No more overland tours

It's self-drive or bust for me

Writer’s note: Our original plan for this blog was to write his and hers points of view on our experiences. This happens to be the first time that we’ve both had something to say on the same topic. You can read Phil’s blog post about our Namibia overland tour. I wrote this post right after our tour finished and, like Phil, gave it a cooling off period to see if my perspective changed. It hasn’t. I loved Namibia. I did not like the tour company.

“Oh, you’re glamping,” a friend said when she heard we were traveling Namibia by overland tour. Touring Namibia on a “glamorous camping” trip with a crew that drives, sets up luxury tents, and cooks for you sounds amazing.

Yeah, overland tours are nothing like that.

Picture taking a road trip in a super-sized truck kitted out for camping, cooking and sightseeing with a driver/guide and a small group (from 5-20) of your newest best friends that you haven’t met yet. Tour length can be days, weeks, or even months, depending on the itinerary.

Overland tours are known for being budget-friendly and participatory. Basic two-person tents are provided; you put it up and take it down yourself. A cot or mat is usually included, otherwise it’s BYOB: bring your own bedding. If you’re travelling solo, be prepared to double up with one of your new best friends. The driver/guide serves as head cook and everyone helps with meal preparation. Cooking not your thing? No worries there are plenty of dishes to be washed.

Overland tours are definitely not glamping. But they’re a great way to see amazing places on a budget, and to make new friends.

Our 17-day overland tour in Namibia was the finale of our four-month travels in Southern Africa. Having traveled by car and bus through South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, we were ready to try something different.

After quite a bit of research, we booked what sounded like an amazing tour. If we missed a detail, we’d roll with it, just as we’d done throughout our Southern Africa travels. The first thing we missed was that the tour company we booked with, African Overland Tours, was not the actual tour operator, Drifters. We only found this out when we received our booking confirmation. African Overland Tours came highly recommended, so we figured anyone they worked with must be good. This turned out to be a bad assumption.

So, how’d it go? We saw some brilliant landscapes, fantastic ancient sites and amazing animals. We also made some wonderful new friends. But we don’t plan to do another overland trip. Here’s why.

Too much time on the truck. We spent much more time getting to places than seeing places. Days started around sunrise. We broke camp, ate breakfast, cleaned up the dishes, and started driving by 7:00/7:30. We drove all day, anywhere from 6-10 hours. Sightseeing breaks averaged about an hour, but some were as short as 20 minutes. Lunch was generally a hurried affair on the side of the road. If we were lucky, we got to our next camp before sunset. We weren’t lucky that often.

Driver vs. guide. A key reason we opted for a tour was to benefit from the knowledge of a guide. Our driver shared little information about the sites we visited and generally referred us to the library of books on the truck for wildlife information. Having spent time with experienced guides at Kruger, Chobe and Hwenge National Parks, and in the Okavango Delta, Phil and I, thankfully, knew a ton about Africa wildlife. For explanations on the places we visited, we used our guide book.

Operations issues galore. Travelling in Africa is tricky business. Dusty dirt roads with giant potholes mean flat tires and engine troubles are to be expected. We, and our fellow six overlanders, took those and other minor snafus in stride. But the major snafus were a different matter: they were entirely avoidable.

On day 1, we were disappointed when our driver announced that several things on the itinerary were not happening or were not as listed. For example the guided tour of Windhoek was really a DIY walk around town. I would have expected advance notification of the major changes. Then again, I would have expected that everyone in the group had received the same itinerary. Not so.

On day 2, poor planning meant the Namibia border crossing into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was closed when we arrived. Our driver handled that but then he didn’t have enough Rand to cover the entry fees for South Africa. Really. He had to borrow money from a member of our tour group.

On day 4, our driver was denied re-entry into Namibia due to an invalid work permit. We were told it was a paperwork glitch; an email from headquarters would solve everything. It being Africa, we didn’t expect an email to arrive with Western expediency, so we waited patiently, without phone or internet access, for the first few hours, entertained briefly by a passing group of meerkats – and thankful for access to free, clean toilets (with toilet paper!).

After 5 hours of waiting with no information, two members of our group (including Phil) walked to the South Africa side of the border, bought wifi access and phoned Drifters. The call provided limited information, but marked a turning point in our border fiasco. The minutia of what followed is probably only notable to the eight of us that lived through it, so I’ll just cover the highlights.

Someone named Dave picked up our group an hour later. We had no way to know if he was legit because headquarters told us a guide was coming, but provided no name. Dave said he wasn’t our guide and he didn’t work for Drifters. As an aside … in a classic “this is Africa” moment, our immigration delay became a customs delay. Our driver had exported the truck out of Nambia, but someone else was bringing it back in. Dave somehow sorted this and drove us to a lodge a few kilometres away.

At the lodge, some members of our group, including us, phoned our booking agents in an attempt to get information, because Drifters was incommunicado. That got the ball rolling, although information from our booking agents was different from what Drifters said.

It turned out that Dave worked for a private game lodge nearby. He took us on a game drive and we saw Khalari black maned lions. Drifters later said they arranged this, but we got a different story from Dave. Incidentally, our itinerary said we were supposed to have had a game drive that morning which we did not have (see above itinerary comment), presumably because our driver wanted us to be at the Nambia border early. Look where that got us.

The next morning, a replacement Drifters guide, Wilma, arrived. She had driven from Johannesburg the day before. The tour resumed, but we paid dearly for that border delay with insanely long driving days because the office insisted we not skip anything on the itinerary. The group eventually revolted and we altered the itinerary to make for less hectic travels. But the office could not leave it there. They added “bonus sites” to the itinerary without consulting the group, making for even longer driving days and shortened visits to scheduled sites. Incidentally, the additions made it clear no one from the “office” had ever actually travelled in Nambia, because none of the places were worth the extra drive time to see.

In summary, this trip was exhausting. Yes, we saw some freaking amazing things, but we spent most of our time on the truck or setting up/breaking down camp. There was not enough time to truly experience the wonder and amazement of Namibia. I expected more time to sit by the campfire and reflect on the day’s sightseeing, and to watch “bush TV,” aka the star-filled night sky.

Had this been a traditional holiday for us, as it was for our fellow overlanders, we would have returned home utterly shattered. I should think they all needed a vacation from their vacation after this trip. Luckily, Phil and I did not have to return to work like they did. We have months of travel still ahead of us.

I can’t say if all overland tours are as disappointing and exhausting as this one, but I don’t want to find out. I’ll stick with the independent travel option, thank you very much: next time it’s self-drive or bust for me.

Have you taken a tour that didn’t meet your expectations? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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