At Last, Moderately Priced Cultural Tours of Africa

Tracing Nelson Mandela's footsteps to an island prison, touring ancient slave-market cities, and biking through coastal villages offer perspectives you won't get on a safari

Thundering herds of wildebeest, prides of lions, great masses of elephants and giraffes, chattering monkeys, and lumbering water buffalo--all of them viewed from the safety of an open-topped van. That's the portrait of Africa to which most of the travel industry limits itself; the overwhelming majority of Africa tours tend to be wildlife safaris. For viewing an altogether different aspect of that immense continent--the vitally important cultures, politics, and society of Africa--the travel programs are few and rarely available for less than $4,000 or $5,000 per person.

Until now, that is. Just in the past several years, a handful of dedicated Africa tour operators have begun to offer travel programs to the cities (and therefore the actual life) of Africa, priced as low as $2,500, and occasionally, for a breathtaking $1,550, including round-trip airfare from the United States. Though these expenditures are far above the usual recommended levels of Budget Travel, they are at least explained by the high airfare cost for reaching most African capitals, and they are justified by the importance of the subject matter.

"Ten years ago there was no one rocking the boat, no one saying these prices were way too high," says Ken Hieber, owner of 2Afrika (877/200-5610 or 201/533-1075, 2afrika.com) based in Jersey City, New Jersey.

"Americans were not very educated about this part of the world, and they truly were being led by the nose. There was a terrible exploitation of the U.S. travel market when it came to cultural tours of Africa. But with the Internet came the ability to do comparison-shopping, and more and more tour operators realized that they could no longer justify ridiculously high rates."

In the path of Nelson Mandela, and sophisticated Cape Town

For the past seven years, South African-born Hieber has been selling low-cost cultural tours to South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, independent of his low-cost safaris to Tanzania and Kenya. His business is booming.

"I was bent on creating great trips at affordable prices for the average working person, not the chichi rich tourist, and my tours have increased by 45 percent in recent years," says Hieber. "I tell people that I don't sell status; I sell Africa. The truth is that when people travel to Africa without all the pretense of a luxury tour, the local people react to them much better. They can relate to them, they respect them more, and they welcome them with great warmth."

While new specials are regularly posted on 2Afrika's Web site, some of the company's recent deals have included a truly inspiring tour called "Madiba" (Nelson Mandela's clan name), which traces the footsteps of the famous anti-apartheid leader with a tour of his Robben Island prison cell off the coast of Cape Town, as well as Johannesburg, Soweto, Pretoria, the Cape of Good Hope, and several wine regions of the country. The tour includes airfare on South African Airways from New York or Atlanta, all hotels for eight nights in South Africa, all transportation, and some meals. Price: $2,695 (an optional three-day trip to Victoria Falls at the start of the tour is $475).

Another 2Afrika special is a hard-to-believe bargain of a nine-day package to Cape Town, including airfare from New York or Atlanta and accommodations for six nights at one of the better hotels in the city, for all of $1550, surely a travel-pricing record. 2Afrika also offers a few add-on excursions, including two on the famed Blue Train, an air-conditioned journey through the countryside that is part luxury hotel and part gourmet restaurant. Trips are available from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls with prices starting at $995 per person (based on double occupancy) for a deluxe compartment for four nights.

Ashanti drummers, the Ivory Coast, and the legacy of slavery

Based in New Milford, Connecticut, Africa Desk (800/284-8796 or 860/354-9341, africadesk.com) is another highly reliable source for low-cost Africa tours.

Founded in 1981 by Christine Tyson, a divorced mother of two with $86 in her pocket, Africa Desk is also noted for its specially designed "Postcards" trips, soft-adventure travel packages for women that attract American females from all walks of life. Postcards trips focus on "women-sensitive issues" that relate to the women of Africa (and other parts of the world), and often include visits with schoolchildren, teachers, and music and dance groups. Most of the company's packages include fully escorted tours, but it can also arrange specially designed trips for independent travelers.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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