I had a mixed experience with Detour/Viva Safaris, but overall I'm glad I did it. I definitely wouldn't say "don't" use either of them, that's rather strong!
I booked the 4-day Treehouse safari leaving from Johannesburg. The trip is run by Viva Safaris and I booked it online through Detour. The Detour staff who I booked with were great.
Detour told me I'd be picked up from my hotel at 8.30, but when I got to the lobby I found a cross driver there who showed me a form saying 7.30 and said he'd been waiting for ages! I spent my first night in Tremisana Lodge. The accommodation was very clean and pleasant but some of the staff were surly and even rude. The manager, however, was very nice. I'm vegetarian and I told Detour about this in advance. Still, I had to wait an hour to get my meal, by which time everyone had finished their desert. While I was still eating, the staff cleared everything away and started to disperse. I asked if I could have some dessert and someone silently plonked a cold pudding in front of me. The veggie meal they made was very nice, but I'm still not sure if they had got the message I was veggie. They said they had but they also seemed surprised. Who knows.
Viva hands out leaflets on the drive over suggesting that if we're happy with the service we should tip staff, including drivers and guides. They recommended R50 per activity, which everyone on my tour thought was a lot. Most people on the tour could only afford R20-30, especially as there are often two guides per activity and two drivers per journey. When I bought something small from the bar and asked for some small notes as change to tip the guides, a very rude staff member barked: "You will get what I've got; this is money for the company." Very strange thing to say. Detour recommends giving tips in the pre-departure info but does not specify how much.
The next day I moved on to Marc's Treehouse. It was lovely and the staff couldn't have been nicer or have done better for us; they made it really lovely. The treehouses are very spread out and there are stray buffalo around and a leopard has been spotted on the property (no fences), which is a little alarming for lone travellers (even some large blokes!) but it kind of adds to the experience! There was plenty of nice food. The vegetarian solution is simply to avoid the meat, there isn't an actual alternative but there are always lots of tasty side dishes to go with rice.
As for the guides/rangers. One was rude and unprofessional and his behaviour really worried me. He asked us a question about whether we'd done a bush walk before and no one in the group answered. I shook my head in response and he rounded on me saying: "So you've forgotten how to talk? You're using this strange language instead." Later that morning after I had been seated on a rock watching hippos for a good few minutes he said in a provocative tone: "Aren't you scared with a rifle pointing at your back?" I turned around and saw that his rifle was wedged into some rocks pointing right at me, about two feet away. I hadn't seen it before because he was sitting behind me, I think I might have walked past it and then sat with my back to it, I'm not sure. He then said the gun was safe but he didn't want it pointing at anyone, so he moved it. My issue is that while perhaps I wasn't being very observant (again not sure how I came to be in that position) he's the one with the gun, he should be watching it and taking responsibility for it, not trying to humiliate guests for where they sat. I certainly shouldn't have been able to sit there all that time in that situation before he noticed/said anything. I didn't actually feel like I was in danger but I felt very uncomfortable and kind of like I was being wind up for sport. The same guide was nice to me later and apologised for the fact that I had torn my trousers on some thorns, which was obviously not his fault. (Wear long, hard-wearing trousers on bushwalks!)
We had three other guides/rangers who were excellent. One was an expert on trees and traditional medicine. Another heard elephants in the distance and waited patiently until they came into view. The lovely thing about her was that the smile on her face as she watched them showed how much she loved her job and the animals; it made the experience extra special. The other was a superb spotter in Kruger and found us lions, elephants, rhino (right up close), hippos, giraffes, almost everything. He also drove us back most of the way to Joburg and was telling us all about the scenery and local towns. He got a big tip from all of us; we were absolutely thrilled with our day. All those three guides were professional, calm, informative and made us feel totally secure.
I do feel slightly misled by the Detour advertising. The 4-day Kruger safari only included one day in the actual Kruger Park, same as the 3-day and other tours. We spent the other days on private game reserves and some of the walks/drives didn't include many sightings at all. Having read the full itinerary again, I can see they've stuck to their offering, but without knowing the Kruger area well it's easy to think you'd be spending more time in the park. Others on my tour felt the same about this point. The Kruger was by far the best day for Big Five sightings, so it was a shame to spend so little time there.
While I really liked Marc's Treehouse, it does feel like a budget option (treehouses have flimsy doors and big gaps between the roof and walls, covered with wire mesh). Detour does actually specify another budget option, which I did not select, so I was a bit surprised to find that this was a bit like backpacker accommodation. However, running water, en suite bathrooms, clean bedding, nice staff and great fellow travellers meant I was quite happy. Lying awake feeling like you're half outdoors and listening to the bush sounds and knowing there are wild animals outside is pretty special.
I think I'll do self-drive with friends next time now I know more about the area, but I'm glad I did a tour first time around to get my bearings.
Again, I wouldn't agree with the title of this post saying don't use Detour, but I'd urge people to be clear about expectations before booking. Detour has a number of options and it's worth reading through them.