At Ishasha gate at the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, Johan Badenhorst and his team were on their way to the Wilderness Camp run by Wild Frontiers. They had to pay a $40 per day entrance fee, as well as another $150 for the vehicle and $150 to drive the 6.7km to the camp. At the current exchange rate, that’s about R5000 in total. No wonder they felt ripped off.
In east Africa, we have become used to exorbitant rates at the game parks. A minimum entrance fee of $40 a day is standard. At the more popular parks, such as Amboseli or Maasai Mara, we were not surprised to see these rates increase to $70 or $80 a day, plus the fee for the vehicle.
Recently, we entered Katavi National Park in Tanzania. This is one of the least visited parks in east Africa. They receive the same number of visitors a year as the Serengeti get in a day. Yet at Katavi they are not shy to charge in dollars. We paid $30 per person per day, plus $40 for the vehicles, plus $30 as a camping fee. At the so-called camp there were no facilities, except for the toilets also used by day visitors. The $30 was for the right to sleep on your own stretcher in your own tent inside the boundaries of Katavi National Park. The fee worked out to around R1000 per person per day.
“First prize” for charging exorbitant rates is shared by the Ngorogoro Crater and gorilla trekking. After paying entrance fees for people and vehicles for the Ngorogoro Conservation Area, you have to pay an additional $200 to take you vehicle down into the crater.
If you go gorilla trekking, the costs are even higher – $600 per person in Uganda and $750 in Rwanda. This fee allows you to spend one hour in the presence of the big apes – if you are fortunate enough to find them. Unlucky visitors can struggle for hours through the forest without a sighting.
The question is, are they ripping us off? There are less than 1000 mountain gorillas left in the wild. Protecting them is not cheap. Gorilla is on the menu of the bush meat hunters. Hundreds of scouts are needed to guard them.
Gorillas need to be protected in forests like Bwindi, Virunga and Volcans. To bring the tourists close to the apes, to make money out of their predicament, requires an infrastructure. Offices, administration personnel and well trained guides all cost money. But $600 to $750 an hour per person? At Bwindi alone, the Uganda Wildlife Authority potentially takes $14 400 a day. At a glance it seems that many guides, guards and other staff could be paid from this income.
All the prices are in US dollars. Why? I wonder how many millions of the greenbacks float around in east Africa. The practice clearly gives the impression that prices are set with the American market in mind. Perhaps this is the case.
When I went gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, there was an American lady and her daughter who booked for three days. They each paid $1800 for the privilege. For not one moment do I claim this is small change for a US citizen, yet it is most definitely not as severe on an American pocket as it is for a South African. A serious case should be made for a local rate — an African rate — and an international rate.
Over the past 14 years, we have travelled extensively on the continent. Doing it by road puts us in contact with fellow overland travellers.
At the Voetspore shop in Pretoria, I get more and more people asking for advice about journeys to east Africa. Many people take a month or two to go all the way to the Serengeti, Maasai Mara and even as far north as Lake Turkana. Occasionally, there are even people who drive all the way to Ethiopia, and now and again someone does the Cape to Cairo journey.
In west and north Africa, we encounter mostly Germans, Brits and Americans. In east Africa, the overlanders are more likely to be South Africans and Namibians. We are the people who travel overland in this part of Africa.
At Ishasha in Uganda, who are the visitors being charged the $150 fee for a vehicle not registered in east Africa? Most definitely not the Americans. They fly in and get picked up by a local tour operator in his locally registered vehicle. The only ones who are penalised by this totally unrealistic fee are the travellers from the south, along with the occasional German, Frenchman or Englishman..
Our minister of tourism has a job to do if he wants to develop overland tourism on the continent. Minister Hanekom, speak to your counterparts. Tell them that we would like to support them. We want to visit their game parks. By travelling overland in our own vehicles we will support the game parks and also the local economies when we buy tomatoes, onions and potatoes from the vendors on the roadside. We will buy airtime from the cell phone companies, put diesel in our 4x4s and boost the fragile tourism industries of Africa. But please, don’t rip us off.