As Acacia Africa marks its 20th birthday on May 31, company director Vivian McCarthy looks at how overland travel has evolved over the past two decades.
Originally from New Zealand I came to London in the early 1980s after a backpacking trip and got a job with a London based tour operator. The operator was well known for using double-decker buses to tour Europe, America, and Asia – and the job was an immediate introduction as to what makes tours work – what to do and what not to do.
An overland expedition in Africa from London to Johannesburg was the start of a life-long love for this amazing continent. The industry was different back then – trips were longer and trucks had little of what we take for granted these days – seat belts, fridge-freezers, charging points. Routes were different too. In the mid to late 1980s demand was mainly for trans-Africa tours, London to Kenya 15-20 weeks plus a further five or six weeks to Zimbabwe or South Africa. The choice was to go via West and Central Africa or via Egypt, Sudan and the Nile. My choice was always ‘out west’ – a region with a fascinating mix of cultures, scenery, beaches and jungle. Nowadays people don’t have the time for such long expeditions and the focus is on shorter tours often in East and Southern Africa, which is where most of the wildlife is located. You can still see a lot of Africa even in a relatively short time with tours ranging from under a week long up to eight or nine weeks’ duration.
Acacia was the new kid on the block when I joined in 1995 but from the very start we wanted to develop innovative itineraries and new ways of running tours. We were a team with one objective: to provide adventurous and exciting tours showing clients the Africa we knew and loved. We’ve grown since then and now have offices in South Africa and London but have retained our focus to operate value for money tours in East and Southern Africa and to have frequent and regular all year round departures.
In Africa itself things have changed dramatically. Apartheid fell away, obviously a huge development and one which led to South African based operators entering the overland industry. Some things haven’t changed though: Mother Nature’s compelling wonders, from Victoria Falls to Spitzkoppe, the Namibian sand dunes to the Indian ocean, and wildlife everywhere - Chobe (Botswana), Etosha (Namibia), Serengeti (Tanzania) or my own personal favourite, Kenya’s Masai Mara. Fantastic then; fantastic now.
In cultural terms many things remained the same despite modernisation and with photo and video sharing blurring the lines between the real traveller and armchair traveller, Africa’s exoticism is never lost - a safari with the San Bushmen or local Maasai village visit is much the same now as it ever was.
Customers are more knowledgeable these days; the internet allows people to research companies and experiences in depth so they are less likely to be taken in by unrealistic advertising or false expectations. Clients expect more of their tour operator – surely not a bad thing – but most retain their sense of humour when things don’t quite go as planned… a hazard, still, with any tour in Africa.
Conservation and sustainable tourism play a greater role, clients are more aware of what’s happening to our planet and this has encouraged the industry to be more transparent, open and innovative in shaping tours and experiences. You could call it adventure with a purpose.
Adventure travel may have ‘softened’ in the last 20 years and it is perhaps less well defined than it was, but then our client demographic is broader. Most travellers in the 40 plus age bracket opt for a higher degree of comfort whilst the majority of younger travellers (18-39 years) are happy to pitch a tent and get back to basics on our camping overland expeditions, with those who like something in between opting for our Small Group programmes. Age is an important element in the group dynamic and can affect customer experiences on tour which is why we give age guidance in our brochure and on the website.
When it comes to an adventure in Africa, the individual travelling is still experiencing something different to a conventional holiday and feeling they have put something of themselves into their trip. For many it’s a transformative and life changing experience – it certainly was for me – and from that perspective the continent will never lose its mystique. Travelling in Africa is still a joy.