Ground operator stiffed, travelers stuck
Published in the October 2013 issue, page 22. This article is viewable for non-subscribers.
My wife, Betty, and I paid $6,800 to 2AFRIKA, Inc., for the 13-day tour “Affordable Kenya & Tanzania.” We booked our own airfare.
The tour originally was scheduled for May 2012, but a few weeks before the trip was to begin, 2AFRIKA owner Kenneth Hieber informed us via e-mail about a warning issued by the US Embassy in Nairobi regarding possible terrorist attacks. Other tour members were planning to cancel or had canceled, and our trip was rescheduled for Nov. 5-17, 2012.
2AFRIKA had originally contracted with Liberty Africa to provide local safari services. In October 2012, Liberty Africa was replaced by Predators Safaris Club (PSC), based in Arusha, Tanzania.
Betty and I arrived in Nairobi on Nov. 5 for the safari. We joined our group the next day. There were 15 tour members.
On the morning of the fourth day of the safari, Nov. 8, the group left Shaba Safari Lodge, in northern Kenya near Somalia, en route to Sarova Lion Hill Lodge. At about 10 a.m., the safari vans halted on the side of the highway north of Isiolo with instructions from the Predators Safari Club home office that the drivers were not to take the group any farther until money due PSC from 2AFRIKA was paid in full.
According to PSC staff members, 2AFRIKA owed them $60,000, having paid only $7,060. PSC did offer to continue the safari if each group member paid them $3,900. We were told that if we did not agree to this offer, we would have to find our own way back to Nairobi.
In order to permit the group to email 2AFRIKA, PSC agreed to drive us to Isiolo, the nearest town, where the drivers found a storefront Internet café. After about an hour, we were relocated to a small, gated and guarded hotel in town.
One of the group members had a cell phone, but, for approximately five hours after we arrived in Isiolo, calls to both 2AFRIKA and Mr. Hieber in New Jersey went directly to voice-mail because Kenya was eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time and 2AFRIKA did not have a 24/7 emergency phone number. Kenneth did not pick up until late afternoon, Kenya time.
No money arrived from 2AFRIKA to PSC’s bank account on Nov. 8, despite Kenneth’s assurances that he had sent the funds a few days earlier. Mr. Hieber suggested that we stay the night in Isiolo.
While trying to resolve the matter, group members contacted the US Embassy in Nairobi. An embassy employee, John Bush, provided valuable assistance in getting us out of Isiolo and back to Nairobi. Isiolo was described as “dangerous,” and Mr. Bush insisted that PSC take us somewhere safe for the night.
Late afternoon, we were told by PSC that we were leaving for Nairobi. We had gone as far as Nanyuki, about three hours north of Nairobi, when it became dark. While we were en route, someone from the embassy called the group and told us to get off the highway and to a secure location immediately, since it was unsafe to drive at night due to numerous car-jackings, robberies, etc. We were taken to The Sportsman’s Arms Hotel, a gated compound in Nanyuki. Group members personally paid for their lodging and meals.
In the hotel, discussions regarding payment continued between the group, PSC and 2AFRIKA. There were numerous disputes among group members about how to proceed, causing extreme mental anguish. My wife and I were considering returning to the US or booking a safari with another tour company, at least to see the Masai Mara National Reserve. These delays took two days out of our trip and itinerary.
The group decided that we would pay PSC for transportation to Nairobi and then make individual plans. Initially, PSC wanted to charge $400 per person*. The embassy intervened and the cash cost was reduced to $50 per person.
On the morning of Nov. 9, while we were driving to Nairobi, Mr. Hieber again insisted that full payment had been sent to PSC, via PayPal. With the understanding that the money would be in its bank account over the weekend, PSC agreed to continue the safari. We arrived in Nairobi after dark on Friday, Nov. 9, and group members paid for their rooms at the Sarova Panafric Hotel.
The following morning, one traveler decided to return to the US and the rest of the group was driven six hours to Amboseli Serena Lodge in Amboseli National Park.
We had been told that we would continue to the Masai Mara National Reserve, where, according to the original itinerary, we would spend two nights and have a balloon ride over the reserve. The balloon ride did not happen, but while at the Amboseli lodge we did have three game drives.
At Amboseli on Nov. 11, PSC informed the group that it had not received the payment and gave the group an ultimatum. If the money was not in its bank by noon on Monday, the 2AFRIKA safari would be canceled and we each would have to find our own way home.
Group members attempted to make alternative arrangements with a local safari company, but lodge personnel refused to provide any assistance.
That evening, PSC proposed to take us to Arusha, Tanzania, and arrange a new, 6-day/5-night Tanzania safari for $1,750 per person. The remaining 14 members in the group accepted the proposal. A revised printed itinerary was provided by PSC. We had lost another day arranging this new package.
On the new tour’s first day, Nov. 12, instead of going to the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge in Ngorongoro National Park, it was necessary to stay in Arusha at the Serena Mountain Lodge.
