Thursday, November 22, 2007

To Tour or Not to Tour

First off, I’ve not used a travel agent; I’ve had bad luck with them.  They have trouble understanding I don’t want  the local Hilton but something a bit lower on the food chain.  They are so used to suggesting the better things of travel.  When I did the first Indian trip, I was told by several agents that Americans couldn't manage the average Indian hotel; we must have a four star hotel. Not true! We, my husband and I,  did local hotels, several where we were  the only Westerners. We used a local Indian agent to help us with our itinerary, which had a small relationship to standard itineraries.  It worked.

I do book tours, particularly since I’m now on my own.  I look for tours that are as untourlike as possible, that use local lodgings, feature unique experiences and give me time to wander on my own.  I want small groups.   Though I have and still do travel some independently, there are areas where I feel more comfortable with the  support of a group, even if it’s only three or four of us, as has occurred.  

Obviously, I consider price, professional affiliations,   and recommendations.   I collect brochures, read travel books , search newspapers and the net.  I have run into tour groups housed at hotels where I’ve been. and, then, subsequently booked with them.   As a single, I look for tours that do not charge extra for accommodation but allow for a room share.

Two American firms I have used were General Tours hosted tour program and Rick Steves’ Bed-and-Breakfast tour (now called Bus-Plus, I believe).  But for the most part, I have traveled with British Budget companies:  Explore, Imaginative Traveler and Exodus.  I also used an Australian firm: Peregrine.   All of these have been  booked through Adventure Company in Emeryville ( whose representatives have been superb.                                                                                                                                                                             

It was the General Tours’ Thailand trip that included an hour’s conversation with a Buddhist monk; it was Rick Steves’ tour that introduced me to Fado; it was Imaginative Traveler that had me biking around the Yangshu China countryside; it was Explore that had me traipsing down an Albanian river to reach a barbeque site; it was Peregrine that had me searching all over Peshawar to find the garage where  trucks were decorated - some of this I could have done on my own perhaps, but it could have been more complicated.

Another approach I’ve taken is contacting a local travel representative.   I did this for travels in   China, Egypt, Nepal, Tibet and India.  Some were recommended through International Travel News, some through the internet and some via Lets Go, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide.  I’ve had no problems, except for a financial misunderstanding with the Indian firm which resulted in duplicate payment for a Nepalese guide.   Apparently, the right hand didn’t talk with the left.  If I use them again - which I would - I have a credit outstanding.

Overall, whether it is tour or independent travel depends on you, the country and the tour.  You have to decide for yourself.  For me, there are times  the idea of some socialization and structure seems great; at other times, I’d rather do it by myself, thank you.  I admit, when there were two of us,I did more independent travel than now, when I am one.   But it was early on and  we were just beginning our overseas travels and going to less challenging places.  Now, I keep pushing the envelope.  But the main thing:  keep traveling!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

October in Southwest Africa

For several years a trip to some of the game reserves of Africa has been high on my list.  So last year I signed on for a trip starting in Capetown, South Africa, but then going into Namibia, and Botswana before ending at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.  Chobe and Etosha parks were on the itinerary as was the Okavango Delta which insured I would see many species of birds and beasts.  The dunes at Namib Naukluff and the Waterberg Plateau were icing on the cake.  Victoria Falls was the splendid finale.  

And it was all as cracked up to be, plus.   Most unexpectedly, I ran into two fellow members of a Yahoo travel group who were with a Canadian tour  running one day ahead of me.  I happily celebrated my birthday with a sky dive in Swakopmund - greatest experience  I’ve ever had.  Add a lengthy (and none too sober, on their part, at least) conversation with several local tour guides, originally from South Africa and the Congo gave me a  picture of their Africa.  I finished up with the surprise that a German attorney in our group was also a Clive Cussler fan, a Cusslerman!  

From the top:  During the day in Capetown, I walked most of the way to Table Mountain, overlooking the city, taking the cable to the top.  Then headed back down to the Victoria and Alfred (who was Alfred?) Waterfront.  Between was the business district and government buildings.  Beautiful city but - about every residence was walled, of ten barbed wire atop the wall, one had to be buzzed into stores, restaurants and even, the hotel.  Posted throughout were notices of Aware Armed Response.  I saw them  not only in Capetown but also in   communities throughout.   Security guards were all over southwest Africa.  Crime is a big issue.  Nighttime explorations not recommended.  

Heading up the coast,  we stayed overnight at Lamberts Bay, an working fishing town with the Bird Island Nature Preserve.  Lots and birds; smelly with their leavings.  Moving on, we spent a night at Fish River Canyon, sometimes compared to the Grand Canyon.  While it was enormous, it didn’t have the complexity and color of the Grand Canyon.  But I enjoyed walking  along the edge.  

The following day, enroute to Namib Naukluft, was our Great Adventure with the springbok and the busted radiator.  The springbok came onto the highway, hitting the truck.  It was a0-0 score for the springbok was dead (prompty hauled away by several bystanders) and the cab’s radiator was punctured.  An effort was made to repair it so we could proceed to the nearest stop, the Seekeem Hotel where, after some six hours all told,  arrangements were made for the group to proceed on a mini bus, while the driver waited for  a new radiator to arrive from Capetown.  It was a wild night time ride by a driver who didn’t know the road.  But we got there before midnight and then, started playing catch-up with our planned schedule.  

