Electric Land Rover makes your safari experience even greener

For decades the Land Rover has been an iconic part of the classic African safari. The four-wheel drive vehicles were once the only way to travel through the rugged countryside while following the massive herds of wild animals that inhabit that continent. Soon, an electric version of the Land Rover Defender may be available, allowing for an even more eco-friendly approach to spotting animals.

At the 2011 INDABA Travel and Tourism show, which ended yesterday in South Africa, Axeon, a company that specializes in lithium-ion batteries, unveiled a concept vehicle which was co-developed with Jaguar Land Rover South Africa. That vehicle had its usual 2.4 liter diesel engine replaced with a drive system powered by an Axeon’s high-capacity battery that is designed to perform in extreme conditions and in rugged environments. Axeon says that its testing shows that the electric Land Rover does very well in those conditions, while still having three times the range of a typical game drive.

Of course, the most exciting thing about this prototype is that it has zero emissions. The standard LR Defender spews out 295 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven, which makes it a less than stellar performer in terms of being ecologically friendly. Considering that it is often used in some of the more spectacular, yet fragile, environments on the planet, only adds to the concern. Axeon’s model is completely carbon neutral however, which heightens its appeal amongst tour operators across Africa, many of which specialize in the ecotourism trade.

The electric Defender has an additional side benefit for travelers as well. It is completely silent, which means that it doesn’t disturb the animals on safari either. While going through a series of rigorous tests at the Land Rover Gerotek proving grounds, the battery powered version was able to consistently get closer to the wildlife than the traditional model powered by a combustion engine, something that will probably be highlighted in the travel brochures of early adopters.

While the electric land rover has been well received by tour operators, it may yet be some time before we see them in the field. Still, it is nice to envision a day in the not too distant future when travelers can take a safari that has no impact on the environments they are visiting, protecting the natural resources there for future generations to enjoy as well.

Man sues tour operator for failing to let him shoot an elephant

A Polish hunter has taken a trip to court to file charges against his German tour operator. According to the hunter, the tour agency failed to help him fulfill his dream of shooting an elephant.

Feel free to read that last part again – he is suing the company, because he was not able to kill an elephant.

The company in question, German based Jaworski Jagdreisen specializes in hunting trips, allowing tourists to shoot wild boar, red stag, sheep, pheasant and more. Their trips are organized all around the world, but they claim Latvia is currently a “hot destination”.

In his complaint, the customer identified as Waldemar I. claims there were absolutely no elephants anywhere near his hunting location in Zimbabwe. The tour operator fired back saying:

“From what I know, (the hunter) should have seen elephant excrement there”

Mr. I. is claiming damages worth $130,000 and will know whether he’s entitled to the money on February 15. To top it all off, he’s claiming these damages after the tour operator sent him on a second trip where he actually did manage to kill a male elephant. Some people are just never happy with anything…

[Photo: AP]

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Travel + Leisure picks the best tour operators and safari outfitters

A few days back we told you about Travel + Leisure magazine’s picks for the world’s best hotels, which are part of their annual World’s Best Awards in which T+L readers select the very best in travel from around the globe. Other categories in the survey include selections for best cities, islands, airlines, and more.

Of particular interest to adventurous travelers are the magazine’s selections for the Top 20 Tour Operators and Safari Outfitters which shines the spotlight on some of the best adventure travel companies in the world. The selections are a result of readers ranking the various companies in six unique criteria including staff/guides, itineraries/destinations, activities, accommodations, food, and value. Respondents to the survey were asked to rate the the characteristics from 1 to 5, with 5 representing an “excellent” rating and a 1 delivering a “poor” score. The averages of the component ratings were then used to assign each of the tour operators a ranking on the Travel + Leisure list.

The best tour operators and safari outfitters in the world, according to the readers of Travel + Leisure are:

  1. Micato Safaris
  2. Austin-Lehman Adventures
  3. Butterfield & Robinson
  4. VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations
  5. Wilderness Travel
  6. Ker & Downey
  7. Tauck World Discovery
  8. Backroads
  9. Wilderness Safaris
  10. International Expeditions
  11. Country Walkers
  12. Classic Journeys
  13. Linblad Expeditions TOUR
  14. Abercrombie & Kent TOUR
  15. Overseas Adventure Travel
  16. Insight Vacations
  17. Viking Tours
  18. Grand Circle Travel
  19. Globus
  20. Collette Vacations

Each of those are excellent adventure travel companies with a wide variety of options, allowing travelers to visit remote and spectacular places around the world.

How to decide if a tour is right for you

For some travelers, the mere sight of a tour bus is enough to make them cringe. Heck, I don’t enjoy seeing large masses of humanity spilling out of a humongous vehicle and mucking up my “unique” travel experience. But that’s not to say that all tours are wastes of your time and money.

There are some phenomenal tour operators all over the world offering myriad types of guided excursions. Many are even geared towards seasoned travelers who don’t need their hands held the entire time. So, rather than discount all tours as wretched experiences best left to novices, spend more time finding a tour that meets your needs and you may be surprised to find that you, too, can enjoy a guided experience.

Finding a tour that matches your travel aesthetic is easier than you think. You simply need to ask a few important questions.

Do you know anyone who recommends this tour?
You can read reviews on sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp, but there’s no way to know for sure that you’ll share the same opinions as the commenters on those sites. But you know your friends. You trust them. Reach out to family, friends and colleagues to see if they can recommend tours before you book anything. Twitter and Facebook are great ways to crowdsource opinions from people you know and who know what you like.

