Is there anywhere in the world that’s as misunderstood as Africa? Lauded as the destination of a lifetime by those fortunate enough to visit on safari — and perhaps equally feared by those who read blistering headlines about war, disease and misfortune — Africa is the subject of many misconceptions and generalizations. Here are five we should put to rest.
Traveling in Gurjarat, India with Immersion Journeys
By Everett Potter
(Photos copyright Rumit Mehta/Immersion Journeys)
This month, we’re offering a giveaway to Ghana’s Zaina Lodge in partnership with Immersion Journeys. I met the company’s founder, Rumit Mehta, a few years ago at the Adventure Travel World Summit and was struck by his friendliness, knowledge and passion for adventure travel. I quickly learned about his remarkable company, Immersion Journeys, and its deeply rooted trips in both Africa and India. That comes as no surprise, since he was born in Kenya to parents of Indian background and raised in Tanzania. Immersion has a wide range of African trips and their India tours are becoming ever more far reaching. In fact, the new Immersion Journeys tour to the western Indian state of Gujarat was just named one of National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Trips of a Lifetime for 2015, the third time they’ve been so honored. I caught up with Rumit in Manhattan, where he lives.
Rumit Mehta, founder of Immersion Journeys
EP. What is your background and how did Immersion Journeys begin?
RM. I am actually an architect by training and worked in the field for 13 years or so in various roles as a designer, and in management and construction. In the mid-2000’s I had a desire for a career change and by then I had already begun dabbling in planning custom trips to Africa for people. Pretty soon it became clear that I could do this full time and pay the bills and Immersion Journeys was born.
EP What makes an Immersion Journeys tour different?
RM We always say that the road from point A to B may be followed by all travelers, but it’s what we do between points A and B that sets us apart. Our trips are highly experiential and guests tend to often get spontaneity on our trips. For example, there might be a sudden stop on the highway in India because there is a camel train and local herdsmen coming towards us, which allows us to get out of the car and interact with them.
Immersion Journeys travelers in Gurjarat
EP Tell me about the trip that was just named one of National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Tours of a Lifetime.
This is an itinerary that travels through Gujarat, a state in western India. It has been under the radar as their core GDP has always been manufacturing and mineral extraction. Plus there’s Rajasthan, the neighboring state has always taken kudos for highly developed tourism. Of late, in the past five years or so, the Gujarat state government has aggressively begun promoting the arts, culture and crafts of Gujarat. It is a state with overwhelming diversity: archeological digs of the Indus valley civilization, a long coast line, a history of trading between Persia, China and Africa for hundreds of years, amazing textile work and hand embroidery that is sold in stores in Europe and the US. It has a deep and patriotic culture involving music, food and dance rituals, and is the only place outside of Africa where lions can be found, and the only place in Asia where one can see herds of wild asses, a now protected species. It is also home to one of the largest Jain temple complexes in the world, accredited by the Guinness Book of World Records, which to this day remains a pilgrimage site and not officially a tourist site. There’s also the famous Raan of Kutch, a white expanse of a salt desert that hosts the annual White Desert festival visited by tourists from the world over. We put all this together to develop an 11-night trip that provides an opportunity to visit Gujarat and lets visitors immerse themselves in many of the experiences mentioned above.
Children in Gurjarat.
EP. For someone who’s never been to Africa, which one of your trips might you suggest?
RM. We always suggest first timers visit either East Africa — Tanzania or Kenya –or South Africa, with an extension to Victoria Falls and/or Botswana. The infrastructure and service levels are amazing plus there’s a high density of wildlife. A lot of decisions are also based on budget. To make things affordable for, say, a party of only two people, we would recommend they take a ‘scheduled departure’ where they share the vehicle with a maximum of four others for a total of six. It makes the trip less expensive but they would still have a fantastic time. If the party is more than 2 people, we would recommend the trip on a private basis.
Our top selling East Africa trips are Discover East Africa, Gems of Northern Tanzania and Kenya Wild life Adventures.
Our top selling Southern Africa trips are Splendors of Southern Africa and Best of Botswana & the Falls
Of course, we can mix and match any of the above.
Musicians in Gujarat, India
EP. And which trip in India for newbies?
RM. A difficult question. India is a country that has no starting or end point for any traveler. Ever! This is because it is so vast and diverse. However, first time travelers to India want to see the highlights, such as Jaipur, Taj Mahal and New Delhi, which is repeatedly marketed and most recognizable world over. Wild life in India is quite amazing with the Bengal tiger as the highlight of any time. India also offers an opportunity to do side extensions like a quick 2 night trip to Amritsar’s Golden Temple or Lucknow. Two of our most popular trips for newbies are: Classic India and Tigers & Kings.
Elephants in Mole National Park, Ghana
EP. Tell me about the Ghana project with Zaina Lodge?