We did complete our safari. However, blindsided repeatedly with additions and changes to less-than-promised accommodations plus an attempt to add a surcharge to our credit card charges, we believe we were, in the end, overcharged.
After we returned home, in a Nov. 28 e-mail to group members, Kenneth Hieber wrote, “2AFRIKA will refund, IN FULL, every passenger who traveled on our recent Kenya/Tanzania safari which originated in Nairobi on Nov. 5. Each passenger will be refunded the initial cost of the trip received by 2AFRIKA in addition to any out-of-pocket expenses that were disbursed on behalf of this company.”
A summary of costs incurred by the two of us follows: payment to 2AFRIKA for 13-day safari, $6,800; duplicate payment for Tanzania portion of safari paid to Predators Safaris Club, $3,500; amount paid to PSC to transport us to Nairobi, $100, and duplicate hotel and meal costs in Kenya, $274. Add our airfare between Boston and Nairobi ($3,604), and our expenses for this trip totaled $14,278.
We have not received any reimbursement from Mr. Hieber.
To date, complaints have been filed with the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, Division of Consumer Affairs; the Federal Trade Commission, and a New Jersey office of the BBB. I also contacted my credit card company.
Mr. Fink wrote to ITN, “We and other participants on the safari have had no response from Mr. Hieber since Dec. 29, 2012, despite numerous phone calls, emails and a registered letter.”
“On Jan. 9 we received an email from the BBB office in New Jersey stating that the bureau had closed the case, noting that the business did not respond to the complaint. However, 2AFRIKA’s rating with the BBB had been dropped from B to F.
“Also, 2AFRIKA has been expelled from membership in the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).”
ITN sent copies of Mr. Fink’s emails to 2AFRIKA (444 Washington Blvd., Ste. 2518, Jersey City, NJ 07310) and received no reply.
ITN also emailed Predators Safari Club (Arusha, Tanzania; email firstname.lastname@example.org), whose owner, Mr. Khan, telephoned ITN. Asked why his company commenced the tour in the first place, Mr. Khan told ITN, “If we did not pick (the group) up at the airport, what sort of impression would we leave?”
Mr. Khan stated that an amount as great as $75,000 cannot be sent via PayPal and that another method was to be used, a money transfer between banks, to collect from Mr. Hieber.
*Mr. Khan clarified that for the transport from Nanyuki to Nairobi, they were going to charge $400 per vehicle (five people), not per person, and then they dropped the price to $50 per person.
Mr. Khan also sent ITN copies of emails he sent to tour members. They included the following excerpts:
“This email is in response to your allegations against Predators Safari Club posted on Tripadvisor.com.
“Predators Safari Club, an independent, family-run business established 1964, was the ground handling company in Tanzania and Kenya, and with good faith we carried out your tour. You had booked and paid for your tour through 2afrika.com and not Predators Safari Club, but we were not paid by 2AFRIKA.
“After running your tour as per itinerary for almost four days, paying out of our pocket almost $31,000, we had no choice but to stop the tour on 9 November at the northern Kenya town of Isiolo while we tried to contact 2AFRIKA to source the payment for continuation of your trip to Lake Nakuru.
“When we decided to stop the tour, you were all accompanied by our safari guides, and all your belongings were secured inside our safari vehicles at the Isiolo café.
“Very late, after having no response from Kenneth Hieber, we decided to drive back to Nairobi, but, looking at the safety and security of all 15 passengers, we stopped in Nanyuki at The Sportsman’s Arms Hotel, hoping to receive payments from 2AFRIKA the next morning so we could continue to Masai Mara, more ideal than going back to Nairobi.
“On 10 November we received from 2AFRIKA payment of $4,500 and an email from Kenneth Hieber assuring us the balance was on the way. We again took a risk and paid for a 2-night safari at Amboseli National Park, staying at Serena Lodge, which is a 5-star. On Monday, we made the final decision not to continue with the trip.
“We have not been paid by 2AFRIKA, even though we paid our suppliers and paid for lodges, camps, hotel, fuel, guides, national park fees and government fees.
“We gave your group the option to pay Predators Safari Club direct for the rest of the trip, which you all decided to do, and we ran the Tanzania tour for you based on no profit. Some of you decided to pay for an extension to Zanzibar island. We provided all the services accordingly and did not cheat you.
“Note that when we first gave you the itinerary for Tanzania, it was based on all 3-star properties, but when you arrived in Arusha you had a free upgrade and stayed in Serena lodges, which were all 5-star. Also, for your information, any credit card payments in Tanzania banks carry surcharges from 3% to 5% per transaction, depending on the type of card.
“We all together are victims of 2AFRIKA.”
SHABBIR KHAN, Predators Safari Club
In August, Mr. Fink informed ITN that his credit card company had credited $6,800 to his account, though he hopes to reclaim more following the investigation of the Office of the Attorney General.