|Overlanding: Could it be for you?||
Much criticised and much loved, overlanding has been an integral part of African tourism for decades. It also has broad appeal for all age groups. Robert Irwin goes in search of "Overlander Africanus".
Agadez, Niger. Dust. Desert. Delay. Behind us, 12 weeks and 4,000 miles of Africa. Game parks, villages, markets and the barely passable mud river that is the trans-Africa "motorway" through the Congo. Ahead, the Sahara. But for now, 15 overlanders from England, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and America, of varied ages and backgrounds, are united by one thing. Ten days and counting, waiting for Algerian visas.
The beer supply dwindles with our patience. Tempers fray, matching our road-weary laundry. Then a mud brick building collapses. The only working fax machine in Agadez, our link to the UK, is flattened. Depression descends with the dust. Nobody smiles. Except Derek, that is. He greets the news with these prophetic words: "It's raining in England."
Derek is 64 years old. Once he was a retired tailor from Letchworth. But now, with most of Africa behind and only the Sahara left to conquer, he is an overlander.
So what is this strange species of traveller, this Overlander Africanus? What makes twenty-something students, forty-something accountants and even sixty-something tailors climb aboard a 10-ton, 4-wheel drive truck with 15 strangers and head across Africa?
And, for the better-shod, better-financed traveller who already has a love of Africa, but also admits to a penchant for creature comforts, is overlanding a viable alternative to other less rugged modes of adventure travel? Are you - shock, horror! - a potential overlander? Or should you avoid it like cerebral malaria?
Overlander Africanus has been bush bashing across Africa for 30 years. UK-based Encounter Overland started the trans-Africa wheels turning in 1969. By the '80s, numerous other British firms were criss-crossing Africa. Many were one-truck operators of little quality or commercial consequence. Others - like Guerba Expeditions, Exodus, Dragoman and Acacia - began small but developed into respectable, reliable, bonded tour companies offering a variety of itineraries throughout Africa.
In the early days, the concept was so simple, cheap and cheerful it bordered on the naive: bolt some coach seats into a second hand army truck. Stock it with spares, tents and food. Sign up some punters and hit the road. Six months later, despite mechanical breakdowns, broken bridges and bureaucratic disasters, 20 weary but enlightened overlanders would gaze upon Table Mountain. They'd have done it. Crossed MMBA - "Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa".
From the outset, the difference between overlanding and conventional package safaris was participation. The passengers pitched in, taking responsibility for food shopping in local markets, cooking over an open campfire and making camp in the bush. Early itineraries were loose, if they existed at all. Within the broad London to Cape Town framework, expeditions developed according to the interests and input of their participants. Also, with six months at their disposal, there was enough time to meet and interact with local people all across the continent.
Today this basic philosophy of involvement survives intact. However, just as Africa and the nature of African tourism have evolved, so has overlanding. As clientele and expectations have changed, overlanding has matured. Today's overland passengers still expect to pitch their own tent. But they also want a reliable vehicle, a well-trained and capable crew, logistical back-up and punctual arrival at their destination. In the competitive market place of the '90's, this is precisely what the established overland firms offer.
Two Weeks To Six Months
Though the long-haul trips still operate, overlanding no longer means packing in your job or your marriage to take six months off for a jaunt across Africa. Recognising the growing interest in participation, adventure-style travel among educated professionals who have already travelled in Africa and elsewhere, the overland companies have developed shorter itineraries focusing on particular regions or highlights of the continent. Most firms run the classic southern Africa overland from Nairobi to Cape Town in five to nine weeks. There are also numerous two- to four-week camping safaris.
Where's The Booze?
Are overlanders, as their critics universally claim, merely a crowd of beer-swilling party animals out for a good time? It's a misconception that overlanders just can't seem to shake. True, there are beer stops. But where do you really think more alcohol gets consumed? In overland bush camps, usually miles from anywhere? Or in the bars and dining rooms of well-supplied game lodges?
Are Overlanders All Dirty And Scruffy?
Sometimes. Though this is another exaggeration based on the rugged situations that overlanders occasionally endure. You've heard of water rationing - a cup per person per day? It's true. But not every day. Just in the desert, where water is critical and cannot be wasted. Elsewhere, while you may not have a steaming hot shower every day, washing isn't usually a problem. Many vehicles carry hand-pump showers and on shorter tours there will be more campsites with shower blocks en route.
The Comfort Factor
As anyone who has been to Africa will tell you, many African roads are sometimes barely roads at all. Of all the vehicles on tour in Africa, the powerful, 4WD overland trucks are superbly suited for these rugged conditions. But there is a downside. On the tarmac roads of southern Africa - the fastest growing market for overland companies as well as conventional safari operators - these vehicles are comparatively slow. Consequently, in southern Africa, most ex-military 4WD Bedfords have been replaced by the faster, smoother Mercedes.
