The complete guide to Overlanding
If you've ever wanted to see the windswept plains of Patagonia or stand on the Tibetan Plateau, then overlanding might be the ideal way to do it. Climb aboard a customised truck and set off on a real adventure. Just don't expect a cushy ride.
Saturday 08 July 2000
WHAT IS OVERLANDING?
WHAT IS OVERLANDING?
It's a relatively cheap and safe way to explore large chunks of the globe, travelling on a specially converted truck with about 20 people you would normally go to the other side of the world to avoid.
What overlanding is not, is a cushy ride, although it's not nearly as demanding as it used to be. There's not as much "free camping" (camping in a quarry or by the side of a road rather than in a campsite) and roads are improving all the time. Peru's infrastructure, for example, has improved considerably over the past few years (although landslides and collapsed bridges can still wreak havoc) and in East Africa, free camping is no longer really necessary as so many campsites have now been set up to accommodate tourists.
However, you do have to muck in. You're not a passenger and you're expected to participate in camp chores and take turns with the cooking - although the shorter trips in Africa arranged by Exodus (020-8675 5550; www.exodustravels.co.uk) are often accompanied by a cook.
Essentially it's a challenge and an adventure rather than a holiday.
SO I HAVE TO SLEEP IN A TENT THEN?
A few companies run cushier options for those who really can't handle the idea of roughing it - usually a mix of hotel accommodation and camping - but, apart from these, the answer is yes. And you have to put the tent up and take it down as well, which is no mean feat if you've never slept under canvas before. Tents tend to be of the basic two-man variety, with built-in ground sheets and mosquito nets, and you have to deal with all manner of creepy crawly things that might want to kip in there with you. But as you set up camp on the Bolivian Altiplano or beneath the spectacular peaks of the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, the sub-zero temperatures and lack of washing facilities pale into insignificance.
Camping with your group can inspire a wonderful sense of camaraderie as you cook together, huddle around the campfire and glug tin mugs of mulled wine under the stars. But, of course, it's not always so idyllic. After weeks stuck in each other's company, the group can also split into warring factions.
SO WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE GO?
On my three-month trip, from Rio to Quito in South America with Tucan (www.tucantravel.com; 020 8742 8612), there were brash Antipodeans, serious Canadians and a few well-balanced Brits - divided into those who liked alcohol and those who hated people who liked alcohol.
According to the companies, most overlanders are between 18-40, although you'll occasionally get a sprightly 70-year-old either making younger travellers look like wimps or else driving everyone crazy with complaints about their rheumatism.
Exodus was criticised for implementing an 18-40 age limit on its longer overland expeditions, but the company sticks by its decision, explaining that these trips are tougher and more demanding than the shorter adventures, where an 18-65 age limit is stipulated.
Essentially, on an overland adventure you have to be flexible and tolerant. If you're spending a couple of months on a truck with a group of strangers, you have to be willing to adapt. Group politics is an unavoidable hazard. Which is why you need a sensible and mature tour guide blessed with common sense and diplomacy.
WHAT ARE THE TOUR GUIDES LIKE?
Adventure-crazed flirts with dodgy nicknames like Moose, Mango and Lucky, who have an uncontrollable wanderlust and, with luck, mechanical genius, good eyesight and an allergy to alcohol. Most trips will have two leaders, one driver and one tour guide, although usually they'll share the driving and mechanical upkeep of the vehicle. The brochures emphasise the leaders' excellent qualifications and training.
WHAT ABOUT THE TRUCKS?
The trucks are designed and tailored to the different continents. In Africa they tend to be open-sided to give you maximum viewing, topped by a waterproof canopy in case of bad weather. The seating is a mix of rear, forward and side facing. In South America, the extremes of climate are more marked and so, for comfort, the trucks are more heavy duty and usually enclosed.
