Taking an overland journey across Africa is a long-established tradition that is now becoming increasingly popular. While not the cheapest option for getting from point A to point B, going on an overland trek has many benefits — you get to travel in a group, you’ll be able to visit areas otherwise inaccessible to the solo traveler, and you don’t have to worry about food, transportation, or your itinerary. Over the course of a few weeks or a few months, you’ll get to see the full range of diversity that Africa has to offer — it can truly be the adventure of a lifetime. Of course, there are pros and cons, and various other things to consider before you commit to weeks on the road with strangers in a giant truck. Luckily, we’ve compiled a list of things you should know before you embark on your overland African adventure.
1) It can be the adventure of a lifetime
There is nothing quite like an overland Africa trip. Thousands of miles/kilometers traveled, new friends made, fresh passport stamps, and unlimited possibilities unleashed. For many, this is the adventure of a lifetime and it should be treated as such. Who knows if you’ll have the time and money to do it again, and even if you do, maybe the country or region of your choosing will be in political turmoil, ruling it out. So time to lace up your boots, put on your big kid pants, and say yes to everything!
2) You usually don’t get to choose your travel companions
Most overland outfitters usually pack in at least a dozen people. Of course, there are those who specialize in small groups and others that plan for even more than that. Running an overland company is not cheap and the more people involved, the easier it makes things for the company. You may not be thrilled to share space with a group of best friends from college on their first big trip abroad, or the old marrieds who are super-chatty, but hey, that’s part of it. We all have to make the best of situations at times. The exception to this is if you can get a large enough group of people together and block-book an expedition with just the members of your party. For this you’ll have to inquire with individual tour companies and see if an arrangement can be made.
3) You’ll get to go places others won’t
One of the benefits of overland trucks is that they can pretty much handle any terrain. They’re specifically designed and built for extreme circumstances. So when a road is washed out or there’s deep sand in the desert or the savanna is too muddy, guess what? You’ll be cruising past all those others in cars or dinky (by comparison) safari trucks. Of course, you will draw more attention in cities and rural areas. Two sides to every coin.
4) You’ll need to pitch in at times
Quite often, you’ll only have a guide and a driver. No chef to cook all your meals, no maid to clean up your vehicle or do your dishes. Most overland trips come with the proviso that you’ll be helping out with a number of chores and some even have schedules to make sure no one gets stuck with the same cruddy job. But cooking, washing, cleaning, and if need be, helping out the mechanics or when the truck gets stuck are expected.
5) Things won’t always go according to plan
Let’s be real for a minute — it’s Africa. Anything can happen. And, as is often the case, something does happen. If you have expectations that the itinerary will go exactly as it is written, then you need to hop on a cruise. Hold ups at the border, changing visa and permit rules, inclement weather, damaged roads, these types of things are the norm, not the exception. But your guide will have alternatives, and it’s important not to get bent out of shape. After all, it’s all part of the adventure!
6) Be prepared for downtime
Africa is massive. Like, the United States, Europe, India, and China can fit in its perimeter, with room to spare. And its road infrastructure is not like that of western countries. Combine those two factors and you’re looking at a lotttttt of driving, and many long, boring hours on the road. So…work on that novel you’ve been meaning to write, make new friends, blast your iPod, just find something to fill those long, dusty stretches where nothing much happens.
7) Be flexible
As we mentioned earlier, things will definitely not always go according to plan, but it’s extremely important not to fall to pieces when this inevitably happens. Not only will it affect your trip, but also that of your co-adventurers. Flexibility is key when traveling, especially in the developing world and especially in Africa. Whether the food wasn’t what you’d expected, the weather gives out, or you don’t like your travel companion, there’s not much that can be done about it, so why not make the best of it?
8) Bring extra cash
Driving through some of the most rural and remote parts of the continent is one of the best parts of traveling overland and away from the crowds. However, when you’re out in the bush you won’t have access to banks, much less ATMs. Make sure you bring enough cash. You don’t want to skimp on a tip for your amazing guide in the Maasai village, or pass on that Congolese mask in the market because you didn’t bring enough shillings. Almost every vehicle will have a safe or lockbox.
9) Prepare yourself mentally
If you’ve never traveled for an extended period of time, you’ll want to prepare yourself mentally. Okay, so you’ve done a summer in Europe, but European standards are often even higher than American ones. Going on an overland trip is like being on tour with a band — long drives, new faces and places every day, and big stretches without the comforts of home. If you can’t leave your cat or best friends for more than a week, you’ll need to reconsider if this is the right kind of trip for you.
10) You won’t have all the comforts
That said, you won’t have access to all the luxuries you’re used to. Things like western toilets, air conditioning, and diversity of food quickly become relegated to the past tense. Spotty or non-existent phone/internet service, stifling heat and rain, bugs, and a few days without a shower are all things that you’ll probably encounter, but it’s important not to forget that this is the adventure of a lifetime and no reward comes without sacrifice.
11) Bring items that you won’t be able to get on the road
After two weeks or so on the road, you’re going to start to miss small things. Little luxuries you took for granted back home. Everyone has their own specific items. Maybe it’s a certain brand of whiskey or a specific type of tampon or your favorite hair product. Whatever it is for you, make sure you get it before you leave for your trip because we can guarantee you it won’t be found in the corner store in the middle of Ethiopia.
12) Be prepared, but don’t pack too much
This is always a struggle: how much to bring. You don’t want to be weighed down with tons of gear, but you don’t want to be unprepared either. Certain items are always a good idea: clothes for any weather (swimwear, rain jacket, warm hoodie), comfortable shoes (you’ll be walking a lot), a multi-tool like a Leatherman, a headlamp or flashlight, and a good, long book. Of course, there are others, and we could make a separate list, but the above items are essential and never go out of season.
13) Stay connected, but not too connected
So you’re all set for your two-month adventure away from family, friends back home, and the rest of the world. But of course you want to share your adventure. Some people get completely off the grid and love it, and wait to update everyone until their return. Others meticulously update their blog and social media accounts constantly en route. If your tendency is the latter, we recommend dialing it back a bit. Sharing an amazing shot here and there or updating your Facebook feed once in a while is fine, but make sure your focus isn’t on your tech; if your face is buried in your phone, you’re bound to miss the amazing sights going on around you. Also, many of the places you’ll be won’t have wi-fi or reliable cellular service.
14) Make friends with your guide and driver
You’re going to be with these people for weeks at a time. Your guide and driver are the ones that are making this experience the trip of a lifetime, please treat them kindly. They can’t help hasten the line at the border of Malawi, or the burst tire in rural Kenya. They are working 24 hours a day the entirety of the trip and even though your driver isn’t entertaining you throughout the long drives, he is also an integral part of the experience, making sure you get to your destinations on time and safely.
15) Live in the moment
This overland trip may well be the only one of its kind that you take in your life, so do your best to live in the moment. Leave your troubles back in your home country. Maybe you’re trying to get over a bad breakup or you lost a loved one recently or you just quit your secure job. Maybe you want to use the trip to clear your head, find focus, or realign your priorities. Whatever your reasoning, make sure you don’t get caught up in the stresses and worries of life back home. You’re here for an adventure, so make sure you’re focused on that!
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