I did some hiking though it was a hot day and then signed onto a evening four wheel drive through bushman grass and dunes with a magnificent sunset as reward.  Up the next morning for a Hot Air Balloon ride and breakfast, another extra,  over the unique red dunes which extended one and on and on.  Then onto Swakopmund, where I did my walkabout the town - very Dutch appearing - and my Birthday Sky Dive.  Up 10000 feet, free fall for 5000 and use the chute the rest of the way.  I must admit it was a tandem ride with a knowledgeable Brit who had been jumping for fourteen years but still a landmark experience for me.    Another jumper who went up with me was a 67 year old Brit, a technical writer, who had film and photos  taken of his jump so his wife would believe he’d done it.  

Then on for two days at Etosha, one of the premier reserves.  Seeing all sorts of animals at the watering holes was awesome.  Along one side of the road, there were several lions, resting after a good lunch, the remains of which we had seen a bit earlier on. Fantastic array of Elephants, warthogs, jackals, zebras, springboks and  giraffes.  You name it and it was hanging out at the Park.  Only problem, was we stayed about an hour from the Park which meant a long commute.  

Next was Waterburg Plateau, which reminded me of Sedona, Arizona.  Red rimed and rocky.  Climbed to the top with the plan of a longer, but easier path down.  We couldn’t find it so clambering down the same rocky trail.  Some of us went on down to the German Cemetery with the graves of soldiers killed in the l904 native uprising.  One of these days, I’m going to have to take rock climbing classes, considering how often I get stuck on these treacherous climbs.

Somewhere along the way, we had a flat tire, but that was nothing compared to the Springbok-radiator incident.  While the driver worked on the tire, we piled out of the vehicle and fixed  lunch. 

In a small Cessna, we flew into the Okavango Delta where we camped for two days at a safari lodge.  It was there I ran into the Canadians who were staying in proper Safari tents, not the camp tents we were in, albeit attached to a platform.  We both boated into the Delta as well as walked  some.  Sitting on the deck of the lodge and watching the animals parade by at sunset/sunrise , even though it was at a distance,  was  memorable. I did get to a local village where some of the lodge workers stayed: very basic with running water and  no electricity.  And it was here I met and talked to the local guides, who were passing through from a fishing trip.

Yeah, we had wild life: three lady warthogs happily occupied one of the bathrooms at night, happily curled about the toilet while the gentlemen warthogs slept under the tent platforms.  The local baboons ransacked  safari tents.   An elephant checked out  the dump site.    And a thunder and lightning storm - the tents held firm with minimal seepage -  completed the stay. Had a rock ‘n roll flight back - I suspect the pilot was no more than a foot from the ground part of the time - and then onto Chobe Park.

Chobe was  tops on my list.  I did both a boat tour  and the early morning Park drive.  The place was resplendent with wildlife.  Alligators, lions, elephants, water buffalo, vultures - you name it and it was there.  Parts are wet and green; parts are dry with shrub grass and small bushes.     Animals living free as they should. At one point we were midst  of a thirty elephant  herd.  Magnificent!  

We finished up at Victoria Falls.  I did the helicopter ride above the Falls before walking in the Park, where you were just across from them.  .  Either way you appreciated their majesty and vigor even as a hot dry summer had diminished them.  Never ridden in a Helicopter and the ride itself was great!  A Dutch woman in our group had lived near the Falls some forty years before so the pilot flew over her former home. And it was on the last night there, I discovered my fellow Cusselman.  

Things are tough in Zimbabwe:  there is a shortage of about everything.  It take several hours to several days to cross the Zimbabwe-Zambia border.  The gas station hasn’t had gas in five years.  Stores are deserted as vendors have moved to Livingston, Zambia, to ply their trade.   But still we ate well, buses and cars took us into town and at the airport.  I had no personal inconvenience.  

The actual traveling was in a safari truck.  The cab had an attached trailer built high up with wide windows so all could see wherever they sat.  The guide and drive communicated via intercom.  And both were outstanding and worked well  together.  Most lunches were picnic style, prepared by all with foodstuffs and equipment provided in the trailer below the seating area.  It was a participatory tour.  

There were sixteen to eighteen of us - several joined in Botswana.  Six Dutch, three Scots, two Brits, two Germans, two Aussies, two Slovakians and me, the lone American.  We had a doctor, two nurses, a pharmacist and three attorneys.  It was a surpassingly compatible bunch.  I roomed with the same woman for the entire trip and would travel with her again;  Scots, now living  and working in England, and quite knowledgeable about Africa.    

The accommodation was fine.   Other than the tents, the most basic was in Zimbabwe.  Food ranged from  picnic-style to excellent.  Game meats were the usual fare at the lodges though I found chicken.   I did spend  on optionals:  sunset land rover drive, hot air balloon trip, the Sky Dive, Chobe game ride, and the helicopter.  But then, I shall pass this way but once!

Cost:    The basic tour was $2021.75 (shared accommodation) plus $495 local costs.  Airfare SFO to Capetown and Victoria Falls to SFO was $1894 via United and South African Air.  It was an Imaginative Traveler listing though the actual tour was from Wildlife Adventures out of Capetown.  I booked through  Adventure  Center in Emeryville (800-227-8747). 

Because of the optionals ($800), I suspect this was one of the more expensive trips I’ve undertaken. Meals ran no more than a couple of hundred as breakfasts, most lunches and a dinner or two were included.  And for once,  I spent  little on souvenirs and curios; no rugs!     

Likely, I will return to Southern Africa; it’s on the list,  but next time will be Tanzania and Kenya.