Gorilla & Baby, Photo: Tony Camacho

When it comes to travel, the words of former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru put it best: “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” There are many ways of seeing this wonderful world of ours and appreciating its delights. Sometimes it's from a distance as a spectator, and sometimes it's by submerging ourselves wholeheartedly. 

Immersing ourselves in the natural world around us, on its terms, is a rewarding type of travel. We embrace the beauty of the world while also discovering ourselves, our humanity, our character, our reason for being. As Henry Miller said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” And in the words of Jack Kerouac, “…in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”

Yet as we humans encroach ever further on nature, it is important for us to find a balance between our desires and the planet that continues to serve as a home for us.

The rise of ecotourism

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education". TIES further states that this responsible travel needs to “adopt the following ecotourism principles':

Ecotourism means travel with awareness - and it's so much more rewarding as a result, argues Kojo Baffoe. Now you can combine ecotourism with adventure travel - here's how.
  • Minimise physical, social, behavioural, and psychological impacts.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Silverback Mountain Gorilla, Photo: Tony Camacho Silverback, Photo: Tony Camacho Gorilla & Baby, Photo: Tony Camacho Serengeti, Tanzania, Photo: Chen Hu Sani Pass Mkhomazi Wilderness Area, Photo: Joseph Argus Sandwich Harbour, Walvis Bay, NamibiaPhoto: Ryan Cheng Richtersveld World Heritage Site, South Africa, Photo: Ken Treloar North Beach, Durban, Photo: Julie Macey Maasai Mara National Reserve, Credit: Sutirta Budiman

  • Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
  • Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climates.
  • Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
  • Recognise the rights and spiritual beliefs of the indigenous people in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.

South Africa, and the rest of the continent, provides the perfect environment for ecotourism. I would include in that category adventure tourism, which in its own way is very much about engaging with the environment in a way that does not damage, raises environmental awareness, provides financial benefits to local people and private industry, and delivers memorable experiences.

The adventure industry 

In its 2014 South Africa adventure industry survey, the adventure travel organisation Dirty Boots lists the following as the top 10 adventure activities by number of participants: boat trips, zipline tours, horse riding, boat based whale watching, river rafting, shark cage diving, ziplines, quad biking, bungee jumping and Segway tours. Johan Radcliffe of Dirty Boots defines adventure travel as “any multiday tour or day trip that includes a physical activity and a small element of risk. Internationally the definition for adventure travel is a trip that includes a physical activity and interaction with nature and a cultural experience. Using this description 26% of all tourists are adventure travellers, and certainly most of the tourists coming to South Africa are.” 

South Africa's adventure tourists are split between 45% international and 55% domestic tourists. The industry is healthy and the country has a great deal to offer.

So let's go already!

When it comes to finding tours that are meant to educate, entertain, inspire and enrich, there are many tour operators and guides available across the country. While there tends to be an overlap, it simply means that one is never spoilt for choice. Below is a snapshot of what is available. It is time to book your next holiday and explore this beautiful continent of ours intimately and actively.

Tours Africa

www.toursafrica.co.za

Tours Africa operates as a one-stop booking platform for people looking for a wide array of tours throughout South Africa. While it does not provide the tours, you can book and pay through the site for a great selection of adventurous activities. Its aim is “to expose South Africa for the true adventure paradise it is, and introduce people to our wildlife, culture and hospitality.” 

Tours Africa’s criteria for tours it lists are that the company must be an accredited tour company and, most importantly, that there are no ethical concerns involved in its tours, such as hunting, for example.

Favourite activities are dive tours (shark cage diving, snorkelling), mountain tours (mountain biking, abseiling, ziplining) and safari tours, which “proves that people are attracted to our country's animals, landscapes and outdoors in general.” 

Its most popular tours include:

  • Tandem Paragliding in Cape Town - The flight takes off from Signal Hill or Lion’s Head and gives you a bird’s eye view of Cape Town, including Table Mountain and the City Bowl.
  • Kamikaze Kanyon Experience in Cape Town – A full day guided tour that includes a 65m waterfall abseil, kloofing (canyoning) and hiking in the fynbos biome.
  • Full Day Big 5 Combo Safari in Touws River – A game drive as well as a safari on either horseback or quad bike.
  • Shark Cage Diving in Gansbaai – Guided by a marine biologist, you get a first-hand experience of Great White Sharks.
  • Quad Bike Trail In Hazyview – A two-hour guided quad bike tour through the indigenous forests and blue gum plantations of Mpumalanga.
  • Eco Marine Safari in Gansbaai – A marine biologist-guided boat tour that takes you to the important bird area on Dyer Island, Geyser Rock with its Cape fur seal colony, "Shark Alley" and whale viewing hotspots.

