Apart from the destination, one of the most important elements in any escorted tour is perhaps the tour leader. Together with their extensive knowledge and experience, each brings their own inimitable style and flair to a tour, ensuring that you derive maximum enjoyment from these very individual journeys. On occasion you may also be accompanied by a guest lecturer whose expertise in a particular field such as art, architecture, gardens or military history, can only enhance a tour further. Further information about lecturers may be found in the relevant tour details.
Nick & Iris Van Gruisen
Raised in Northumberland, in the 1970s Nick spent five years as a professional guide in Botswana and southern Africa. He then joined the Tiger Mountain group, pioneering cultural, trekking and wildlife holidays throughout the Indian subcontinent. He founded Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions in 1991, from which The Ultimate Travel Company emerged in 1998.
His wife Iris was born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where she lived for a few years before moving to Papua New Guinea. In the 1980s, she too joined Tiger Mountain to work at their flagship lodge, Tiger Tops, in Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park. As well as coleading trips with Nick, she has taken trekking groups on expeditions to Kilimanjaro, the High Atlas, Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains and the Himalaya.
An obsessive enthusiast about wildlife since he can remember, Andy has worked all his life in nature conservation for wildlife trusts, local government and, for 26 years, for the RSPB. He was the RSPB's Regional Director for the South East of England for five years before, taking up the reins as Director of the North of England in 1991. He is widely travelled, having led tours to destinations as far afield as Spitsbergen to the Seychelles and Egypt to Hungary. During the tour there will be informal talks and guidance from expert birder Andy, who will share his 50 years of wildlife watching experience.
Since travelling to some of the most remote parts of the world as Photographer-in-Residence to the Royal Geographical Society, Chris Caldicott has continued his globetrotting lifestyle as a freelance photographer, writer and lecturer specialising in food and travel, He has had several books published about food, travel and the spice trade and visited 108 countries in search of the perfect meal, finding most of the top contenders on his many trips to Asia. As a journalist he is a regular contributor to publications such as Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveller, The Sunday Times, Harpers Bazaar, Tatler, House and Garden and the Telegraph. He also gives travel photography lectures and workshops.
Born in China, Andrew Cumming has an affinity with South East Asia, further fuelled by an early upbringing in Hong Kong, Japan and Malaysia. This ignited a fascination with the passage and conduct of the Vietnam War and now that interest returns as both Cambodia and Vietnam, after years of repression, emerge again as responsible and important players in the region. Latterly, Andrew spent some time in the company of an international judge in Phnom Penh whose task was to examine and try the Khmer Rouge fundamentalists. After long service in the British Army and having served in the Balkans in 1992 as the commander of the first British contingent of troops, Andrew and Gilly now live in Wiltshire and devote most of their time to saving up enough money to marry off their 3 daughters – 2 down, one to go!
Gillian’s family and professional life has led to worldwide travel. Born in Rome and educated in Italy, Switzerland and England, Gillian is bilingual in Italian, fluent in French and speaks some Spanish. As the Director of the BADA Antiques & Fine Art Fair London, Gillian now lives between London and Italy. She is also fascinated with Eastern Europe and has organised and led tours to Macedonia, St. Petersburg, Dresden, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, Morocco, and Italy. As well as studying the history, art and architecture, she enjoys exploring the culture, traditions and local life and getting to know the character of a country.
After 22 years in education, Mike left teaching in 1990 to pursue his passion for wildlife, travel and photography. Since then he has organised and led more than 90 safaris to 8 different African countries, as well as guiding numerous wildlife and birdwatching tours to many other parts of the world. As a wildlife photographer and lecturer, he has given over 800 illustrated talks throughout the UK. Many of Mike’s photographs have been published in books, magazines and newspapers, as have countless articles on subjects such as birds, conservation, wildlife photography and travel. He has written two books, Birds in the Garden and Flights of Imagination.
Marie-Thérèse was born in Vienna and now lives in Hampshire. She was educated at the French Lycée and a language school in Switzerland, and is fluent in French, English, German and Italian. Her familiarity with European culture and extensive contacts worldwide are reflected in her unique tours.
Nicola has a degree in History of Art and a background in fine art and photography. Having lived in Paris, Barcelona and Rome, she speaks fluent French, Spanish and Italian and has specialised in these countries, as well as in Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East.
Tania (née Tolstoy) is three quarters Russian, her grandparents having fled Russia in 1918. A degree in Russian Language & Literature, with Byzantine Art, reinforced her passionate interest in all things Russian. This, and the wide knowledge acquired in years of visiting to Russia, make her tours unique.
