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The Great African Road Trip

I know we are all fans of independent travel around here, but there are times when nothing but a tour will cut it. Today’s guest post describes an adventurous, budget, African safari.

“This is not a holiday, it’s an adventure,” Michel, our Mozambican guide, informed us. Excited and a little nervous, we settled into our seats. Over the next eight days we would be travelling through Botswana, sneaking up on herds of impala, watching elephants bathe themselves in the Chobe River, and taking in the beautiful African sunsets. Our chosen method for exploration: a budget camping tour.

As self-proclaimed budget travelers, we’ve certainly stayed in our share of hostels over the years and we will gladly skip a fancy restaurant in favor of a trip to the local grocery store. But riding in an un-air conditioned overland truck, setting up our own tent, and forgoing showers brought “roughing it” to a whole new level.

We also thrive on the challenge and impulsiveness of independent travel. In fact, we pride ourselves on being able to breeze into any city in the world and get our bearings before most people manage to hail a cab.

But the African wilderness is a whole different ballgame. There are dangerous animals and unsafe roads and long lonely stretches between cities. The public transportation system leaves much to be desired and getting caught in the vast and unpopulated landscape after nightfall is not recommended.

And then there is the issue of cost. Renting an all-terrain vehicle, satellite phone, and camping gear doesn’t come cheap. And neither do those luxury tours that fly you from place to place. Visiting the region can be prohibitively complicated and expensive for the budget-minded traveler.

After thorough research, we concluded that signing up for a well-priced camping safari was the best way to experience these less-explored, hard-to-reach areas of Southern Africa. Ultimately the call to see this “Africa of our dreams” as described by our Lonely Planet book prevailed over the desire to sleep in a bed or travel on our own.

By our first night in the African wilderness, the “adventure” was well under way. After racing off to set up our tents ahead of an impending rain storm and eating a superb dinner prepared by our cook, we gathered around a campfire to watch the men and women of a local bush tribe sing and dance. We’ve had some unforgettably good times as independent travelers, but not once have we ever happened across a group of native bushmen!

Our favorite part of the tour was the three-day venture we took deep into the Okavango Delta. Led by local villagers, we traveled the delicate waterways using the only method possible – by mokoro. These canoes made of dugout tree trunks are propelled forward using a long pole to push off the soft delta sands. Basically they are African gondolas.

The villagers who guided our group through the delta were more than willing to share their immense knowledge of the delicate landscape as well as their way of life. Learning from them was the ultimate in cultural experiences. These locals are intimately familiar with every plant, footprint, and pile of animal dung in this land that is their backyard. Their love and appreciation for their home really showed and our lives are all the better from having met them.

In all our travels, this was the first time we let someone else decide when we would get up and where we would go. And you know what? It wasn’t half bad! The tour made excellent use of our time, just like we would have chosen had we been on our own. We were always up early, either to go on a morning game walk or set off for the next destination. All of our meals were cooked for us. The fifteen strangers we started out with turned out to be like-minded adventure seekers from around the world, making the atmosphere of the journey feel like a nomadic hostel.

We could not have replicated these amazing experiences on our own. It’s remarkable how choosing the cheapest option can give you something priceless. And surrendering control of your trip can yield wonderful surprises.

Photography by Randy Reese

Andrea Reese and her photographer-husband, Randy, are fanatics about traveling the world and love new and exciting experiences. When they’re not wandering the globe, they devote their energy to exploring their current base of New York City. They share the best of NYC and plenty of tips for visitors on their website, Essential New York City Guide.

16 Responses to The Great African Road Trip

  1. Kelsey August 12, 2010 at 8:36 AM #

    I think that tours have a bad rap. Sure, the majority of them live up to the stereotype, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all bad or that they do not have their time and place. I think this was a good use of a tour.

    • Steph August 17, 2010 at 8:53 PM #

      There is definitely a stigma around tours which is not necessarily apt.

  2. Kirsty August 12, 2010 at 9:03 AM #

    I think Africa is a bit of a different story when it comes to tours. I don’t put the type of tours that take you into wilderness packed with dangerous creatures on quite the same level as a Contiki Tour around Europe (arguably also packed with dangerous creatures). Certain parts of Africa, namely the national parks, are inaccessible and while for some you can rent your own vehicle, if you’re a solo traveller this becomes a difficult thing to arrange.

    I’ll be getting from place to place mostly by local bus but there will be times where I’ll hop on a tour to explore further. If I had my own 4×4 and knowledgeable local buddy then I might go that route but, for the moment, hopping on a camping trip seems like a good compromise.

