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

By Joann Biondi, Saturday, Feb 28, 2004, 12:00 AM

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.

Africa Desk has devised a number of cultural tour packages to various countries. Its "Ghana Cultural Tour" is a nine-day adventure through that West African nation, which starts in Accra with tours of the National Museum, Makola Market, Kwame Memorial, and the W.E.B. DuBois Center for Pan-African Studies. It then goes on to the heart of the Ashanti Region, once the seat of an empire that stretched from the Ivory Coast to Togo, and includes visits with Ashanti drummers and market ladies who sell intricate kente cloth fabrics. The last leg involves a tour of the bustling town of Cape Coast, with visits to the African Historical Museum and a tour of the fifteenth-century slave dungeons inside Elmina Castle. Including airfare from New York, hotel accommodation for seven nights, ground transportation, and meals, prices for the tour start at $2,589 per person.

The "Ivory Coast Cultural Tour," also offered by Africa Desk, is another rewarding package. Starting off in Abidjan, the nine-day trip includes escorted tours to the Cocody Market, National Museum, and religious sites. It then goes on to Grand Bassam, the former capital and a popular beach resort area, and Tiagba, a river village that juts out of the water on wooden pilings. Including airfare from New York, hotel accommodations for seven nights, ground transportation, and meals, prices start at $2,219 per person, double occupancy.

For a taste of French-African flavor, the seven-day "Senegal Cultural Tour" begins in Dakar at the deluxe French-owned Sofitel Hotel and includes tours of the city, arts and crafts markets, and government buildings. It then moves on to one of the most compelling places in all of Africa-Goree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now a mellow beach town dotted with colonial architecture, Gorée Island was one of the most infamous slave trading centers in West Africa during the eighteenth century, and most of its historic structures relating to the slave trade have been turned into museums. Including airfare from New York, hotel for five nights, and meals, the price of the tour is $2,239 per person.

A tour of "roots" in the Gambia or Benin

In 1989, Spector Travel of Boston (800/879-2374 or 617/351-0111, africa@spectortravel.com, spectortravel.com) began experimenting with even lower-cost Africa excursions, and it now offers several interesting tours. Its seven-day "Roots and Culture Tour" to Senegal and the Gambia starts with a tour of Dakar and Goree Island and continues on to Banjul with visits to a Gambian orphan village, health center, and primary school where tour members present gifts of books and school supplies to the children. Including airfare from New York, hotel accommodations, ground transportation, admission fees, and daily breakfast, the price starts at $1,699 per person (based on double occupancy).

Spector's Saturday-to-Saturday "Roots and Culture Tour" to Benin offers another fascinating slice of West Africa. Starting with a city tour of Cotonou, it continues with a full-day excursion to Ouidah, the voodoo center of the country and a port city from which thousands of slaves were shipped to Haiti, Brazil, and the United States. In addition, there are visits to the Sacred Forest, the Portuguese Museum, python temple, and slave memorials. Including airfare from New York, first-class hotels for five nights, ground transportation, admission fees, and breakfast daily, the cost is $1,699 per person (based on double occupancy).

For the adventurous: Roughing it

For travelers with no qualms about roughing it a little, two outstanding adventure tour operators are wonderfully inexpensive to use.

In Emeryville, California, Adventure Center (800/228-8747 or 510/654-1879, adventurecenter.com) offers over 100 "participatory camping" tours to Africa, and recently its tours have been booked solid.

"We've seen grassroots cultural tours to Africa really taking off," says Trevor Saxty, Adventure Center's sales manager. "We focus on giving people an authentic African experience without insulating them too much from the reality of the continent. I always tell prospective clients the truth--if you don't mind getting a little dusty and helping out to pitch a tent, you will have a fantastic time. But I also tell them that Africa is not as unmanageable or difficult as most people think it is."

Part of a larger company called Far & Wide, Adventure Center tours attract people of all ages and backgrounds, from bored executives and graduate students to honeymooners and retirees. The top cost of its trips (not including airfare to Africa) is $80 per day, with some as low as $40 a day. All have experienced trip leaders, require members to bring a sleeping bag, include some but not all meals, and involve groups of 8 to 24 people. Carefully note again that airfare to and from the destination is not included in the tour prices.

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.