RM. This is a 25 chalet eco-lodge in northern Ghana Molé National Park is the first of its kind in Ghana. The pioneering vision is to have a guest experience a safari in west Africa, when traditionally they would have gone to east or southern Africa. The lodge is set on an escarpment overlooking two watering holes that animals use for their water source. Each tented chalet is luxuriously furnished and has views of the escarpment for miles, indoor and outdoor hot showers, and flush toilets. The common areas consists of an infinity pool, bar and restaurant. The lodge will provide game drives and walks led by professional guides. To get to the lodge is a quick 60 minute flight from Accra to Tamale and then a 90 minute drive on the highway to the park gate. Immersion Journeys is involved in the project as an investor and to also help promote this unique destination.
EP. Is Ghana really a destination for seasoned African travelers?
RM. No, Ghana is a destination for all travelers. It’s also an easy country to travel to as practically everyone speaks English there and is incredibly hospitable. What makes Ghana unique is that it has a long Atlantic coast line offering spectacular beaches, a deep rooted heritage of the Ashanti and other important tribes, and a decent infrastructure of roads and airports. One can learn more about the slave trade and American civil rights leaders who frequented Ghana. You can do a nice 9-10 day trip to Ghana in a relaxed manner and see a lot and end on a high note on a safari. It’s only an 11-hour direct flight from the east coast of the United States to Accra, the capital, so for those with limited time, this is the ideal destination be it the first time in Africa or the forth.
EP. I know that you travel a lot, personally leading many of your trips. You were born in Africa, of Indian descent, and you live in Manhattan. But at the end of the day, where’s the place where you feel most at home?
RM. I still yearn for Africa despite having lived in the U.S for 25 years! Our travelers who have visited Africa can attest to this feeling, as once you visit it you want more. Despite the globalized and free-wheeling atmosphere felt in big cities in Africa, there is a level of simplicity that still exists. I am fortunate that I can travel to Africa on business which allows me to go back to my childhood. I am extremely lucky I can also visit India and connect with my heritage. Just a few months ago I went there and took part in the annual kite flying festival. But home for me is the U.S. now. That’s where I live and own a business. But I still have the option to travel to my former home to re-connect.
I don’t recall who shouted it first. There were four of us clutching cameras in the Toyota Land Cruiser, along with driver Michael Massonda and our guide, Rob Barbour. Maybe we all shouted, but it really didn’t matter, since we all seemed to see the pachyderms at the same time and get equally excited, in Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania on a custom trip with Epic Private Journeys.
A dozen elephants were slowly crossing the road about 50 yards ahead of us and we popped up through the vehicle’s open roof and began to shoot photos. That’s when I caught sight of more elephants out of the corner of my eye, emerging from the bush. A family of elephants. Well, make that two families. Or three, or maybe four families, all crossing the road, but now no more than 20 yards from our vehicle. They kept coming and coming. We were quiet except for occasional camera clicks and our deep exhales.
The only way to shoot elephants in Tarangire National park in Tanzania
For nearly an hour, we watched them. We could observe, up close, their heads, their tusks, their skin that resembled think parchment or maybe old truck tires. They trumpeted and snorted and the little ones trotted by and the big ones swayed and moved with the gentle confidence of enormous beasts who know how big they are. By my rough count, we saw more than 200 elephants move past us and gather in a field below, a social mixer out of a Babar book that I might have read to my daughter.
Of course, those were only the ones I could see.
“There are about 1,000 elephants in Tarangire,” explained our guide, Rob Barbour of Epic, suggesting that there were likely many more in the bush.
By now, I realized that having this elephant floorshow before us was only somewhat due to serendipity. Rob knows the park inside and out. He had made sure we were roused at dawn at Oliver’s Camp, our lodging the night before, to get on this stretch of road at the right time. Stuff happens, to be sure, but you have to be there when the stuff happens.
Hadzabe and Ndorobo bushmen at Alex Walker’s Serian Camp
Africa with Nothing Left to Chance
For nearly two weeks I traveled in northern Tanzania to the north and south Serengeti and to Ngorongoro Crater with Epic Private Journeys, a bespoke travel company that uses only seasoned local guides to offer an authentic experience of the continent. From creating a custom trip to witness the Serengeti migration, walking among gorillas in Rwanda or paddling the waterways of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, their insider’s knowledge is at the heart of every journey. They also take travelers to Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Himalayas, Indonesia and the Americas. Every trip is customized, depending on what you want to see.
Rob Barbour of Epic Private Journeys
Kenyan-born, Australian-reared, Rob Barbour has lived and guided in Tanzania for decades. He’s a medical doctor who served in Australia’s version of the SAS before running his own camps in Tanzania and eventually becoming a principal of Epic, which is headquartered in Brisbane, Australia but has offices in Arusha as well as South Africa and San Diego.
“We leave nothing to chance,” explained Rob, who is fluent in Swahili, brimming with knowledge and curiosity, and deeply aware of his surroundings.
