Africa has become a choice destination for world wayfarers. Certain countries within this expansive continent have enticing appeal for their rich cultures, diversity, and even wildlife offering visitors an experience that just cannot be matched in North America or Europe. Countries like Burkina Faso and Morocco are known for their friendly locals. (Morocco, as an example, was just voted the third most friendly country for tourists in a recent international CNN poll.) Other destinations such as South Africa, Botswana, and especially Tanzania are on travelers’ radar as destinations to really get off the beaten path, experience nature (and even high peaks such as Kilimanjaro), as well as truly remove themselves from the daily grind.
When traveling to Africa an important decision has to be made that answers the question: Do I travel independently, with an organized group, or on a private trip? At its core, these are the choices one has to ponder that could make or break the trip of a lifetime. And, while I am slightly biased since I run and own a travel company in Morocco called Journey Beyond Travel, I have traveled Africa for many years, write for various guidebooks, and believe I can offer the newbie to Africa some helpful words of wisdom on how to think about independent and private travel in new and perhaps enlightening ways.
The real appeal of independent travel is the satisfaction that one has to be truly free while on the road. No need to rise early to catch up with your group and no need to stick to a fixed program. Independent travel maximizes the chances that you’ll have a unique experience as you leave both your options and world open to what comes your way.
Some countries in Africa truly lend themselves to the independent adventurer. South Africa is a superb example. Because it stands as a beacon of a developed nation with amazing infrastructure in place, solo travelers with only a plane ticket to bide their time can enter South Africa and allow the road of travel freedom guide their path. Another draw to South Africa is it’s affordable accommodation, transport, and food. While many countries in Africa can cost double or triple the cost of a trip to Europe, South Africa has hostels, guesthouses, BnBs, and chain hotels that truly appeal to the spectrum of backpacker, flash packer, and trust-fund travelers. Another bonus is the language given that more than 80% of the population speaks English.
Certain West-African nations are also good choices for independent-minded wanders. Their relatively small size makes them easy to explore and a country like Senegal is not only used to foreign visitors, but has its tourist infrastructure basically well organized.
It should be stated that there is a real difference between big bus tourists and small-group ones. It should be said that no real traveler belongs on a large bus tour since the distance placed between you and the ‘real’ country is too great and leaves no room for intimate exploration. Small-group trips differ in that these trips tend to focus on getting you to places that only a small group of people can visit, such as mountain villages or family homes. Certain tour operators focus on what they call ‘group departures’ where a small group of perhaps six to twelve persons not only get to explore and learn about a new country together, but have an opportunity to learn from each other as well. Various countries in Africa have small group trips taking place including Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, and Tanzania. A superb place to enjoy a small group venture is in Botswana where you can mountain bike safaris, enjoy remote wilderness, and see animals running freer than in any other country. Mixing your trip with independent and small group travel is one way you can experience a country through different lenses, plus it can also save you some money.
A private or customized tour is a travel adventure where an individual, couple, or small group (whether family or friends) wishes to explore a country with their trip pre-organized and arranged. Many operators arrange private trips such as this worldwide, but choosing one can be difficult. The factors that can and probably should be considered include: Is the operator located in country? Does the operator follow any sustainable travel standards, such as offering eco-friendly travel, responsible travel, or are they involved in local, sustainable-type programs? What is the travel company’s background, track record, and mission? Both eco-tour directory along with Responsible Travel are two resources that come to mind when researching holidays that fit within these parameters.
One of the most popular activities in Africa is going on a wildlife safari. If a big game safari in Kenya or a gorilla safari in Uganda is activities on your mind, it’s important to make arrangements for a guided tour before you visit since both safety and logistics are factors important to this type of get-away.
If North Africa is on your travel calendar, a tour set up beforehand in Morocco can help you choose the best local accommodations, meet locals and their families, and even enjoy walking tours into areas where the masses do not tread. Access to local advice and the best way to travel from one point to another are real benefits to private travel.
In other countries, such as Gabon, pre-arranging your travel on your own can prove nearly impossible. While websites for certain parks and hotels exist, getting a response after a booking inquiry may never happen. A part of the visa application alone is mentioning what tour operator you are using, so it’s quite common and recommended in such remote destinations. And, once you land in country and your country of choice opens up, you can rest assured that all is ready, and the rest is left open for you to truly enjoy and experience a land vastly different from your own.