East Africa tour of a lifetime
Written on: January 12, 2015
I visited in October 2014
The bottom line: this is a glowing review of a longer than average trip (38 days) that was thoughtfully planned, meticulously arranged, and expertly executed. I have attempted to write the review I wanted to read when I was researching this. That is, one that contains information allowing me to relate our situation and desires to the experience of the reviewer so that we could make an educated decision. I’ve tried to break it into separate digestible pieces, so you can skip around to our thoughts on the company itself, our experience, our situation, etc. as you like. The information below was gathered from tour operators (this company and others), guides, lodge employees, local residents, and fellow travelers.
My fiancé and I are both 30-something, fairly active professionals (students until quite recently) who were lucky enough to get time away from work for a long trip. We enjoy outdoor pursuits, good food, and wildlife and are comfortable with a range of levels of luxury (i.e. camping to five stars). We are relatively well-traveled and started out thinking that we would do much of this on our own. After a good amount of research, we eventually concluded that doing East Africa on our own would likely lead to an inferior trip at a higher cost in terms of both time and money. That was absolutely the right conclusion in retrospect. We were after experiences rather than pampered luxury. We would prefer comfortable camping in the middle of the national park to the posh luxury lodge isolated from its surroundings by walls, fences, etc. As it turns out, you can’t stay in the middle of many of the national parks in East Africa without stepping up to some (rather high) level of luxury so we ended up staying in fairly nice places that were well worth the experience. We wanted a private journey, just us and a driver/guide. We weren't sure we could afford it, but in retrospect it was well worth the relatively small additional cost. If we had a couple of friends that we knew well, it would have been OK to have them along, but I wouldn't have wanted to spend hours on safari with strangers who have different interests and priorities. It’s just not the same trip. In very broad strokes, I would describe us as relaxed but discerning travelers.
A very brief version of our itinerary:
Kenya - Masai Mara, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru, Amboseli
Tanzania – Kilimanjaro hike, Tarangire, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro, Serengeti
Uganda – Kibale, Queen Elizabeth, Bwindi, Jinja
Zanzibar, Mafia islands
What stood out most to us about the logistics of our trip was the incredible amount of research that went into planning it. They had quite obviously been to every place they sent us, and had a discerning eye for the variables which would make the experience pleasant. It wasn't just that they placed us at a comfortable place near to what we came to see or do. It was that they placed us at the comfortable place with the English speaking manager and the good food and nice rooms in quiet and beautiful surroundings that was near what we had come for. The level of thought and consideration for what the trip would actually be like as a whole was very impressive. Other companies who sold “customized” journeys seemed to be selling some combination of modular experiences. Something along the lines of: “combine the Tarangire module with the Ngorongoro module and the Serengeti module” where each module is a self-contained unit of a specific lodge and experience. Not so with E-trip. They listened to what we wanted, asked questions to clarify, and then gave us experiences and lodging that suited us. We weren't tied to something simply because the tour company had pre-arranged itineraries or agreements with particular places. It was a truly customized journey, designed for us by people who took the time understand what we valued. I think much of this is a product of the fact that they live in Tanzania and are very plugged into the culture and economics of the area.
After the planning was all done and we started our trip, I had expected that there would be bumps in the road. It seemed impossible to me that we could spend nearly 40 days traveling by car, boat, and plane across three countries and countless language and cultural barriers without something getting dropped somewhere along the line. Nope, it was all to plan without a hitch. I’m still dumbfounded by it. As an example, it was day 30 something of the trip and we had driven from the east coast to the west coast of Zanzibar to take a tour of Stone Town before our flight out to Mafia. The detailed itinerary we were given more than four weeks prior said there would be a driver to take us to the airport at noon. After we met up with our tour guide and walked around Stone Town for a few hours, we returned to where we had met our guide to find a driver whom we had never met waiting for us. We hadn't called him, our guide hadn't called him, he was just there. It’s quite likely that he had received at least one phone call from E-trip in the day or so preceding our arranged meet, but at the time it seemed like logistical wizardry. Thirty something days into a trip and the guy is just sitting there waiting for us 10 minutes before we were supposed to be there. What’s more is we had come to expect this kind of treatment. It’s hard to overstate the value of being able to relax into the journey knowing that someone skillful has taken care of every little detail and you really don’t have to spend one second of your time in Africa thinking about how to get things done. Looking back at the itinerary, the driver’s phone number was on our itinerary along with phone numbers for every lodge, driver, etc. during the trip just in case, but we never needed them. That’s how well it was planned. I think it would be extremely difficult to plan a 40 day journey around my home town without something going wrong, and these guys did it across three countries in Africa which speaks volumes about how tight of a ship they run.
They are run by a husband and wife team (American and French ex-pats) who live in Tanzania with their young son and are intimately involved in making sure things go well. They both have a long history of trying to make this world a better place and of doing so in Africa specifically (peace corps, etc.). As a result, they are very knowledgeable about the geographic, social, and political climate in the areas they work. This sets them apart from the vast majority of other companies who will tell you that they operate locally, but in actuality they charge you what they will, take their cut, and then outsource your trip to somebody on the ground in Africa. The locally owned companies we came across seemed to do OK, but it’s not the same as someone who understands western culture but lives the day to day in Africa. There just isn't a substitute for that combination. If you have a problem, and somebody has to call somebody on another continent to try to fix it, it’s not likely to go as well as if you hop on the cell phone provided to you at the start of the trip and call the owner of the company.
It has been my experience in the past, that people who have a heart and strive to lift the world around them are not necessarily the most business savvy. That is absolutely not the case with these two. They are quite business savvy; they understand the expectations of western tourists, and embrace the accountability which that requires. They do business in an incredibly responsible and transparent manner which allows you to make value judgments about your experience ahead of time and to feel as though you've contributed to making things better in Africa afterward. It became clear when we were researching that companies charge a premium for the service of arranging a trip for you (which is reasonable), but will not detail the costs associated with that service or even the individual portions of the trip like the price of a particular lodge. That makes it very difficult to make value judgments about what things are really worth to you. These guys took the time to answer our emails thoughtfully, to discuss things over the phone in great detail (via Skype), and to get an idea of what we wanted not just what we were asking for. At each step they told us what each individual thing would cost so we could talk about what things we really valued. In addition, they don’t own or operate any lodges of their own, so they don’t have any conflicts of interest when it comes to picking a place for you to stay. This is a big deal and one many companies aren't necessarily forthcoming about.
In the end, the level of research and effort that went into constructing our customized trip was clearly so far beyond the 40 or so other companies that I communicated with, at a lower and transparent cost, that the choice became obvious. I even spoke with a few tour operators who wondered aloud how it was possible to arrange the trip we took at the price we paid – they simply couldn't do it.
Suffice it to say that I think you would be foolish not to at least call/email them to see what they can do for you. Do it and you will see what I mean.