The trucks are essentially quite similar, but when you're spending week after week travelling, it's the little differences that matter. If you get travel sick, you won't want to spend the journey facing backwards and the comfort of the seats will become a major concern. Tucan's seats are reclining and padded, as are those of Dragoman (01728 861133; www.dragoman.co.uk). Some of the trucks also give you your own lockers, while in others there's a group safe.
WHAT'S A TYPICAL TRIP?
Overland trips can take anything from a couple of weeks, ideal for an adventurous summer holiday, to a six-month expedition. Bukima's (01234 871329; www.bukima.com) "Trans-African Expedition" (from £2,170 plus US$1,195 local payment), for example, is a 28-week trawl from London to Cape Town passing through 22 countries, while Tucan's "Cuzquena" trip (from £525 plus US$275 local payment) offers a taste of Peru and Bolivia in two weeks.
As to where they go, basically it's wherever there's a road. And sometimes even where there isn't. Africa is overflowing with overland trucks, South and Central America have their fair share and a few companies, such as Dragoman, also cross Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Exodus is currently the only British company to have a truck in China. Its "Journey to the Orient" expedition (from £3,290 plus £190 local payment) travels from London to Hong Kong over 17 weeks and crosses the caravan routes of the Middle East on the way to China.
THAT DOESN'T SOUND VERY CHEAP
It does when you consider what's included (usually transport, food and accommodation at least) and for how long. Some overland companies charge substantially more than others - Dragoman and Guerba (01373 826611; www.guerba.co.uk) are at the expensive end of the market, which is especially noticeable in Africa where there is so much competition - but then their trucks are of a very high standard. Generally you get what you pay for and the cheapest overland trips may not include extra costs such as entrance to game parks.
The other thing to take into consideration when you're comparing prices is the truck kitty. Most companies operate a kitty system or local payment. You pay the price of the tour up front and then have to give the leader a payment, usually in US dollars, when you join the truck.
This can cover accommodation (when not in a tent), campsite fees, food, and entrance to game parks or historical sites. Exodus claims its kitty is only for food - which is why the tour price appears more expensive than others - while Acacia Expeditions (020-7706 4700; www.acacia-africa.com ) promises "no hidden costs".
You also need to check details such as whether lunch is provided on travelling days and if any group meals are included. Remember, too, that prices exclude airfares.
HOW DO I CHOOSE?
Study the brochures, browse the websites and, if possible, go along to one of the slide shows that many of the companies put on regularly around the country. Apart from the obvious considerations such as the time you've got to spare and your budget, a lot will depend on the type of trip you want. Some trips are more activity led, while others focus more on the cultural side.
You also might want to tie in an overland journey with a particular event. Rio Carnival, for example, takes place the weekend before Ash Wednesday each year. If you book a trip leaving from Rio at that time with a company such as Kumuka (020-7937 8855; www.kumuka.co.uk) there will be plenty of time to watch the spectacular street parades or go along to the Sambadrome to see the Carnival floats.
Dragoman's "Temples and Tequila" journey (from £900 plus US$365 local payment) is another option, mixing visits to Mayan, Toltec, Zapotec and Aztec monuments with sea kayaking and jungle trekking over four weeks from Mexico City to Antigua in Guatemala. Alternatively, "Rum and Ruin" (from £870 plus US$320 local payment), a four-week trip from Antigua to Panama City, is a more laid-back adventure with a lot of beach time and probably just as much rum.
LESS OF THE BOOZE AND MORE OF THE CULTURE PLEASE...
How about Encounter's (020-7370 6845; www.encounter-overland.com) "Cradles of Our Civilisation" (from £995 plus US$380)? This six-week trip reels off ancient sites between Istanbul and Cairo, starting in the bustling streets of Turkey and travelling through the deserts of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan (where highlights include the lost city of Petra), Egypt and Sinai.
Or, you could follow in the footsteps of the Incas with Tucan's eight-week "Andino" (from £1,450 plus US$700 local payment) expedition from Santiago to Quito. As well as the trek to Machu Picchu, this includes visits to the sites of Tiahuanaco, the islands of Uros and Taquile on Lake Titicaca, the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon and Chan Chan.