Remember, though, these are not coaches, they are trucks. Vehicle designs vary but follow a similar pattern. Seating is either forward-facing, coach style, or inward-facing with easy window access for all. There is a roof seat for game viewing and lockable storage space for personal luggage, food and camping equipment. Only Encounter Overland pulls a luggage trailer, but they've been doing it successfully for 33 years. Most vehicles have a waterproof soft top with roll-up sides for an excellent view, either en route or on a game drive. Dragoman's Mercedes is more coach-like, with hard sides, glass windows and forward facing seats. All vehicles have long range fuel and water capacity and carry complete camping and cooking gear, including a gas stove for use when firewood is scarce.
Who Leads The Way?
A lot has been said about overland leaders, much of it critical and some of it even true. Yes, they do know some pretty lively bars around Africa - but drinking and driving is a sackable offence. No, they can't identify every single mammal, bird, insect and plant in Africa. Specialist guides with that depth of knowledge work only for the most exclusive, most expensive operators.
What overland leaders do have is an excellent general knowledge of the regions they travel to, including history, politics, flora and fauna.
Though most khaki-clad, up-market safari guides would never acknowledge it, there are some overland leaders who have spent many years on the road and can match them in bush craft any day. They are competent mechanics and fully-trained, licensed and insured to drive their specialised vehicles, with passenger comfort and safety paramount.
Yes, there are poor leaders, just as there are poor teachers, accountants and tailors. But most are personable, keen and conscientious. More importantly, they have the rare, unquantifiable ability to take responsibility for an expensive vehicle and the well-being of 20 passengers - and still have fun.
Most companies have two drivers - a leader and trainee. Predictably, most are men, though Dragoman makes a point of recruiting women, on the assumption that they are less likely to adopt the "macho man" image often associated with the job. Only Guerba employs a third crew member as campmaster, whose job is to organise and oversee on-the-road camping duties.
The Bottom Line
For most people considering the overlanding option, the choice of operator and price is mind-boggling. A five-week tour from Nairobi to Harare ranges from 800 to 1,400 pounds. Like everything else in life, you get what you pay for. A higher price reflects vehicle reliability, support in the event of breakdown and more highlights (game parks, treks, etc.) included en route. Price can also determine who your fellow overlanders might be, with "youthful exuberance" being a more likely label for the least expensive tours.
A Final Word
Back to Agadez. Remember our retired tailor, Derek? Wonder why he had such a practical, prophetic attitude toward adversity? Easy - at 64, it was his third overland!
Are You An Overlander At Heart?
Try this light-hearted quiz. You may be surprised!
- Can you picture yourself celebrating New Year's Eve sitting on the cement step of a corrugated metal shed, toast ing the Cameroon football team in French?
- Do you value "personal experience" over "book learning"?
- Do you prefer a canopy of stars and the silence of solitude to a whirring air-conditioner?
- Would you rather barter in the market than pay the marked price in the gift shop?
- Do you know where Timbuktu is?
- Can you grin and bear it?
If you are vegetarian, can you tolerate meat-eaters? Or vice versa.
- Is your age important only to your insurance agent?
- Are you more likely to say "Where's the bar?" than "Where's the shower?"
- Is this funny: "Don't come to Africa if you can't take a joke"?
Now, count up your "yes" answers. How do you score?:
0 Stay home, David Attenborough's on telly.
1 - 4 Africa may beckon, but a tent doesn't.
5 to 8 Write off for some brochures.
9 What are you waiting for? Cape to Cairo awaits.
10 If you can bleed brakes as well, you're in the wrong job. You should be an overland leader!
Health and Hygiene
The two most common health risks on overland tours are malaria and the scourge of every Third World traveller - "Timbuktu tummy". In reality, most gut complaints are self-limiting and treatable in the short term with the drugs carried in every truck's comprehensive medical kit.
Because water-borne diseases like cholera can spread quickly through a group, they are taken very seriously. Consequently, overland operators make personal and group hygiene a high priority. Do you wash your hands with soap and water every single time you use the loo? On an overland trip, you will!
All drinking water - usually drawn from a river, lake or local well - however clean it may look, is purified chemically. Cooking equipment is kept clean and crockery is normally "flapped" dry in the open air because tea towels are difficult to keep germ-free.
Passengers receive up-to-date health and inoculation information prior to departure. Expedition leaders are not usually medically trained, but they will have practical experience of most common health risks, particularly malaria.
Malaria prophylaxis is essential for everyone, to the extent that some companies even provide malaria pills. In addition, experienced tour leaders will advise you to wear long sleeves and trousers around the campfire, sleep under a mosquito net and keep your tent's screen door zipped tight.
Heard the one about the sleeping tourist who had his gold teeth yanked out? As the story goes, it didn't happen to an overlander in an isolated bush camp. It happened in a five-star Nairobi hotel.
