Our hearts sank as we felt the truck grind to a halt, its wheels digging into the soft sand. Nervously we glanced at the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean, just a few metres away. It was the moment we had been half-dreading, half-expecting.
We'd been driving across the Sahara Desert for several days, and this section, in Mauritania, was always going to be the most critical. This was where the dunes met the sea, and for 120km there were no roads or tracks across the desert. The only way through was to drive along the beach at low tide - and pray you didn't get stuck.
'OK, everyone out,' cried Rick, our overland expedition leader. We jumped down and set to work. It was a well-rehearsed routine: unhook the sand mats, dig out the sand in front of the wheels, slot the mats into place, and move around to the rear of the truck ready to push when Rick started the engine and gave us the signal.
Gradually, the truck struggled free, and we were able to resume our drive along the beach, hoping to reach the safety of a fishing village before the tide cut us off. A tense hour passed and then, suddenly, we saw a group of children shouting and waving as they ran towards us. We made it, only narrowly beating the rising tide.
This was my third overland expedition in Africa - and another mini-drama to add to the long list of adventures and encounters that characterise this form of travel. Overlanding is far more than an opportunity to see the people, landscape and wildlife of a region.
By getting you off the beaten track and into remote areas for long periods of time, it provides a level of immersion in the culture and spirit of a place that can't be matched by any other form of travel. So, how do you go about planning this great adventure?
Routes Across Africa
With so many options available, choosing where to go is no easy task. Some overland trips are intensive, cramming an incredible number of attractions into a relatively short space of time, while others explore remote regions where the journey itself can be the adventure (one company, Migration Overland, even lets participants decide their route as they travel!).
Overland expeditions in East and Southern Africa are deservedly popular, taking in spectacular reserves like the Serengeti, Kruger and Okavango Delta, as well as offering chances to meet tribal people, such as the Maasai, Samburu and Himba.
North Africa blends ancient history with the challenge of crossing the Sahara, perhaps following ancient Tuareg trade routes to Timbuktu. West Africa offers a wonderful diversity of landscape and culture with highlights including the Cameroon rainforest and the voodoo fetish markets of Togo.
Although some central African countries are still off-limits, southern Chad and Sudan have recently opened again, offering an intriguing east-west route through the Sahel. If you still can't decide which is for you, why not do it all and opt for a full trans-Africa expedition lasting eight or nine months?
Having decided where to go, it's time to tackle all those pre-departure logistics, like how to get time off work, how to pay for the trip and which visas and vaccinations you might need. Handing in your notice and leaving your job to go travelling takes guts, but can also be liberating - a chance for a new start.
Alternatively it's worth exploring the possibility of taking unpaid leave or a sabbatical. Many employers are much more open to this these days, and it gives the security of a job to return to.
The cost of the trip is quite easily calculated. Most operators quote a trip price plus a local payment or kitty, which covers food and accommodation while on the trip. But don't forget to add in the costs of flights, insurance, spending money, visas and so on.
If you own a house, remember to budget for mortgage and other monthly outgoings, or consider renting it out while you are away. You will also need to check which visas you require. Your operator will provide details, but remember to allow plenty of time for processing. A good idea is to use a visa agency, which can handle the red tape for you.
Vaccinations and anti-malaria pills should also be on your pre-departure 'must-do' list. Seek medical advice as early as possible since some vaccinations have to be given in a course lasting several weeks.
On the Road
At last the preparations are over and it's time to meet your crew and fellow overlanders. It may seem awkward at first: a group of strangers who will be living and travelling together in close proximity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But the introductions are soon over and don't forget that everyone has something in common - a passion for travel. The crew varies from one to three people depending on the operator and the trip. Not only do they do all the driving and truck maintenance, but the crew members also arrange excursions, hire of local guides where necessary, and sort out any problems that may occur.
They may even help with the cooking, although this is generally taken in turns by the passengers. Many of the daily chores are also divided up. These can vary from setting up the tables and chairs to collecting firewood or managing the group kitty.
