If you are reading my blog you are probably a friend or relative and therefore American and you may have never heard about overland tours. We had seen a few on offer through the big tour companies but didn't really completely understand how it worked. They exist in other places too but in Africa overlanding is a huge part of the tourism industry and almost a right of passage especially for young travellers visiting the continent for the first time. It's also the only way most people will get to see Africa if they are too scared to go it alone and aren't made of money.
Travel is overland (as you might expect) in a custom made rig. Passengers (about 24 max depending on the truck and outfit) sit in back in bus like seats but you won't mistake this vehicle for a bus once it gets going. The ride is exactly what you would expect out of riding in the back of a freight truck over some of the worst roads in the world. There is storage for cooking equipment and tents on the bottom and lockers to hold personal belongings and bags in the back. Things break on the trucks frequently. We are on our second truck now. The first actually had reclining seats that gradually broke one by one during the first part of our journey. That part of the tour was much fuller - 17 people as opposed to 7 for the second part - and everyone inevitably ended up in one of the bouncy broken seats at least once every couple days. This truck has stationary seats and fewer of us so overall it's more comfortable, but the compressor blew on the freezer so keeping food fresh is a challenge.
The crew cooks us three meals a day generally and we take turns helping prep and doing the dishes. Every day we go somewhere new we have to set up camp. The food is fine but repetitive and very heavy in meat and oil. Because of the long distances we often pack up before the sun comes up and we often have to put up tents at night in the dark. It feels like a great luxury when we get to stay somewhere for more than one day. On consecutive travel days it can often feel like all we are doing is driving, setting or striking camp, and eating.
None of this is a huge problem because I have experience with such camping trips but the gear is not the best or easiest to deal with and it can be frustrating to have no control over the itinerary or meals. Frequently Steve and I (and others) would have much preferred to just eat something along the way and save some time, but the guides usually insist on pulling onto the side of the road and setting up a full lunch spread which reduces the time we have for any other stops we might make.
The camps we stay at vary wildly. All have some form of accommodation besides camping, but it's often very primitive and very expensive compared to what you would get for less money in other parts of the world. Some of the tent spaces are grassy comfy and spacious. Others are sandy pits with one tent on top of another. Some bathrooms are clean and well tended to. Others are filthy with only a trickle of lukewarm water for a shower. And pricing is not reflective of what you get. The owners of these places are often former overland operators themselves and when you meet them they don't always seem on the up and up (or concerned about the quality of their product). As Anastasia put it - they seem like they are on the lam. The camps always have a bar and sometimes offer great prices on beers. Some have been incredibly scenic and well tended-to, such as Wildlife Park just outside South Luangwa. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. But when you are traveling with an overland tour you are limited to camps with facilities for the trucks. Even if it says you will stay in a city on your itinerary you will be outside town with nary a hope of finding transport into town to get a meal or catch a feel of the place.
The advantage of overlanding is that you get access to places that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive to access. For example, on this trip in addition to South Luangwa, we got to do game drives in Chobe, Khama Rhino sanctuary, and Mikumi Parks and we got to visit Lake Malawi and spend 3 days taking mokoro rides and camping in the Okavango Delta. All wonderful. The downsides are that you get a fairly superficial view of the places where you are traveling, it's not a very comfortable way to travel by any stretch of the imagination, and the long rides and repetitive meals and constant setting up and tearing down grow tiresome. The group aspect could be a pro or a con. You can met a lot of interesting people from different places, you can get stuck on a truck where no one speaks your language, you can end up on a truck with a spring break feel, or some combination of the above. As with anything else in life some people are nice and some people suck.
We have learned that if you are considering trying it out, you are probably better off starting with the Cape Town to Victoria Falls route; there is a reason why it is the beaten path. East and Central Africa are best saved for after you have gotten your feet wet. We dove right into Tanzania not fully realizing the sweltering heat, cratered roads, long drives, and trickles of warm water that pass for showers we had in store. But now we do and as wonderful as it has been, we're not sure we would do another overland tour. But at least now we have an insight into overland tours and the alternatives.
Other suggestions for wanna be overlanders:
- If you are camping take a very warm sleeping bag and a light sleep sack because you will probably experience a variety of climates.
- Take plenty of things to amuse yourself on the long drives to avoid annoying the hell out of your tour mates.
- Take twice as much hand sanitizer, baby wipes, and tissue/toilet paper as you think you will need because toilet paper, soap, and hand towels are all exceedingly rare.
- Start working out your thigh muscles because you will be using a lot of "bush toilets".
Pics: pausing on the side of the highway for lunch, the truck during a bush toilet stop, and everyone on board.