For those who can afford to travel like ‘the One Percent’, the long distances between major centres and private game reserves are eaten up by flying in and out by way of a small aircraft. Some of the most exclusive lodges even feature gourmet dining, butler service and plunge pools while viewing animals right from the deck of your private chalet, sundowner in hand. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s DIY travel where families and groups can rent their own vehicles and stay in self-catering rest camps. South Africa’s Kruger National Park alone has nearly 20,000km2 to explore, ensuring endless days of neck-craning, eye-crossing game viewing. Somewhere in between lies overlanding.
Simply put, overlanding involves travelling with a guide and fellow passengers on a custom designed truck, and more often than not pitching tents in the evenings, eating over a campfire and going to places otherwise inaccessible by public transportation or prohibitively expensive to get to on your own. Think of it as a poor but fabulous cousin to the all-inclusive holiday.
Overlanding destinations can be anything from two weeks of gorilla trekking in Uganda, to a month of taking in the ungulate migration numbering into the millions in Kenya and Tanzania, to the mother of all African safaris, a massive sixteen plus weeks of travelling the entire length of the continent from Cairo to Cape Town.
Outside of the major city centres, roads in Africa are notoriously bad necessitating serious power to forge through flooded passes, sandy bogs and barely-there paths. The earliest incarnations of vehicles were simply second-hand army trucks with seats bolted down, a couple of spare tyres, food and some tents. While most modern overland trucks remain relatively Spartan with little more than a stereo, slightly more comfortable seats, lighting and the occasional card table; higher-end trucks come equipped with everything from lockers, a fridge, safes, battery chargers, and even the rare luxury of air-conditioning. Whatever the truck though, count on huge windows for game viewing and to enjoy the long days of monotonously gorgeous scenery.
To keep costs down, most overland trips involve camping. Sites range from bush camps literally in the middle of nowhere to ultra basic ones with long drop toilets and pumped well water to surprisingly posh grounds, complete with swimming pools, bars and Wi-Fi. Approximately 50 percent of overlanders are single, meaning passengers share tents with someone of the same sex, thereby avoiding single supplements common to most other forms of travel. At some sites, there may even be the option to upgrade to a bedded tent, chalet or hotel room for a fee.
The biggest difference between overlanding and other types of group tours is the participatory aspect. While most crews will include a driver and a guide (and even a cook, for the more upscale tours), passengers are expected to help out with daily chores, including food preparation, truck cleaning and other small tasks, in addition to setting up their own tent. For this reason, overlanding is normally limited to those 18 or over, with no upper limit as long as passengers are reasonably fit.
Overland trips are usually paid in two parts — the cost of the tour to the operator and a local payment in cash (also known as a ‘kitty’) to the tour guide at the start of the tour. The kitty is used to pay for fresh food for the trip (usually purchased at supermarkets along the way), camping fees and incidentals. In return, almost everything is included: park fees, all meals and most activities. Travellers, however, still need to budget extra cash for snacks, visas and optional activities.
While overlanders tend to be more adventurous — travellers rather than tourists — you could literally be sharing a hands-on group tour in tight quarters with just about anyone, from any country, any background, any age, with or without a language in common. Because you’ll be spending lots of time on the road with a group of 12 to 30 others, carefully researching your overland company is a must, as some cater to rowdy gap year students, some are family-friendly and others tend to skew towards higher-end (read, more mature) clients.
A Photographic Safari: Nairobi to Cape Town in 55 days
Nairobi, Kenya to Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (368km)
After a quick cold breakfast, our overland truck leaves the smog of Nairobi behind (colloquially known as “Nairobbery” due to the high crime rate) and heads for Serengeti National Park, just beyond the border with Tanzania. We pass banana fields and local children, who alternately call out “Jambo!” and “Give me money!” After a long driving day, the magician of a cook conjures up a magnificent campfire feast of grilled lamb, Spanish rice, buttered carrots and roasted potatoes. In the night, we are giddily awoken by the plaintive whooping of a solitary hyena and the distant sound of lions.
Maasai for “Endless Plains”, the veldt of the Serengeti stretches as far as the eye can see, interspersed with bizarrely contorted trees. Shy giraffes in groups of more than 20 crane their necks to stare as our truck rumbles past on the uneven red earth. We come upon a solitary male lion hovering over a fresh wildebeest kill, watching in morbid fascination as he disembowels the luckless calf with bloody teeth. We quickly learn that game drives are an exercise in endless patience and sheer luck. Arrive three minutes before or after and you may have missed all the action.
Passing pools filled with hippos, only their ears visible, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a dense grouping of wildebeests, zebras and antelope, as far as the horizon in every direction, part of the annual migration between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Hundreds of thousands of animals graze, shocking in their sheer number. Our necks ache from the constant panoramic swivelling of trying to take it all in.
