To say award-winning tour guide Mark Steadman has itchy feet would be a huge understatement. The former Fareham schoolboy tells SHANNON JOHNSON he’s been to more than 100 countries, but has finally put down roots in Laos where he has set up a successful school.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they take their coffee.
Black coffee: old-school purists who like to keep things simple.
Skinny latte: perfectionists who choose to indulge without the accompanying guilt.
Double espresso: hard-working leaders who are always busy.
So what does it say about a person who prefers getting their caffeine fix while standing thousands of feet above ground on top of a mountain in south-east Asia? Because that’s the way free-spirited Mark Steadman likes his morning brew.
Originally from Fareham, the 50-year-old now lives in Laos where his ‘ability to make coffee wherever he is in the world’ is just one of many achievements listed on his impressive CV.
Not only has he visited more than 100 countries, but he has also won the Best Tour Guide in the World 2015 award from Wanderlust travel magazine.
The accolade may or may not be because, as an employer once said: ‘Mark’s first rule as a tour guide is making sure the group have a good coffee in the morning.’
I suppose you could say Mark’s story begins in 2003, after he left his job in the music industry for a new career in tourism. Rucksack and coffee beans in tow, the former St Anne’s pupil (now Fareham Academy) hit the road with no real plan other than to travel to as many places as possible. And that he did.
He swapped selling records for selling the world, bagging a job as an adventure tour guide in 2005.
‘I was so nervous before my first tour, I actually tried to get out of it,’ says Mark, who used to work at HMV and Virgin Records.
‘I knew I couldn’t go back to a corporate desk job though. My office used to be on the 5th floor of a tower block in London, but then suddenly the whole world was my office.
‘What can be better than that?’ he adds. ‘I’ve been to some amazing places and met some amazing people.’
Yet it was while on a short visit to Laos that Mark’s story really unfolded. There, he stumbled across a local man called Manophet who would change the course of his life.
That ‘short’ visit eventually led him to set up a free English Language school and make Laos his permanent home. ‘I dropped my rucksack down that day and never left,’ says Mark, who is the son of Dennis Steadman, a Fareham councillor and former Fareham mayor, and his wife Carole.
He was struck by Manophet’s selflessness and the way he dedicated his life to helping others.
‘He was one of those special people you meet in your life who leaves a deep impression. Everyone who met him would say “wow this guy is really amazing”, whether you spent time with him for an hour, a day or longer.
‘He taught people English in the evenings at his home in the town of Phonsavan. There would be 30 to 40 people crowded in one room trying to learn. It was just this most unorthodox but magical scene.’
In 2010 Manophet died and the absence of his extraordinary work left a gap in his community.
‘I felt there was something missing in the town,’ says Mark. ‘What Manophet was doing was amazing in itself but it was small scale. After he died, it was more of a question of “what can I do to continue his great work but on a bigger scale?”’
The answer came spontaneously one day during a conversation Mark had with his friend, Nick Williamson. ‘I said to him “Let’s go open a school, let’s just do it and worry about things later.”’
And from that moment The Lone Buffalo Foundation was born.
Named after Manophet, who was also known as The Lone Buffalo, his legacy would live on through the work of the foundation.
Now all Mark and Nick had to figure out was how to set up a school. ‘We went into this completely clueless,’ says Mark.
They started out with only a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motor vehicle) full of boxes and their hearts full of optimism and a little apprehension.
‘We didn’t know what was going to happen, if it was going to work out or if anybody was even interested in attending a school.
‘We then received a $5,000 donation (about £3,000), so bought equipment and textbooks, while the furniture was given to us by the locals who made it. We rented a small building in Phonsavan and within a week had converted it into two classrooms.’
Towards the end of 2011 The Lone Buffalo Foundation opened for registration.
‘We had hundreds of people coming in who wanted to join the school. We had people from all walks of life, from 10-year-olds to those in their 40s, tuk-tuk drivers to air force pilots.’
Four years on and the Lone Buffalo Foundation has been transformed from its cardboard box origins.
‘Many of our students have gone on to university,’ says Mark. ‘Last year, three girls travelled to Brazil as guests of Fifa during the World Cup. It was the first time they had left Laos.
‘It’s amazing to see how far Lone Buffalo has come and to watch the children succeed.’
Laos is the world’s most heavily-bombed country and according to the United Nations it is classified as one of the 49 ‘least-developed’ countries.
Mark makes the point, saying that unless you have money in Laos most families cannot afford the level of education Lone Buffalo offers.
‘We are giving kids who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity, a free, quality education,’ he adds.
Mark’s calendar is pretty jam-packed, the lone wolf dividing his time between Lone Buffalo and his work as a tour guide. So what does he do on the rare occasion he is not working?
‘I don’t really have any free time,’ laughs Mark. ‘I work seven days a week so it’s pretty difficult to have time for myself. I set up a small gym at the school in the garage for students to use so I like to work out there most mornings. The only time I have a real break is when I come back to the UK for a month in the summer.’
Mark says the things he misses most from the UK are his family, friends and football.
‘I only ever get truly homesick every Saturday when Portsmouth are playing.’
He has no plans for a permanent return to the UK. ‘I love being a tour guide and I love the children and people I work with at Lone Buffalo. I don’t rule anything out though. Another door may open with a different opportunity somewhere else in the world. But for the moment Laos is my home.’
n For more details about Lone Buffalo contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org, or search Lone Buffalo on Facebook.