the party should have got from their visit.


A lot of what I hear being said about cave guiding suggests that it is all just a matter of proper training. That is pure bunkum. That old saying about silk purses and sow's ears is particularly pertinent to training - it doesn't accomplish miracles. In fact, if we were absolutely right on selection of guides and structuring of the job, then training would probably be unnecessary. However, it's an imperfect world, so training certainly helps.

I suggest that good guiding depends upon managers:

There is not time, nor is it within the scope of this paper, to talk about objective setting and overall management. So, let me start with selection. Obviously, there may well be special factors operating at any one cave park, and every selection should be based upon a detailed job description. But for the time being, and assuming the kind roles I have discussed above, it seems to me that it is vital to select people who:

You will note that I say nothing about knowledge of caves - knowledge is easy to learn through training or even one's own efforts but rather have concentrated on things which we cannot reasonably expect training to create.

When the papers by Austin and Chaney (1977) and Rohde (this volume) are available, and when I know Judy Austin, present at this conference has a considerable experience and reputation in guide training, I feel a little inadequate to add very much on the question of training. Firstly, let me summarise a few of the key ideas which come from the two papers which I have mentioned.

Austin and Chaney argued that guiding was generally quite inadequate, being based on learning the job by watching others do it; that guides are bored and communicate this to visitors; that what is needed is spontaneity and enthusiasm for the cave; that the guide needs to be very fully informed about the cave, even though he/she will not use all information on any one tour; that some information is best delivered at specific points in the tour and that direction, audibility, and variety are of great importance.

Rohde repeats many of these ideas, but gives further emphasis to the idea that guide training should NOT be on a "next to Nellie" basis by trailing experienced guides; rather training must be undertaken very seriously by management staff; that each guide must develop their own individual repertoire of tours; that any guide should use various approaches depending upon the party; that the guide should not see the tour as a monologue, but try to involve visitor parties in an interesting way. In particular, Rohde introduces the idea of a theme as the basis around which each tour should be organised,

For what it is worth, let me add my own ideas, given that I endorse and agree very fully with Kay Rohde's approach. Training can do three things - provide knowledge, develop skills and clarify values - and I would want it to do all three. My ideal training program would start with a leisurely walk through a cave, talking about the cave experience (come to think of it, I suspect that is how I would want to do selection interviews!).

This walk, to me would be the first place where we try to engender a feel for the cave as a place of continuing discovery and excitement. If this visit was a first for the trainee, I would want them to try and capture as a baseline for the future, some of their own feelings on that walk.

Then I would aim, through alternation of discussion, reading, and in cave work, to achieve the following:

Part of the in cave experience would include sending the new guide alone through the cave at a time when no-one else was underground, firstly with normal visitor lighting, then with a torch (or whatever the emergency lighting for the park).

A key problem at this point is the interpretation of cave science. Guides need a reasonably sophisticated understanding in order to cope with the questions which are likely today, but even. more importantly, they need to know how to explain ideas in simple language so that they do not lose their audience in jargon. Trainer and guide need to work together in sorting out how one can best deal with such issues as helictites, partial pressures of carbon dioxide, crystal forms in calcite, adaptation of cave fauna, bat echolocation, and so on. It can be done - but requires the understanding of the concepts in the first place, then sorting out of the right language to get understanding without distortion through oversimplification.

The next phase would involve a series of tours, where the new guide took full responsibility for a party. We would talk over the experience after each such tour, trying to develop the capacity for reasonable self assessment and for working out how one might become more sensitive to the mood and interests of any one party.

It is in this phase that skills would be sharpened up by assessment of actual performance and then developing ways of doing better. Communication and marshalling skills would be a real focus of attention here. Of course, if these are to be developed, there needs to be a mix of tour parties. The novice should have big and small parties, school groups, senior citizens, family groups, football clubs - the whole mix.

Knowledge would be deepened because by now not only has the guide been asked questions which he/she could not answer, but he/she will have generated their own further questions as a result of seeing more in the caves. Even more, values will probably come to the fore as interaction with the public exposes differences in value positions. Post tour discussions are of great importance in dealing with all of these.

