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Small-group explorations with Tripwired Tours

Past guests riding camels across the Sahara, Erg Chebbi, Morocco

Designed by two avid and culturally curious travellers, the small-group hosted journeys by boutique Australian operator Tripwired Tours take guests off the well-trodden tourist trails.

Launched in 2018 by travel writer and photographer Michael Gebicki and his partner Liz, Tripwired Tours are designed to unlock incredible experiences for guests to help them truly discover the heart and soul of a region. Guests may lunch in a jungle setting in Rajasthan, cruise the backwaters of Kerala, take a food tour of Rome or ride camels through the dunes of the Sahara.

Here, we speak with co-founder Michael about how Tripwired designs its luxury tours and the authentic experiences available on the upcoming 2023 tour itineraries.

LT: What are the unique aspects of a small group tour with Tripwired?

Our groups are small, maximum 10 guests plus Liz and I, and we travel slowly. On most of our tours we’re spending three nights in each place. That gives us two full days for exploring. We’re not into rushing around and trying to cram heaps into a tight schedule.

We like small, distinctive hotels. Palaces and merchant’s houses in India, aristocratic villas in Italy – places with a story to tell. Calm, comfort and character are the bywords for where we stay. There’s a food tour on all our trips because what the locals eat tells you a lot about a place. For example, in Italy’s Umbria, a distinctive dish is strangozzi, “priest strangling” pasta made without eggs, because the people hated the clergy. It’s often served with local olive oil and grated truffles, it’s sublime.

Rawla Narlai, Rajasthan, a former hunting lodge of the Jodhpur royal family, now one of the visited hotels, overshadowed by Elephant Rock.
Truffle hunting in the Apennine mountains of Umbria.

LT: Can you tell us a bit more about you and Liz, how you both came to love travel and why you host the tours?

We started travelling together back in the mid-70s, when we took off on the hippie trail overland to the UK – and we’ve never really stopped. Liz has spent many years in the hospitality business and her customer-facing skills are exceptional. Since the early 1980s I’ve made my living as a travel writer and photographer and I’ve been able to visit some pretty astonishing places.

We started Tripwired Tours in 2018 because we’ve been privileged to have discovered some amazing places that we love to revisit, and to share them with a few like-minded travellers.

Deserted kasbahs line a palmery on the south side of the Atlas Mountains.
Terrace of a room at Rawla Narlai.

LT: Can you share some of the upcoming tours your company will be hosting in 2023?

First off is India’s Rajasthan in February 2023 and that’s one of my favourites. After two nights in Delhi we fly south to Udaipur, the lake city, then work our way slowly north visiting the great cities of Jodhpur and Jaipur, the Taj Mahal and back to Delhi. It’s one of the most flamboyant parts of India – think men in pink turbans, elephants, peacocks, enormous palace fortresses and temples carved from white marble. We have lunch at Mountbatten Lodge, in a jungle setting under a giant fig tree, sunset cocktails at Bujera Fort listening to Sufi singers, dine at one of the world’s best Indian restaurants and go looking for leopard in the sandstone hills of the Aravalli Ranges.

That’s followed by a trip across South India in March, starting in Chennai and visiting the former French colony of Pondicherry, followed by some of the great temple cities such as Madurai and Chidambaram before heading up to the tea and spice country in the misty hills of the Western Ghats and finally to Cochin. We’ll take a cruise on a converted rice barge along the backwaters of Kerala and discover the back streets of Cochin, a spice port and a languid, ramshackle melange of Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and British cultural cross-currents that date back more than 1000 years. In the cool, moist heights of the Western Ghats we’ll take a stroll through tea plantations and explore the bougainvillea-draped streets of Pondicherry, where the patina of time is spelled out on the faded facades of the villas.

Guests in front of the Taj Mahal.
Guest room, Rawla Narlai.

