Recently I traveled with Intrepid Travel, a group tour company, to East Africa for a bucket list trip, and to hit my 30th country before I turn 30. Traveling to see the mountain gorillas in East Africa has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, and I knew for my 30th country I needed to do something big!
When my girl friend and I decided this was a trip we wanted to do, we started to look at the options that were available to make it happen. We stumbled upon the Gorillas & Game Parks tour offered by Intrepid and the dates, and itinerary seemed to match exactly what we were looking for. Plus, the price tag was one that we could stomach. Trips to Africa are pricey, but trips to see the gorillas carry even a heavier price tag. Why? Because they only let about 8-12 people into the park each day to visit the gorillas, and the day pass is $800 USD plus depending on where you visit them (it’s even more in Rwanda).
Tour: Gorillas & Game Parks
Length: 16 days
Start/End: Nairobi, Kenya
Comfort Level: Basix
Tour Cost: $3,810 CAD (approx. $2,890 USD)
For other Africa tours, click here.
Going back to the Basix
The reason this tour was a bit more budget-friendly way to approach East Africa travel was because it is a Basix Level Tour. Intrepid offers three different levels of tours to suit everyone’s comfort levels.
- The “Original” tours are where it all started for them. These tours offer hotel accommodations, include some meals, and a mix of free time, plus activities.
- The “Comfort” level tours are for the less “adventurous” type of traveler. It moves at a more relaxed pace, has more inclusions, and nicer hotels.
- Lastly, the “Basix” level which is what my tour was. This level is for budget travelers. Local transportation is used, basic accommodations, and more optional activities versus inclusions.
I’m a pretty adventurous traveler and I knew the only way I could afford any sort of East Africa travel was in the most budget-friendly way. That’s why it didn’t bother me to choose the “Basix” tour option. Our tour was essentially a camping trip. Every night, with the exception of the first night in Nairobi, and one night in Uganda, we stayed in tents. Intrepid supplies these tents, as well as thin mattresses, and you can opt to rent a sleeping bag if you don’t want to lug one in your baggage (rental cost around $22 USD).
I think it is important to note that almost all of our campsites were on the grounds of a hotel and upgrades were available to private or dorm rooms most nights for a cost (these rooms ranged anywhere from $10 USD a night to $70 USD).
Despite many of our campsites being on the grounds of hotels, there were some that were more rustic with below average facilities. However, since these weren’t every night, and for the most part we had great facilities at the hotels we were camping at, it was a nice balance. You just pick and choose where you decide to have a shower, and hold out for the places with hot water!
The tents are also super easy to put up, like way easier than ones I’ve ever used back at home. You get into the routine of putting them up and taking them down quickly and you’ll be a pro by the end.
We traveled in a large truck/bus that held all our equipment and our personal items/luggage. The truck was really made strategically. It was crazy all the stuff that went into it and fit perfectly!
The bottom of the truck had compartments that fit the food, cooking supplies, tables, tents, chairs, etc. Then inside the bus there was storage for our sleeping mats, and lockers built into the back that you can put your bag in.
It’s important to note the size they recommend for your bag in the trip notes (26 inches long, 18 inches wide and 10 inches high). These lockers are deep but very narrow, and you won’t be able to fit your bag in them if you ignore the size requirements. Believe me, you don’t want to be stuck with a suitcase on your lap for the long drives if your bag doesn’t fit!
You will spend many days of this trip on very long drives. The times listed in the itinerary are only estimates, “Africa Time” is a thing, and expect that the drives may take longer based off road conditions, traffic, etc. The first few days of driving felt terrible. I wondered if I’d only see East Africa from the truck windows, and asked myself what I signed myself up for.
HOWEVER, you do get used to these drives, and you’ll get used to the whole routine of packing in and out of the truck quickly. It’ll be a challenge at first, because you seriously all need to work together, the lockers are awkward, and not everyone on the tour group can access them at the same time. Remember, team work makes the dream work!
Tip: If you are doing this tour, or any overland camping tour, go out to the bus first thing in the morning on day one of the tour before anyone else to claim your locker. The best lockers are the ones on the side that you can access while standing outside of the bus. The ones on the floor level, or highest level are incredibly challenging to use. I ended up with one above the stairs at the highest level and couldn’t even reach it!
For this tour we had a cook that traveled with us for the entire trip. Our cook made sure we ate like kings and queens, and was incredibly accommodating of anyone who had dietary restrictions (my friend was gluten intolerant, dairy free, and pescatarian). I fully expected the food to be blah this entire trip, but it was incredible! There were lots of fresh produce that our cook would shop for at markets along our long drives, and he did a great job at preparing lots of different food so you didn’t get sick of anything!
Our breakfasts were usually some sort of egg/omelette with toast, and fruit. Our lunches were usually whipped up on the side of the road as we drove and were often sandwiches, salads, and/or pasta salads. Then our dinners were the main event and usually started with a homemade soup, and then some sort of main dish which ranged from different curry and local specialties, to meat and mashed potatoes, to spaghetti. Another thing I loved about our cook was that he made sure to not waste any food and would utilize leftovers in creative ways for another meal!
You’ll also take part in meal prep to! Everyone pitches in on these trips and you’ll be assigned a group at the beginning of the tour. Each day you’ll rotate between camp chores that range from dishes, to making sure our truck is clean and packed, to helping prepare meals by chopping veggies, etc. I told you, this trip is all about team work!