Highs and Lows
Inevitably there will be some long driving days which can be tiring. Border crossings can also take time - although nightmare scenarios of custom checks lasting 36 hours are the exception rather than the rule. Breakdowns are also rare - as are showers which may be days (or even weeks) apart.
But the highs on an overland trip far outweigh the lows. Bush camping in the desert without another soul around for miles; counting shooting stars in a clear night sky; watching a cheetah chase down a gazelle; trekking in remote mountains; mingling with the locals at a village market; listening to the harmony of Bushman guides singing around the campfire - combining all these experiences (and many others) on a single epic trip is what makes overland travel so compelling).
Travelling through remote regions with a small group of strangers may not sound like everyone's idea of fun. But that group of strangers soon gels through shared experiences, forming friendships that may well last a lifetime. Overlanding is not only a great way to see Africa, it is also a great way to experience Africa. Above all it is the feeling of being a part of something - a part of a group, and a part of Africa.
Commonly Asked Questions
- Can I go on my own? Yes, most people do.
- Is it hard work? Overlanding is not physically demanding, but conditions in Africa can be harsh. Occasional trekking days can be tiring, but these are usually optional
- What if I don't get on with the others? A common concern, but don't worry about it - overlanding seems to attract similar, like-minded people, and there's bound to be someone you get on well with.
- What will be the age range of the passengers? Varies from twenty to seventy. Most are in their late twenties and thirties.
- Can I drive the truck? No.
- Can I get time on my own? Yes, if you want to. Most people find opportunities to go for a walk, or find some quiet time to themselves if they need to get away from the group for an hour or so.
- What if the truck breaks down? The leaders are mechanics trained to fix most problems. Extensive spares are always carried.
- Will I have to help with the cooking? Yes. Even on trips with a cook you will be expected to help out in small groups. Even people with no cooking experience manage to put together some great meals. Besides, food always tastes better outdoors.
Six Popular Routes
Nairobi to Cape Town
Great mix of wildlife, mountains, tribal people and relaxing beaches, visiting Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
The big one: travelling some 40,000km from the UK across Africa to Cape Town
via the Sahara, West Africa, Sahel, East and Southern Africa.
Cape Town to Victoria Falls
Spectacular desert scenery, including the world's tallest dunes at Sossusvlei and the Fish River Canyon (largest in Africa), plus game viewing in Namibia's Etosha National Park, boating on the Okavango Delta and adrenaline activities at Victoria Falls.
From UK to Dakar
Combines the fascinating cultures of Morocco and West Africa with an epic
crossing of the Sahara.
Rift Valley Adventure
Travelling through Kenya and Ethiopia through some of Africa's most dramatic
scenery, visiting the El Molo, Gabra and Samburu people, as well as the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
Colourful markets, vibrant music and diverse scenery, visiting the famed cities of Djenne and Timbuktu and exploring the Ivory Coast and Gold Coast of Ghana.
All reputable overland operators go to great lengths to ensure that their trips are eco-friendly. Campsites are rigorously inspected before leaving to ensure that no rubbish is left behind (many, in fact, are left cleaner than they were before the expedition truck arrived).
Leaders and passengers are given guidelines on responsible travel issues such as behaviour in game parks, the use of local produce, waste disposal and respecting indigenous customs. Furthermore, a large proportion of the cost of an overland trip feeds directly into local economies through the use of small hotels, campsites, restaurants, markets and businesses.
What to Take
- 2-3 sets of clothes (nearly everyone makes the mistake of taking too much)
- Sunhat, sunglasses and sun protection cream
- Insect repellent
- Water bottle
- Sewing kit
- Biodegradable soap and shampoo
- Basic medical kit
- Phrase book
- Passport size photos (for visa applications en route)
- Photocopy of passport, flight tickets and insurance details
- Sleeping bag liner
- Money (a mixture of small denomination US$ cash and traveller's cheques)
- Camera, lots of film and spare batteries
- Diary and pencil
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