Instead, credit strategic planning. Rob arranged charter flights at key points for our small group, accomplishing in 40 minutes what might have taken six hours of hard travel over rutted dirt roads. We saw the beginnings of the famous wildebeest migration as Rob took us cross country and off road on the southern Serengeti — “There’s plenty of space to play in,” he said — where we spotted hundreds of thousands of galloping wildebeests, packs of vultures devouring a kill, roving hyenas, herds of zebra and gazelles, and two very pregnant lionesses, each one lying in wait by a watering hole. In five hours, we never saw another human being or vehicle.
We first entered Tarangire National Park one afternoon around 4PM, which seemed late in the day to me. It turned out that our late timing was by design, since the lion’s share of safari vehicles were leaving the park to make it to their designated lodging before dark, when it’s too dangerous to drive. Epic, on the other hand, had secured tents at Oliver’s Camp for us, one of the few lodgings within the park. That gave us the benefit of entering at prime afternoon game viewing time as others dashed out.
We would, in time, pretty much have the main game viewing road to ourselves. In fact, the next 90 minutes proved to be remarkable indeed. We saw two cheetahs in the tall, wind blown grass, looking over their shoulders as a pair of lionesses and their cubs climbed an anthill to scan the savannah for game but failed to spot these young cats. Minutes later we located a leopard snoozing in an enormous baobab tree. We passed small herds of impalas and came across a pair locking horns, the repeated clacking noises of the horns clearly audible 50 yards away. We spied two black backed jackals eating figs under a sprawling fig tree, watched skittish packs of zebra and paused besides a trio of ground hornbills, enormous birds that reminded me of the now extinct dodo. We lingered to observe a crèche of half a dozen baby giraffes, attended to by watchful, loping parents. As the sun headed to the horizon, we came across a dozen elephants, blocking the road in the brilliant light.
My accommodations at Oliver’s Camp, with roaring lions at no extra charge
In 90 minutes, we had seen a week’s worth African wildlife. I doubt that Sir David Attenborough could have orchestrated the hour and a half any better. By the time I fell asleep in my thatched-roofed tent at Oliver’s Camp, I thought I had heard and seen it all. That is, until I was awakened in the middle of the night by guttural roars outside. I had never heard lions in the wild before and I almost couldn’t hear them over my heart beats. It may have explained the presence on an airhorn beside the bed. Even if you’ve never heard a lion at night, you know instinctively what the sound is.
The next morning, over a breakfast of ripe mango and perfectly poached eggs, we compared notes along the lines of “Did you hear …?”
Rob may not have cued the lions. But he clearly knew where the wild things are in Tanzania.
Lioness in the Serengeti
There are really two components to any African safari: the game viewing and the lodges. Ideally, they should compliment each other.
“The secret of Epic is that we design trips based on what game you want to see and then figure out the best place for you to stay based on your budget,” Rob explained. “Not vice versa.”
We stayed at luxury lodges, mobile camps and rustic camps but they were all strategically located to maximize wildlife viewing. They included the famous Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, an over the top spectacle with décor that was a mash up of Alice in Wonderland, Salvador Dali and Karen Blixen. We also sampled the cool neo-Edwardian luxury of Singita Sasakwa Lodge, where most any CEO would be happy and where most guests, if they can afford it, are made to feel like CEO’s.
The newest property of Legendary Lodges, it feels like an Aman resort but even more exclusive, with just eight luxury tent suites. However, these are to tents what Aston Martin’s are to automobiles, luxury lairs well separated from each other, with a soaking tub, indoor and outdoor shower, a deck cantilevered over a rushing river, and air conditioning that, in green fashion, envelopes just the king size bed alone. Situated cliffside on an enormous private game concession with a private airstrip, it’s the latest property from Dan Friedkin, whose Friedkin Conservation Fund preserves large swaths of Tanzania. The nature of a private concession, by the way, is that you can go off road, by day or even on night safaris with a bright spotlight, and encounter no one else. Our night drive yielded a dozen bush babies in the trees, a curious hyena, a chameleon and fun if fruitless search for a prowling leopard.
Alex Walker is a charming and safari-savvy Tanzanian and his mobile camp in the south Serengeti, which eventually is packed up and moved to follow the Great Migration north, is a proper Out of Africa experience. Guest tents are enormous, with ensuite baths. The lodge tent has carpets, comfortable couches, a massive coffee table piled high with books and a drinks table ready to welcome. Alex has access to local Masaai bushmen and they took us on a three hour game walk. It finished with one of them showing his skill with a homemade bow and arrow, piercing a three inch acacia tree from 90 feet with the first shot.