If you'd rather head east, Dragoman's "Maharajas, Tigers & Taj" (from £665 plus US$165 local payment) is a 20-day trip from Delhi to Kathmandu that includes visits to Jaipur and the Amber Palace, Udaipur and, of course, the majestic Taj Mahal.
IS AN OVERLAND A GOOD ALTERNATIVE TO A SAFARI?
If you're after a traditional safari, then the answer is probably no. An overland in Africa is generally more of an adventure/activity holiday with some game viewing thrown in. If you can't afford a traditional safari, however, it's definitely worth considering. Acacia's "Kenya Tanzania Safari" (from £595 plus £110 local payment) is a two-week truck trip including game viewing in the Masai Mara, Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater as well as visits to Lake Naivasha and Thomsons Falls.
Guerba started running its programme over 20 years ago operating long-haul Trans-Africa overland journeys, but these days focuses mainly on two-to-four-week trips. Its "South East Safari" (from £940 plus £230 local payment) is a five-week "participation camping safari" in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, including three days on Zanzibar, entrance to Victoria Falls, a land rover safari into the Ngorongoro Crater and three days game viewing in the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
I WANT TO GET OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
You can't get more off the beaten track than Exodus's "Roof of the World" expedition (from £1,690 plus £70 local payment) which goes from from Islamabad to Kathmandu. A real schlep across four mountain ranges - the Karakoram, Pamirs, Kunlun and Himalayas - during which you'll skirt the remote Takla Makan desert, passing ancient mud-brick cities before climbing up to the Tibetan Plateau.
Or what about Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego? Tucan's "Tierra del Fuego" (from £1,100 plus US$600 local payment) trip is a six-week expedition from Rio de Janeiro to Santiago travelling down through the barren windswept plains of Patagonia to the pine-clad hills and turquoise falls of Ushuaia.
Follow these few handy hints and your transition from regular traveller to overlanding groupie will be as smooth as an Aussie's best chat-up line:
To look the part, jeans should be abandoned in favour of colourful, zimbabaloola trousers and socks should be worn with shorts and sandals, even when it's raining. Local clothes are cheap and always look really cool.
At least one of your group has to snog the tour leader. If group politics have been slow to raise their head until now, any imagined favouritism will soon get those bitter feuds started.
If the last trick doesn't work and your truck is equipped with a sound system, turn the music up as loud as possible, especially whenever any of the group look like they're just drifting off to sleep. This will help keep things lively.
Drinking is obligatory at all times of the day and night. A 10am drinking club should be established on day one to ensure that, on travelling days, a beer is downed straight after breakfast.
Pee stops should be called at regular, five minute intervals (they'll have to be once the 10am drinking club is under way) just to aggravate the driver. He or she will refuse to stop until there isn't a bush or tree in sight so remember the rules - it's girls to the back and boys to the front. That's front, not sides.
PROS AND CONS OF OVERLANDING
If you're travelling on your own, it's a safe way to explore far-flung continents. You have ready-made travelling companions and you don't have to put your life in the hands of local bus drivers. Anyone who's travelled by local bus in Ecuador or India will realise that this is, in fact, the only reason you need to seriously consider an overland expedition.
It's also a good way to travel cheaply around the more expensive countries in South America such as Argentina and Chile where transport and hotel costs can be prohibitive. You also have the freedom to visit some of the most remote places that do not appear on traditional tour itineraries, but without being at the mercy of changing timetables and erratic transport.
Group politics can be anything from tedious to soul-destroying and some people end up leaving a trip halfway through. It is also easy to become lazy and allow yourself to be spoon-fed destinations and snippets of culture. Some people treat it like one big party and forget that they're travelling through some of the most fascinating areas in the world. And, if you have particular toilet habits, you probably won't enjoy having to pee in the middle of the road or taking the spade for a walk in the bushes either.
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