The Complete Guide To: Africa overland

Trundling along dusty trails in a truck is the ideal way for adventurous travellers to explore this vast continent. David Else hits the road


TRAVEL BY TRUCK? SOUNDS UNCOMFORTABLE

The standard strong lorry converted to carry a couple of dozen passengers is certainly not luxurious. But the overland truck provides an ideal way to reach parts of Africa that are expensive or difficult to reach on your own. Overland journeys mean hands-on, dust-in-your-hair travel. You need a taste for adventure and a sense of fun. On most overland trips, you put up your own tent, and help with cooking or buying supplies along the way. When the truck gets stuck in mud, you help push it out.

AFRICA THE HARD WAY, THEN?

Not really. You participate, but you don't totally rough it - as any of the old-timers will tell you. In overlanding's early days, trucks were ex-Army Bedfords with wooden benches in the back and some basic equipment tied to the roof. Today, purpose-built Scanias, Fords and Mercedes have comfortable seats, personal lockers, a kitchen, fridge and music system.

You still camp, but most overland companies intersperse canvas with simple hotels. Some offer more hotels than camping and even the services of an on-board chef.

Overlanding is ideal for young solo travellers, and provides a great introduction to Africa for first-timers. After an initial taste in an overland truck, many people go back for a deeper experience - such as a specialist wildlife safari - or just a more comfortable one. Travel by overland truck also means the logistics are taken care of: the driver-guides handle things like entry permits and border-crossings, while you enjoy the scenery.

Oh yes - and compared to most other organised tours in Africa, overlanding is cheap.

HOW CHEAP?

The options are vast, and costs vary by season, but to give an idea, a 52-day Nairobi to Cape Town trip with Oasis Overland (see box for contact details) has a tour price around £650 plus £295 kitty. This is the no-frills end of the market; a 63-day trip on the same route with the well-respected operator Exodus costs around £1,725 plus £525 kitty. Whichever you choose, you must add the cost of flights to the starting city and from the end point. In this example, you could spend an extra £600 or £700 for air travel, giving a price range of about £1,600 to £2,900 and a "daily rate" of £30 to £46 - not bad for the trip of your life.

WHAT'S THIS KITTY THING?

It's a long-standing overland tradition that on top of the tour price, passengers contribute - in cash - to a kitty that pays for items along the way. Depending on the company, the kitty pays for food, campsites and entrance to wildlife areas, or just minor incidentals.

Ostensibly, it gives "freedom to the group to control spending levels", but it's non-negotiable, so you should just regard it as part of the cost.

I WANT TO GO THE WHOLE WAY. IS CAIRO TO THE CAPE POSSIBLE?

Yes indeed. Several companies offer an "ultimate trans-Africa" or similarly titled trip. Overland Club's 18-week Cairo to Cape Town costs around £1,260, plus £290 kitty. Dragoman Overland offers two options: the more straightforward Encounter trip at around £2,000 plus £700 kitty for 18 weeks; and the more comfortable Classic Dragoman trip at around £4,200 plus £1,000 kitty for 20 weeks. Other trans-African journeys skip Egypt and go via West Africa instead. Economic Expeditions' 29 weeks from Morocco to The Cape costs £1,650 plus £775 kitty. Some Cape to Cairo trips actually fly over Sudan and northern Kenya because of difficult and/or dangerous travel conditions. Others are genuinely overland.

ANYTHING ELSE TO CONSIDER?

Definitely. Some overland companies include excursions - such as guided walks, houseboat stays, and mini-safaris by jeep or boat in national parks - in the tour cost. Others don't. Not surprisingly, those with no included excursions tend to boast the lowest brochure prices. But add up the cost of all those optional extras and you're looking at an extra cost of around £200 to £500 on an average trip, up to £1,500 on a long trip.

Admittedly, this gives you more choice. If you don't want to go white-water rafting at Victoria Falls (about £50) or quad-biking in Namibia (£40), or to stay in a houseboat on Lake Kariba (£50) you don't have to, and you don't have to pay for it. But if you're likely to do as much as you can on your trip, you're usually better off paying a higher brochure price and getting more excursions included.

It's not just excursions that are optional. Some overland companies include three meals per day. With others, it's only two - you buy your own lunch when not out in the wilds. This is not a catch: it gives you more choice. But bear it in mind when calculating your spending money for the trip.