Our most rustic accommodation, it consisted of five tents with pit latrines and buckets showers in enclosures behind each one. Wayo is set in Lake Manyara National Park, on a sandy watercourse and next to a cascading waterfall and the jungle clad walls of an escarpment. We climbed up the rocks alongside the waterfall, careful not to disturb the resident hippo in the pool below, and sipped a Kilimanjaro beer (slogan: “If you can’t climb it, drink it”) while a troop of baboons looked down on us from the trees above. In time, we dined at a table under the stars and found enormous hippo footprints the following morning, followed by an elephant encounter that rivaled the one in Tarangire.
Managed by a witty Brit named Nick and his adorable German wife Jana, this is Swiss Family Robinson redefined. Each private lodge is a one bedroom hut with a twig roof. Inside is Scandinavian-designed rusticity and simplicity. A floor-to-ceiling wall of screen makes you feel like you are indeed outside, with view to the hills of Kenya. If the night is cool, as it was during my stay, a hot water bottle will be awaiting in your bed. The lounge, with its fireplace and multiple sitting areas, is ideal for socializing, and we managed quite a bit of that in a short visit.
The great view of snowcapped Mt Kilimanjaro, some 50 miles distant, would make it worth staying here. But Marlies and Jörg Gabriel offer a charming and comfortable guest experience as well, and Marlies took me on a brief game drive in adjacent Arusha National Park, introducing me to warthogs, giraffe, Cape buffalo and hippos. This lodge was the backdrop for the John Wayne movie Hatari and Wayne’s co star Hardy Kruger later bought it and kept it as his farm. Set at the foot of Mt Meru, it’s not far from Arusha and the international airport, and therefore ideal for a first or last night in Tanzania.
A word on the food: overall, it was remarkably good, especially considering some of it came out of mobile kitchens. Most mornings began with French press coffee, eggs, fruits and pastries, while lunches could be packed sandwiches or multi-course meals in camp that invariably began with a variation on vegetable soup. Dinners were also multi-course, leisurely and often at communal tables, the better to share the day’s stories. Western comfort food, from steak and Caesar salads to fresh tilapia and fresh salads, prevailed at dinner, with an abundance of freshly prepared vegetables, homemade desserts as well as South African wines and Kilimanjaro beer at the ready.
If you go:
A classic nine day safari with Epic that includes seeing the migration in Serengeti National Park and game drives in Tarangire National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater begins at $600 per person, per day, land only.
I can’t think of a better guide to Africa than the travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux. He went to Malawi in 1963 as a Peace Corps volunteer when he was 22 and traveled extensively through the eastern half of the continent to write the bestseller Dark Star Safari a decade ago. Now he’s back after a trek through West Africa, through some of the most hellish places on earth, writing about it in his new book, The Last Train to Zona Verde. The author of The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster discovers “cities that were indistinguishable from one another in their squalor and decrepitude.” As in the best of his many books, Theroux convincingly takes you along for every manic bus ride. His wonderment is yours, whether he’s contemplating eating a flyblown leg of chicken, dealing with a ferocious Angolan border guard, or deciding that this time, he’s had quite enough. It’s a remarkable, teeth-gritting tale, and I caught up with him this week to ask him a few questions.
EP: Paul, has any other place you’ve traveled been quite as hellish as Angola?
PT: Yes – many but the place that stands out is Vietnam in 1973, when I took the train to Hue, the war was still hot but US troops had mostly withdrawn. A period of suspense and violence, which I wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar.
EP: One of the revelations of “The Last Train to Zona Verde” is that all is not what it seems with the Jo/’hoansi in Namibia. But are there tribal peoples in Africa still living a life in the bush that is closer to the stone age than the 21st century?
PT: Not really. Virtually all peoples in Africa have contact with the delights of civilization, such as soldiers, missionaries, tax collectors and dictators.
EP: Early in the book, you say that “If I had a sense of foreboding about this trip, it was because travel into the unknown can also be like dying.” Is Africa an extreme version of this foreboding, since three people you meet in the course of writing the book do, in fact, die?
PT: I did have an eerie feeling, and it;s true that three people I came to like, who befriended me died. And now that number is four, because Vicki, a woman who ran a tiny guest house in a township outside Cape Town – she welcomed me – was stabbed to death by her husband not long ago.
EP: The singer Bono of U2 comes up for some barbed comments in the book – a “ubiquitous meddler,” you call him — and other do-gooders, charities and aid agencies fare no better. Why do these types get under your skin so much?
PT: Because to improve their image they present themselves as saviors in places that are quite capable of saving themselves, and they distort the reality of life in Africa. I wish they would either join the Peace Corps or else go away.
EP: You travel through parts of South Africa, Namibia and Angola on this trip, and visit “… futureless places … of stupefying disorder.” You also make an impassioned argument towards the end of the book about why enough is quite enough, that it’s time to go home and not continue further along the West African coast. But you also state early on that “Africa drew me onward because it is still so empty, so apparently unfinished and full of possibilities…” Do you still believe that?
PT: Yes, the great green heart of Africa is largely in its natural state, and there is always hope in wilderness.