Will the tour help with a language barrier?
Sure, you can point at menu items and gesticulate your way to the bathroom, but, at some point, your inability to speak the local language may inhibit your ability to see something that you truly want to visit. That’s why finding a reputable tour operator can become the difference between having the trip of your dreams and going home disappointed. Gadling’s Darren Murph has mentioned in the past how a tour in Central America was his favorite guided travel experience. One key reason was his guide’s ability to expedite his border crossing – something Darren would not have been able to do on his own. Darren told me that the tour “literally made the impossible, possible.”

Does the tour solve transportation problems?
In the developed world, even novice travelers feel comfortable renting a car and heading off on their own adventures. Sure, driving on the left may feel awkward at first, but awkward is better than dangerous. In the developing world, transportation can often be the single biggest challenge that you will face. Whether it’s because the roads are dangerous, difficult or non-existent, it’s perfectly respectable to prefer that someone else do the driving. Other times, a car is not even an option. Paying for the boats, camels and helicopters needed to reach a remote location can be prohibitively expensive. Booking yourself on a tour can mitigate that problem and cut your transportation costs immensely.

Does the tour operator share your ideals?
While traveling should expand our minds and challenge our beliefs, there may be nothing worse than being on a tour led by someone who operates their business in a way that truly offends your sensibilities. When Janelle Nanos, Special Projects Editor at National Geographic Traveler and Intelligent Travel, was planning a trip to Morocco, she sought out tour operators who shared her “same ideals about sustainable and authentic travel.” This is particularly important if you are seeking out cultural tourism. Forced cultural experiences can leave you feeling uncomfortable, which is a topic we have covered before on Gadling. Finding a tour that meshes with your ideals will prevent you from wanting to jump out of a moving bus at any point on the trip.

Does the tour offer more than your guidebook?
Sometimes wandering on your own and supplementing your own knowledge with a guidebook is all you need to immerse yourself in a place. However, guided tours can often provide a deeper understanding and local expertise that no amount of self-directed research could unveil. Gadling’s Tom Johansmeyer took a free walking tour in Reykjavik with a guide who predicted Iceland’s economic problems well in advance of the news hitting the front pages of newspapers around the world. Whether it’s an Art Deco tour in Miami, a private tour of the Vatican or a prophetic walk around Reykjavik, a guide will be able to tell you much more than a book or pamphlet.

Who is the guide?
Darren Murph’s Central American tour was led by the owners of the tour company. Small operations like that have more of a vested interest in creating a positive experience because they can’t afford to develop a bad reputation. Massive tour operators with transient, part-time staff may be cheaper, but they probably don’t care about their product as much as a small business owner does.

How big is the tour group?
When it comes to tours, size matters. Small groups allow for personalized and intimate experiences. Large groups keep costs down and allow you to meet more people. Janelle Nanos wanted to avoid being part of a herd. She chose an operator in Morocco who kept the groups small. “That meant no big buses, no crowded tourist restaurants, no walking through a city like a group of four-year-old soccer wannabees following a ball.” Know your preference before you put down that non-refundable deposit.

How much free time will you have?
Even travelers who always prefer tours to independent travel want some time to themselves. Before booking yourself on a tour, find out how much free time you’ll have to explore neighborhoods, wander through ruins or just have a meal by yourself. Local knowledge and expertise are wonderful things, but so are customizing your trip and hearing your own thoughts.

Where will you be staying?
If your tour will involve overnight stays, investigate the level of accommodations. If you want to rough it, be sure that you won’t be at hotel chains every night. If hostels aren’t your thing, avoid finding yourself on a budget tour.

Many of you will continue to eschew tours and that’s certainly your prerogative. But, that may not always be an option. Some parks and historical sites only allow people to visit if they are part of a licensed tour group. Gadling’s Kraig Becker noted that hiking the Inca Trail is limited to those who are members of a guided tour. There are plenty of places with similar policies and even the most stubborn independent travelers will have to suck it up and ask themselves the above questions.

What questions do you ask yourself before booking a tour? What has made your tour experiences positive (or, unfortunately, negative)? Do you agree that it’s OK to take tours? Share your tour tips and tales in the comments to help us all get the most out of our travel experiences.

Special thanks to Janelle Nanos and all of the Gadling writers who shared their advice.

Dive the Great Wall of China with Urbane Nomads

Did you know that parts of the Great Wall of China are underwater? Yeah, me neither. But according to Urban Daddy, one particular section of the wall has been submerged under a lake since the 1980’s. And now a luxury tour company called Urbane Nomads is offering the first-ever guided diving trips to the hard-to-reach spot.

Guides will carry your gear to the submerged portion of the Wall and direct you to the coolest underwater spots, where you’ll see “Ming-era stone carvings, some intricate tunnels and a tight-squeeze guard tower”. The “Diving the Great Wall” package includes two dives at the site plus more exclusive activities like a guided tour to the unrestored parts of the Forbidden City, usually off-limits to tourists.

The group at Urbane Nomads calls themselves “travel mixologists” creating unique itineraries that customers can tweak according to their preferences while still keeping the main ingredients. There’s definitely an emphasis on luxury here, though the company claims that, unlike other high-end tour operators, their tours seek to connect visitors with the local culture (in a way that is not staged or touristy) rather than isolating them from it. In addition to China, they offer tours to over 30 destinations, including Spain, South Africa, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Oman, Thailand, Turkey, Laos, Morocco, and Argentina.