Take It To The Top
Issue 35
How would you like to drive your own vehicle the length of Africa, crossing deserts, fording hippo-filled rovers and exploring prime safari territory along the way? It may sound like and impossible dream, but, with the right combination of skills, planning and enthusiasm, it's within anyone's grasp. Mary Askew, recently returned from a year on the road with her partner, explains how to get started. ImageAs I unzipped my tent to watch the sun rise over the desert town of Moudjéria and its square, windowless mud homes, I wondered how many other travellers had witnessed the same startlingly beautiful sight.

Beyond the Mauritanian town was a vast sea of pink, gold and white sand that merged with the dawn light so that the horizon shimmered into obscurity. The low sun picked out the wind sculpted dunes and cast long shadows from the figures of two lone, hobbled camels on the edge of the escarpment where we’d parked our battered old 4x4 the previous night.

We’d driven here on a whim. There was a rumour in the capital that a relic population of Nile crocodiles could be seen swimming in an oasis close by. We were captivated by the idea that this community of reptiles
had survived thousands of years while the land around them evolved from lush grass to barren desert.
Our vague directions were adding to the intrigue. They included, “Turn right at the circular stone grain stores – they are two thousand years old.”

Would we have made it here if we were on an organised trip? It’s unlikely. Can you imagine persuading fellow travellers, hidebound by their tight schedule, to take a four-day detour just for the hell of it?

And if we’d flown straight into Mauritania, rather than driven, we wouldn’t have had the chance to reach this place either. No, travelling this far into the desert requires a vehicle kitted out with specialist equipment. This was the type of trip that only independent overlanders have the time and freedom to take; proof that self-driving across Africa really does take you to parts of the continent that other methods of travel cannot reach.

The rewards of such unrestricted travel are immense – there’s the thrill of discovering Africa for yourself, the extreme highs and lows of being self sufficient on the road and the delight when your independence brings genuine encounters with local people.

True, the preparation detailed below can seem daunting at times, but the upshot is that ordinary people (we had no great mechanical, medical or language skills) can still have an extraordinary African adventure.
As a Liberian police officer said to us: “Life is a book. Most people just get to glance at the pictures; you two actually get to read the text.”

First things first
Start by planning your route. The thought of all those far-flung places will give you the inspiration to persevere through the tedium and frustration of sorting out your paperwork. It will also give you an idea of the terrain you’ll encounter and therefore the type of kit you’ll need.

The best piece of advice we were ever given was to plan a route that takes in as many minor roads as possible. Tracks that were just dotted lines on our maps yielded gold panners in Senegal, a two-day voodoo ceremony in Benin and rare desert elephants in Namibia.

When you’re drawing up your schedule, give yourself plenty of spare days and don’t be too specific. After all, having the flexibility to be spontaneous is one of the true pleasures of overlanding.

Of course, the best-known African overland trip is between Cape Town and Cairo, but taking a vehicle into Egypt is now frighteningly expensive. So, most people who plan to drive the length of the continent use Morocco as their end or start point. It’s a route that can take anything upwards from two months – we took a year, visiting 22 countries.

However, if you don’t have months to travel, it’s still possible to have a mini adventure by hiring a fully equipped 4x4 in Africa and exploring a smaller area. For example, you could fly into Botswana and drive through the Kalahari, Moremi and Chobe National Park in a fortnight. Alternatively, with a little more time, you could start in Cape Town and drive the Garden Route up South Africa’s coast, heading into Mozambique and even Malawi

Isnt it dangerous?
During our year-long trip through Africa we never felt threatened. We were the victims of crime just once when some of our washing was stolen from a clothes line in Ghana after we’d stupidly left it hanging out all night. Yes, parts of Africa are dangerous but then so are parts of London or Amsterdam and, as in the big European cities, you just have to take some simple precautions.

Our car was alarmed and our most valuable equipment was stored in a metal cage which wasn’t visible from outside. We had two small safes fitted which held our cash, traveller’s cheques, passports and documentation. We also carried a satellite phone (our one luxury) and always told someone back home where we were heading. The unstable areas of Africa are constantly changing and it’s important to get regular updates not only from a website such as the UK Foreign Office (www.fco.gov.uk), but also from local people, who are often better informed.

Coping with the red tape
We were warned that the formalities for an overland trip would make us cry – and they did – but there’s no escaping them.

The most difficult piece of paperwork you will need is your carnet de passage, which is essentially a passport for your car that allows you to travel in and out of countries without paying import and export taxes. To get a carnet you need to leave a large deposit with a motoring organisation (in the UK it’s the RAC) or get a bank guarantee. The size of the deposit or guarantee depends on which countries you intend travelling through. For most countries it is 150% of the value of your vehicle, but beware of travelling through Egypt where a hefty 800% is required. The frightening part of all this is that you forfeit the money if, for whatever reason, you don’t bring the vehicle back into the EU.

Before you set out you’ll also need an International Driving Permit, specialist travel insurance and an International Certificate for Motor Vehicles. Third party insurance for your car is often compulsory but can usually be bought at each country’s border.

Visas are the final items on the bureaucracy checklist. You can apply for these in advance if your trip isn’t very long, but for extensive travels you’ll have to acquire them at embassies as you go.

How much will it cost?
Count on spending at least £6000 to £7000 to buy an old Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover and another £3000 making it mechanically and structurally fit for Africa’s harsh roads. In addition you’ll pay about £5000 for a reasonable amount of expedition kit and a roof-top tent for your vehicle.

Once on the road, two people camping can get by on £20 each a day including occasional meals out, fuel and all but major car repairs. What can really bust your budget however is exploring Africa’s wildlife parks – which you’ll almost certainly want to do. No matter how many organised safaris you have been on, tracking the wildlife yourself is a real thrill, but park entrance fees can quickly add up. You can save a lot of cash by visiting the cheaper reserves. For example, one day on safari and a night’s camping in the Serengeti costs a couple about £107, whereas a similar trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park costs roughly £67.

A note of caution: don’t count on making a great deal of money when you return by selling your vehicle and expedition kit. We got 25% of what we’d initially spent. However, we did turn down a tempting offer in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. A Berber in traditional blue robes approached us and said, “Your car is lovely, jubbly. I give you 1000 camels for it.”

Travel hopefully - and enjoy the ride.
Sometimes it takes a little bit of courage to veer off the well-worn tourist routes, to accept offers of hospitality from people you meet along the way and to camp rough. However, if you do, you’ll return with a lifetime’s worth of memories. You need to take calculated risks in the knowledge that sometimes they will pay off and sometimes they won’t. We eventually found the oasis in Mauritania where the crocodiles lived. There were no signposts, no tourist trappings, not even a track through the sands. We saw their footprints and the holes down which they escape from the relentless heat of the midday sun – but no crocodiles. Even so, the adventure we had trying to find them remains one of our most enduring memories.

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