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
The 4 1/2-week "Tribal Lands of West Africa Tour," which begins in Accra, includes the slave castles of Ghana, the ancient capital of the Ashanti, fetish markets in Togo, the ancient slave-market city of Ouidah in Benin, Hausa villages of Nigeria, and beautiful beach towns in Cameroon. Cost: $1,810. And the 18-day/12-night "Journey to Timbuctoo," with transportation via bus, boat, and dugout canoe, includes stops in Dakar, Djenne, and Dogon villages before a trip down the Niger River to legendary, mysterious Timbuktu itself, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Cost: $1,500.
Africa by bicycle
Based in Seattle, the International Bicycle Fund (206/767-0848, ibike.org/ibike) is still another down-to-earth alternative. A nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable tourism and cross-cultural encounters, the IBF has a "Bicycle Africa Program" run by former Peace Corps volunteer David Mozer, who has over 25 years' experience traveling throughout Africa. Described as soft-adventure tours that average about 40 miles a day, the program runs about 12 trips a year to 16 nations.
"Most of our clients are well traveled, well read, and rather independent people," says Mozer. "Many have traveled on their own to other exotic places, but when it comes to Africa they think they would be more comfortable in a group."
On all of our trips, our goals are to give an overview of the diversity and complexity of African culture, to be environmentally friendly, and to have a positive impact on the local economy. We buy local foods, hire local guides, and use small lodgings."
Mozer's clients range in age from 17 to 70, but most are in their 40s and 50s. Most are novice bikers, and the average group size is seven to ten people. The small hotels and private homes where they stay may not be elegant, but they are safe, clean, and African to the core. Breakfasts and dinners are included; airfare is extra.
Among a far broader selection, IBF's tours include the 14-day/13-night "Guinea: West Africa People-to-People," which consists of rides through the Futa Jalo mountains and the Guinea coast, and several rural lifestyle and cultural programs with the Manike, Peuhl, and Soussou peoples of the West African coast. Cost: $990. The 13-day/12-night "Uganda: Pearl of Africa" tour includes rides through Entebbe, Kampala, the Rift Valley, Kibale National Forest, rural villages, cultural centers, and visits to museums. Cost: $990.
In over 20 years of leading bike tours to the most remote parts of Africa, Mozer claims he has never had a bad experience, nor has he had one bike stolen.
"The reaction we get from locals is amazing," he says. "When we ride into small towns, people come running out to meet us. They offer us drinks and bananas and they invite us into their homes. I remember an old man once in a small village who said to me, 'You're not like the other tourists who drive by in those big buses. Seeing you ride into my little village makes my heart big.'"
Custom-designed group tours to Africa
Finally, a seasoned South African-born travel specialist who offers affordable custom-planned group trips to his home continent: Norman Pieters, the owner of Karell's African Dream Vacations (800/327-0373 or 305/446-7766, karell.com). Based in Coral Gables, Florida, Pieters' company has been selling tours to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana for 18 years.
"When it comes to travel to Africa, what I've seen in recent years is that people's travel budgets do not always reflect their financial standing. Many people who can afford to spend a lot prefer not to, and are concerned about getting good value for their money," says Pieters.
For a fee of $250, he will custom design a tour and hunt for bargains. But first, he puts his clients to work.
"For most people, Africa is a great unknown, and they often view it as a country rather than the enormous continent that it is," says Pieters. "So I give them homework to do. They must read up on the different places and decide what their priorities are. Do they want a cultural or simply a big-game nature experience? Once I know those answers, I can scrimp to put together a terrific but affordable trip." Pieters recently designed a 14-day escorted tour for American teenagers that took in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Sun City, Kruger National Park, Zimbabwe, and Victoria Falls. His price was $3,000 per person and included airfare from the U.S., all transportation in Africa, first-rate hotels, and all meals.