How memorising an Atlas led to a career as an Expedition Leader

Interview with an Paramedic and Expedition Leader with almost two decades of experience

Luca Alfatti is qualified as an Advanced Paramedic, he is also an expedition leader here with us at Secret Compass. Hefat Instructor, Expedition guide, Water Safety Rescue Technician, Mountain Leader, Phtls instructor; Luca has led countless Expeditions such as; the Iran Desert, Siberia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Sudan Desert, and bespoke trips to North Korea and Mongolia.

We sat down together to gain an insight into the highlights and challenges of his career, hear memorable moments from Secret Compass Expeditions, and his advice on how to pursue a similar career path.

Luca! What came first, Expedition Leadership or the career as an Advanced Paramedic and how do they work together? 

I’m an Expedition Leader first, and a Paramedic after. I started doing expeditions in 2005 and I didn’t qualify as a Paramedic until 2015. 

First, I was an established expedition leader in which I have led hundreds of expeditions with thousands of people around the world. I later specialised and learned about the medical industry, I became a paramedic and now the two work together. It enhanced my skills and the kind of expeditions or the kind of jobs I get in the expedition and TV industry. It opens up a lot of different venues and a lot of different opportunities, not just expeditions, but a lot of other things like TV risk and safety management. Basically, it’s a marriage made in heaven.

I don’t see expedition leading as work. I see it as for my own mental health, my gym. Just going to places with a bunch of like-minded people, looking after them, making sure they can go to unspoiled places and make thrilling journeys, safely.

Is there one defining memory that led you to want to combine that element of exploring and rescue?

Since being very small I wanted to travel. I didn’t come from a privileged background, we used to get a couple of holidays on the beach in Italy in summer and that was it. I had to somehow work out how to make travelling into a job. More than me being paid to do it, it was more about not having to pay to go to places. A defining moment was getting my Atlas. I studied it until I knew every capital of the world.

I had never left Italy until I was about nineteen. I didn’t even speak a word of English and there was a friend of mine in my little village, ​Citta’ della Pieve, in Umbria in central Italy, who recommended Camp America. If you don’t know, it’s a summer activity camp in the US where you work with kids for a whole summer, and then on your time off, you get to travel the country.

That was probably the moment that changed everything because I went from living in the middle of nowhere in Italy to one of the largest countries and I started making connections all around the world. The second summer I returned, I made connections in New Zealand. During Winter in the US – I travelled and worked summers in New Zealand, without ever going home.

By year three or four my best friend from Australia was a ‘Sparky’, Oil Rig Electrician. Together we decided to buy a car, an 1986 blue Ford Probe and drove from New York City to Panama City. That’s when I really decided to become an expedition leader. I caught the bug of travelling every day, crossing borders, tracking mountains, and just living out of a bag. I applied to become a driver for an overlanding company. I drove across over one hundred countries around the world, and eventually, Secret Compass noticed me.

Your skillset is so impressive and personal projects like Medics4Ukraine you’re involved in are equally as impressive. What would you say the most valuable training you’ve had has been? 

That’s just a lot of certificates and a lot of stuff that you just put in your CV to prove that you have been on courses. It proves that you have a certain level of knowledge. When you then put that on being a team leader somewhere like Sudan or Afghanistan where the group is twelve teammates in a new environment, it almost becomes irrelevant in my opinion. 

Certifications show that you have a commitment to your personal development and that you want to be good and that you want to be prepared when you’re out there, but I wouldn’t pull any of them above any other.

It’s more about your attitude and the way you present when you’re doing an expedition or you’re going on a film set or you’re going to higher-risk areas. I do some talks, sometimes on things like how to get your first job in the industry or on expeditions. Speaking to people that hire these expedition leaders or expedition medics or both. It’s more like what sort of person are you? 

Can I trust you when you’re out there? Are you going to be…for example, on a film set somewhere in Congo hired as an expedition medic, just sitting and waiting for someone to get hurt. Or are you going to be the person that is going to run around helping us move things around, proactively helping with the cooking, helping with the set up?

As Expedition Leader, at the same time I’m the friend and the person that works to gel the team together to create a family in a few days out of strangers. This is not stuff that you get from your PhD, it comes with experience.

Would you say that the role of an expedition leader is constantly learning?

Even more from an overlanding perspective. For those that don’t know what overland is, it’s having a big truck vehicle with 20 happy clients at the back and being hired to drive from A to B. 

Whilst working for Dragoman Overland, ​I could have been driving from London to Beijing, or London to Cape Town. Very long trips and you become a bit of an expert in a lot of things. One day you are the guide driving through Central Bamako in Mali, the next day you’re under the truck, taking on the role as a mechanic because the truck’s head gasket blew. 

