A typical safari?

My wife, Dorothy, and I had been on safari in Africa on two previous occasions. The first was to Kenya and Tanzania, and it remains the best trip we ever experienced — and we have toured all the continents and over 60 countries. Our second was a walking safari through Zimbabwe and Zambia.

We wanted to visit Botswana and Namibia without retracing ground covered on the previous trips. We found what looked to be the perfect match with the safaris offered by Adventures Abroad Worldwide Travel. We booked the “Namibia and Botswana” tour departing on Sept. 30, ’05, from New York for Johannesburg, South Africa, and Windhoek, Namibia, with return to New York from Livingston, Zambia, on Oct. 23. Our cost, declining trip-cancellation insurance, was $13,216. We made independent arrangements to fly from Honolulu to New York and return.

All arrangements were handled by phone and mail and proceeded smoothly as we had come to expect from well-established tour companies.

Before describing our experiences in each country, we would like to make two general observations about Adventures Abroad.

First, we discovered that no tour director from Adventures Abroad would accompany us. This was a surprise as we had never been on a multicountry tour in Africa or elsewhere without the primary tour contractor providing a tour director or leader. To be sure, local guides were always used on this safari as appropriate. A partial explanation in this case is that the principal guide in each country also drove one of the two vehicles used. This practice was to cause difficulties, as we will explain later.

We had 12 persons in Namibia. Two left at the end of the Namibia tour, and three joined the group for the Botswana leg.

Secondly, the information on climate in the two countries contained in the “Booking and Pre-Departure Information” was misleading. For Namibia, it said to expect, during April through July, “daytime highs to range from 23°-28°C (72°-84°F)” but that “departures in October/November should expect hotter temperatures.” A clear understatement! Except for two nights in the coastal city of Swakopmund, daytime highs nearly always exceeded 100°F, with a peak in Etosha National Park of 112°F.

For Botswana, it showed “daily highs of 30°C (87°F) to 35°C (93°F).” This was closer to the mark but off by at least 10°F!

Our guide in each country assured us that the temperatures we experienced were typical and that November and December were even hotter!

Compounding the heat problem was the advice on what clothing to pack, and we had a limited luggage allowance. For example, the following items were recommended, which we did take in our luggage: fleece top (sweatshirt), windproof/waterproof jacket and long trousers. We never used these items as it was too hot. We are used to very warm weather in Honolulu and wished we had taken more shorts and tanktops instead of cool-weather gear.

The advice about sunblock and hats was right on. The sun was more intense in both countries than in Hawaii. We returned home with deeper tans than when we left.

Our stay of 11 nights in Namibia was challenging but well planned and well executed. The scenery, flora and fauna and geography were fascinating. All accommodations were in very nice lodges or hotels with air-conditioning except in Etosha National Park, where the lodge suffered from poor maintenance.

The food was very good, except for one lunch that upset the G.I. systems for half of the group, including one of our guides, for a few days.

Transport was in two air-conditioned, reasonably comfortable vans. Unfortunately, the A.C. in one van malfunctioned and could not be repaired till we got to Swakopmund halfway through the trip. Fortunately, we rotated riders between the vans each day, and the other driver was a pleasant and courteous local guide.

We feel the local contractor should equip the vehicles with 2-way radios, as cell phone coverage of Namibia is far from complete. There were a few occasions where the vehicles became separated during 6- to 7-hour drives on washboard-like gravel roads, and an emergency backup would have been comforting.

In addition, the noise level on such roads was high. Consequently, those in the back of the van rarely heard the explanations and commentary the guides gave. An in-vehicle P.A. system would have been appreciated.

Namibia has a very good infrastructure, which is well maintained, for the most part.

The local subcontractor who provided the guides, vehicles, accommodations, etc., was NatureFriend Safaris.

Our tour of Botswana got off to a poor start. Our guide met us at the Maun, Botswana, airport but then disappeared and left us in the hands of hotel personnel. The van the hotel provided did not have a luggage trailer, so the van had no room for all 13 of us plus luggage. Four of us were left at the airport in midday heat for about 45 minutes till the van returned.

When we got to our hotel, at about 1 p.m., we had to wait two hours, as our room was not ready. Everyone else was at the pool cooling off.

We were told that we would return to the airport at 4 p.m. for a 3-hour overflight of the Okavango Delta. Unfortunately, the guide had not told the hotel personnel which company was to fly us nor given him our tickets. After about a half hour of confusion at the airport, all was sorted out and our flight became a high point of our stay in Botswana. The game herds and the panorama of the delta rivaled the sweep of the Serengeti.

Later that evening, at the welcoming dinner, our guide greeted us, then left saying he had more preparation to do for the trip. He could not stay for dinner with us nor give us an orientation of the Botswana portion of the trip.

Our vehicles were two modified International Harvester 4-wheel-drive, 2½-ton trucks with diesel engines, bench seats, crank windows, roof hatches and, on the truck bed, built-in refrigeration units. The tour subcontractor, Penduka Safaris, has a fleet of these vehicles all equipped with the radio communication system common on African safaris. Those radios saved our bacon more than once.

As we started out the next day, we sorted ourselves between the two vehicles. We were later told that we could not rotate between the vehicles as we had in Namibia; we had to stay with our initial choice for the duration. Although our driver was a very knowledgeable local guide with a phenomenal ability to spot game, this meant that we could not hear any of our principal guide’s instructions and commentaries while traveling — and at the end of the day, he became so involved in supervising the setting up of camp that we had to query the other vehicle’s passengers about the arrangements and schedule for that evening and next day.