Serengeti National Park to Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (161km)
In the morning mist, we transfer into jeeps to descend into the crater, an extinct volcano which long ago collapsed upon itself, leaving a caldera 22km wide, rimmed by mountains. The steep walls form a natural barrier keeping most animals in year-round. The pan-flat bottom makes finding the animals a gleeful task. In the rainy season there’s a lake filled with thousands of bright pink flamingos (owing their colour to the algae and shrimp they eat). Groups of zebra graze only a short distance from where two cheetahs are sunning themselves and a pride of 14 sleepy lions lie, simply a photographer’s dream. I have to remind myself to breathe.
Ngorongoro Crater to Zanzibar, Tanzania (822km)
The truck rambles past snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro on the way to Dar Es Salaam, the jumping off point for the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean. Known as the Spice Island (and the birthplace of Queen’s Freddy Mercury), Zanzibar is the leading exporter of cloves worldwide, in addition to producing nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper. But the main reason to come to Zanzibar is the beaches. Routinely rated among the top 10 beaches in the world, Nungwi, on Zanzibar’s northern coast, is simply perfection with its impossibly clear water and powdery white sand. One of four multi-day stops on the route, the group breaks up to go off on dives, watch the local women gather seaweed, visit the local fish auction, snorkel in the waters around one of the nearby atolls or simply lounge on the beach. We end our stay navigating the labyrinthine alleyways of Stone Town, an old trading centre for cloves and slaves, in search of a cold beer that is impossible to find because the island has been without power for days.
Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Kande Beach, Lake Malawi (1,279km)
Forgettable long driving days past lush tea plantations take us to Kande Beach on Lake Malawi, reportedly home to more species of fish than those of any other body of fresh water anywhere. The group decides to scour the local market for outrageous costumes pieced together from second-hand clothing in honour of the slow-roasted goat dinner the cook will put together that evening. Along the way, we buy bilharzia tablets (doled out according to body weight) to prevent the debilitating disease carried by freshwater snails endemic to the lake and fleetingly consider what we’re willing to risk for a respite from the muggy weather.
Lake Malawi to Victoria Falls, Zambia (1,463 km)
The 1.7km long Victoria Falls (locally called Mosi Oa Tunya, ‘The Smoke that Thunders’) marks the halfway point of the trip. The narrow gorge at the bottom of the falls sends up a spray of mist over 400m high. At certain times during the year thrill seekers brave vertigo, and the chance of plunging 90m onto the rocks below, for a chance to swim in Devil’s Pool, a natural infinity pool literally on the edge of the falls. Other adventure activities in Livingstone, Zambia include bungee jumping off the bridge that connects Zambia to Zimbabwe, whitewater rafting down the Class 5 Zambezi River, walking with lions, and flying over the falls via microlight or helicopter. Needless to say, budgets are blown as we try to cram as many activities as possible into our short stay.
Victoria Falls, Zambia to Okavango Delta, Botswana (678km)
We pack light as we head into the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest inland deltas, where we bush camp for three nights. A speedboat takes us the first leg of the journey, where we’re met by local polers with their mokoros (dugout canoes traditionally made from 100-year-old ebony or sausage trees, since replaced with environmentally-friendly fiberglass). For the next few hours, we slowly make our way through narrow waterways lined with papyrus reeds higher than a man, the only sounds to break the silence are the flapping wings of a surprised heron or the thwack thwack of the reeds snapping back into place, erasing any evidence that we were ever there.
The ebb and flow of the seasonal rains create temporary islands where we set up camp as a base for long game walks, mokoro rides past hippo pools or dips in a nearby swimming hole, ever vigilant for the stray hippo or crocodile.
Okavango Delta, Botswana to Opuwo, Namibia (1,063km)
The verdant landscape of Botswana gives way to the dry, pale, almost post-apocalyptic sandscape of Namibia. Our days are spent silently huddled around the waterholes of Etosha National Park or frolicking with captive-born cheetahs at a sanctuary for animals injured or poisoned by farmers. We make our way to a Himba village where we’re greeted by tribeswomen wearing leather skirts and not much else. The menfolk of this semi-nomadic people are nowhere to be seen, likely off tending to their cattle and goats. The women and children smell of leather and smoke and glow a reddish brown, thanks to a paste of butter fat and ochre liberally applied to their skin. We overnight just outside the village, enjoying every minute of interaction with these open and curious people.
Opuwo, Namibia to Cape Town, South Africa (2,189km)
On the last leg of our journey, we make our way down the African coast, past towering sand dunes, rugged beaches and a colony of Cape fur seals — 250,000 strong. Immediately upon crossing the border to South Africa, the roads become better. Concrete houses replace ramshackle shacks, and there are well-stocked supermarkets in every town. Too soon we pull up to almost-European Cape Town with its celebrated vineyards and scenic beaches — an abrupt end to our epic journey through vast, unknowable, indefinable Africa. The muggy, breezeless nights, ungodly early morning starts, interminably long days on the road and the relentless wrestling with tents in the dark are all but forgotten and before we know it, we’re uttering oaths to someday return to this beautiful continent full of frustrating paradoxes, smiling children, majestic wildlife and endlessly big sky. Africa has a strange way of seeping into your bones and becoming a part of you. Once is never enough.
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