Simon has been based in the Chipping Norton area of Oxfordshire for 25 years. He has produced and evented horses up to CCI 4 star level, having completed Badminton and Burghley on several occasions. He is a very well established name in Eventing and hunting circles. Simon has trained with Emile Faurie, Lars Sederholm, Yogi Breisner and Ginny Elliot, and is a member of the British Eventing Coach Programme. He has trained all levels of riders for many years, and is a British Eventing accredited UKCC level 3 (eventing specific) trainer, and under 18 Coach for the Central Region. Simon has been Fieldmaster for the Heythrop Hunt since 2002, and Joint Master of Hounds since 2006.
Keith and Linda Offord
Keith and Linda Offord are both zoology graduates, very experienced field ornithologists and have run countless wildlife watching holidays around the world. Together, they set up Wild Insights in 2004 and have operated a consistently sold-out UK and overseas programme with over 95% repeat bookings – a reflection of their consistent professionalism, care and attention.
Antonia Lloyd Owen
Antonia joined Specialtours in 2002 with a degree in History of Art & Architecture and a good understanding of the Decorative Arts. Having lived in Spain and worked in Germany and Austria, she feels comfortable in these countries and has since widened her interest to Scandinavia and the Baltic States.
Susie Orso joined Specialtours in 1987 and has arranged and accompanied numerous tours for the Art Fund and specialised American groups. She lives in Florence and has developed many private contacts in Italy, along with a faithful following. Susie is bi-lingual in Italian and speaks fluent French and German, and some Spanish.
Caroline & Peter Stanley
Caroline and Peter are avid travellers with a passion for Asia and the Indian sub-continent. For the last ten years their leisurely and exceptionally comfortable 'roving house parties' have encompassed Rajasthan and many other regions of India, Bhutan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar.
Hamish Van Gruisen
Born in Gloucestershire, Hamish initially trained as a chartered accountant before joining The Ultimate Travel Company in 2019. Family safaris in East Africa and treks in the Nepal Himalaya during his formative years instilled a passion for travel, and since joining Ultimate he has explored Indonesia, Oman, Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia as well as leading trips for the company to Antarctica, Japan, and southern India.
Louisa worked for Ultimate’s Escorted Tours team for 6 years, arranging cultural and wildlife tours worldwide, before joining the Australasia team selling tailor made trips to New Zealand and Australia. She has led and accompanied tours in Eastern and Southern India, Nepal, Russia, and Spain. She loves anything to do with the outdoors, and is always planning unique and off the beaten track trips to some whacky destinations. She is passionate about photography and cooking, and is always up for an adventure.
Bridget has worked in the travel industry for 35 years. After obtaining a degree from London University she started her career at Montpelier Travel before setting up Riverside Travel in the late 1990s, which then amalgamated with The Ultimate Travel Company in the early 2000s. She now divides her time between her office in Hampshire and The Ultimate Travel Company in Fulham. She has travelled extensively and has led numerous groups to various diverse destinations including Ethiopia, Cuba, Jordan, the Baltic States and Georgia.
After leaving school, Joanna travelled extensively through Asia working in Hong Kong and Delhi and developing a passion for India. She then spent several years in Los Angeles producing film and music videos. Being half Greek she has a particular love for Greece too and has a house on the island of Skyros. She has led several tours to India for The Ultimate Travel Company.
Alastair joined the BBC Natural History Unit in 1983 and worked on a wide range of the department’s programmes, including the BAFTA award winning The Really Wild Show, Wildlife on One, The Natural World and the innovative Reefwatch before working on the BBC1 series The Trials of Life with Sir David Attenborough. From here he went on to produce Life in the Freezer, The Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet before leaving the BBC in 2012 to set up his ownproduction company Silverback Films. In 2015, Silverback Films completed a new landmark series for BBC 1, The Hunt before producing the first landmark natural history original series for Netflix, Our Planet.
Alastair is also fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, who awarded him their gold medal in 2012, and currently resides in Bristol with his wife Melinda, two sons and three Jack Russells.
Tom Owen Edmunds
Tom sat on the Council of the Royal Geographical Society from 2003-6, and was elected one of the youngest ever Fellows of the Royal Photographic Society aged 24. He read Geography at Oxford University specialising in ecology and sustainable development. Tom has a life-long passion for wildlife and wild places, the most recent being a photographic safari to Svalbard in April 2022.