A Brief History of Overlanding

Not enough people do overlanding. To briefly explain how it works: imagine joining up with a bunch of strangers, cramming into a mega-truck and spending weeks - possibly months - eating, drinking and sleeping with them as you drive through the backwaters of less developed countries. But in a totally good way.

Overlanding is a brilliant way to explore places, cultures and adventures within a tight-knit group environment. Trips can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to six months or more, and venture all over the world. It’s a lot of fun, and an amazing way to see lots of stuff on a single trip.

Dragoman is one of the top overlanding companies around, and the biggest in Britain. Operating out of Suffolk in the east of the UK, the company offers authentic grass-roots adventures to get their travellers off the beaten track. They were founded back in 1981, and to celebrate their 30th anniversary, gapyear.com is paying homage to their heritage of independent and adventurous spirit by speaking to some of their directors, employees and travellers to find out what makes Dragoman - and overlanding in general - so cool.

Back in Time

"Although it’s not very fashionable to admit now, I had no great vision of what Dragoman might become," admits company founder George Durie, or ‘G’ as he is affectionately known to his Drago men and women. "What I and those first passengers did have, however," he says, "was an open mind and a pioneering spirit."

As you can probably imagine, things were both metaphorically and literally hairier on the road back in the early days of overlanding. Deserts were navigated using a compass and some crossed fingers. Trips could finish late, and sometimes not at all. You get the sense that everyone was essentially making it up as they were along.

Thirty years and hundreds of trips later, many things have changed. "We now take thousands of passengers a year," George tells us. "And, thankfully, nobody has been lined up and nearly shot by drunken guards since that first London to Nairobi overland adventure."

He’s right. Dragoman is now one of the most respected and award-winning overlanders about. These days they claim that trips are guaranteed to finish when they’re supposed to, and not some 8 weeks and a 3,000 mile detour later. There are other changes, too. There’s more planning, less moustaches. Shorts are longer, hair is shorter. And passengers are unlikely to get arrested in Western Sudan.

But not everything is different. "What hasn’t changed - and what to me remains the defining spirit of Dragoman," argues George, "is a continuing quest for adventure, a passion about the countries and cultures we travel through and a shared sense that ‘we’re all in this together’."

He adds: "It’s this sense of ‘family’ that’s grown as we’ve grown of which I’m most proud."

Overlanding has changed a little over the years...

Then and Now

The background to the founding of Dragoman and the basic original concept of overlanding is pretty interesting. "Overlanding started in the late '50s and early '60s," explains company managing director Charlie Hopkinson. "All you needed was an old truck, a map, an inflated sense of self-belief and a lot of time and luck."

Charlie explains the early plans behind overlanding trips were, er, somewhat fast and loose. "The itineraries had a vague structure, but where you would be for the night was immaterial,... he says. "Yes, there were goals and highlights but the real goal was the journey."

The journey would be a pretty rustic experience, living out of a Bedford RL truck or even a converted City of London dustcart, and camping, well, anywhere. "Campsites were few and far between and bush camping was the norm," says Charlie. "It was not unusual to camp wild for a week or two without any facilities. In fact, this freedom was the real beauty of overlanding."

The original overlanding route was London to Kathmandu, superseded later by the harder trans-Africa expeditions from London to Cape Town. The two main routes were the western trans-Africa and eastern Cairo to Cape Town.

"Travelling in Africa was largely innocent; the people curious and friendly and hospitality was the order of the day," says Charlie. "Gradually that has changed, but most perceptively after the chaos of the last 20 years in central Africa."

By the 70s and 80s these routes were becoming increasingly popular while still retaining their authentic pioneering feel. Life on the road changed little between the 60s and the early 90s.

"The trick now is to weld the old with the new," claims Charlie. "To create that local goodwill, involving the local community through specially constructed community projects as well as staying in the more modern campsites."

Charlie’s perspective on the history of overlanding and Dragoman seems to be a pretty balanced one. "It is easy to look back with rose tinted glasses and certainly it was much harder," he admits.

"But it did have something that as an overland operator we must not lose: the real authentic feel of Africa, the hospitality of the local community and the wonderful outlook on life that you can only get when you leave our western rat race behind, for however brief a time."

