This trailblazing all-women overland crew in southern Africa is challenging stereotypes and redefining adventure one breathtaking vista and heartwarming campfire tale at a time.
Meet SueEllen Abrahams, better known as Suki. After over a decade as an overland driver for Intrepid in southern Africa, one of few in the region, she’s become a strong advocate for women in the travel industry. She has been championing the idea of an all-women overland crew for some time. Recently, that dream came true on a departure of Botswana Family Safari with Teenagers – a first for Intrepid, too.
‘It’s a massive achievement for me not just to show that female crew can do just as good as male crew, but to show that we can do it even better,’ Suki says. ‘Nothing is too difficult if you have a team working together.’
The crew of three took a group of 12 travellers, including six teens, on the ten-day safari from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe through Chobe National Park and Okavango Delta in Botswana to Johannesburg in South Africa. Exploring this region is a must for nature and animal lovers. The Okavango Delta is world-renowned for wildlife, with 15,000 square kilometres of floodplains providing nourishment for elephants, lions, buffalo, giraffes and more. It’s also a habitat for over 450 bird species.
In the driver’s seat, Suki navigated a custom-built overland truck while identifying the best lookouts for wildlife spotting and got the group safely and comfortably from one destination to the next. She was joined by Rene Carelse – currently Intrepid’s only female overland trip leader – who was driven by her love of nature and travel to follow this career path. Finally, chef Dimpho Lesufi took the reins of the camp kitchen and kept the group well-fed with BBQ, local stews and s’mores for dessert.
Travellers spent their days spotting magnificent animals. Each evening, everyone worked together to set up camp, with the whole gang pitching in to build tents and help Dimpho prepare dinner over an open flame, comparing stories of the animals spotted earlier that day. Nights were capped off around a campfire and stargazing under the magnificent sky.
While everyone had their personal safari highlight, they all agreed that what made the trip even more special was being led by a crew of women.
‘I will remember this for life,’ Anna, 15, wrote about the experience.
‘I thoroughly enjoy driving any chance I get,’ Suki says. ‘When you grow up in such a diverse country with animals at your doorstep and some of the most breathtaking vistas in the world, you cannot [help] but explore more.’
Guiding is traditionally a career for men, but over the past 20 years, the number of women leading trips in Botswana has jumped from a half dozen or so in 2004 to about 80 today. Rene has been guiding since 2017, starting as a chef before becoming a trip leader.
‘I loved learning more and more about wildlife, nature and African history and culture,’ she says. ‘This has been an incredible journey for me and I wholeheartedly encourage more women to pursue overlanding.’
‘It feels like the start of something big,’ Dimpho adds. ‘The start of this industry opening up to more women, and women proving themselves worthy and able to work in the industry by themselves.’
Suki has been taking travellers through the country for 11 years. Part of the personal satisfaction for herself and the team is that they’re breaking stereotypes and changing perceptions of what women can do.
‘[Being] one of [the few] female drivers that I know of guiding and driving through Africa, it was very daunting at first. Especially with the stigma that females should be at home,’ she says. ‘Most males in the countries I’ve travelled through did not take too kindly to me driving a truck.’
Through greeting and smiling at male drivers when on the road and connecting and chatting with locals at shops and border crossings during stops on her tours, she’s become a familiar – and welcome – face. ‘Every time you drive the same route, it gets more and more exciting because they look out for you, and you cannot wait to hear their stories and old tales,’ she explains.
There’s a special connection with the group as well. ‘Our natural instinct is to nurture and protect. Therefore, safety is our number one priority, followed by comfort and fun,’ says Rene.
‘Most guests didn’t notice that they’re being guided by an all-female crew as we strive to give them the best possible experience with great teamwork. The ones that do notice are generally in awe,’ Suki says.
When sharing their thoughts about the experience after the trip, many travellers spoke directly about how special it was to travel with this crew. ‘The crew were all extremely helpful, funny and kind, which made this experience even better than I thought possible,’ wrote 13-year-old Kai. Jason, one of the parents in the group, wrote, ‘It was a pleasure to run with the first all-female crew in southern Africa!’
The feelings are mutual because leaders treasure their time with younger travellers as well. ‘It’s always the best feeling when kids are interested and willing to listen and learn – especially when it comes to the animals,’ says Suki. ‘Even better when you sit next to the campfire, and they get excited all over again when you speak about the day’s activity and share experiences.’