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Caroline Henshaw Headshot

The Problem With Tours

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Tours, as far as I'm concerned, are like Marmite -- you either love them or hate them. (For the non-Brits out there, change Marmite to rap music, smoking or black coffee and you'll get my point.)

Unfortunately, it seems I am in the hate camp.

I decided to book my first tour months before I left for my six-month African adventure. My reasoning was this: I needed to get from Zambia to Cape Town and a tour was a fairly cheap way to see a lot of Botswana and Namibia along the way. As a girl traveling alone, I thought it could be a good way to meet people. I also quite liked the idea of not having to make any decisions for three weeks.

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To be fair, all of those have proved correct. I am about halfway through our 20 days and already I have seen some of Southern Africa's most stunning natural gems. Camping in Botswana's Okavango delta, followed by a scenic flight, was one of the most wonderful things I have ever seen, and now we are about to head to Etosha national park to and out into Namibia's deserts to climb the dunes.

Nonetheless, I have found the whole experience has chaffed every single day.

I really don't know what it is that I find so hard to deal with. What's worse is I reckon the tour I am on is probably as good as it gets. The people I'm on it with are lovely and many are about the same age. Our guide is an absolute sweetheart and a wonderful cook. We have stayed in some cool campsites and, like I said, I have had a chance to do many things I couldn't have afforded to do alone.

I'm not sure what it is that grates so much with me. It's not that I hate talking to people -- I'm a journalist for goodness sake -- or that I can't handle the early starts or anything like that. I think it must be some deep-seated aversion to organized fun that has lingered on from my teenage years.

So, I wanted to explain my problems with tours:

  1. Lack of personal space. Before I came to Africa I was living in an apartment by myself near Bondi beach in Sydney. I have become very used to doing things how I want, when I want and with whom I want. So, constantly sharing my tent/bathroom/seat/locker/table with someone I barely know, however lovely, is tough to say the least. I've actually started using the tactics my mum used to use when I was being annoying as a child -- smile, nod and at all costs avoid eye contact.
  2. No choice in where you go. Sometimes, this can be pretty awesome -- like with the delta, when we were loaded onto small canoes and poled through the world of reeds and flowers to our bush camp in the middle of nowhere. But a lot of the time, it's the opposite. Like being forced to watch some painful 'cultural show' or being carted to some awful tourist market where you are surrounded by hawkers desperate to sell you crap you don't need. I feel like I'm back being shepherded around on a school trip and my reaction is to start acting like a petulant teenager.
  3. Constant complaining. I am aware of the irony at including this in a list bitching about tours, but it has to be in here. I hate having to listen to the minutiae of everyone else's lives at the best of times but when you're with people you don't know so well 24/7 such details tend to dominate conversation. Particularly medical problems. Or their fear of almost every kind of insect or small animal alive. Or constant complaints about the state of the showers or toilets. I mean we're in Africa dammit, what did you expect?
  4. Caring what you look like. I am the first to admit that I look terrible when I travel. I haven't worn makeup once since I set foot on this continent and I love it. I find not giving a damn about my hair, clothes or anything else hugely liberating, given how much emphasis there is on how you look most of the time in Western life. But on a tour there are other people who do care about how they look so you're made aware of just how bad you are by comparison. And after three days camping without a shower, believe me that's pretty bad.
  5. Timing. Now I readily admit I am a pretty impatient person. As my friends who have traveled with me will agree, when I want to go, I want to go and woe betide anyone who starts faffing around. So being forced to wait an hour while everyone changes money or buys huge bags of sweets does not go down well. Neither does being hassled when I need to use the internet or I want some time for quiet appreciation of where we are.
  6. Only hanging out with tourists. One of my favorite things about traveling is meeting people from other countries and cultures. Traveling alone is an even better way to do this, particularly as a girl. But on a tour, your only contact with local people is when they serve you in restaurants or guide you around something, which I really hate. Sitting on a big, white safari vehicle, looking into people's homes as you drive past, feels like an almost farcical metaphor that I find very hard to stomach.