When we arrived at our first campsite in Moremi Wildlife Reserve, Xaxanaka, we discovered that some other tour group had hijacked it, despite our having government reservations and permits. After considerable radio traffic, it was decided to divert to a public campsite at Third Bridge. The facilities were a bit weary with use and age, but all of our tents were in the shade.

Our stay in Moremi was outstanding for all of the game we saw. We cannot list all of the species we encountered on game drives and a 3-hour boat trip on the Kwai River of the Okavango Delta. Lions, leopards, hippos, giraffes, zebras, lechwes, elephants and many more were in evidence. The abundance of animals almost matched what we had found years before in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. The destructiveness of an overpopulation of elephants was clearly evident.

At about this point, one of the refrigeration units broke down and we were quickly running out of ice. After various attempts to fix it, the guide arranged for a bush plane to fly in a load of ice.

We left Moremi headed for our Savuti campsite. The Savuti Channel area teems with elephants, lions and many species of antelope. Sadly, our campsite was in an arroyo, so most tents were on a slope with no shade. Even the dining tent was in full sun. One saving grace was that the sun set behind one bank of the arroyo shortly after 6:00.

The showers were buckets fitted with nozzles inside tents. The intense sun quickly heated the buckets of water to unpleasant temperatures. A cold shower would have been great in 100-degree heat.

Our next camp was to be at the remote pan of Nogaatsha. Unfortunately, a brushfire had made that area useless for game viewing. Again after much radio traffic, it was decided to go on to a motel/campsite on the edge of Kasane town. Thankfully, the location included well-built and -maintained showers, toilets and washbasins. The complex even included a small pool.

Kasane rests on the banks of the Chobe River near its confluence with the Zambezi River and the border with Zambia. The game drives along the river were surprisingly productive so close to civilization. We encountered a herd of over 60 sable antelope — a rare sight. Our last night in Kasane was at the very nice Chobe Safari Lodge. From this lodge we had a 3-hour boat ride on the Chobe River that was equally productive for game viewing.

After saying good-bye to our camp crew and assistant guide/driver, our final leg was to Livingstone, Zambia. Our guide accompanied us to the fabulous Zambezi Sun Resort. It had a huge pool, great food and entertainment plus wild animals wandering the grounds. A herd of five zebra colts grazed around the pool area, and giraffes and impalas wandered outside our bedroom lanai to drink at a small pond.

At the farewell dinner, our guide sat at the other table and we never got to say good-bye to him. We were told by someone at that table that he announced he was leaving early the next morning to drive his vehicle back to Maun to prepare for his next safari. We were told that another subcontractor, Bushtracks Africa, would take us to the airport at 2 p.m., and we had to be out of our rooms by 10 a.m.

When 2 p.m. came, there was no transportation. Several buses and vans with Bushtracks Africa markings appeared, but none were for our group. There was plenty of time before our flights, and we knew we could take taxis ($20 for a 15-minute ride), but some travelers in the group became upset. Forty minutes late, our bus finally arrived and all went smoothly thereafter.

Although our guide in Botswana had shortcomings and had to work to a tight schedule, his experience and resourcefulness kept things from spinning out of control. Penduka Safaris’ backup resources, extensive radio network and contacts proved invaluable.

We are not writing this report to seek compensation from Adventures Abroad or any of its subcontractors. We are writing to illustrate what is meant by the admonition that is in every reputable safari operator’s pre-trip materials on Africa: group members should be prepared for unforeseen situations or conditions that may necessitate changes in itinerary, campsites or accommodations, and group members should be flexible and understanding and remain in good humor.

Most of our group in Namibia and Botswana had been on African safaris before and were better prepared. First-timers had a rougher time of it. Hopefully, this chronicle will better prepare novices for their first African adventure.

Honolulu, HI

    ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Adventures Abroad and received the following reply.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond. Mr. Morris’ letter is, overall, fair and balanced. It reflects the essence of travel in Africa — that it can be an unpredictable and adventurous enterprise. As our clients indicate, however, there were some deficiencies and a number of points that warrant addressing or clarification.

Regarding the use of local Tour Leaders, we have been operating in Namibia for about 10 years and in Botswana for about five. Originally, we sent a Tour Leader from North America to escort each trip, but it became clear very quickly that this was perhaps an unnecessary redundancy. The quality of the local leaders was such that clients began to question the need for so much staff, correctly pointing out that it significantly increases trip costs for the consumer and also creates unnecessary crowding in the vehicles.

We have been operating with the same local staff for several years and have had no serious complaints; indeed, passengers appreciate the local experience and expertise. We were, however, dismayed to read of the Morrises’ disappointment with a couple of aspects of the Botswana leadership. We have passed their comments to the appropriate parties.

We have also noted and corrected our predeparture information pertaining to average temperatures and recommended clothing. We actually made these corrections about two months ago at the urging of past travelers.

We also agree that travel in Africa requires flexibility and patience. Indeed, our tour itinerary has always included the following advice: “IT IS IMPORTANT to note that the nature of our activities and exact camp locations over the next few days could be significantly affected by seasonal variations in precipitation and water levels. This itinerary should give a very accurate sense of what will happen over these days, but passengers are urged to be flexible and be prepared for changes at the discretion of our local agents, Tour Leader, and guides.”

We have also admonished our local partner, Bushtracks, regarding the late departure transfer. This is usually a first-class operator with a previously spotless track record. We apologize for the anxiety and inconvenience caused.

Again, we appreciate the chance to respond to the Morris’s letter. Despite the difficulties experienced, we hope that they enjoyed this fascinating and beautiful part of Africa and will choose to travel with us again.

LORNA LISSNER, Manager, Sales & Customer Service, Adventures Abroad, 1124 Fir Ave., PMB 101, Blaine, WA 98230