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A Beginner’s Guide to Overlanding Africa

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Written by: Mary Malyon

So, you’re longing to see a real-life lion and tread in the footsteps of Livingstone, but the funds don’t quite stretch to a two-grand-a-day safari… Don’t worry, there is another way: overlanding!
I live in Tanzania and run an overland company, so I know my subject well. Every year hundreds of trucks ply the African continent (and beyond) carrying groups of up to 20 overlanders on an adventure they’re unlikely to forget. Camping under the stars, cooking and washing up together, hiking, diving, abseiling, white-water rafting, and sharing the odd cold beer or ten, overlanding could never be described as a luxury holiday, it’s much more fun than that!

Why overlanding is a good option

Overlanding is ideal for people on a gap year, be it post-school or post-work, because it caters for those who have the time but lack the funds. That’s not to say that all overlanders are struggling with the pennies, however. We’ve had plenty of customers who could quite easily have gone on a two-week luxury safari, champagne breakfast and all, but they chose not to.
With overlanding you experience Africa first-hand: buying and cooking food from markets, sharing a drink with villagers in a local bar. It’s perfect for people travelling alone – most things are done as a group and chores are shared, so everyone works and plays together (don’t worry though, you still get time to yourself, it’s not Scout Camp!).
If you’re a first-time traveller, joining an overland group gives you that sense of adventure. But with a guide and 19 people behind you, you’ll always have backup if it’s needed. Finally, due to the roads, many areas of Africa are inaccessible – some overland companies overcome this obstacle by running four-wheel drive trucks giving you access to areas few others have seen.
Overlanding of beginners

The things overlanding involves

An overland trip consists of anything from four to 20 overlanders, a guide, who knows the area covered like the back of his hand, a driver, who’ll know the truck like the back of his hand, and the truck itself which will have customised seats and canvas roll-up sides (posher trucks have glass windows, but personally I think that’s cheating!). Some companies hire a chef whilst others leave the cooking to the overlanders (with a lot of help from the guide.) A fully equipped kitchen, with rations, cutlery, pots and pans and a gas stove is taken on the truck. There may also be a generator or other battery power so you can cook by electric light and listen to music.
All chores, cleaning, cooking, washing-up, checking security, managing the kitty and shopping, are shared with a rota system devised by the guide. The price you pay for the trip will include use of a tent and transport. You will have to pay into the kitty on top of that price which will cover your food and camping. Game-park entry is sometimes included in the kitty for budget operators, so check exactly what’s included beforehand. The kitty is paid in US$ cash to the guide at the beginning of the trip.
Obviously the trip is very varied and will depend on the route you chose. Some days will be spent travelling, others game-viewing and some just chilling out at the various overland stops along the way – these are backpacker hostels that provide camping facilities for the trucks passing through. On some nights you’ll camp in a game-park, whilst on others you’ll be by the beach. If you’re near to civilisation, you may be able to leave your tent and upgrade to a room for the night, but this will cost extra.
Trips are run all over Africa, from Morocco to South Africa, Tanzania to Ghana. You can travel for a two-week jaunt or a mammoth six-month odyssey – you can also join some trucks mid-trip.
As to the activities you can take part in, that’s up to you and the operator you choose. Here’s a small selection of what’s on offer: learning to sail a dhow, gorilla-watching, white-water rafting, abseiling, pottery, fishing, diving, game-viewing, walking safaris, boat safaris, massage, kayaking, horseback safaris, community projects…the list is endless.

What conditions can you expect?