Another day you’re the logistician for 20 people. They need to get Visas for the next three countries and you’re just funneling everyone into an Embassy and trying to get Visas for everyone as well as the paperwork for the truck. 

I learned how important it was to learn all the time, and then I brought these skills back into trekking expeditions like crossing the Judaean Desert in Sudan, or when we climbed the Emi Koussi in North Central Chad. 

I prepare myself before a trip and I love learning about the countries I go to. I learn about the people, and the culture, then share this with clients. It creates a fantastic frame to contextualise where we are, why we are there, and what we’re doing.

What’s one of your favourite moments as a guide?

The world’s first crossing of the Dasht-e Lut desert in Iran. Mainly because there are not many places anymore where you have no track or path where you’re going. Where no one has ever gone through before. With the Lut Desert in the Balochistan Province in Iran, it felt that way. 

When the idea came about, because this desert no one considered crossing, never has been crossed because there is no water at all. If you read about the Dash e Lut desert it says everywhere that it is an abiotic desert, no life. Once we got into the middle of it, we actually found evidence of a lot of different animals living in the centre of the desert; mice, some wild camels, foxes, snakes and we think we saw some wolves’ foot prints too! We did not find any water, but water must be there somewhere! This is exploration at its finest. And we decided to walk 280 km across this desert, MAD!

We had vehicles, supported by a couple of four by fours. On a very big sand dune field to start, and then an area called the call outs, which are almost small mountains, which are shaped by the winds. Quite often we would just lose the four by fours for our entire day in the hope that we would meet them again at night. We would decide to coordinate based on google maps of where we wanted to get to that day, and we say ‘hopefully we’ll see you there tonight, taking water and food with us for the whole day, on temperatures or about 40 – 45 degrees, no shade. We set off with Radios and Satellite phones. 

We made a finish line for the expedition with what we had available, toilet paper, for everyone to just cross a line. To have crossed the Dasht-e Lut desert. We jumped on the Jeeps and went. That is one of the most memorable expeditions I’ve ever led, and one of the most memorable last days of an expedition as well.

You will have met a lot of people on expeditions. What do you think sets Secret Compass expeditions apart from the rest?

It’s not about where we’re going. It’s not about the name. It’s not about Kilimanjaro or Everest or whatever. It’s about the goal that we want to accomplish, crossing a desert or getting to a peak or packrafting a river.

But in places where people think that you cannot do it, and really you can. It’s about showing that you don’t need to be an ex-marine, you don’t have to be an olympic athlete. What we do is actually achievable for everyone, even in places that you won’t even be able to put on a map.

In some areas, there are pre or post-war zones, so it’s more about the mindset and understanding that anyone can do what we do. As long as you come armed with a big smile and a lot of flexibility. Anyone can join an expedition. 

Risk Assessments are done by us beforehand to make sure that we can go where we’re going. Things are put in place to mitigate, eliminate or reduce whatever the risks may be.

That’s what makes it exciting, so you know that you can go to certain places that you wouldn’t even dream of that are unspoiled, beautiful, and untouched. You can do it yourself with our support, and once that’s that settles in, and you start understanding that you can, it opens a whole world of adventure.

A lot of the clients I’ve taken on Secret Compass trips have been on repeated trips with me, some of them are really good friends now. 

Finally, what advice would you give someone wanting to pursue a similar career and step up from being a team member to a leader on an expedition?

First of all, you can do it if I have done it. Anyone can, and it’s just deciding if that is really what you want to do. 

It takes a lot of commitment. I don’t think it’s difficult, especially because you will be doing what you love doing. Being outdoors, on mountains, on a packraft, or tracking. If you do, it is because it’s your hobby. You love it, so it’s not difficult, but it takes a lot of commitment. 

What I generally advise, especially if you are starting from zero and you don’t have any experience in expedition leading, is to go and get the Mountain Leader qualification.

There’s a pathway. You do a week of training, quality consolidation days, and then you go back for assessment. I went for the training in Congress for seven days to learn navigation. You learn a little bit of rope, work, and team management river crossings – just basic skills that a team leader should have.

That’s a good start to see if it’s something that you really want. Because sometimes it’s nice to sit back as a client and see that everything just works seamlessly for a whole expedition. But when you start realising how much work there is behind the scenes, then it might help make the decision, to see if that’s what you want to do.

And then it’s just bothering absolutely everyone. Just bother absolutely everyone until they give you your very first opportunity.