EP: “The Last Train to Zona Verde” ends with you remarking on similarities between the red clay roads of the African bush and the American South, and of the poor people who live in both places. Will you write about these Americans, and this part of the United States?
PT: I have a longing to look deeply into the rural south, the Deep South, and hope to find something to write about.
EP: You mention traveling in Africa with a shortwave radio, something I used to do years ago. I gave it up in the age of the Internet but do you still rely on BBC World Service and other stations to keep you connected when you’re off the grid?
PT: A small shortwave radio is a great friend, when you are in an outof the way place and want to know whats happening in the world. I am speaking of places without TV or internet connections, and there are many in Africa.
EP: I’m curious to know what you did upon leaving Africa. Did you go somewhere for R&R?
PT: Home is always R & R for me – after all, I live in Hawaii half the time and Cape Cod the rest.
EP: Are you still kayaking? I really enjoyed “The Happy Isles of Oceania” and shorter pieces you’ve done on kayaking off Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.
PT: I was paddling off the North Shore of Oahu just the other day and in fact sighted some humpback whales in the distance. And it’s a satisfaction to me that The Happy Isles is still in print and finding new readers.
EP: This may be your last book on Africa, but will you write another travel book?
PT: I hope so, because the ambition to write one is an excuse to go to the ends of the earth.
This made the ceaseless toil of travel sweet.” (“Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Byron)
For 50 years Paul Theroux has been a traveling man, and as dean of American travel writing, chronicled his wanderings in fifteen best-selling books. Like Childe Harold, for Theroux it has not been a question of happiness but the happiness of the quest. Occasionally, as in “The Kingdom by the Sea,” he has come across as ornery as a bunkhouse cook, but, for me, that has been part of the great charm found in his writings. Lovely prose, displaying the curiosity of great explorers, opinions!, chronicling the Sisyphrustrations of hard daily travels absent in “tourism” have been the admirable hallmarks of his travel narratives.
Ten years ago in “Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town” Theroux explored the right-hand-side of Africa. In his new “The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari” he resumes his trip in Cape Town and “after seeing how that city had changed in ten years, travel north in a new direction up the left-hand-side until I found the end of the line, either on the road or in my mind.” Both it turns out in this bitter-sweet wonderfully-crafted book that takes him from South Africa north through Namibia to the dreadful abyss of Angola. Energetic Paul Theroux has aged very well (he is 71), but much of the Africa he found in this new book is a violent trashcan of MRE’s (morally repugnant elites) or living-on-the-edge poor folk.
It starts well in Cape Town– improved townships, a booming economy, the enduring beauty of Table Mountain which holds more plant species than all of the British Isles—and lovely towns to the northwest like Citrusdal and Springbok. Namibian cities like Windhoek and Swakopmund are clean and orderly, reflecting their Germanic heritage. But look on their outskirts: hardscrabble gatheringslike Swakopmund’s Mondesa bleak township with its poverty, high HIV/AIDS infection rates, unemployment, and general neglect.
And it gets worse the closer Theroux gets to Angola, the only African colony that began as a penal settlement. “Portugal’s Siberia” Theroux calls it, now obscenely rich ($40 billion annually) from off-shore oil and diamonds, yet remains a brutalized landscape with stumps of deforestation, burned-out tanks from a decades-long civil war, poisoned streams, no wild animals (all killed in the fighting or eaten by the hungry populace).He gamely endures the squalor, an ATM fraud of $48,000, the rudeness and contempt of officials, the deaths of three friends (one beaten to death), inedible food, what sociologists call “challenging urban environments” and we call bad neighborhoods, as he sinks into a Lear-like lamentation at the ruination of his beloved Africa. By the end you picture our seasoned traveler with his head in his hands like Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Gachet.
“Zona Verde” is a euphemism for the bush, the non-urban outback Theroux loves the most. Yet this train-loving traveler refuses the trip: “Not this time. I had no desire to board the train. And, thinking it, I was joyous—a great relief to conclude that this was the end of my trip. No more…I felt beckoned home.” OWAWA, oh well, Africa wins again.
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters
Fed a steady diet of bleak wildlife conservation news out of Africa, especially with regard to the increase in poaching elephants in Kenya and Tanzania, I was delighted to hear the latest news out of Uganda. The last census reports a 12% increase in the gorilla population. The survey found that there are now 880 gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, up from 786 in 2010. The best way to celebrate that news is to get yourself over to Uganda and see the gorillas firsthand, an unparalleled travel experience. If you visit Bwindi in April and May, the $500 per day permit will be reduced to $350. To make the most of your time, consider Africa Adventure Consultants new 10-day Uganda Flying Safari. Eliminating many of the longer drives, the trip starts in the Kibale forest, where you spend two days viewing the chimps. Then it’s on to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where you can see over 95 recorded mammal species and enjoy a boat excursion that takes you for a close-up look at the largest concentration of hippos in the world (reported to be about 30,000). Finish your safari with 2 days of gorilla trekking at Bwindi. Now that’s a memorable trip!
Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at Active Travels.
When I hear the words “bike tour,’ I usually think of a week of cycling in Provence, Vermont or Napa Valley. I picture relatively easy riding, incredible scenery and great food and wine, neatly packaged into a six-night trip by an adventure travel company.
What the words “bike tour” don’t conjure in my imagination is a four month trek from Cairo to Capetown or a 2,700 mile ride from Paris to Istanbul. These are rides where your mind and body are tested and where strenuous riding is often the rule, as are deep cultural encounters you’re unlikely to have on a six-day pedal.
The company that offers such extraordinary adventure experiences is Tour d’Afrique and I learned about them from a guy named Shanny Hill, whom I met at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Lucerne, Switzerland last October.
Shanny is the Project manager for the Toronto-based company and we recently had a chance to speak about the groundbreaking trips that his company offers.
Shanny Hill of Tour d’Afrique in Ethiopia
EP: How did Tour d’Afrique Ltd begin?
SH: Tour d’Afrique Ltd was conceived in the late 1980’s when Henry Gold, the company’s Founder and Director, was managing an international NGO that delivered humanitarian assistance to disadvantaged communities in Ethiopia and other African countries. His original concept was to produce inexpensive, rugged mountain bikes in Africa, for Africans, as a low cost solution to local transportation needs, and to market this new bicycle by organizing a cycling race across the continent – the Tour d’Afrique.
While the mountain bike project did not take off, the pioneering vision of the Tour d’Afrique proved irresistible. In early 2002 Henry and Michael de Jong began the preparations in earnest, undaunted by enormous skepticism and the mountain of logistical challenges to be overcome, and, on January 15, 2003, thirty-three cyclists saddled up at the Pyramids at Giza and started pedaling south. Four months later, with Table Mountain and Cape Town in sight, they celebrated the realization of their dream and the establishment of the Guinness World Record for the fastest human powered crossing of Africa.
Since then our unique little company has grown, in leaps and bounds, through many trials and tribulations. The Tour d’Afrique has been recognized as the world’s longest and most challenging stage race. Following in its spirit, several more continental and sub-continental cycling expeditions have been undertaken,
All told more than 800 intrepid souls have now completed one of our epic trans-continental rides. Through our Foundation, and the donations of many of our clients, more than 2000 bicycles have been distributed to health care and community development workers in Africa and India.
The Orient Express Cycling Expedition, from Paris to istanbul, with Tour D’Afrique
EP: Give us an example of some of your trips and their length.
SH: Here are three of our upcoming trips. The North America Epic is just as it sounds – an epic cycling ride across all of our great continent from Anchorage to Mexico City. The intrepid cyclists from all across the globe will cycle 7,000 miles through Canada and the USA, and then along stunning Baja Peninsula before returning to mainland Mexico to cycle the final leg into Mexico City. This epic journey under human power takes 4 months and gets underway in Anchorage on Independence Day.
The Orient Express Cycling Expedition follows in the spirit of the luxury train line that once crossed Europe from Paris to Istanbul. But this is no luxury tour of Europe. We will be pedaling our way through each day and each town – covering 60 miles each day and staying in campsites and 2 and 3 star hotels to rest our heads in some of Europe’s hotspots – like Ulm, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest. This 2,700 miles journey takes 6 weeks during July and August. We arrive in Istanbul on August 25 after a ferry ride down the Bosphorus Strait. We take advantage of Europe’s rich history, wonderful cycling routes, explore its great cities, and its fabulous countryside scenery, at a pace much slower than the Orient Express trains of the past.
Our inaugural Bamboo Road Cycling Expedition will become the mother tour of South East Asia. This truly trans-continental trip will take participants from the metropolis of Shanghai, thru southern China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and then ending in the city-state of Singapore. For several years now, SE Asia has been a popular destination for cycling tourists, and we want to offer a grand tour that can encompass a great deal of the region in one tour.
EP: Who’s going on these trips, how many riders, what are their ages, and how experienced are they as riders?
SH: The people who are participating in our tours are from all walks of life it seems. From nuclear physicists, to truck drivers, and teachers, they have many varied professions. Though we typically have 60 to 70 % males on our tours, we are increasingly seeing more and more women participating and more and more nationals from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, UK, Canada, and the USA. We have also had Brazilians, Egyptians, South Africans, Taiwanese, and many other nationals from emerging markets.
The skill level and experience of our participants is also quite varied. We have serious racers, and fit seniors, to first time cycle tourists who come on our tour and treat it as their own weigh loss program. Participants are as young as 18 and have been as old as 71. We do our best to accommodate all that wish to participate with staffing, cooks, and support vehicles working to create a framework built to give them the best chance at completing each day’s ride.