Overlanding is a brilliant way to see tons of cultural stuff

On the Road

So what are the modern overlanding tours actually like? John Dicks heads up Dragoman’s sales and marketing team and has just returned from two weeks in Brazil with Dragoman on a ‘company educational trip’ (translation: free holiday). We spoke to him to find out what happened.

John met up with his group and spent a night in Rio de Janeiro, then headed up the coast to Paraty, a beautiful coastal colonial resort. They then drove inland to the Pantanal and onto Bonito to explore the wildlife and scenery. His two weeks finished at the spectacular Iguazu Falls, though the other passengers were continuing on to Buenos Aires, and on through to Cusco in Peru and Quito in Ecuador.

What vehicle did he travel in? "We use Mercedes Benz trucks which have been purpose-built to get the most out of this type of travel," John says. "They can go off road, which means we can get to places that would be almost impossible to access using public transport.

"They carry loads of water so passengers don’t have to buy their own water bottle, which is environmentally friendly - and cheap!."

John tells us that on some of the vehicles the canvas roof can be removed for an unrivalled view as you’re travelling. They also have their own names. "Claudia and Naomi are amongst our ‘super models’," he chuckles.

In it together

Travelling overland as a group, John explains everyone usually took it in turns to cook barbeques and make salads and sandwiches whilst on the road. "But we were copiously catered for at our Pantanal lodge," he says, "and on remaining nights ate out locally."

Although the trip was intended to be predominantly camping, the 12-year-coldest snap conspired against the group, so they upgraded to hostel rooms most nights, which provided a very comfortable alternative.

How much was the trip? "The trip itself costs £695," John says. "Plus a kitty cost of US$780 for group expenditure like accommodation, food and entrance fees. Flights are extra."

We’re keen to find out what interesting stories John has from his fortnight on the road. "Well, what happens on trip usually stays on trip!" he says, potentially masking some dark holiday secrets. I press further.

"One of our American passengers suffered the trauma of his airline losing his luggage on the way down," he begins. "After a couple of days replenishing his wardrobe in tourist shops, the beefcake courier who biked his suddenly-discovered backpack for three hours from Rio that evening was greeted by a couple of very excited, perhaps over-excited, gents. I don't think he'd ever been hugged that hard before."

It’s not gold, but it’ll suffice.

What did John get out of the trip? "Professionally, to experience our trips first-hand," he tells us. "But from a more personal perspective, to experience some awesome scenery and wildlife in parts of South America I hadn't quite reached when I'd backpacked there previously."

John had an amazing time down in Brazil. "Finishing my leg of the trip in Iguazu Falls was perfect," he enthuses. "I'd never been close to such bewildering raw power before; then seeing the same sight by helicopter from above added new perspective.

Holiday hindsight

Were there any bad times? "The worst experience was just our bad luck with the weather," he says, "which didn't ultimately prevent us from visiting anywhere planned, but hampered our ability to camp a bit."

We wonder what kind of person you have to be to consider the overlanding option. "As a first-time overlander myself, it was actually much easier to get in to than I'd imagined," says John. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? But he seems sincere.

"The crew really put you at ease and the group divide and conquer tasks to sort things like loading, cooking and cleaning," he continues. "Our group consisted of a wide range of genders (surely only two? - Ed), nationalities, ages and personalities, which I think is half the appeal, so the only traits I think anyone has to have is a tolerance of others and willingness to help out."

Sounds pretty hands on, but a lot of fun? "I'd urge everyone to overland, even if only once," John states. "Overlanding offers you a chance to see places you'd otherwise never see, in ways you'd otherwise never experience - even if you've only got a few weeks to spare."

Why does he think Dragoman are still going strong 30 years later? What’s the appeal/draw to people? "We've stayed true to our roots and our ethos around overland travel, at a time when the rest of the world is changing at a phenomenal rate," he claims. "At the same time, we're adapting to what customers want, hence shorter trips and many trips offering what traditional overlanders might regard as luxurious upgrades!

"But customers are demanding more authentic experiences in their lives, whether it's travel or food or whatever, and they’regravitating to companies like Dragoman."

With trucks you can get properly off the beaten track

From the Team

To get a further insight into the life of Dragoman, we did some Q&As with some of their team. Here are the highlights:

Anthony Thompson

Anthony has been with Dragoman since 2008 but has been in the industry seven years.

