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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tips For Choosing An Africa-Based Overland Tour Operator

This is third in our series from traveller and author Pete Mandra. If you're planning a trip to Africa, you might want to take a look at the first two posts, here and here. Today Pete is being very practical for us:

I like to think of guided overland travel through Africa-- where you travel with a group from Point A to Point B in a customized vehicle-- as a rustic (sometimes VERY rustic) take on an all-inclusive vacation.

Exploring South Africa to Kenya? Nothing for you to do but sit back and enjoy the scenery. Need overnight accommodations? Typically included in the cost of your tour package, along with meals and some attraction entry fees.

Using the Web to find a list of Africa-based overland tour operators is never a problem. But finding the best fit for you personally, as operators and packages vary wildly-- is the challenge. So if you’re considering such a trip, I offer the following related advice, based on my personal experience:
• Follow the leader. When I first signed on for my overland trip, I naively imagined my tour truck situated in the middle of nowhere, solitarily navigating across the vast expanse of Africa by its lonesome. The reality? Not so much. In truth, my route (South Africa to Kenya) is wildly popular and followed by many similar tour groups, all stopping at the same locations to take in the same sights. Do your research, but know that with few exceptions, most itineraries along major routes are essentially the same.

• Comfort is king (or not…) The biggest difference between overland tour operators? Level of comfort, which naturally directly impacts overall price. Remember how I described overland travel as a ‘rustic take on an all-inclusive vacation’? It didn’t get much more rustic for me, spending most nights in a tent (with the opportunity to upgrade indoors to a hostel bed about once a week). I didn’t mind it too much, but took some pity on the elderly Canadian couple traveling with me who experienced the same (the hard ground did nothing for the old guy’s back!) Conversely, other tour operators treat their groups to warm beds every night. The lesson? When you factor price into your decision, keep in mind your desired level of comfort. That dirt ground can feel pretty hard after a few weeks…

• Not all meals are created equally. Ever heard of a TLC sandwich? I didn’t either, before overlanding through Africa, but the Tomato-Lettuce-and-Cheese sandwich quickly became THE (largely unsatisfying) lunch staple of my trip. No matter the operator, meal choices will be limited, but like choosing your level of comfort, meal treatment also varies widely. On our trip, the guides provided staples for simple, self catering breakfasts (bread, cereal, fruit) and lunches (the ‘glorious’ TLC sandwich, along with the occasional tin of sardines). Dinner was slightly different-- cooked by the guides and limited to pastas, hamburgers, and local fare like pap, a traditional maize-based porridge. Though it was nice to be cooked for, we’d often not eat until well into the night, after the guides performed all of their tasks to prepare for the next day on the road.

Though I believe other tour operators handled breakfast and lunch similarly, one group put a very interesting spin on dinner, where travelers partnered up and cooked dinner for the entire group on a given night, purchasing more premium ingredients from local markets with a collected ‘food kitty.’ So do you prefer being cooked for, or a little more variety to your meals? Again, just something to be aware of so you can make the decision that’s best for you.

• Know what’s NOT included (and bring enough money for it!) Snacks during those long truck rides and special excursion ‘add-ons’ (like helicopter rides over Victoria Falls, or special game preserve drives in the wee hours of the morning, when animals are most active) are typically not included in package pricing, so make sure you bring enough money to splurge when you feel like it. Many tourist ‘hubs’ exist throughout Africa that offer everything from hot air ballooning to ATV driving to bungee jumping-- the more commercial an area is (like Victoria Falls, for example), the more choices you will have-- and the more you will pay. My personal advice? Always opt for a game drive at dawn for the best animal viewing. And for the best soft drink on the planet, pick up a bottle of Stoney Tangawizi, a crisp and refreshing ginger ale I would love to see available in the States!

• Don’t arrive empty-handed. This last piece of advice is not so much specific to overland travel, but don’t overlook the power of barter-- it almost always gets you a better deal on that souvenir you are bargaining for. What you barter with doesn’t have to be anything special, but I find that sports team merchandise like logo-branded shirts do best (plus they can usually be had for cheap and are easy to pack!) Or better yet, bring some pencils and pens for gifting to young children, who may not have access to adequate school supplies, to spread some goodwill and joy along your travels.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Buffalo Campers, who rented a vehicle to me, in which I was subsequently involved in an accident. My wife, who was driving the vehicle, suffered a broken neck. The accident occurred on the 02/05/2010 - at about 1.30pm in Botswana she was flown to Johannesburg from Maun.

The vehicle that was hire was a Toyota Hilux 4x4 with caravan - having a foldaway tent mounted on its roof. I took the vehicle on the 29th as far as Zeerust on the N4 and stayed in a chalet for the night. During this first period of our journey we noticed that the radio did not work or the CD player. The cigarette lighter used to power the sat nav did not work - the sat nav we hired went flat. The heater did not work. When reversing in the dark at Zeerust the reverse lights did not work. We continued our journey to Francistown were we stayed the night and realised that the vehicle tended to wonder from side to side and speeds higher that 100 KPH. There was also section on the road that had pot holes and we drove in a manor as to avoid hitting them and causing damage to the vehicle and tyres. I drove from Francistown to Nata were we stayed from something like an hour, bought some gift items from the shop and a soft drink to refresh ourselves and wondered around to have a look. I then took the vehicle a Little way from Nata and Teresa then took over the driving. Teresa also drove to avoid the pot holes prior to the accident although my wife does not remember the accident I am assuming that as she approached a pot hole she turned the steering wheel and the vehicle turned sharply to avoid the pot hole the vehicle went out of control and rolled into the bush. The Air Bags did not deploy on both the drivers side and passenger side. No other vehicle was involved.

When the Botswana police attended the scene, they noted that the licence disc on the windscreen was dated 2008 - together with the faults with the vehicle make me suspect that the maintenance of the vehicle was not to a sufficient standard for a vehicle rented out to the public, there is a duty of care here. There should be records of the service history of the vehicle to show that repairs and maintenance was carried at a regular basis and for accounts and tax purposes. The owner of Buffalo Campers, Mr Vaughan Colette who rented the vehicle to me will not provide this information. I believe that there was a lack of maintenance due to none functioning of electrics and the large side to side movement of the vehicle at over 100kph - this would have contributed to the loss of control and if properly maintained may have prevented the accident altogether.