In the cool, moist heights of the Western Ghats we’ll take a stroll through tea plantations and explore the bougainvillea-draped streets of Pondicherry, where the patina of time is spelled out on the faded facades…

 

In mid-year, we’ll spend two weeks touring Italy’s Umbria, starting with three nights in Rome where we’ll take in some of the city’s Baroque highlights, visit the incredible Farnese Palace and take a food tour with the amazing Sophie Minchilli. In Umbria we’ll see superb artworks and visit workshops where weavers and ceramic painters practice crafts that date back to the Middle Ages. We’ll also get mud on our boots searching for truffles, the black gold of Umbria, thread the narrow streets of walled hilltowns, stand where St Francis of Assisi preached a new message of love and sample the intense Sagrantino wine made from grapes that grow only around the hill town of Montefalco. It’s a soul-stealing place, full of character and rooted in tradition, which might be why quite a few Australians now call it home.

In October, we’ll take a group to Morocco, starting in Casablanca and travelling down the coast visiting some of the trading ports that once had large European populations, before crossing the Atlas Mountains and heading into the Sahara. We’ll visit Essaouira, a walled port transformed into a pocket-sized city of cafes and boutiques, have tea with a Berber nomad family surrounded by the dunes of the Sahara, explore date palm, fig, olive and pomegranate plantations in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, ride camels through the dunes of the Sahara and sleep in a luxury tented camp and  mingle with Koran readers, Gnaoua musicians, fortune tellers, dervishes, trance healers and food stalls in Marrakech’s intoxicating Djemaa el Fna.

Trevi, one of the hill towns we visit in Umbria.
Poppies and olive trees, rural Umbria.
Essaouira, a former colonial trading port on the coast of Morocco.
Past guests riding camels across the Sahara, Erg Chebbi, Morocco.

LT: Can you talk us through the design process when starting to plan and curate a new tour?

Liz and I spend a lot of time researching, which involves looking through some of our favourite websites, reading travel articles, looking at hotels, checking reviews, poring over maps and figuring out a route that might work. After that we do a recce. We stay in the accommodation, do guided tours in the cities including food tours, visit the markets and work out what it is that’s going to make the place a standout for our guests. Each tour is slightly different from the previous, we’re constantly making small changes where we see a better way of operating the tour.

Swimming pool, Rawla Narlai.

LT: Where do most of your guests come from and what’s the average age group? What common interests or traits do they tend to share?

They’re mostly from our capital cities and they’re sophisticated travellers. Many of them have been to Antarctica and done safaris in Botswana. They’re all 60-plus. A few of our guests have been on every one of our trips, and for us that’s the ultimate accolade. It also drives us to continually come up with new ideas for tours.

Liz and Michael at Anima Garden, just south of Marrakech, Morocco.

LT: What steps does your company take to reduce the footprint of its tours and promote responsible travel?

As far as possible we use hotels that prioritise low-impact tourism. These hotels source their food locally – in some cases from their own gardens – and that means less food miles. Also, we work with hotels that use local staff because employment equals stability for villages in particular. In Morocco,  we support a refuge that rescues donkeys, mules, horses and dogs.

A Rabari herdsman in traditional dress.
Villager, Narlai, Rajasthan.
Women at a festival in rural Rajasthan.

As far as possible we use hotels that prioritise low-impact tourism. These hotels source their food locally – in some cases from their own gardens – and that means less food miles.

 

 

LT: How do you define ‘modern luxury’ when it comes to travel experiences? What do you find your guests are seeking from their travel experiences and how do you deliver it to them?

Luxury to me consists of contrasts. When you’ve been out for an evening leopard spotting in the Aravalli Ranges in Rajasthan or riding a camel across the Sahara in Morocco and you come back to an icy face towel and a chilled pomegranate juice, that’s luxury.

What our guests want is discovery, revelation. In a village in Rajasthan we have dinner at a stepwell lit by a thousand flickering oil lamps while a musician plays sacred music, that’s pretty special.

One of the keys to delivering those experiences is the guides. We want guides who are enthusiastic and animated, who are going to tell wonderful stories and who really uncork something unique for our guests.

www.tripwired.com.au

Samode Haveli, one of Tripwired's favourite hotels in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

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