    Thanks for the writeup!

    • Andrea August 12, 2010 at 10:49 PM #

      Kirsty – For the specifics, we chose an 8 day tour with Nomad Africa that started in Namibia, crossed Botswana – hitting up the Okavango and Chobe, and ended in Victoria Falls. We were very happy with Nomad – well-organized tour, super guides, and fun travel mates. Best of luck with your travels and have fun in Africa!

    • Steph August 17, 2010 at 8:55 PM #

      I definitely think Africa is a great place to make use of tours. And I can’t wait to hear about YOUR adventures!

  3. Claire August 13, 2010 at 7:35 AM #

    I just went on safari in Tanzania, organized through a tour group. One of my top 5 life experiences so far….truly a breathtaking 3 days. Chances to see views and wildlife that some people only will dream about. I agree, it is well worth the time and the money and the “organization” aspect of it, despite the fact that many of just want to go where the wind takes us. As Kirsty stated above, most of these places would be inaccessible to foreigners, or at the very least, unsafe to just wander into, unguided! I also agree that it was just so nice and convenient for someone else to make the decisions, as well as the meals 😉
    Oh and if anyone is interested, SOK Safari out of Tanzania is outstanding and very reasonably priced!

    • Steph August 17, 2010 at 8:58 PM #

      Thanks for the tip and for sharing your experience!

  4. Stacy August 14, 2010 at 2:44 PM #

    Moderation in all things. It’s the experience that counts. Well done! And I’m so glad to know there’s an authentic reasonably priced alternative to luxury safaris.

  5. Emily August 14, 2010 at 6:45 PM #

    Loved this post! I had never heard of those canoe boats there before. I’m absolutely dying to go to Africa, though I too am finding that it’s quite expensive (seems like food and accommodations are cheap, but flights there and safe transport are pricey). How perfect that you ended up saving money and having the trip of a lifetime! In a new and somewhat dangerous place like this, I think it definitely is worth doing a tour.

  6. Laura August 16, 2010 at 10:58 AM #

    I’ve done a budget trip in Egypt like the one you’ve recommended and they really do offer flexibility and convenience. I just wrapped up 3 1/2 months overlanding by myself in Africa and while I wouldn’t trade it for the world, there were definitely tough times involved (including hitchhiking in Botswana). If you have the time and see substandard bus rides as an adventure, then it can be fun to go it alone. However, transportation is what makes these tours so appealing. Glad you had such a great trip! (And by the way I did the mokoro trip in the Delta as well- one of my favorite adventures to date!)

  7. Katie September 2, 2010 at 6:10 PM #

    I have dreamed of an African safari ever since I was a little girl! I left behind life as I knew it, and plunged into a sea of adventure. By recommendation I headed towards Eastern Botswana, and joined up with a privately guided excursion. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. All the hideaways and secret treasures of Africa unfolded in this beautifully put together safari. If you ever head to Africa again I highly recommend staying with this company. http://www.globalbasecamps.com/botswana/eastern-botswana-ecotour/eastern-botswana-safaris

