My trip to Africa was the first time I’ve ever participated in an extended group tour. I’ve signed up for an adventure excursion here or there where I’ve spent a couple of days at a time with strangers, but certainly never a whole week through two countries. Frightening? A bit.
Here’s what a typical day was like during our 8-day group tour through Kenya and Tanzania:
6am: Crawl, bleary-eyed, out of my bed/sleeping bag and get ready for the day. Wash-up, shower, try to look presentable (thankfully, it’s still dark outside).
Anyone want to guess what our earliest wake-up time was? Okay, I’ll tell you: 4:45am.
6:20am: Disassemble tent and pack up gear and personal belongings for the upteenth time. Bring everything back to our extra long, extra tall bus, our second home for the week.
Sleeping mats and storage lockers aboard the bus
6:30am: Check the daily task list to figure out what chore I’m responsible for today. The possibilities are cleaning the bus, helping cook (e.g. chopping vegetables- whew, I can handle that!), washing dishes, or scrubbing pots.
6:35am: Wash our hands using mandatory ultra-sanitary 3-step washing system: soap bar, antiseptic, rinse.
6:36am: Breakfast courtesy of our talented cook, Sylvia, who kept us plump, well-fed, and happy three times a day for the duration of the trip.
7:00am: Dish washing crew reports for duty.
7:15am: Since everything has to be packed up quickly so that we can hit the road, there’s no time to let dishes dry naturally so everyone steps in to help fling them dry.
7:30am-noon: On the road again, going places that we’ve never been.
On this particular Intrepid group tour, our driver, Rusty, is no doubt the hardest working person on staff. The vast majority of the day is spent aboard the bus, either commuting to our next destination or searching for animals on a game drive.
A treat for our last game drive: smaller 4 x 4s to explore the Ngorongoro Crater
noon: Lunchtime! Lunch crew helps cut up vegetables and fruit before Sylvia assembles it into an incredible meal. She never tells us what we’re chopping vegetables for; remarkably, it’s almost always the same vegetables, but somehow she manages to create a completely different local dish each time.
1pm: Dish washing, flinging commences.
1:15pm-5pm: Fun time resumes; another game drive or an off the beaten path activity in a local village.
Bike ride through a village
Watch a soapstone carving presentation. I still long for this chess set, my “one that got away.”
Shop for souvenirs at a crafts market
Visit a local food market to admire the rainbow-hued beans
Sometime during the day: Wait patiently for a resolution when bus battery dies/blows a tire/stops to help tow other safari vehicles out of the mud.
Loading lunch supplies from our bus onto a smaller truck while our bus was being fixed
5pm: Home sweet home. Arrive at yet another amazing location and set up camp.
5:30pm: Dinner time! Repeat cooking, eating, dish washing, flinging.
7:30pm: Have a drink and chit chat with fellow travelers, under a majestic tree, around a fire, and other similarly amazing situations.
9pm: Wow, it is late. Bedtime!
Who in their right mind pays good money to wake up before the sun, do chores and sleep on the floor? Well I guess we did. And it was awesome. Even as someone who isn’t a morning person (8am would ordinarily be a very early wake-up) and needs an inordinate amount of me time (read: not a social butterfly), it was a great time and here’s why:
Intrepid Travel plans some good activities. Nothing gets me more motivated to start the day than knowing that whatever is planned is going to be awesome.
Even though this was my first time traveling with them, I’ve been a long-time admirer because of commitment to responsible travel and investment in the communities they work in. One of the first things our tour guide explained during orientation was that Intrepid would be providing each of us with a cloth bag to carry any groceries we purchased, and filtered water so that we could refill our bottles and avoid unnecessarily accruing plastic throughout the week.
Prior to our trip we received notes that went through in painstaking detail where we’d be going, what to pack, and why we would or would not be visiting certain attractions, etc. (etc., etc.). It’s very honest and transparent; they want you to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
It’s very clear that they go to great lengths to select activities that best highlight and support the communities we’d be traveling through. The soapstone carving workshop we visited wasn’t just any soapstone operation; it was part of a fair trade initiative. The souvenir market wasn’t embedded among other tourist attractions; it was in the middle of a small, dusty town. If we camped, our group had our own area, far away from the masses (if there were masses at all).
Mind you, off the beaten path doesn’t mean you always have to work for your food on an Intrepid trip. They do offer other options, but we chose to go with their “Basic” option because we loved the idea of camping in the African wilderness and having a bit more flexibility (there’s less hand-holding on a Basic trip). Side perk? It’s a bit less expensive, too. Not a bad trade-off for just 30 minutes of chores a day. Other side perk? Bonding with your fellow travelers over pot scrubbing duties!
And speaking of other travelers.. the people were awesome. When I found out that the trip was maxed out at 20 participants, you can bet I was pretty concerned. I am not a big group person. We signed up for this tour because we found a good deal and thought it would be a good way to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time while leaving a lot of the logistics in the capable hands of a reputable tour company. But secretly I was hoping and praying that no one else signed up for our date. Alas.
But if there’s one thing that really resonated with me about this group tour is that if you want to have a good time, pick a tour company that aligns very well with your values and travel style. You’ll meet a ton of other people with the same approach to travel. And if you get sick of them and need to sit out some activities, fine; Intrepid builds that flexibility into the itinerary.
Against all odds, I found every single person in our group to be respectful (of each other and of the local community), flexible, intelligent, and fun to be around. There wasn’t one person who didn’t chip in with duties, above and beyond the assigned chores. If someone was sick, or forgot something at home, they would get a dozen offers of support in the form of food, blankets, and/or [legal] drugs. It was extraordinary.
Trusted tour company to add to my travel arsenal? Check. Faith in humanity restored? Check!