Our local guides
I can’t speak high enough about our Intrepid crew that were with us throughout the whole tour. Our guide, Florence, was a bomb-ass female and having a female guide truly was an incredible experience in a region like this. Many women here don’t make it out of the continuous cycle of poverty, often end up pregnant at a young age, and don’t make it beyond primary school, so it was truly inspiring to hear her stories and experiences from a female perspective.
Our driver, Ben, was the cutest man ever. We loved him! He was so sweet, and conquered those crazy African roads like a boss. He also was our mechanic for the couple of times our truck broke down!
Our cook, Dolly, made such phenomenal food and was so accommodating. We ate so well while we were there, and healthy too! We brought so many snacks with us expecting the food would be bad, and we ended up donating them all because we didn’t need them!
My experience: the good & the bad
In the end, this trip was incredible. East Africa will seriously steal a piece of your heart. I always used to roll my eyes when I heard people say that “Africa changed them” but I actually have had a hard time properly vocalizing how this trip made me feel and how amazing it was.
I loved our guide, driver, and cook, the food was so fantastic, and we got so used to sleeping in our tent that the first night we had back in a bed, we didn’t like it. My friend and I literally still message each other about camping because our tent became such a cozy little haven.
Overall I would highly recommend this trip for the adventurous travelers those that want to cover a lot of ground, but don’t have very much time to do so.
Naturally, there were a few things I didn’t like about this tour but they really were minimal and were outweighed by the good. However, I think it’s important to mention them because despite this post is in partnership of Intrepid, nobody/company is perfect.
- When you are able to get your own lunches/meals on the rare occasion, our guide didn’t provide much in terms of recommendations of where was good (and most importantly safe) to eat at. We all ended up with just french fries because we were worried about eating somewhere that would make us sick and I would’ve naturally really loved this opportunity to eat local.
- Some of the optional activities that were available are not listed on the itinerary/website, meaning that you should wait to pre-book any of them in case there’s something you want to do more.
- The long drives are long, and yes, I know you’re pre-warned about them, but it be great to have anything thrown in there to break them up. Even a cooking class for lunch, a visit to a local artisan shop, a local town/village walk, or something similar would help make those days feel more rewarding.
- Despite it not being ran by Intrepid, one of the hotels they work with recommended a “community” tour in Kisoro, Uganda. It brought us to a slum and it was horrifying. I felt so uncomfortable that a hotel/company was profiting off of us to see the slum. I wish Intrepid would have more say in these optional add-on’s that are run by their partners to ensure they all partake in responsible tourism, as I didn’t feel like this was the proper way to visit or learn about this sort of thing.
Again, these weren’t make or break things about the tour or Intrepid, I just think it’s important to not only share the positives with you!
How much did I spend?
On top of the cost of a flight and the tour itself, there was obviously other expenses of the trip. Since I always like to have an idea of how much I should bring on a trip, I thought it be helpful to include an approximate breakdown of what I spent my money on:
- Tips: $350 USD (including tips for our crew + local guides)
- Non-included activities: $360 USD (note that I also did 2 tours with Urban Adventures when I arrived back in Nairobi at the end)
- Food: $65 USD (most meals were included)
- Souvenirs: $225 USD (I probably was overcharged in some of the tourist shops, but I also bought quite a few souvenirs)
Tipping is critical in countries like this. Tips are what these people live off of so please don’t skimp out and make sure you have the right amount of dollars to provide proper tips. Whether it’s for your guide, cook, and driver that you have the entire trip, or for guides or drivers you have for excursions, etc. See below what they recommend for tipping:
- Local guides: $2 USD a day
- Your Intrepid crew: $2-$4 USD a day (we tipped more like $7-$14 USD/a day for our guide)
- Restaurants: 10% of your bill (make sure the service charge isn’t already added)
Tips for the best trip
To leave you with a few hot tips from my experience for this tour, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Your locker location is key. Get to those babies early so you can score the best real estate on the first day of the trip!
- I was told by other travelers that USD is fine. For the most part we could pay in USD but not local shops or with smaller places, ensure you have some local currency on you as well.
- We packed as if we would be in the middle of nowhere with access to anything. However, we made stops at least every two days at supermarkets to buy snacks, toiletries, etc.
- Having small bills on you to tip local guides will make your life way easier!
- On days that the tour advertises “optional activities” you can sometimes fit more than one activity into your day. So make sure you have the dollars to potentially do so.
- Don’t pre-book add-on activities as you can usually get cheaper prices when you get there, or there may be an unlisted activity that you want to do more. For example, some people booked the Golden Monkeys excursion in advance, then found out they had the option to go to Rwanda for the day that they wanted to do instead.
- Check out my packing list here for what I packed. My most valuable things I packed were my headlamp, a pillow (which I used for a butt pillow on the bumpy long drives), and layers for the temperature changes.
- Bring reusable bags. Plastic bags are banned in Kenya and these will come in handy for camping. We packed several smaller bags of multiple outfits within our locker, so we didn’t have to drag out our giant backpack at each campsite and to our tent. We would then just swap out these outfits every few days for fresh clothes and it was such a good system!
Is this tour right for you?
Now most importantly, is this trip right for you? Ask yourself the following questions, and if you answer “yes” to most of them, then you’ll probably love this level and style of tour:
Do you want to see East Africa?
Are you on a budget?
Are you cool with camping?
Would you consider yourself a backpacker or an adventurous traveler?
Are you not looking for a relaxing, do nothing vacay?
Check out my Highlights from East Africa post to read more about some of the highlights of this trip
For more details on the the Gorillas & Game Park tour I did, click here.
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Disclaimer: This post was written in partnership with Intrepid Travel and contains affiliate links. However, as always, everything written within this review is authentically my own opinion.