Monday, January 22, 2007

Africa Travel Co.

I cannot believe we had such a terrible experience with the overland company we booked with. It was the most expensive portion of our entire trip and the most disappointing. We're now done with them and aside for the fantastic leader, cook and driver, the impression we've come away with is that ATC is all about making money.

I've already blogged about the terrible experience we had at the Serengetti and the Crater. After speaking to others who have been there recently as well, it sounds like it's come down to the guide/driver you have during the safari. Ours was constantly in a rush and they seemed to always be on a schedule so we would be racing back to the stop point so they could break. It felt like we spent more time speeding around and resting than we did searching for animals. Others had amazing experiences out there because their driver took the time to find the animals.

I also talked about the Masai being closed. Well it turns out it wasn't closed! It was only closed to large trucks like the one we were in. They could have easily booked smaller jeeps and we could all have gone in. We've met or heard about different people who have been during the times we were supposed to be going and had great game viewing. It makes me so mad to think that they cheaped out like that. Not only did they cheap out, the money they saved from not taking us to the Masai was never returned to us.

This company had rated pretty well when I was researching so I am very surprised at the outcome. If anyone is researching a safari company, look elsewhere.


At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Ruth Jordan said...

We had similar (and worse) experiences with ATC on a recent trip. Something should be done to stop these people ripping off other unsuspecting tourists.
I cannot begin to describe how bad our trip was. I use the words unethical, dishonest and incompetent advisedly to describe this company and its tour guide (the drivers and cooks were blameless and did a good job).

I could write a book. Below is a selection in chronological order (item 7 and 9 are the worst) of the worst experiences of the 35 day trip.

1) The tour left without us on day one! We booked with Go2Africa who offered (we did not ask for it) the option of meeting the truck on the zambian side of Vic Falls (livingstone) instead of on the Zim side (where we had already been some years back). We opted for the Zambian side and were told that we would need to call the office in Vic Falls on arrival and tell them that we had arrived and confirm time of pick up at the Zim/Zam border on the morning of 1 Jan . I did call on arrival the day before and the woman I spoke to told us to wait at the border from noon as the truck would not now be going through until the afternoon. I was a little concerned that the truck might go without us so I asked her if she was sure about this and also I gave her my mobile phone number so that I could be called if there was a change of plan. I took a note of her name. On 1 Jan we waited at the border for 4 hours. We called the office but it was closed and there was no out of hours number provided on the answer machine. We got no call on our mobile phone. Had it not been for the fact that they had several thousand dollars of our money we would have ditched the company and the truck there and then. At around 3pm we spotted a truck (different company) going in the opposite direction and flagged them down. By pure chance they had met the ATC tour leader in the shopping centre in Livingstone and she had mentioned that she was 2 people short as they had not turned up. As we were not sure that this was our truck (we did not know the name of the company) one of us stayed at the border and the other chased down the truck in a taxi. I eventually found the truck in a campsite in livingstone a stone’s throw from where we had stayed the night before! When I eventually caught up with the guide she said that she had heard nothing about us meeting the truck at the border but had expected us in Vic Falls (Zim side). She offered no further explanation and no apology but said she would speak to her boss (this was what she always said to get out of a tight situation but it never led anywhere). When we left the tour 33 days later we had still been given no explanation or apology.;

2) We then spent what was for most of us a 3rd night at vic falls and then spent the next 2 days driving through central zambia to the malawian border. The itinerary had promised Lake Kariba and the ‘option’ of taking a 2 day houseboat trip on the lake. We were told that “the houseboat” (is there only one?!!) had to go in for a service so the trip to Kariba was cancelled. Others on the truck had been told that the trip was cancelled because there were too few of us on the truck to justify it. The itinerary envisages that those who do not opt for the houseboats can do activities at the lake. We were not given this option and left Africa without seeing Lake Kariba and without explanation.

3) the tents leaked badly and we were promised new ones in nairobi but instead got different, worse tents - had to pay for own upgrades to stay dry;

4) the ‘tour leader’ know nothing about Africa and had even less interest in the place - where you can get your next bottle of vodka seemed to be the main pre-occupation; we had the contents of her ipod inflicted upon us on the truck (banging 80's rock at 6am most mornings).

5) there were food shortages which led to disputes within the group about lunch rationing - i heard that the budget for food (3 meals) is $3 per day - outrageous considering what we paid and not enough;

6) We were told about 6 days in advance that the company decided we would see the gorillas in the DRC when this was obviously the most volatile country of the 3 (all you had to do was open a newspaper to see that rebels in DRC had been hunting and had killed 2 silverbacks there in the previous month) - we found out from a guide on another overland company's truck (staying in the same campsite) that we could see them in rwanda for the same price and all of us in one day by calling someone called Greg 48 hours in advance (we had been told by the ATC guide that the other company had booked 6 months in advance for these permits and that they had paid 550 USD – this was shown to be untrue) - we obtained Greg’s number and offered it to our guide who refused it and said the DRC would be fine. A ‘vote’ was staged so that we could ‘decide’ where to see the gorillas but the group was not given a real alternative to the DRC and were misinformed. Of course when we got to the border it transpired we could not go to the DRC as the park had been closed due to rebel activity and we had to wait 3 days so that all could get permits for Uganda and this caused us to waste 2 whole days waiting for permits – we lost our two day stay in Lake Bunyoni as a result;

7) the ATC guide offered us the option of seeing the gorillas in uganda a day early without a permit - this, we were told, would involve lying to the rangers at the national park and telling them that we were going to a pygmy village and the USD400 would still be payable but would go in “kickbacks” rather than to the preservation and protection of the gorillas. ATC clearly were happy to encourage its clients to break the law in this respect and put themselves and the gorillas at risk. This total lack of integrity came as no surprise at this stage in the trip. It was about to get even worse.

