All the really cool companies we have used
While doing our research on where to go next and how to get there, we’ve come across some great blogs talking of people’s experiences which would be cool to emulate or imperative to avoid. The one problem is that they never put the contact details of the tour company, hotel or person so you are left wondering if you’re giving your hard earned money to a cowboy.
Working on the basis that I basically have thrown away the details of any shabby dealer here are our picks and recommendations for some of the places we have visited, tours we have done and places we have stayed.
- Expedition Trips
Simon’s trip in February was with Ruuana Nature Restort. His particular trip required previous husky sledding experience, and was certainly not for the faint hearted or those that require a warm home to return to when it is -30 outside (in my opinion, this in not unreasonable!). Husky sledding is always a brilliant experience, but if you fancy doing it Bear Grils style, this 12 day trip is for you. I’m sure Irina and Martin have a suitable program with a few more luxuries for those of you who are mushing virgins.
http://www.natureresort.eu/ (Look for the translate page button)
- ‘A few more home comforts’ Trips
Another option is the company we used a few years ago. They offer all sorts of Scandinavian winter sports, and have excellent facilities. It was our first time sledding and we had a blast, so much so that Simon wanted to do it again. The timings of Harriniva’s longer trips didn’t work for our schedule, hence why we used another company for our second trip.
There are so many different companies with numerous different itineraries offering overlanding trips through Africa, so it’s hard to know which one to choose. Using my favourite organizing tool, I launched into a full excel based analysis to try and narrow down our options. In the end Absolute Africa seemed like very good value for money, and came highly recommended from a number of friends. We had a blast on the 71 day Absolute Safari, which was a pretty comprehensive trip covering 10 countries.
In Uganda we spent the day with the charity Softpower, painting a school, and playing with the kids. It was one of the most memorable days of the trip, and so rewarding I went back for a second day. You can do it as part of your overlanding trip, or make a special trip to stay and volunteer for longer
Most of our trip we did our game drives on the truck with our Absolute Africa guide, but in Zimbabwe Ian from African Wanderers took us up close and personal (on foot) with wild Rhino. Ian’s knowledge of the animals and surroundings was fascinating, and he made this troubled and oft avoided country a highlight of our trip.
- Getting around
Being in a camper offers so much freedom and makes travelling through Europe economical, the only thing that you have to worry about is which campsite to choose next. Fortunately for us, we had a super convenient computer program which lists all the ASCI inspected campsites complete with detailed information about the facilities and costs at each one. The GPS co-ordinates proved to be most useful when reading signs and interpreting non-English directions failed us. You can sign up to be a member and receive discounts on your accommodation or you can just purchase the software. It seems as well they have pretty good info online, although that obviously requires you to have internet access while on the road – (McD’s is good for this!)
- Medieval castle and restaurant
When trying to decide on your next European cultural fix, there are many famous cities and castles to choose from. But should you be looking for something more authentic, homely and without the tourists, then Kastellaun can’t be beat. We have visited this beautiful castle and fantastic restaurant twice now, and can not rave about it enough! The food and service are fantastic, all with a fabulous surrounding and ambience.
Once again there are plenty of companies to choose from and a variety of itineraries. We chose Oasis due to past recommendations, rather than the price. They aren’t the cheapest out there, but then neither are they the most expensive, and we were really happy with what we got for our money. It should be noted tho, the Jordan leg of their trip is not as well organized/managed as the Egypt section, AND if you choose to do the whole trip with them you will pass through a small part of Israel, meaning you can not visit Syria and some other middle Eastern countries.
Wadi Rum was fantastic and definitely made so by the wonderful hospitality of Zedane, owner operator of the Bedouin Meditation Camp. He doesn’t currently have a website, so you have to contact him via email or phone. Searching on the web suggests that most companies who can afford to have an English language website do so by charging customers considerably more.
+962 79 550 6417 (outside Jordan) 079 550 6417 (inside Jordan)
Most companies offering tours in the West bank are Israeli, and charge exorbitant fees. We found Khalid through a web forum, and contacted him directly. Through a bit of negotiating we managed to agree a rate that catered for the budget aspect of this holiday. Do bear in mind though, that although Palestine’s economy is basically crushed by Israel, everything is still quite expensive there.
All the hotels were chosen out of the lonely planet and were very basic, but had English speaking staff which can make a huge difference.
Wadi Musa (Petra) : Valentine Hotel/Hostel
Jerusalem: New Imperial Hotel
Damascus: Al Rabie Hotel
Palmyra: Sun Hotel
Hama: Riad Hotel
Cappadocia: Shoestring Hostel
Istanbul: Sydney Hostel
Generally you can get a better rate by booking in person, and there are plenty of hotels around that they are not going to be full, unless it is a national holiday, or perhaps in the high season.
Hot Air Ballooning
If you check out various websites prior to arriving most state their cost as EUR 180 and more. Ekk, rather expensive for the budget traveler, but a necessity that somehow needs to be afforded despite the dwindling finances. But in reality you don’t have to pay this much, here are a few points:
There are many booking agencies in town, and when you deal with them you need to stress that you are on a budget. Discounts will be arranged to ensure they get the business.
Some companies charge less, although people are quick to discredit them as cowboys, or companies with less experience. In reality, the safety record for all companies is really good, and it would seem that they all offer the same kind of experience.
There is a second flight, and it is generally cheaper. You miss out on super early morning start, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Part of the fun was seeing the balloons being prepared and watching day break.
Bookings vary day to day depending on the number of people in town, and if rain has cancelled the previous day’s flights. But it is usually possible to get a flight by booking (in the morning) the day before.
Some of the balloons are ugly! This may not be important for you, but for me I had always imagined lovely colourful hot air balloons contrasting the landscape.
Our ride cost EUR 130 per person for the first flight of the day; Should we have chosen the second flight it was quoted as EUR 100 per person.
There are numerous farms you can stay on, and the prices vary from more expensive than you’d hoped to downright exorbitant. We found that there were heaps of places on the internet, but responses are slow and if you’re going to book this way do it weeks in advance. Otherwise you can book once you get to any of the surrounding cities. You generally have the option of staying in rooms (private or dorms) or in hammocks (mosquito nets included). Santa Clara was lovely, and considerably deeper into the Pantanal than many of the other pousadas. They also have a number of English speaking guides that are knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
Bonito is a small town with many fantastic things to do, but be warned; everything is expensive, and price fixing is the norm for all activities and also the taxis. The HI hostel is very clean, has a pool, a restaurant, and helpful staff available to book any attraction you wish to visit. They also take credit cards, which will minimise cash withdrawal fees, and help with the issue of finding a cash machine that works with your international card.
There a many companies offering trips into the Amazon, and almost everyone from taxi drivers to hotel owners are looking to hook you up with a tour. The lonely planet warns of rip offs and scams so be careful in your choice. We booked directly with Amazon Backpacker Tours, and were able to ask many questions. Everything turned out just as they had promised, and we had a lovely time. Find their office near the square in front of the national theatre. There are 3 companies right next to each other, so you can gauge prices before booking. But it seems their trips are all very similar, and all include the same activities. Each trip is tailor made, so you can choose the number of nights in a lodge or under the stars, and type of beds or hammock.