Chow times on the North American Epic, Tour d’Afrique
EP: How about accommodations and meals?
SH: Most of our tours are a mixture of camping and simple hotels. Our new tour of South East Asia, along with a few others, are all hotel or indoor accommodation. We choose simple and practical hotels when staying indoors. While camping in some of our more remote locations in Africa and Asia, we do some rough camping where our support trucks, and the water and supplies they carry are all that we have to sustain us for the night.
We do not compromise on is food. We have used trained chefs on many of our tours, because we know the importance of a tasty and nutritious meals at the end of a long day of cycling. You don’t ever want to have a hungry cyclists on a tour.
EP: Are there guides along for the entire ride or do I need to be proficient in map reading and another language or two?
SH: We have tour support staff that help create a framework of support. The style of our tours means that we also expect the participants to be involved in the process and involved in making the tour a success. This can mean that the participants will be using maps at times to double check the directions given by the tour leader, helping the chef chop vegetables to prepare for dinner, or helping others in the group with their bags perhaps. The idea is that on an expedition of this nature, its necessary that staff and clients work together as a team.
With that said, we do provide a great deal of staff support – with most of our longer expeditions having a full time medic, chef, bike mechanic, drivers, and tour leader.
EP: What sort of training regimen is required for these rides?
SH: We send out training tips to our registered riders. The most common thing that interrupts riding on tour is soreness. Sore knees, sore backs, sore butts…. The best way to combat this is to ride regularly in the run up to the tour. At a minimum we suggest you start some dedicated training 3 months before the tour starts.
Riding at least three times a week for a minimum of two hours each time. This could be in the form of cross training or bike rides at a steady pace. This will get you to the tour start with a base of fitness and well adjusted to your bike.
EP: You’ve got five levels of difficulty –easy, moderate, average, challenging and hard. How hard is “hard?”
SH: Good question. Hard can be very hard.
If I think back to my toughest days on one of our tours, it would be in Northern Kenya – part of the ‘Meltdown Madness‘ section that is rated as hard. Picture yourself riding in the rocky desolate landscape of the Dida Galgalu desert for 60 to 70 miles in 100 degree heat with no shade over a terribly rutted road. Now picture doing that for 5 days straight.
The truth is that this section described here has actually recently been paved and we may soon drop the rating down a notch to ‘difficult’
There are other examples I could come up with, but the truth about these ‘hard’ sections is they are often the most memorable, and people who at the start of a tour were struggling through the easiest of stages, find themselves stronger and more determined and ready to face these hard stages halfway through the journey.
We also have many sections with much lower difficulty rating, and so the ratings scale is definitely worth checking out.
North American Epic, Tour d’Afrique
EP: Tell me more about the North American Epic.
SH: The North American Epic was redesigned for 2013 to become a truly unique and truly trans-continental tour. In 2011 it was an west to east tour – from San Francisco to St. John’s, Newfoundland. This was a good route, but not quite exotic enough for our taste, and not truly a crossing of all of the North American continent.
Now with the new route from Anchorage to Mexico City, participants can see a line on a map stretching all the way across our continent. With many other tours being offered across the US or Canada from West to East, this tour give people a chance to cover the continent North to South.
Interestingly, those that have already signed up to participate are not North Americans, but people from all across the globe that want to come here and experience these places from the seat of their bicycle. They are from Norway, Britain, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to name a few.
EP: Can you do parts of the North American Epic, if you do don’t have time for the entire journey?
SH: Of course. All our expeditions are split into 2 and 3 week segments to allow people to be part of the experience while not committing to the long time require to complete the whole expeditions. The North American Epic is split into 8 tantalizing sections. With names like ‘Land of the Midnight Sun‘ and ‘Alaska Highway’ and ‘Canyonlands‘ interested cyclists are sure to find a section that suits their interests and timeframe.
We have had some people do a section at a time and eventually completing one of our trans-continental tours over the course of several years.
Tour d’Afrique riders in India
EP: Any new trips planned for Tour d’Afrique?
SH: Yes, we always have new projects in the works. The Bamboo Road Cycling Tour described earlier is one, and in 2014 we will start where that tour left off and launch the Trans-Oceania from Singapore to Sydney, Australia – crossing the outback and cycling through Adelaide, Melbourne on our way to the big finish at the Opera house in Sydney.
And, with the completion of this tour, we will have completed all the tours we needed to be able to offer the 7 Epics Challenge – a global cycling challenge for the truly crazy cyclists. A series of 7 supported cycling epics that touch every corner of the globe.
Keeping true to the theme of my blog, everyday in Kenya, I have had the pleasure of meeting someone remarkable and it’s been nothing short of inspiring. On April 13th, Michael Dyer, touched down in his private aircraft to pick me up and personally escort me to Borana Ranch & Safari Lodge. Michael comes from a long line of entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Overachieving seems to run in his family too—from his amazing wife, Nicky, his brothers and his cousin Ian Craig.
