Run the equator: The truth about overland safaris

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The truth about overland safaris

If you asked me whether I could recommend an overland safari trip in Africa, based on my recent experience, I wouldn’t know what to say. Would I do it again? – Certainly, I would not repeat the long journey from Cape Town to Nairobi, but I would however gladly go for smaller trips, more focused on an area or a few neighboring countries – a tour of just Kenya and Tanzania would be an example. Many factors will influence your overall experience; here are a few ones that I considered important:

  • Driving time – during “overland safaris” (as these trips are somewhat emphatically named), you will mostly sit in a truck together with the other passengers, traveling between two camp sites. Driving for 12 hours is not uncommon, 8 hours is the norm. You must usually wake up with the sun, except on few days when there’s either no driving, or the distance is short and there’s enough time to allow for a late breakfast. There isn’t always something to do at the destination –it’s often just a place to set up the tents for the night and wake up the next morning for another day of driving. Besides talking (if talking to your neighbor for 8 hours is appealing to you…), the only source of entertainment is reading – if reading in a moving vehicle doesn’t bother you, better bring a lot of books – you’ll have ample time for them.
  • Road quality influences driving times (and most roads in Africa are bad indeed) but not significantly. It takes so much time to get between places because the distances are large and the trucks are not made to speed up. Nevertheless, some unpaved roads can be really trying – you bounce up and down in the seat, and run the risk of injury, if you don’t hold on to something when you stand up while the truck is moving. The overhead luggage compartments can become a source of flying books, shoes or food bags. Just about every single object in the truck is vibrating.
  • Safari trucks come in a variety of comfort styles. Our trucks, owned by Wildlife Adventures, seemed to have been built in the 80s and not upgraded since. The seats were uncomfortable and didn’t recline. Some seats had previously broken and have been welded clumsily making them even more uncomfortable. Since all safari companies follow more or less the same routes, I had the chance to see many other truck models, and while they all seem to be similarly built, some were obviously more modern and more comfortable – with reclining seats, on-board kitchen , opposing seats and a table (so people could play cards), and individual safe boxes. The higher-comfort trucks were more expensive as well and ours wasn’t the most beat-up truck around, so there was not much to worry about.
  • Group size - Comfort is as much about the truck as it is about how many people you travel with. If every single seat on the truck is taken, you’ll be likely to feel ill at ease at one moment or the other. Out truck has 20 seats; we started the tour with 17 people; 8 of them were just visiting Namibia and left in Windhoek. For the rest of the trip, although we changed guides, dropped off and picked up some people, we remained 9 passengers. Each had two adjacent seats if needed. We took advantage of this generous seating and sprawled. The most crowded truck we met en route was one belonging to the Africa Travel Co. They had 26 passengers and 2 guides. Quite the madness!
  • People – they can make or break your fun. Being the antisocial type that I am, I didn’t like any of my tour-mates in particular but didn’t dislike anybody excessively either. The ratio of men to women was clearly tipped in the favor of women, and the only guy of my age was an Aussie, whose heavily accented English I could barely understand – my fault not his, I guess. I didn’t make any friends. There was some animosity in the group, but nothing too conflictual; we survived the whole 6 weeks without killing each other. Nevertheless, if you doubt you can share quarters with the same people, day in, day out, for 6 weeks, think twice before booking.
  • Food – is the essential ingredient whose lack of quality or quantity can ruin the trip no matter how beautiful the landscapes and the animals are. The more people you share the truck with, the higher the chance that there isn’t enough food for everyone at every meal (and this is one of the main complaints about some of the safari companies). Luckily food wasn’t a problem for us. Breakfasts were simple: cornflakes, toast, jam, peanut butter and instant coffee, sometimes eggs. Lunches, on the side of the road, were mostly baloney sandwiches and some salad. For dinner, when our guides cooked in the camp sites, there was always enough food for everybody, and nobody had anything to complain about the quality. Occasionally we had to have restaurant dinners at our expense; with few exceptions, most campsites had decent food.
  • Camping – can you sleep in a tent for 42 days? An essential question to ask before considering a long safari trip. With few exceptions – Swakopmund, Victoria Falls and Zanzibar – where hotel accommodations were booked, for the rest of the trip we slept in campsites. It was easier and more comfortable than we had imagined – the tents were spacious and the sponge mattresses were thick. The tents were functional and easy to set up and pack, but they were old, weighed too much (two people would usually carry one) and had all kinds of rips and cuts. The company is obviously cutting its own corners by not upgrading their equipment… The campsites (who I judge by their bathrooms and ablution facilities) were mostly decent except in a few cases. Sometimes I wonder… what were they thinking in the busy Arusha campsite where the male and female population have one sink each in the bathrooms?
  • Back pain – all that sitting and driving for hours doesn’t come without side-effects: it can lead to terrible lower-back pain (I wasn’t spared) and will atrophy your leg muscles – we learned this the hard way when we arrived in Cairo and started walking all day; going up any flight of stairs made our feet numb with pain. We caught up and got in shape in a week or so, but not without a lot of panting and cursing.
  • Toilet stops – ah, don’t forget about your bladder. The driver will stop once in a while on the side of the road, so everybody can find their favorite bush. And where there are no bushes, it’s the boys in the front of the truck, the girls in the back. The truck has an “emergency” button for these situations, but the guides don’t want to stop as often as some passengers would need, so they just ignore it sometimes. When asked why, they mumble something about losing time because there’s a lot left to drive and generally act as if by asking them to stop you’re talking something away from them. A common attitude of bus drivers around the world…
  • Attitude – there’s a pervasive attitude among safari tour guides best described by the slogan “This is Africa, Fit in or Fuck Off” (seen on a t-shirt). This double-edged line, meant to be funny - no doubt, contains a lot of bitter truth. Sure, the roads are bad, you have to sleep in a tent, Africa is dusty and hot, and you may not always find clean bathrooms and hot water. Nobody argues with that. But some guides are pushing this further and act condescending to the tourists, being unhelpful and incompetent at best. Our “guides” acted mostly as drivers and cooks; hardly any information about the places we were seeing trickled from them, not even trivia that anybody already knew. They were either genuinely bored or totally disinterested with their jobs. Most local guides we hired in a few game parks were even worse, hardly bothering to acknowledge our presence. The attitude could be also summarized by another line seen on a t-shirt: “I am too poorly paid to be nice to you, so fit in or fuck off!” Haven’t these people heard of tips? Of the fact that pay may increase with performance? Their tips could have been better if they had been actually nice to me. The rest doesn’t matter.
  • It looks like I only listed a string of problems related to overland safaris and none of the things that make them worthwhile. It’s not like that. There were many beautiful moments, and mentioning each one will only re-iterate what I already said in past blog entries and would make a very long list. Coming close to the wild animals, getting immersed in new and unfamiliar landscapes of incredible beauty, and meeting the local people – especially when they didn’t want to sell us anything – will survive in my memory forever. I am glad I went through this.
Overland Tour ended in Nairobi, Kenya on October 14. Posted from Aswan, Egypt. Stories from Egypt coming next.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great account! The first thing when you arrived in Mexico was to get off the beaten path (with good results, looks like), but in Africa you were the "Bidochons - En voyage organisé" (look it up, it's funny), the "stupid westerners". Serves you right for taking the road most walked :-)

Big Fat Rat said...

Haha, I know the Bidochons very well!
C'est qui ca, un lecteur Francais?

peter said...

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