Funniest thing that's happened to you on the road?

Realising that there was a big rock in my bag after completing Dead Woman Pass on the Inca Trail.

Most challenging thing to happen on the road?

Everyday is a challenge when on the road this is what I love about the job.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten?

Pig’s brain and dog in China.

Favourite soundtrack at the moment?

Anything from Sam Cooke.

One piece of advice you would give a passenger wanting to join a trip?

Never let fear stand in the way of your dreams. Leave behind your routine and western ideas.

Anna-Karin Nordin

Anna-Karin has been a Dragoman crew member since 2009, and currently works the route from La Paz to Lima.

Favourite destination?

The Anglo-Argentine estancia we go to in the north of Argentina. It’s a working cattle farm where we do two days of amazing horseback riding around the beautiful estate with the gauchos. It’s just a heaven: Traditional asado with the organic beef from the farm, winetasting, lassoing and stunning scenery.

What's the funniest thing that's happened to you on the road?

Argentine border officials taking time to sing Happy Birthday to me in a packed immigration office.

Most challenging thing to happen on the road?

A complete re-route due to roadblocks and violent protests in Bolivia. We ended up going through the outback of Bolivia, seeing some stunning scenery along the way and playing it by ear each day. A real adventure!

Favourite soundtrack at the moment?

Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

One piece of advice you would give a passenger wanting to join a trip?

Don’t wait - just do it! (And bring a head torch.)

Sadly few drivers have moustaches these days

Luca

Luca has worked for Dragoman for four years and works the Kathmandu to Delhi route.

Favourite destination?

The Omo Valley. Spending 4 days with the Southern Ehiopians tribes was an unforgettable experience; driving the truck into their 'backyard', sleeping in their huts and eating with them.

Least favourite destination?

Not a destination really, but Police Road blocks in Nigeria. Because they are everywhere and it drove me crazy!

What's the funniest thing that's happened to you on the road?

Getting pulled for hours by a snow plow on top of the mountain pass leading from Pucon, Chile to Bariloche, Argentina in four meters of snow.

Most challenging thing to happen on the road?

The 80 kms in 3 days on the Mamfe road is definitly it. It is the road which connects Nigeria and Cameroon and is still like overlanding used to be 30 years ago.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten?

Witchetty Grabs and Lemon Ants in the Amazon jungle.

Clare Glade-Wright

Clare has been a Dragoman crew member for one year.

Favourite destination?

The Bolivian Altiplano. Driving through there you get the feeling that you’ve entered a wonderland, and to see so many beautiful things around you reminds you that the earth we live on is a really special place.

Least favourite destination?

Lima. Peru has so many nicer places to be.

What's the funniest thing that's happened to you on the road?

Some of the faces I’ve seen when people see a girl driving a truck.

Most challenging thing to happen on the road?

Unappreciative or ‘difficult’ passengers. Some people can be so ungrateful and unaware of all your hard work.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten?

We tried barbequed cows heart and liver the other day in Brazil, but guinea pig would have to be up there!

One piece of advice you would give a passenger?

Remember to call the truck a truck. Our passengers owe us a beer for every time they call it a bus!

From our Gappers

What do gapyear.com members say about Dragoman?

"After tons of research I finally decided to book up with Dragoman and travelled for 3 months with them from UK to Kathmandu (the ‘Encounter’ Classic Overland). I had such a fantastic time - really do recommend them! Bumped into a few other overland companies on the way and felt very happy with my choice.

Our truck was more spacious and robust and the others always tended to have loads more passengers squeezed on board - fine if you want a big group. We also seemed to be venturing far more off the beaten track as well and our drivers were just brilliant."

- Matt Addison

"I went on a Dragoman trip a couple of years ago and only have good things to say about it. They can be a bit more expensive, but the extra money was worth it because of the included excursions you did not get with other companies.

That’s not to say that any other companies weren’t any good, just that I had the time of my life with Dragoman and would travel with them again at the drop of a hat. In fact, I was convinced enough that I’ve booked a trip to South America in March with them. Can’t wait..."

- Sarah Austin

Further Information

See what trips you can do with Dragoman