Quietly considering myself a “seasoned traveller”, in June 2010 I packed my backpack and headed off to Africa for the adventure of a lifetime. Family and friends told me I was out of my mind and requested I join a tour. But I had already backpacked the USA, Europe, and worked as a tour leader in Central Asia, Russia and China doing my own independent travelling in those parts between tours. So what could Africa throw at me that I could not handle?
This naivety is not uncommon, I am relieved to admit. But in fact Africa is NOT Europe. It is not even Vietnam, which may be considered a reasonable comparison if you look at development data. But that is the wonderful thing about this amazing continent: it is different to everywhere else in the world. And despite having started my backpacking career ten years ago, Africa still makes me feel like the greenest of travellers. That is not to say independent travel is impossible; indeed I survived three months backpacking South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi. If not for finding a job, I was planning to continue up to Nairobi. As it happens, two years later I find myself in Nairobi, living semi-permanently in the continent which has thrown me my toughest challenges and continues to do so.
In this article I will discuss the different methods of exploring Africa – independently, group tour, and private safari – and the pros and cons for each. These days I do suffer an internal conflict: I am a huge advocate for independent travel, getting to know real life through home stays and using public transport; but now I run a tour company offering private safaris (I’ll admit that up front, so you can read this article in whichever light you think appropriate) and the more I use my own vehicle, the less I enjoy crowded buses.
1. Independent travel
As I said, I love travelling independently. It is my preferred method for my personal travels. You get real experiences, have more opportunity to interact with local people, and your schedule is usually flexible enough to take random opportunities as they arise. You might get chatting to a woman on the bus and a few hours later as you both disembark she invites you to her home to meet her family. You are free to take that opportunity.
But travelling this way in Africa has proved more challenging than I imagined. Even in trying to complete simple errands in daily life, complications arise and nothing ever seems to go smoothly. For some, they can handle these constant obstacles and consider it “part of the fun”. But it can wear a person down. It is time consuming. Moreover, as a mzungu (foreigner) you are perceived as rich and will be charged higher prices; most opportunities to get more money from you will be taken. There are poor people in Africa unfortunately, and they must survive somehow.
2. Group Tour
Overland trucks traverse the continent, catering mainly to the backpacker market, making them a cheap option. Sitting in the back of a truck for a few weeks sharing all the amazing new experiences with a bunch of other travellers is fun. At the end of the day, there’s always someone to have a drink (or three) with.
But there are some pitfalls with group tours (as any independent traveller will be quick to point out!). What if you don’t like the other people you are forced to travel with? You also should ask a lot of questions about extra hidden costs – on first glance a tour may look cheap, but check the inclusions and exclusions. A tour to the gorillas in Uganda is $500 cheaper than another so you choose that, only to find the gorilla trekking permits are not included – there’s the $500. There is no flexibility in the itinerary and often the schedules are exhausting, quickly covering a lot of mileage to see as many sights in as short a time as possible. It is good if you have limited time and just need to get around and tick off a checklist, but to relish a destination, this is not the way to do it.
3. Private Safari
I mentioned earlier that I do run a private safari company, so you have fair warning that my advice may be biased, but I am trying not to be. I have travelled independently, worked on an overland truck with large group tours, and run private safaris and there is a reason why I have chosen to start my own private safari company. Simply because I truly believe it is the most effective way to travel in East Africa. You can design your own itinerary, accommodation and meals according to your budget. You have more flexibility on the road. And often it is cheaper for families or small groups of friends; by the time you pay for four people on a group tour, you may as well have paid for private transport.
If you are solo, a private safari is expensive. Further, there are so many tour operators it can be an overwhelming task to choose which one to travel with. Reading reviews on travel forums is a great way to find a reliable operator and then the communication between you can build trust and ensure you get what you need from your holiday. The final disadvantage to a private safari is the impression that you are in your own little bubble, with little engagement with the continent. However an increasing number of operators do offer opportunities to visit and interact with local communities, as responsible travel principles becomes more important in the tourism industry
I still like the idea of mixing with the locals on public transport, but when I find myself on a bus sharing three seats with five people, with an embargo on open windows, for ten hours, I do question if it is worth it.