I have a lot of trust and respect for Rick Steves' values and approach to learning, cultural awareness and responsible travel. What companies offer experiences in South Africa that might reflect similar values and commitments?
RS is not alone among tour companies in this approach. We recently did a hiking trip in Patagonia with Mountain Travel Sobek, an adventure travel company. They are highly rated, trustworthy, and offer the type of " responsible" locally-oriented travel you describe. Our guides (all local Chilean and Argentine) were fantastic. We plan to use them again for this type of trip.
They offer several tours in Africa, but this one focuses on South Africa and includes a Sabi Sands safari:
Rboriack.... can you clarify what type of travel experience you are looking for? South Africa is a big country and I'd venture a guess that most first timers go for a safari adventure which is mostly what my husband and I did.
Overwhelmed with planning an almost 20 day adventure I researched other travel forums specific to SA and found a wonderful destination expert who has lived in Kenya/Tanzania and now SA off and on for 25 years.
I contacted him via email and he was extremely comprehensive in initial advice and then I decided to work with him to put together a custom safari in lodges of my choice as well as a 5 day stay in Cape Town. You do not have to go with an organized tour group. Dave organized everything for us based on his advice and experience, our budget and ultimately our choice of where to stay and for how long. I picked the dates based on FF tickets we could get to SA and we worked from there.
We spent 3 nights in London before going to Johannesburg for 2 nights. I planned our stay totally in Johannesburg and were met at airport by driver from hotel. I picked and purchased our intra-SA flights based on our start and end in Kruger and start and end in Johannesburg.
Dave arranged all other transfers to and from the 3 lodges we chose to stay at as well as the transfers to and from CPT and Cape Town. I picked what tours we wanted to do and when in CapeTown as well as where we wanted to eat. We were on our own schedule and we had an in-town hotel apartment that was part of what Dave could offer.
In Johannesburg the hotel driver was ours for the day and he took us to the Apartheid Museum and then to Soweto where we had lunch at a local restaurant.
Safaris are pretty set in schedule and typically you share a Land Rover with up to 6 people. You are woken up at 4:30 am to have a small breakfast before setting out for 3-4 hours searching for animals. Return to lodge around 9 for big breakfast and rest until mid-day lunch....some more free time and then meet for drinks and snacks before heading out for evening game drive. Dinner is usually 7:30-ish. Meals, snacks and all drinks were included in pricing.
Although you may go yourself there are always other guests to talk to,eat with at the lodges.
Because we worked with Dave we received the benefit of his personal relationships he has developed with the lodges in the form of discounted prices. CUSTOM and PRIVATE does not necessarily mean $$$$$$$$. I was pleasantly surprised how far we could upgrade our wish list by not taking an organized tour and still saved $$$$. Everything was paid in SA Rand which is also signicant for US travelers.
We spent 12 days in the bush at 3 lodges and 5 days in Capetown.
Many folks also chose to rent cars and self drive which is truly doable but this was our first time. My next trip it is a consideration.
South Africa is immense and multi-cultural and there is so much more to see and do....I'd strongly suggest you do some research and enlist the help of someone on the ground there.
I'd be happy to share more if you have specific questions.
Imprint Tours is a small company run by one of Rick's tour guides using the same philosophy as Rick. They have a tour that includes Capetown, Botswana and Victoria Falls next March. It is full - but you could get on the waiting list. Also they were considering adding a second tour in April. If you go to their website, you can contact them frim there and they will respond promptly. I have not taken a tour with them (but have reserved the March tour), so I can't provide any personal feedback yet.