Michael and Nicky, opened Borana Ranch & Safari Lodge on the family owned land in 1990, which happened to be the first eco-lodge in the area. The grounds of Borana are breathtakingly beautiful and animals are everywhere—precisely what you would like to see on safari. A giraffe literally stared in through my window while I was having a coffee and I could see the cape buffalo at the lake below.
On horseback at Borana
I was impressed in speaking with the hotel manager, Flick Woodhouse, to hear that Borana actually offered a plethora of experiences beyond game drives. Sad as it is to say, I was getting a bit tired of bouncing around in a safari vehicle. In addition to safari, bush dinners and visits to the local village, Borana has horse back riding, mountain biking (not for the faint hearted), the Ngare Ndgare Forest where you can go trout fishing or see the endangered rhino.
While the adventure offerings at Borana are vast, I was beginning to crave some human connection. And boy did I come to the right place! For over 20 years, Michael has dedicated himself to helping teach and implement the importance of preservation, conservation, working with and supporting the community. So much to my delight, Michael and Nicky also offer guests the opportunity to visit the tannery, where they employ and then teach local disabled or blind people the craft.
Dentist at the clinic.
And given their dedication to the local people, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that they also started a mobile medical clinic eight years ago. They employ two nurses and a driver to visit the local villages across the Laikipia region, Monday-Friday. These hardworking women treat over 20,000 patients per year—from vaccinations, HIV/AIDS education and notably planned parenthood.
An observer at the Unity Cup
While these projects were impressive, I was both honored and floored when Michael and Nicky kidnapped me for a day. On the very bumpy, curvy drive, we passed through multiple villages and by people who had literally nothing.
Imagine my surprise when our final destination turned out to be a soccer field (as we say in the US, or football everywhere else in the world).
At the match, I learned that Michael was one of the founders of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum which is a member driven organization that brings together land owners and resource users (from large-scale ranchers to small scale farmers) to tackle the challenges in the Laikipia ecosystem.
And the LWF as it turns out, is one of the key sponsors of the “Laikipia And Beyond Unity Cup Football Tournament,” held on a biennial basis. LUC was created to utilize the power of sport to bring together the diverse communities within Laikipia in a constructive spirit of peace and harmony, to build environmental awareness and deliver free health care to the communities of Laikipia.
Two years ago, the LUC brought together 32 teams in remote rural locations throughout the district during 5 separate three day weekends, thousands of people participated in environmental education sessions and activities, ranging from tree planting, town ‘clean up’s’ to water conservation activities and over 12,000 people received free medical treatment, primarily women and children.
At the game, the players, the volunteers and the children all stepped back from their daily hardship to enjoy being together. Post game, Michael took me back to visit the medical clinic. The lines were endless for the free aid, but it was so wonderful to see the local people taking advantage of the services provided by the volunteer doctors. I have immense respect for the brave patients who literally had their teeth pulled in front of hundreds of people without any painkillers. There was never screaming, only smiles, “asante sana” (thank you) and handshakes.
No matter where we walked, players, kids, patients, doctors and the organizer of SAFE, a show put on to communicate the importance of unity pre-election (picture of SAFE truck below), greeted Michael with smiles and hugs. Even the cooks preparing dinner for the players happened to be cutting up some sheep that Michael had (of course) donated for the weekend.
While I may not have seen all the wildlife and adventure Borana has to offer, meeting Michael and his family, learning about the work that they do to give back, was one of the most inspiring experiences for me to date. Please take some time to learn more about the Laikipia Wildlife Forum and the powerful impact the “Unity Cup” has on bringing people together through sport and for such a powerful purpose.
Borana isn’t such a bad place to vacation either. If you have a chance to pick Michael and Nicky’s brain during your visit, I highly recommend doing so. Their energy and dedication is truly awe-inspiring. It’s no surprise that they bring smiles to the faces of everyone, including me, around them. I hope you have the chance to meet them and experience the great work that they do.
More about Laikipia Wildlife Forum, the Zeitz Foundation, the “Unity Cup” and other major sponsors:
Borana Lodge, Laikipia, North Central Kenya: Rustic luxury lodges. Built in 1993, the first eco-lodge in the Laikipia region and the first time I’ve had a door and windows since I left Nairobi! Outdoor seating area over looking the watering hole. Pool, village and school visits, spa treatments in room, horse back riding, hikes, mountain biking and game drives. Also, Pride Rock which inspired Lion King is a short drive from the lodge. There is a pride of 18 lions on the ranch. Ngare Ndare Forest for hikes and rhino spotting. Great place for families. Spotty Wi-Fi in room. Safari Link or Air Kenya to the Lewa airstrip.
Michaela S Guzy most recently served as Vice President, overseeing the travel and development of new initiatives for all American Express Publishing brands – Travel+Leisure, Food&Wine, Executive Travel, Departures and Black Ink.