Let’s just say you won’t need your Jimmy Choo stilettos. Conditions can be tough – if it’s raining you’ve still got to put up your tent. Africa’s a vast continent so the drives can be long, and its roads are notoriously bad so don’t be surprised if the truck gets stuck and you have to help push it out. Don’t worry though you’ll always pull each other through. The worst things that have happened to me have been our truck breaking down in northern Mozambique with a bushfire rampaging towards us, and a marauding lion prowling round the stranded truck in southern Tanzania – but I survived.
The other thing to think about is communal living. Spending so much time around a large group of people can lead to tension, so approach the trip with an open, diplomatic mind. Finally, especially for women, be prepared for a severe lack of toilets – except for the bush. The political situation in some countries doesn’t help matters. In Mozambique, due to landmines, we had to squat in the road.
Overland tours

The positives Vs the negatives

OK, I run an overlanding company so of course I’m going to say yes! If you’re looking for a beach holiday that’ll leave you relaxed but with few memories, then steer clear. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a trip which goes beyond a mere holiday, which gives you the opportunity to make a lot of new friends and see a lot of new places in a relatively short period of time then overlanding is for you.

What sort of people enjoy overlanding? Are there people who might hate it?

I think it’s pretty clear that overlanding is for the adventurous type who’d rather spend a night roughing it in a rainforest than luxuriating in a boutique hotel. Other than that, there is always a huge variety of people on the trucks from all walks of life, teachers, students, graphic-designers, public servants – and even an ambassador. Age is no barrier either, that’s one of the joys of the trip; people who wouldn’t normally socialise have time to get to know each other.
On our last trip we had a couple in their 50s; we pulled up at one of the more rowdy overland stops worrying that they would hate it; in fact at the end of the three weeks they counted that place as their favourite night!
Driving in Africa

Hints and Tips

  • It’s advice that goes for all foreign travel, but be as organised as you can before leaving so you can relax when abroad.
  • Check with your doctor about vaccinations and bear in mind that many African countries are malarial. A yellow fever vaccination is also required for some East African countries. As you’ll be camping outside buy strong mozzie spray with a high DEET content and bring light, long-sleeved tops and trousers (I emphasise the word light, because when you’re in rainy old Britain you can’t imagine how hot it is out here.)
  • If you’re coming out here to see game then book a trip during the dry season when the grass isn’t too high and you can actually see the animals. South of the equator the best time is April to September, which is also the coolest time of year. Avoid January to March, the rainy season when everything is damp and miserable (although the landscape is beautifully green).
  • Make two copies of all your travel details, leave one set at home and bring the other with you. Keep it separate from the hard copies. Make sure your insurance covers all the activities you want to do.
  • Some East African countries require receipts to cash traveller’s cheques, do bring them with you but keep them totally separate from the cheques.
  • Other extras our overlanders sometimes bring (although you can easily do without them) are solar showers and quick-dry towels (try Nomad travel stores or Millets). One invaluable extra is a head torch, preferably with rechargeable batteries. You can charge phones and cameras at overland stops. Some trucks even carry their own invertors. If you don’t have rechargeable batteries buy lots of non-rechargeables in UK, out here they’re poor quality and last for five minutes at the most!
  • Food is provided, but sometimes it’s nice to bring treats such as rich tea biscuits which are hard to find in Africa. Remember anything containing chocolate will melt into an unappetising mush. These extras are good bartering tool with fellow overlanders if you run out of cigarettes or phone-credit! After three weeks’ travelling you may feel run-down and, although the truck will carry a first-aid kit, Lemsips are always comforting when you’re feeling coldy.
  • Mobile phone companies are spreading across the continent like wild-fire and you’ll be surprised at how many areas have reception. Remember to organise international roaming before you leave so you can make your friends jealous with pictures of lions and cheetahs. You’ll also be able to email every few days.
  • Check with the tour operator exactly how long you’ll be driving for every day; there’s nothing worse than being cooped up for two months.

Before you book with a company check that they carry a first-aid kit and that the guide knows how to use it. Also inquire whether they carry truck spares – if they don’t, when the truck breaks down you could be stuck in the bush for days waiting for spares to arrive; if they do, the problem will be dealt with in a matter of minutes.
Finally when you’re out here and answering the call of nature in the bush remember to wear closed shoes and stamp hard to scare off any nearby snakes.

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