Exclusive Getaways

www.exclusivegetaways.co.za

While Exclusive Getaways does not specialise in eco-travel packages, as a tour operator that focuses on luxury wildlife safaris and tailor-made holidays, it is very aware of the fact that “the luxury hospitality sector has become more finely attuned to environmental concerns, with more and more care taken across the board to protect natural resources and local communities.”

It can arrange hot-air balloon safaris, fishing holidays, guided tours on foot, at sea and on horseback of the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, tours of Bushmans Kloof and holidays at places such as Three Tree Hill Lodge in KwaZulu-Natal, which is focused on sustainable tourism and community upliftment. 

Other leading eco-lodges and hotels such as Hotel Verde, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve at Walker Bay, Gondwana Tented Eco Camp near Mossel Bay, Kosi Forest Lodge in Kosi Bay Nature Reserve, and Thonga Beach Lodge at Mabibi Bay form part of its offering.

Dirty Boots

www.dirtyboots.co.za

First published 12 years ago as a annual printed guidebook (and web resource), Dirty Boots is a detailed guide to adventure holidays and outdoor adventure activities in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. The site is extremely comprehensive giving you the capacity to search for specific activities broken down by town, region, and so on.

Every listing has details on the tour, the capacity for enquiring on holidays/activities and the facility to contact the operators directly. When you email the operator to make a booking, it also mails Dirty Boots.

Tours listed cover every aspect of adventure travel that you can think of, including:

  • Mount Moorosi Off-Road Adventures, exploring parts of Lesotho on a motorcycle;
  • 4 Days Baviaans Camino Slackpacking Trail, hiking or on horseback through Baviaanskloof Mountains, the Kouga mountain range and Moordenaarskloof; and
  • Swaziland XXL Adventure, incorporating white-water river rafting or tubing/abseiling, mountain bike safari, hiking and treetop canopy tour.

Soul Adventures

www.souldadventures.co.za

At the heart of Soul Adventures' ethos is to “conquer fear” and it provides adventure tours and activities across South Africa as well as the rest of the world. These range from caving in Gauteng, mountaineering any of the main peaks in the world such as Kilimanjaro, Acongagua, Elbrus and Everest, to scuba diving and rock climbing. Closer to home, sort of, is the gorilla trekking tour in the forests of Uganda and Rwanda.

To ensure that you have everything you need for your adventure, it also offers an online adventure store as well as a rental facility for hiking equipment such as sleeping bags, backpacks, clothing, tents and even cooking gear.

African Travel Gateway

www.africantravel.com

If you have something specific in mind for your holiday, African Travel Gateway tailor-makes safaris, holidays and adventures according to your desires and, most importantly, your budget. The focus is across southern and east Africa and, as a result, it offers country-specific tours for Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Namibia and Zanzibar.

Depending on where you go, there are guided walking tours, game drives and canoe rides, all designed to share the best of Africa’s natural resources.

Cape Xtreme

www.capextreme.co.za

The 19-day Desert Tracker Tour, which takes you through Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia, is the perfect example of the detailed tours that Cape Xtreme provides. As part of the tour, there are dune climbs, walking, mokoro (dugout canoe) rides, deep sea fishing, skydiving, sandboarding, elephant back safaris, horse riding and bungee jumping, among other activities.

Other packages include bungee jumping and ziplining on the Garden Route and a trip to Kenya and Uganda for a Masai Mara tour which includes Nile river rafting, hiking, mountain biking, birdwatching and visits to see the mountain gorillas and visit the Batwa (pygmy) community to get insight into the way they live.

African Budget Safaris

www.africanbudgetsafaris.com

Through its relationships with various tour operators, (though it does not provide tours itself) African Budget Safaris positions itself as a provider of decently costed tours, with a focus on safaris. The business was born out of an enthusiasm for travel across the continent.

On the site, an extensive range of packages primarily in southern and east Africa as well as the island of Madagascar are listed, such as the 11-day Madagascar Luxury Kayaking Adventure. On this tour, you kayak through the Sante Luce Reserve as well as hike through the rainforests and snorkel in the village Manafiafy, which is on the southeast coast of the island.

If you are about that life on two wheels, there is its 6-Day Guided Cape Town Cycle Tour, which takes you from Cape Town to Hermanus, past Franschhoek, to Worcester and back to Cape Town through Stellenbosch. Prefer not to power your way through that? Then opt instead for the 10-day South Africa Motorcycle Tour, which begins in Cape Town and ends in Kimberley, taking you through Western and Northern Cape.