  8. SueandBoys September 27, 2010 at 12:11 PM #

    Leaving South Africa out of the equation as it’s pretty much considered “First World” to us, then I still honestly believe there are places in Africa that are totally unspoilt “AND” unvisited by the hundreds of Overland Tour Operators, who, at the end of the day are just as guilty of the contributing towards the exorbitant prices being charged at a number of National Parks, Lodges, Camping Sites etc. as the owners are themselves.I’m not saying that they are a bad thing, not at all, but everyone, sometime in their lives would love to visit Africa, and we all will pay for it in one way or another. But, you know what, as long as our Grand Children can still see Rhino then I’m a happy person. I’m UK born and moved out to Zimbabwe 15 years ago where I met my husband to be – a commercial farmer at the time. Since losing the farm a few years ago during the much publicized “land invasions” he turned to his next best love “Traveling Africa”. I’m not here to sing his praises, blow my trumpet or brag about his exploits, I’m merely here to tell you all, that do not know any other individual in Sub Saharan Africa that is as knowledgeable as he is about Southern, Central and East Africa. Nor has anyone done the things he has done – no-where near it. To whet your appetite – when I arrived in Africa all those years ago he told me him and a friend were going up to Lake Tanganyika on a fishing trip and did I want to join them? I jumped at the chance. Being a man of few words he said nothing else. Well, I cannot begin to describe our trip, bar saying that I ended up in what must be the most beautiful place on Earth – and I say that, having traveled the globe. We drove to Lake Tanganyika, put the Land Cruiser on the MV Liemba and spent 3 days on the lake, disembarking at Uvira on the DRC side of the Lake. Then driving up to Bukavu and staying at the Orchids Safari Club ( in 1993 voted top ten lodges of the world and where they filmed the Africa Queen). We visited the Gorillas in the Kahuzi National Park and then up to the Okapi Breeding Station near Epulu and then on up to the Garamba National Park on the Sudanese Border to see the only Northern White Rhino on the planet. Back down towards Uvira and around to Bujumbura in Burundi via the Ruzizi Delta. We continued down to Kigoma on L. Tanganyika in Tanzania where we caught a train right across Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam and then on to Zanzibar. You mention the Mokoro’s in the Delta that we all know. Well! I have never seen Mokoro’s this long – capable of transporting 35 people. Imagine how huge that poor tree was? Then we traveled back via the Selous National Park and back through Zambia to our farm in Zim. This is but one of the hundreds of trips we’ve done together as a family. Ask him how he crosses rivers in Central Africa that have no bridges and that are up to 3km’s wide – he has a special set of large pontoons that look like 2 huge bananas and that are 5 meters long. When he arrives at a river in the middle of nowhere, he stops, inflates them after having them strapped to the side of the vehicle, offloads his inflatable dinghy and tows it across. An hour to do it all and quite incredible – thats my husband for you! But folks! This is now the big one and I’m really hoping all you folk will follow our travels to the end. In December 2011we embark on a 3 year “Around the World Trip” that we have been planning for the last two years. No website yet – getting there, but you all are welcome to e mail me for now.
    The best part of this trip is that we are doing it with our 3 young sons aged 9, 11 and 13.Yes, I know school – don’t worry, thought about, planned and sorted, hence our Sat Coms etc. wait until you hear how we intend dealing with sport – very interesting and exciting for them as all 3 are avid sportsmen.
    We are having our 15 ton Mercedes 4×4 designed, built etc. in Germany. It will have all the state-of-the-art Satellite Communications systems etc. so we can e-mail etc. while on the move, and don’t have to be stationary. I’m not going to bore you with all that, but we intend maintaining an informative daily journal between the 5 of us, answering questions etc. Us from adults and our sons from other children around the globe.With us we will be towing a large trailer and in it will include our latest Land Cruiser for the cities and National Parks etc. an inflatable rubber dinghy, quad bikes, diving gear, fishing gear, kayaks, jet-ski, provisions, mobile workshop etc. Even the trailer had to be specially designed to take all this- hence all the planning! We start our trip at the Southern most tip of Africa and intend visiting every African Country including Madagascar and the other Islands, but excluding the conflict zones – Somalia. Our journey is to be undertaken as a trip seen “through the eyes of our 3 sons”. Assuming that is the correct way to put it. From Africa we cross into Europe where we hope to be sharing our year on the African Continent with school children at schools across Europe. An awareness campaign if you like! Eventually covering all 7 Continents thoroughly. Sorry this was so long, but you all looked such a nice lot of youngsters who seemed to have enjoyed your trips to Africa. Now wait for what my husband has to show you – the beautiful unspoilt side of Africa, and his kind way of sharing it all with you as opposed to being just your normal”Overland Driving Crew” visiting the same old places each trip. Sorry Over-lander Crews – not being nasty, but it is true! Look up The Orchids Safari Club and Kahuzi Biega etc. to see why my husband loves these “so-out-of-the-way-places”. Maybe one day you’ll return to visit the places we intend showing you, with your kids. Take care, happy travels. Sue

  9. Ashlea November 20, 2010 at 2:00 PM #

    Ever since watching The Lion King I’ve wanted to go on a safari. I would never dream of going it alone though, so that tour is looking pretty good!

  10. rachel January 21, 2011 at 9:56 PM #

    sueandboys-sounds like great trips but so glad im not stuck with you for a longer period than that comment!

  11. Life, Other Than | Shannon February 28, 2016 at 12:46 AM #

    I spent several months backpacking through southern and eastern Africa. It is one of my favorite trips. I want to go back and see the rest.

  12. Catarina diniz December 19, 2016 at 9:05 PM #

    Could you share the name of the company who does the budget camping tours?
    I’m going on a trip to africa next year, possibly alone and would love to have. Ice contacts of independent and small tours companies. Thanks you!

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