In short, there's a wide variation between the overland companies. Once you decide what style of trip you want, it pays to study the brochures and, most importantly, the bits that say "What's included" and "What's excluded".

I DON'T HAVE MONTHS TO SPARE. ANY SHORTER OPTIONS?

Hundreds. The whole overland industry has shifted emphasis in the last decade or so, away from trans-African epics towards shorter trips. You still get the overland truck experience, but you need not give up your job or leave home for half a year.

Three-week trips include the very popular Victoria Falls to Cape Town route, via Botswana and Namibia, for £330 plus £175 kitty with Absolute Africa; £575 plus £130 with Kumuka; £695 plus £250 with Dragoman Overland. A four-week trip on the same route with Guerba costs £935 plus £150. Air fares are, of course, extra.

For something in between, many companies allow you to combine one or more short trips to make a longer journey of six or 10 weeks. For example, a Kenya and Tanzania trip plus a Malawi and Zambia trip and a Botswana and South Africa trip equals an East & Southern Africa Explorer.

MUST I SIT IN A TRUCK ALL DAY?

Sometimes. Africa is a big place, and the distances can be huge. Prepare yourself for some long, hard driving days. But this is offset by stops in one place, such as Botswana's Okavango Delta, or a beach on the shores of Lake Malawi.

For those times on the road, check the seat layouts offered by the different companies. Some are arranged aircraft-style, all facing forward, which is better for seeing where you're going. Others have inward facing seats, which is more sociable. Some go for a mix.

ANYTHING ELSE TO CONSIDER?

The possibility of being stuck with a group of fellow travellers you may not like. But overland travel breeds companionship and generally everyone gets on famously. Nothing strengthens bonds better than digging a truck out of sand in the middle of the Sahara.

I DON'T WANT TO BE TIED TO AN ITINERARY

Then maybe an overland truck (or any organised tour) isn't for you. It's perfectly possible to overland through Africa by other means (see below). But compared with most other types of group travel, overlanding offers considerable flexibility - particularly on the longer trips where the group and driver can discuss options for an up-coming stage of the journey. You might weigh up, say, two days of easy driving followed by two days on the beach, or one hard push followed by three days of R&R.

On longer trips there's also plenty of free time; many trucks park up at Dar es Salaam in Tanzania for a week while you catch the boat over to Zanzibar. Sometimes you can even go off on your own for a few days and catch up with the truck later.

WHAT SORT OF PEOPLE GO ON OVERLAND TRUCKS?

Most are in their twenties and early thirties. Students, backpackers and those of a like mind, often on a gap-year or career break. They're mainly from the UK, Ireland, Canada, US, Australia and New Zealand, with a few continental Europeans thrown in; the overland market is dominated by British companies but outfits from Germany, France, Spain and so on cater for their own nationalities.

The male-female mix is about equal. Some passengers go as couples, others as groups of friends, and about half as solo travellers.

PARTY ANIMALS, THEN?

Maybe. Some overland companies promote themselves to this market. And if that's your scene, you'll have a great time. Overland passengers I interviewed over the years have referred to their vehicle as a "booze bus" or "rave truck" - with glee or disdain, depending on what they expected.

If that is not your idea of a good trip, no problem. Several companies go for a wider appeal and offer a slightly more refined experience, without losing the fun and adventure. These include Exodus, Guerba and Dragoman Overland, while Africa in Focus offers "style and comfort for the more discerning traveller" and specifies "we are not for students who want to party every night".

Dragoman has new trips through West Africa, including the already legendary Festival of the Desert - a must for world music fans. Africa in Focus includes optional photography workshops - ideal for avoiding those "the dot on the horizon is an elephant" moments back home. There's even an on-board computer for burning digital images on to CD.

Younger travellers are catered for, too. Trips for all the family comprise the fastest-growing part of the overland market. Check out the specific family trips offered by Guerba and Dragoman Overland.

If it has been some time since you saw your twenties and thirties, no problem. Overlanding is more about attitude than actual age. You need all the usual attributes to enjoy travel. You need an open mind. You must relish the idea of foreign places and unusual situations. On top of that you need to be gregarious, and tolerant of other people (and their habits).

WILL I BE ISOLATED FROM THE LOCALS?

