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Africa by Overland Truck

BOTSWANA | Tuesday, 21 November 2006 | Views [10540] | Comments [3]

Berlinda, our tour leader with the truck and tents.

Berlinda, our tour leader with the truck and tents.

I had heard several stories from travelers about the overland trucks that do the route from South Africa up to Kenya, and most of them were bad. They seemed to have spent their trip with people who spend most of the time drunk or were just noisy and boring, with the rest of the passengers working out who was going to sleep with whom. Don’t do it they said - you’ll hate it. When it comes to traveling in Africa there’s no doubt the Overland trucks serve a purpose, making it fairly straightforward to travel up through the continent without the hassles of using local transport. The reason I signed up for a trip was because it allowed to me to see countries like Namibia and Botswana which are difficult and expensive to travel in independently. The tips below are based on my experiences on a truck journey from Cape Town to Victoria Falls which I did with the African Travel Company which took about three weeks, and are aimed at people thinking of signing up for a trip and don’t know what to expect.

Firstly the people, probably the most important factor and the one you can’t do much about. I was very fortunate to travel with a great group of people which made the experience very enjoyable. It helped that the average age was late twenties for most of the group although the range was from 18 to 68; so most of the people had jobs and some life experiences to talk about. My group was also very Northern European mainly British/Irish or German with a few Belgians and Swiss, which meant that most of us were pretty much on the same wavelength. For quite a few of the Germans this trip was their three week annual holiday. There are a few factors that push some groups towards certain overland companies. The companies that are based in London seem to have an overwhelming number of Australians and New Zealanders on them, this is because ‘doing Africa’ is quite a popular thing to do if you’ve just spent two years in London and you’re on your way home. Some companies provide German or Spanish translators which of course encourages those nationalities to sign up. At the end of the day there’s not a lot you can do about your companions and there is always someone who does not get on with anybody. I saw one truck which had ten eighteen year old girls on it; it would be a long three weeks if you didn’t fit into a group like that.

The Crew. I had three crew on my truck, the tour leader an Australian woman, and a driver and cook who were Kenyan. Its worth checking the number of crew before you sign up, if your truck only has two crew it means there’s no cook, so the passengers will being doing the cooking, so a lot more extra work for everyone. The tour leader has been on the road continually for eighteen months, starting in the Congo (to see the Gorillas) then heading all the way back to Cape Town with a two day turn around there before starting the trip back up the continent again. She lived pretty much on the truck and was paid at local rates. If you ever thought the job had an element of glamour, talking to her quickly dispelled that notion. The Kenyans were very friendly and considered they had good jobs.

The truck was large, rather like a coach inside with enough legroom and space to move around. All the equipment was stored underneath. Valuables like money belts were stored in a communal safe on board and the tour leader slept on the truck most nights. There was also a safe for cameras and gadgets. Don’t expect frills like Air Con or toilets on board; the usual procedure was for men to head off into the bush in one direction and the girls in another. One cause of friction was that the tour leader insisted that everyone sat somewhere different each day, so the people at the front of the bus moved to the back of the bus the next day. Of course there were disputes about which seats in the middle were in the front or back, or someone didn’t move. It also meant that you were usually sitting with the same people the whole time from day one.

Traveling overland usually means camping. All the companies seem to use the same tents which are large heavy duty Army style things made in South Africa. Most people have to share a tent and you had to put it up and down each day yourself. It seems to be standard for all companies that you provide your own sleeping bag and mat/mattress. The facilities on the campsites varied, from one night wild camping with just a drop toilet to some very smart places with hot water and bars. In many places you have the chance to upgrade to a room, which are usually poor value for money but which may look attractive if you tent has been packed soaking wet. It really helps if you like camping and to have done some before, for me three weeks was about my tolerance level, I was looking for to a bed and a roof after that. All the jobs on the truck/camp were done on a rota system, with each group alternating each day including a day off each week. The jobs were usually fairly easy liking sweeping out the truck to helping with the food preparation for meals. The most disliked job was ‘pot wash’, cleaning the cook’s pots each evening, often a real challenge when you only have a bowl of cold water. Everyone washed their own plates and as there are no cloths to dry them for hygiene reasons, everyone ‘flaps’ their plates dry which looks pretty bizarre when you first see people doing it. Our tour leader was also very hot on hygiene; everyone had to wash their hands in disinfected water before meals and after going to the toilet, Detol, as someone commented - the smell of Africa.

The food on my trip was good, filling and plenty of it. It was nearly always some form of meat and we quite often had steak. We had one Vegetarian on the truck who was often given fish so if you don’t eat that either you’d better check at the start. Some of the food was a little bland as our cook didn’t seem to use any flavorings at all, not even salt. Lunch seems to be standard on all trucks, salad, bread and usually cheese and cold meats. This is the same everyday. Breakfast was cereals and toast (grilled on a brazier) and sometimes eggs and baked beans. On a couple of occasions we had canned spaghetti, much to the bemusement of the Germans.

The itinerary. It pays to look at this very carefully before you sign up. All the companies offer optional ‘extras’, tours into parks for example or guided walks. The main ‘extra’ on my tour was a three day trip into the Okavanga Delta. On the itinerary I received the delta trip was listed as part of the trip but it is in fact an extra $130 on top of the tour cost. What they don’t tell you is that if you don’t take up the ‘option’ you have to sit around in a campsite for three days with nothing to do. One guy didn’t take up the option and had to do just that. You may be quoted a price for an overland tour that looks really good but in fact all the interesting activities are extras. On my tour we also spent three days in Swakopmund so that people could do activities. Some of the people on holiday did a lot of these but the rest of us had a long time sitting around the town. Another feature of overland trips is the early start, on about a third of the days wake up was at 0430 so that we could be off at 0600. Very often this was so that we could get to places so that people could do activities in the afternoon but often we arrived at places at lunchtime where there was nothing to do. Some days could easily have been combined just by driving a few extra hours the previous day. Africa is big, on a couple of days we drove for up to six hours so pack plenty of paperbacks.

Overall I enjoyed my trip and it was good value for money especially if you are short of time. To see the Parks and countries that I did independently would have involved hiring a 4 X 4 and camping equipment with living costs on top. On the truck someone else did the cooking and driving and sorted out the problems. To anyone thinking about a overland trip I would suggest going through the itinerary very carefully and try and get some recommendations from other travelers. Once you’re on the truck, it’s difficult to get off.

This article has also been posted on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree bulletin board and more comments from other travellers have been added, view them here.

Tags: Travel Tips



Hey Will,
These are great tips for travellers looking for Africa adventures. Hope you don't mind, but I've used a photo from the willlou blog galleries so we can make this our Feature Story this week - http://adventures.worldnomads.com

  crustyadventures Nov 29, 2006 9:23 AM


I would like to take a trip around the world. What do I do so that I can do that, knowing that we are a family of 6 members of the science and I work a heavy truck driver and I hope that you advise me with your experience in this subject.

  Nabil Farrag Oct 12, 2010 3:14 AM


Wonderful travelogue of an overland tour and gives insight of these tours. Very well written article, to be read all those who are going to sign up for these tours. The attractive low price of any tour has hidden costs and often leading to unpleasantness on the tour.

Very well written tips and details!


  Capt Suresh Dec 19, 2010 6:50 AM



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