8) the masai mara had just reopened after being closed due to flooding. 4 days in advance, we asked whether we could have 4WDs as the 18 ton 2WD ATC truck was likely to get stuck in the mud (we had seen an ATC completely stuck up to its back axle in mud in the serengeti which was much drier). we were told this was unnecessary so 7 of us went ahead and arranged our own 4WD for the game drive anyway. The ATC truck did of course get stuck on the way into the park and we were out pushing it up to our knees in mud at 10pm in the middle of the national park. It had to be abandoned and was towed to the entrance to the park the next day where it stayed. No 4WDs were arranged for those who had not made their own arrangements and they sat in the camp the next day and saw nothing of the masai mara.

9) our game drive in the 4wd we privately paid for was great and we arranged with the driver (who was an excellent guide) that we would do a half day the next day and return to nairobi with him (we decided to do this as the last day of the tour was to involve driving to naivasha with the great likelihood of arriving after dark due to the roads). When we returned to camp, the ATC guide threatened the manager of the camp (who was the contact for our driver) with the sack and our driver (who relies on ATC for contacts with customers) with losing business if the driver kept his agreement with us. She was overheard threatening these two men and pressurising them to lie to us and she was overheard doing so in very abusive terms. It is difficult to imagine why ATC would go to these lengths to stop its customers making their own arrangements when the trip had failed them (and everyone else) so badly. We initially thought it was pure spitefulness but have since concluded that it was probably an effort to save reputation and a further lowering of morale as serious rumblings of discontentment were taking root in the tour and others would be (and probably were) aghast to arrive after dark in naivasha on the following day after a 10 or 12 hour drive and turn around for nairobi the next day after not having seen the masai mara properly when others were enjoying their second game drive there and returning to nairobi in comfort. We and 2 others left the tour at this point and had to find our own way back to Nairobi .

Of course Africa can be unpredictable and things can go wrong sometimes and that is part of the adventure. However, one of the things you are paying for with one of these trips is for some of the foreseeable risks to be taken out of the equation due to the local knowledge and experience of the company or the tour leader. On this trip not only was that not done (after a few weeks in Africa and a modicum of common sense and life experience most people on the truck could see the potential pitfalls before the tour leader did) but the company and/or the tour leader seemed to go out of its/her way to actively obstruct our enjoyment and to bring disaster our way rather than to avoid it. One of the most maddening things on the trip was how the tour leader used to constantly say after or in the middle of every ATC foul-up: “this is Africa”. In my view, the company/its employees showed themselves to be incompetent, unethical and dishonest and it was very useful for them to be able to blame hopeless chaotic Africa. As they had teed this excuse up nicely for themselves in the brochure, it is something many people fell for: “this is the Africa Travel Co” was more accurate. Of course ATC is not responsible for weather or political conditions but given that they are running trips in Africa they could minimise the risks by providing waterproof tents and avoiding war torn countries when there are other equally good alternatives. Instead they seemed to take the presence of climate and political difficulties as carte blanche for them to be as incompetent and unethical they liked and just blame Africa.

ATC not only failed to provide what it promised to deliver in its brochures but showed itself to be prepared to sanction irresponsible tourism, bully local people and go out of its way to actively obstruct its customers' enjoyment of their holiday. A disgrace.

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Jenni said...

Wow, I thought we had it bad but your (bad) experiences definitely surpassed ours. It was wise of you guys to book your own jeeps into the masai though.

I'm surprised to hear your trip leader took you to the DRC to see the gorillas. Ours said it wasn't possible (hence the scramble in Rwanda) but it seemed like we were there around the same time.

We were lucky enough in the second half of our trip to get a good trip leader. We weren't too fond of the first but the second was a masai guy and had a lot of knowledge of the areas we were going too, so no complaints there.

I agree with your description of the company. It's unfortunate this company came across well when we were researching. I'm going to be posting our experience on my research sites so others don't make the same mistake.

At 12:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,
my husband and I travelled with ATC in June this year (2007) and had a brilliant trip. We did 3 weeks Nairobi to Vic Falls and had an amazing time. The houseboat was great - yes, there is only one. It's very large and heaps of fun. We heard of a trip that only took 2 people so the claims of not being enough people to run it probably isn't true.
Our guide was an Ozzie and was wicked, but she didn't know a lot about Africa.
We had the best people on our trip which definately helped. Everyone got on brilliantly and we made friends for life.
There were a few hiccups along the way, but mostly was excellent and I would recommend ATC.
I think you should contact ATC directly with your complaints. It would be interesting to hear what they have to say.
I'm assuming we're talking about the same company (
Just thought I'd post a comment to let you know this doesn't happen to everyone. It's a real shame that your Africa trip was spoiled.


Post a Comment

<< Home