When I was considering booking an overland tour of South Africa, I had some doubts. First of all, I generally dislike tours as I find them restrictive and rushed. When I travel, I like lots of free time to explore as I please; tours don’t usually allow for that.
But when I confessed my concerns to a very well-traveled friend she said, “Don’t worry, you’ll love it. I did an overland trip through southern Africa for two months and I had a blast.”
When I turned to the internet for guidance, the reviews of overland travel in Africa were overwhelmingly positive. So I decided to book a nine-day overland tour of South Africa.
Unfortunately, I didn’t love my overland tour. By the end of the trip, I never wanted to set foot on a bus again.
But first, what exactly is overlanding?
Overlanding quite literally means you travel over land, i.e. without the use of planes. In most cases, it involves traveling with a group in a large vehicle that can go off-road, such as the one above.
Overland tours are popular in Africa is because many travelers feel apprehensive about renting a car in Africa, so they’d rather hire a company to do the driving for them.
Some overland tours last months, some most last a few weeks. Cheaper overland tours are camping trips, and more expensive tours are accommodated (i.e. you sleep in a hotel room).
My overland tour was a camping trip, but at some campgrounds, you could choose to upgrade to a hotel room for around $30.
The logistics of my trip
My trip was run by a popular tour operator and lasted nine nights. It covered Kruger National Park as well as much of east coast of South Africa and Swaziland.
Excluding flights, the tour cost about $1,000. While $1,000 is a reasonable price for nine days of travel, in the end I would’ve rather spent the same amount of money on a shorter but more luxurious independent trip.
But it wasn’t all bad. There were many aspects of my overland tour that I did enjoy, so let’s start with the positives.
What I loved:
I was shocked by how luxurious the campsites were in South Africa and Swaziland. All of the campsites had clean, well-stocked kitchens and bathrooms – some of the bathrooms even had bath tubs!
The people on the tour
We lucked out with our tour companions; everyone was easy-going, friendly, and helpful. Our 14 tour companions hailed from all over the world: Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czech Republic, the U.K., and the U.S. There were several couples, groups, and solo travelers, and the ages ranged from 17-60+.
Before the trip I was afraid the tour would be populated with young, drunk 19-year olds. But happily, the median age was around 30-35.
While I didn’t make any lifelong friends, I enjoyed spending time with everyone in our group.
The reason I booked a tour in South Africa was because I was worried about two things: safety and renting a car. So it was convenient not to worry about logistics or getting from point a to b.
What I didn’t love:
It was way too fast
This trip itinerary was WAY too fast. During our nine-day tour, we changed locations every morning except one. And as we were camping, we had to set up and take down our tents every day.
Due to moving so often, we had very little time to actually enjoy the destinations. After driving all morning, we arrived in most of our destinations at around two p.m. So by the time we set up camp, we only had a few hours for activities before dinner and bed.
Overall, I would’ve preferred to visit fewer destinations, but spend longer in each of them.
We were on a bus for 5 -12 hours a day
Driving six-seven hours every day, and sometimes up to 12 hours, was bananas. Plus, the seats on the bus were fairly small and uncomfortable. If I’m going to be stuck on a bus for twelve hours a day, I at least need it to be comfy.
There was minimal flexibility
As mentioned previously, this was the biggest point of contention for me.
During our nine-day tour, we only had one free day. I know some people don’t mind traveling this way, but it is just not for me. I value flexibility highly when I travel, and you sacrifice that when doing an overland tour.
The food wasn’t great
On most overland tours, the guides prepare the meals, though group members do take over some nights. Our guide, while lovely, wasn’t the best cook, so unfortunately the food on the tour was so-so.
We had almost no contact with locals
During our nine-day tour, we only interacted with locals once. When I travel I like to meet locals and get to know their way of life, so I was disappointed there was little opportunity to do so on the tour.
Additionally, I felt like we barely learned any history on our tour, which as a history lover, was a huge bummer.
Most of the activities were mediocre
Honestly, I wasn’t impressed with the activities on the tour. For example, going on a game drive in a massive, sixteen-person overland vehicle is crazy – we were often climbing over each other to get a picture.
Also due to poor planning, only six people on the tour out of fourteen were able to go on safari in Swaziland, the hands-down highlight of the trip. I was one of the lucky ones who got to go, but I felt bad for my travel companions who were unable to do so.
Would I do it again?
Honestly, no. Super fast group travel is not right for me, personally.
I realize how privileged I am to be able to travel to South Africa at all. However, before I booked such an expensive trip I would’ve liked to see a mixed review or two – every review I had read about overland travel was positive, leading me to believe I would enjoy it.
Plus, I know my readers’ time and money is extremely valuable, so I want to provide you with honest feedback in order for you to make the most informed decision.
Finally, I take personal responsibility for booking the tour – I should’ve trusted my gut instinct in the first place. I have done several group trips in the past and found them way too fast and restrictive; so unless a tour is incredible laid-back, I doubt I’ll be doing another one.