This is also the point at which the novice may become aware of role conflict - "I get the feeling people would like to feel things, but we are not supposed to let them"; "I would have liked to have spent a lot more time with those people" - not only do any such problems need to be talked through, but it may be necessary to help the guide feel more at ease in handling the issue concerned with actual visitors.

The principle underlying all of this is that most job learning occurs as a result of doing, and that even formal teaching should be based on experience. Hence, I would start in the cave, and would try to as much as possible following tours rather than before the trainee started taking tours.

At some point, we would reach the stage where the training phase was seen as completed by both guide and manager. Only now, would I see it as appropriate that guides might trail each other, seeing if they can learn new ideas for improving what they do, but certainly not aiming at uniformity (Unity has something to do with God; diversity and multiplicity has something to do with our earth; uniformity has something to do with Hell - Richard England).

Having mentioned uniformity, let me plead that we try to exterminate those dreadful cliches that one hears in almost every cave:

Stalactites hold tight to the ceiling" - or - "The mites go up and the tites come down" (Haw! Haw!)

"Helictites are very rare, but you're lucky because we have them in this cave we call them mysteries because no-one knows how they are formed"

"Flowstone only grows a cubic inch in a hundred years"

"If I turn the lights out, you won't be able to even see your hand in front of your eyes - Go on, try it! - or - "The real colour of this cave is black"

Not only are these clichés but they are uninformed balderdash. There must be enough ways of making these points, if indeed we are to make them at all, that every guide could use a different idea, or even have a small stock of ideas to use in turn, depending on the mood of each party. I have seen some truly creative guiding once or twice but I won't report the details because some of you might be tempted to copy it and that would spoil it!

Now, once trained, there is the question of ongoing support and supervision. Some time, probably near the end of each day, but other timeslots might suit better, there needs to be a brief discussion of how tours have gone - partly to maintain a continuing eye to quality, but also to enable guides to bring out into the open and deal with any conflict, frustration, or whatever might adversely affect their satisfaction and hence their performance. This is the time when newer guides might need some positive feedback and encouragement, or when the older ones might need help to do something completely new. Job rotation is one other possibility which will help to prevent boredom setting in.

Two things often seem to develop spontaneously - whinge sessions and jokes or derogatory comments about visitors. In excess, both are detrimental to visitor experience. A reasonable and minor whinge may well help to discharge frustration, but continuous whinging needs positive action to remove the source of the problems; similarly, some visitors may inevitably generate a bit of joking, but constant derogation of visitors is an indication that something is seriously wrong, and again, it should be positively dealt with.

Finally, I would argue that regular (e.g. once every six months) meetings or seminars of all guides on a major park, or of guides from neighbouring small parks, should be held to provide for updating and staff development. These should be planned and implemented jointly with guides, who should themselves be able to play a major part in programming. But outsiders are valuable here, purely because they introduce a bit of novelty. Such seminars might look at particular problems and work out new ways of coping with them; at current developments in some field of cave science; at new methods in communication; updating the visitor centre, or any one of a number of other ideas. They are essentially an antidote to staleness and burnout, but can do a great deal more.


There are no universal remedies to problems, and the best guiding in the world is not going to solve all management problems. But unless we develop really sound guiding practice, we do no justice to either the cave resource or the visitor. Improving the quality of guiding will consume managerial time but it will be time more profitably spent than in many of the other things that managers do.


Austin, W. T., & Chaney, T., 1977, Boredom in Paradise: A Hard Look at Cave Guide Training, National Cave Management Symposium Proceedings 1976, published Speleobooks, pp54-58

Casson, Lionel, 1974, Travel in the Ancient World, London : Allen & Unwin

Cohen, Erik, 1985, The Tourist Guide : The Origins, Structure and Dynamics of a Role, Annals of Tourism Research, 12:529

Holloway, C., 1981, The Guided Tour : A Sociological Approach, Annals of Tourism Research, 8:377-402

Rohde, Katherine, 1985, Underground Themes, this volume.