In Africa, as elsewhere in the developing world, the tourist is always a potential victim. But the fact is, most African crime takes place in cities. You are far more likely to be robbed in bustling, downtown Johannesburg or Nairobi than when bush camping. Also, expedition leaders know from personal experience the potential danger spots to avoid.
Yes, there have been incidents. Recently, an overland group was robbed while camped at a popular waterfall in Central Africa. The spot had been safe for many years. Suddenly, without warning, it wasn't and it is unlikely that groups from any responsible company will camp there in the future.
Political calamity moves around Africa like a bush fire. All companies monitor British Foreign Office advice. However, if they followed it to the letter they wouldn't be in Africa at all. In practice no reliable company stays in a country where there is a genuine, serious threat to safety. For example, the upheaval in Zaire / Congo and the 1994 crisis in Rwanda and Burundi prompted Guerba to pull out of the area altogether. Tours were cancelled and alternatives offered. Anyone who wanted it got a full refund. Lives were never put at risk. Encounter Overland, Exodus, Dragoman and Acacia all did the same.
As areas once deemed unsafe stabilise and re-open, overland operators are among the first to return. Ethiopia and Eritrea are a case in point. After Eritrean independence the overlanders were the vanguard there, with the more conventional tour operators following in their tracks. If an overland tour does get caught up in a coup (it has happened), the plan is simple. Seek refuge at the British Embassy or get out of the country, whichever is easiest. Personal safety is paramount and if it means abandoning a vehicle and flying out, so be it.
There isn't one and the reason is simple - hygiene. Put bluntly, it is an absolute certainty that the personal, "use once and bury it completely" squattoir is more sanitary than your toilet at home. It's the one subject that tour leaders are fanatical about. One even refused to break camp one morning until every scrap of loo paper was collected and buried. And they all stayed healthy for the duration.
On the road in Africa you move with the sun and keep time naturally, with your stomach. The day's chefs have the kettles boiling by sunrise. You share the dawn with the birds and the monkeys and the odd villager who's wandered by to see what's happening. strong coffee and tea, maybe eggs, pancakes or porridge - almost certainly baskets full of fresh fruit. It all depends on what yesterday's market had on offer and what's left in the larder.
While the dishes are washed, tents are packed, "constitutionals" are performed and teeth are brushed. If you're ready early, you can stroll ahead, trying out your French or Swahili as you join the villagers on their way to market.
So, what do you actually do "on the road" to while away the hours between A (Aketi, say) and B (maybe Bumba)? Well, what do you do on any journey? Read (Most overland trucks carry an extensive African reference library). Update your diary. Play cards. Have a snack at the periodic truck-stop samosa stand. Maybe take a nap.
You can even talk with your fellow overlanders. Who knows, they might be interesting. Maybe the bespectacled bloke next to you did his dissertation on crocodiles and his rather quiet wife can tell you all you need to know about forensic accounting at the Serious Fraud Office. But why not just sit back and watch MMBA roll on past? Even the endless expanse of the Sahara or Kalahari is not as monotonous as it seems.
Eventually, your stomach alarm goes off. It's lunch. Kettle on. Maybe corned beef sandwiches. Or fresh veggie and pasta salad prepared last night. Fresh fruit. Chocolate biccies if you're lucky. After a brief stretch out in the shade (ifyou're not on washing up), it's on the road again. More MMBA.
While overlanders may not have thousands of pounds, what they do have is spent at grass roots level - in the market. The basics come first. Bread, fresh vegetables and fruit, meat perhaps - enough to keep you going till the next market town. Then, with the necessities taken care of, the search begins for life's little luxuries - Mars bars and English newspapers.
On the longer trips of four weeks or more, most nights are spent under the stars in bush camps. On shorter trips there are more commercial campsites. Facilities vary widely. Some camps are very limited. Others, notably in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia, rival anything in Europe. (The first hot bath I ever had at a campsite was in Harare!) Shorter tours usually offer more opportunity for a lodge or hotel night, with cost and quality varying from country to country. But for most overlanders it's the peaceful isolation of real bush camping that makes the trip worthwhile.
Overlanding means getting involved, participating in the full range of activities that you'd expect on most African safaris. Inevitably, as overland tours have become shorter, fewer travelling days mean more time devoted to actually doing things.
In East and Southern Africa, with the focus naturally on wildlife, the overland companies visit most major national parks. In Tanzania (with the exception of Ngorongoro Crater), Namibia and South Africa, the high vantage point of the overland vehicle - and the roof seat in particular - is ideal for game viewing.
Elsewhere, due to local restrictions or prohibitively high national park entrance fees for foreign vehicles, the overland firms hire local guides and vehicles. Sights of particular archaeological or historical interest, such as the Great Zimbabwe Ruins and Olduvai Gorge, feature on most overland itineraries.
Also, by hiring local firms and guides for activities like trekking, walking safaris and river cruises, overlanders do make a contribution to local economies.
Published in Travel Africa Edition Five: Autumn 1998. Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)
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