Confession: I Didn’t Love my Overland Tour of South Africa

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?

An honest review of overland travel in South Africa

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:

The campsites

An honest review of overland travel in South Africa

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!

An honest review of overland travel in South Africa
How romantic is this candlelit bathroom in Swaziland?!

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 convenience

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

An honest review of overland travel in South Africa

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

An honest review of overland travel in South Africa
Hanging out with the kids our homestay in Zululand

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

Going on a game drive in an overland vehicle kind of takes away the magic

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.

An honest review of overland travel in South Africa
THIS is the kind of vehicle you should do a game drive in! On safari in Swaziland.

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.

Have you ever tried an overland tour? How do you feel about group travel or tours in general?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

12 thoughts on “Confession: I Didn’t Love my Overland Tour of South Africa”

  1. Ashley, I had quite a similar experience on my overland tour, although mine was a bit longer-just shy of 3 weeks. (http://toindiaandbeyond.com/2016/02/overlanding-africa-the-pros-and-cons/) For the first part of the tour, there were only 8 of us in a 20+ person vehicle, so we had plenty of space to lounge and relax on the long bus ride days.

    Africa is just not the most place for independent travel (especially if you’re solo). I was able to do East Africa (Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya) pretty comfortably independently/with a Chilean couple for part of the way, but the long/unreliable public bus rides were draining-there was never any storage area on the buses to store my large backpack and drivers would never indicate how long we would stay on a particular stop-making it a guessing game on how long you had to use the bathroom before the bus drove away on you!

    I had considered renting a car, but I was uneasy to navigate solo (plus it would be expensive). I did not find many travelers in the hostels in East Africa-I had quite a few “private” ten-bed dorms during my independent travel stint.
    Like you, I am not a fan of organized tours, and after my experience, I don’t think I will ever do one again.

    • East Africa is definitely a tough place to travel independently, and I can´t even imagine traveling solo there – I imagine it would be really lonely as there aren´t many other travelers. Thanks for weighing in Chris!

  2. I hate riding on buses and every tour I see is too much time on buses. I think the tour industry needs to get more creative about immercing into an area and stop all the driving. BUT I think part of the problem is in mechandising by showing the many places you will visit. This seems to lead to bad decisions by the customer since so many complain after taking these trips.
    A friend of mine (solo traveler) has turned to river cruises on small boats. He feels that it’s organized and easy with other travelers but at least he’s not on a bus! Floating down the Danube is not the same as riding a bus. You can mix up drinks or go to your room for a snooze.
    Probably no river barges in South Africa so not an alternative but I like his logic.

    • I think a river cruise would be amazing! Totally different vibe. I agree the problem is the merchandising, and inexperienced travelers wouldn´t mind a whistle-stop tour. I think it´s different for more experienced travelers who like to get to know a place better.

  3. I have never been on this type of trip, and now that I’ve read this, I probably never will. All the things you listed also bother me, and I would not enjoy it at all. I get annoyed just taking cruises and having limited time on the dock, and I don’t even have to set up a tent everyday! Thanks for your perspective!

  4. ‘So sorry to hear about your trip Ashley.

    I’ve never done an overland tour. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t like the camping bit. I used to do a lot of camping in Germany with the Boy Scouts of America (don’t ask), as I was a member of the board, and a parent officer, and it was never pretty. So no!

    I’ve done group travel a few times. With Contiki when I was in my early 20’s. That was so much fun, but I was the only European! I did a bit of India with Imaginative Traveller, and I did a bit of Vietnam with Intrepid, where I was the only British person! All of these groups were small and independent and really great for getting me started when travelling solo!

    I usually travel on my own, meet up with the group, then travel on my own again, and so far, they have been fantastic. Mind you, I always paid a bit more for “comfort” trips and I never do “basic” in developing countries, as “basic” can be quite horrendous!

  5. Glad you shared this! Normally group tours aren’t my thing either, although I’d definitely be open to the right one. But I can’t believe you moved to a new place almost every day and spent so many hours on the bus, that sounds awful. Do you know if all the overland trips in South Africa tend to be that way?

  6. What a useful post. While I’m sorry to hear about your negative experience it was a wonderful warning as I’ll make sure not be stuck in the same tour as you did where I’m on a bus for hours and hours with lackluster activities.

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