When I was in kindergarten, my teacher sent us home with a homework assignment to “draw your perfect vacation”, and I was able to finish faster than any assignment we’d been given in the past. I ran to my room as soon as my parents unstrapped my car seat, and grabbed the crayons. For almost an hour I worked, scribbling furiously until I revealed to my Mom the masterpiece I had created. On the page sat a brown and green landscape with a crudely drawn lion and giraffe on one side, a bright yellow sun and a hauntingly accurate self-portrait of myself, holding a pair of binoculars with a huge smile on my face. I was flanked by what appears to be a small dog, but probably was a monkey. At the top, written across the cloudless sky was one word:
Of course, the “F” was backwards, the monkey appears to be my pet, and why I thought that getting that close to a lion with not even a stick to try and protect myself was a good way to enjoy my safari, but the crux of the story (which is made up to add some creative panache to my actual feelings, but if I slip that admission into a parenthetical in the second paragraph of a 8,000 word piece, maybe it will slip by unnoticed) remains the same: I have been dreaming about going on safari in Africa for literally as long as I can remember. There is no trip that has been higher on my bucket list, so when we started talking about travelling the world, the first destination that was written on the theoretical yellow legal pad in big bold letters was AFRICA.
As you probably know, just saying LETS GO TO AFRICA is all fine and dandy, but Africa is a big place, and you could travel the continent for years and not see even half of it properly. So we started making a “Must-See Africa List” - Safaris, Zanzibar, Victoria Falls, Cape Town, Giraffes, Pyramids, Dave Matthews’ Childhood Home, Etc. As we started piecing together a tentative itinerary (Fly Egypt to Kenya then take public transport down the southeastern side of the continent until we reached South Africa, with maybe a side trip to Madagascar), we started researching, and the more we researched, the more we realized that backpacking your way through Africa is not the same as backpacking your way across Europe. We continually read horror stories about backpackers arriving at a bus station for a scheduled 8AM departure, only to sit on a half-empty bus for almost 12 hours while they waited to fill the bus, finally leaving at 7PM, reaching a border crossing in the dead of the night and being asked for a bribe or a visa form they were not aware that they had to have.
A particular story had an Irishman crossing the Kenya-Uganda border, where he was asked to pay a $100 visa fee, which he begrudgingly handed over because it was almost 3AM, and he assumed the internet information that Irish citizens did not have to pay for their visas was incorrect. When he arrived at his campground, he was told that the internet (as it usually is), and there should not have been a fee. How could he have known? He had to cross the border, and showing a Ugandan military officer your iPhone screen with a Yahoo! Answers screen is not going to get you out of that $100 payment. So we needed help.
As we researched, the more we kept seeing mentions of overland tours as a budget option that offered a great way to see a large area and do a varied set of activities without spending a gang of money. African vacations can set you back as much as you’re willing to spend, and the game drives can add up extremely quickly, costing as much as $400 per person per drive. As we delved more and more into the world of African Overland Tours, we saw that while the itineraries remained fairly static on trips beginning in Nairobi and meandering down towards South Africa, the prices fluctuated wildly, seemingly for no reason. As we soon learned, many of the companies prey on people who assume that the higher the price, the nicer the trip, which is patently false. Eventually, we narrowed our choices to Oasis Overland Tours and Absolute Africa, which not only had everything on the itineraries we wanted to see, were the two with the lowest prices. We then went line by line and checked exactly what the differences between the two were. Obviously, this was almost six months ago, so I don’t remember the exact differences, but I remember the big two: Absolute Africa was less expensive by a small margin, and, the factor that ultimately influenced our decision the most, they offered sleeping pads, while Oasis asked you to provide your own.
Sleeping pads? Oh, you didn’t click the link.
Overland tours are able to keep their prices so low because they are camping trips. The kind of camping trips where you and 12-28 other people pile onto a huge truck fitted with roll-up tarps and seats (and a loud-ass stereo of course) and drive across a continent, spending your nights in campgrounds across Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. The kind of camping trips where you are cooking on campfires every morning and night, sometimes sharing your campsite with hippopotamus and wildebeest? The kind of camping trip that can last for up to 72 days (although ours only lasts 52)? Did I not mention that? When you’re trying to travel for such a long time, keeping a budget is the most important part (in addition to experiencing as much of the world as you can), and we were interested in having adventures, so even though we had only spent one night in our entire relationship in a tent (and that was one of those that you pull out of the bag and throw on the ground and it pops up itself), we signed up. We are going on a big yellow truck around Africa, and we are going to see some lions. And giraffes. And maybe Dave Matthews’ House.
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