You may be. A lot depends on what you want to get out of your trip. When the truck parks up for a day or two it can be tempting to sit around and drink beer with your truck-mates, instead of going out to explore the colourful local market, hike up a nearby mountain or visit a local school and pass the time of day with the kids. Some companies employ African driver-guides (mainly from Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe) who are often able to give more cultural insights than drivers from, say, Britain or Australia.

HOW DO I MAKE MY FINAL CHOICE?

Try to get some personal recommendations. Many companies' websites publish comments from satisfied customers, but understandably they tend to focus on the most positive responses. Some list past clients happy to offer unbiased advice. A good source of independent feedback on the various companies and Africa overlanding in general is the Thorn Tree, the Lonely Planet travellers' forum ( www.lonelyplanet.com).

DO THESE TRUCKS GO ANYWHERE ELSE?

Many overland companies also cover South America, Asia and the Middle East. For a real pan-continental experience, Dragoman Overland and Phoenix Expeditions (among others) offer travel through Europe, then through Turkey and the Levant via Istanbul, and Damascus, before continuing from Cairo to the Cape. Tempted? Clear your diary for the best part of nine months.

WHAT IF I DON'T WANT TO BE STUCK ON A TRUCK?

If trans-African travel appeals, but overland trucks don't, there are several other options. You can do what millions of Africans do - go by public transport. Taking the longest of long-distance bus rides you could go from Nairobi to Cape Town with just three changes (Dar, Lusaka and Jo'burg), but smaller stages and frequent breaks would make for a more enjoyable experience - and be easier on the spine.

A train is another option. Although the Cape to Cairo railway, the dream of Cecil Rhodes, was never realised, you can ride the rails through South Africa, Zimbabwe or Botswana, parts of Zambia, Tanzania, Sudan and Egypt, taking buses or Great Lakes ferries on the sections in between. Guidebooks such as Lonely Planet's classic Africa on a Shoestring, or Bradt's East & Southern Africa, will show you the way.

Then there's self-drive. You could join the folks who give up work, sell the house, buy a Land Rover and drive across the Sahara bound for the Cape of Good Hope. Or follow the motorbikers and hardy cyclists covering the continent on two wheels. The best sources of information are Africa Overland by Sian Pritchard-Jones, and Sahara Overland by Chris Scott.

And finally, for those short on time, there's rental. Safari Drive (01488 71140; www.safaridrive.com) has a fleet of fully equipped Land Rovers based around Africa, available for hire for two weeks - or as long as you want.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: CONTACTS

Absolute Africa: 020-8742 0226; www.absoluteafrica.com
Acacia Africa: 020-7706 4700; www.acacia-africa.com
Africa in Focus: 01803 770956; www.africa-in-focus.com
Bukima: 0870 757 2230; www.bukima.com
Dragoman Overland: 01728 861133; www.dragoman.com
Economic Expeditions: 020-7262 0177; www.economicexpeditions.com
Exodus: 020-8673 0859; www.exodus.co.uk
Guerba: 01373 858956; www.guerba.com
Kumuka: 020-7937 8855; www.kumuka.com
Oasis Overland: 01963 363400; www.oasisoverland.co.uk
Overland Club: 0845 658 0336; www.overlandclub.com
Phoenix Expeditions: 01509 881818; www.phoenixexpeditions.co.uk

KEEP ON TRUCKIN': A DAY IN THE LIFE

Although no two days on an overland truck are the same, there is something of a pattern. Driving days begin early, either because there's a long way to go, or because you're heading out to look for wildlife. A quick breakfast, then drop your tent, and load your bag on to the truck. All overland companies supply tents and camp stools, but you'll need to take your own sleeping bag, and sometimes a camping mat. For warm nights, or small hotels, a mosquito net is invaluable.

Most drives don't seem so long, because the scenery is stunning and the hours fly by. But sometimes the flat plain of the Sahel or the low bush lining Zambia's main highway seems to go on for ever, and then time slows down.

Lunch may be a stop at a small town market, or in the middle of the savannah. Before sunset, the truck will stop, and you'll pitch your tent again. Some of the party will be rostered to help prepare dinner. Others enjoy a beer. The group may meet to discuss the itinerary for the next few days. After dinner - more beers round the campfire, or perhaps at a nearby bar.

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