What began as long overland journeys from London to Cape Town across the heart of Africa taking several months have shrunk into shorter journeys of five or six weeks through the cream of popular Africa, taking in the eastern reaches of great game-viewing, stunning African vistas and a rapidly changing African countryside. But a disadvantage of overland travel remains the combination of time and the huge distances travelled. Schedules have to be maintained whilst keeping up the interest, with majority rule prevailing among the paying customers. Desires change and nowadays many overlanders want more say in their own schedule.
I have often felt confined by conventional overland truck travel, when there is no chance for another day or two at a particular location. Returning to a place for a second visit, you often lose the impact of the first.
A solution could be "hop-on, hop-off" travel through southern and eastern Africa - combining the overland experiences at a pace suited to individual tastes. A company called Truck About (0171-536 9316) has just begun such a service, mimicking similar operations elsewhere. The company's Angela Mullen says, "People like independence, but also want the security of being in an established group."
The principle is the same as used when city sightseeing across the world, but transposed to Africa. Trucks operate to a fixed schedule. Passengers get on and off at will, with a fresh truck passing every couple of days. The two crew on board each vehicle take care of all the border formalities - a godsend for the inexperienced traveller - and will guide you through the processes should you wish to sample travelling beyond the reach of the passes on your own.
You buy a colour-coded pass: the cheapest option is the pounds 99 blue pass, starting in Nairobi, valid for four weeks and covering Kenya and Tanzania only. It would ideally suit those who have limited time and budget and want the most out of the wildlife reserves and still have time to climb Kilimanjaro and visit Zanzibar. At the other end of the price spectrum, a nine-week red version, also commencing in Nairobi and valid for Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, costs pounds 485. Given the uncertainties of travel in East Africa, tragically illustrated by last week's crash on the Nairobi-Mombasa railway, there is a lot to be said for the security of this means of transport. But for Botswana and Zimbabwe (covered, along with Zambia, in a "green pass"), you would need to compare prices and flexibility with the generally reliable local transport system.
Hop on hop off worldwide
Britain and Ireland
The bus service formerly known as Slow Coach has become the Stray Travel Network. You can travel around Britain, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in any mixture of combinations, but in one direction only. Separate departures from London on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. A Scotland-only pass cost pounds 75 and takes a minimum of three days. The full monty costs pounds 320 and includes the ferry link to Ireland. Passes are valid for a year. Call 0171-373 7737 or visit www.straytravel.com
MacBackpackers in Edinburgh offers a hop-on, hop-off circuit of Scotland beginning in Edinburgh and going to Inverness, Kyle of Lochalsh (for Isle of Skye) and Fort William, and back to Edinburgh. There's no time limit. For your pounds 55, buses depart on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday all the year round. Accommodation is usually in hostels. Call 0131-558 9900 or visit www.macback packers.com
Busabout Europe offers unlimited hop-on, hop-off coach passes allowing travel throughout much of Europe. Passes last for from two weeks to six months with a variety of routes offering access to more than 60 cities and towns throughout Europe. There are connecting links to additional destinations including Ibiza, the Greek islands, Morocco, Turkey and Scandinavia. Departures are every two days on most circuits. A 15-day pass costs pounds 249, and an unlimited pass pounds 895. Call 0171-950 1661, or www.busabout.com
Fez Travel offers hop on hop off in Turkey between 27 April and 26 October, with timed options of either 12 days, two months, or from your first journey until the end of the season on 26 October. Prices begin at pounds 89 for a 12- day pass, but an all-season pass costs only pounds 30 more. Call 01710-706 1539. e-mail feztravel@fez travel.com, or visit www. feztravel.com.
Australia and New Zealand
The people behind Oz and Kiwi Experience claim to have developed the idea first, when they began the hop-on hop-off experience in New Zealand back in 1989. The twin companies now offer a variety of passes and packages, ranging from travellers buying single sectors (from pounds 60 in Australia) to a year of unlimited stops (in one direction of travel only) for pounds 480.
Departures from major cities are almost daily. They follow set routes, making the best of the scenic, cultural and natural attractions these countries have to offer. In Australia, only the east coast and the centre are covered, but the North and South Islands of New Zealand have reasonably thorough networks.
A single sector in NZ is below pounds 30, while pounds 220 buys the whole country, starting anywhere and returning to the same place. Single sector "Onepasses" must be brought outside either country. Website: www.ozex. com.au.
Baz Bus covers southern Africa, from Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border to Cape Town in South Africa passing through Mozambique and Swaziland. Departures are almost daily. Costs range from pounds 130 one way from Victoria Falls to Cape Town, down to pounds 85 from Cape Town to Durban.
The Us Bus offers flexipasses with fixed departure and drop-off points. Accommodation is usually in hostels. Where these aren't available, they use a variety of inexpensive motels, private hostelries and cabins. The shorter East Coast Explorer route from Boston to New York via Cape Cod costs pounds 59. For pounds 259 you can go coast to coast. Us Bus can be reached on 01892 532060, or e-mailed at TheUsbus@att.net or firstname.lastname@example.org
All these companies are also bookable through STA Travel (0171-361 6161), Adventure Travel Centre (0171-370 4555), Backpackers (0171-706 1539) and Global Connect (0171-371 6300)