Guide To Overlanding in Africa

How to travel cheaply through Africa

Overland tours should be referred to as “Adventure tours” and they are exactly that. Overlanding through Africa is the cheapest, and most convenient way of seeing as much of Africa as possible. Yes you’re on a vacation but they don’t want you to think of it that way. It’s an “active adventure”. It is a rough it out, camp in tents with sleeping bags, and sit in a big truck for hours and hours. If you think you can handle this, then prepare to have the best of times, and make the best of friends.

 

Why Overland Tours in Africa?


Price Difference

I’ll be honest, overlanding isn’t for everyone. It’s a basic, rugged, bare-boned way of traveling Africa. Let’s be honest, some people just require a bit more of the luxuries in life when traveling. This is fine, and I don’t blame anyone for that but be warned that Africa is NOT a cheap place to travel to if luxury is in your mind. Africa is not catered to the locals but very much Europeans, Americans, and Australians nearing their twilight years that are willing to spend mad cash to check off that safari off their bucket lists. Because of this, affording even a little bit of luxury can cost hundreds of dollars a night.

Masai Mara Lodge

This is NOT the type of place you should expect to stay at on an overland tour. This lodge in the Masai Mara is over $1000 a night.

Overlanding offers the perfect alternative as it is mostly camping, and favors experiences and adventures over luxury.  Accommodation is in a tent at a campsite so where one sacrifices on comfort, one gains in experience and price.

Camping on overland tour Africa

Now that’s more like it. Tents at a campsite in South Africa, on my Cape Town to Namibia overland tour with Nomad.

 

Overland Tour Transportation

Transportation options around Africa are very limited. Unlike Europe where one can catch cheap flights or the Eurail around the entire continent, flights are damn expensive around Africa and land transportation is usually locally run group “taxis” that are neither convenient, or likely to get you to your destination in any timely fashion.

Africa Travel Co overland

Our comfortable Africa Travel Co truck with extra large windows, parked in Maun before we head into the Okavango Delta.

In addition, we visit Europe to tour the big cities because that’s where all the history, culture, and sights are. No one comes to Kenya to visit Nairobi! Everyone overnights in Nairobi because it is the main airport but leave early the next morning to the Masai Mara. In fact, the only city that is worth visiting on this continent is just Cape Town (and it’s very much worth it).

Acacia Africa overland truck

Acacia tour truck getting ready to go at the start of our tour in Nairobi

So with that said, to see the main sights of each African country requires chartering a car to drive the however many hours it takes to get there. This costs money, and is not cheap. Overlanding takes care of this as it drives you from one highlight to the next.

Inside of our overland truck with Acacia going to Kenya and Tanzania.

Inside of our overland truck with Acacia going to Kenya and Tanzania.

 

Great for Solo Travelers

Not all of us have friends that are willing to journey out to Africa together. Traveling alone can be fun but organizing transport and lodging for one can be very expensive and cumbersome. But let’s be honest, it’s more fun to travel with a good group of people.

 

Follow an itinerary

For those that do not want the headache of planning an itinerary of Africa, then this is for you. These tours have every day planned out and all you do is just pay the money and go along for the ride.

Ngorogoro Crater sunrise

Another beautiful sunrise at our campsite overlooking the Ngorogoro Crater.

 

Who are overland tours for?


As overland tours are pretty rugged, roughing it out type of trips, the recommended age range by the tour companies are from 18-40. However, I say that’s nonsense. As long as you feel like you’re somewhere in that age range, you can be any age and do these trips. Of course, these trips likely aren’t for the retirees with health problems and on their second back operations but I met an Australian man on one of my trips that was nearing 60 but had the spirit of someone half his age. He was probably one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met actually.

Serengeti Gate

Part of the group getting a pic in front of the Serengeti on our tour with Acacia Africa

It is not for the divas of the world that want luxury and pampering on their vacations. There will little to none of that on these tours. You’re getting what you pay for and people pay A LOT more to be pampered and treated to luxury in Africa.

Think you might be too old for overland tours? Think again. Some of the coolest people I've ever met traveling were almost twice my age.

Think you might be too old for overland tours? Think again. Some of the coolest people I’ve ever met traveling were almost twice my age.

 

Short vs Long Overland Trips


Overland tours come in all shapes and sizes. For the extreme travelers, there is a six month Accra to Cairo overland trip that goes from Ghana, down the entire west coast, and then up the east coast of Africa ending in Cairo with Oasis. Then there are trips that last less than a week like the Gorilla trek tour through Uganda with Acacia

For those adventurous enough, and with enough time on their hands, try on this 58 day tour from Cape Town to Nairobi with Nomad!

For those adventurous enough, and with enough time on their hands, try on this 58 day tour from Cape Town to Nairobi with Nomad!

Companies like Nomad and Acacia offer one long six week trip from Cape Town to Nairobi, traversing through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, and finally Kenya.

This can either be done in its entirety for all 6 weeks, or can be done in individual segments if you aren’t part of the 2 month vacation crowd. For example, I did the Kenya, and Tanzania leg of a Nairobi to Cape Town trip. My leg of it was only 2 weeks and after our tour ended in Zanzibar, half of the group continued onto Zambia before reaching Victoria Falls where they picked up new people to finish the trip in Cape Town.

Acacia Africa Tours

And a similar tour itinerary with Acacia Africa. 8 weeks of camping!!

From a price perspective, the overland companies make more money from people that do short trips. It’s a much better deal for the traveler to do a longer trip. I did a trip from Cape Town to Windhoek for about 10000R (~950$), but had I continued on for another week to Victoria Falls, it would have been just another 3000R (~275$).

 

Local Payments and Optional Activities


You may have looked a trip already and thought wow what a cheap price to go through Kenya and Tanzania and see the Masai Mara and Serengeti! Then you click on this small disclaimer sized link titled “Local Payments” and out pops up another 1000$ charge on top of the trip price.

Exchanging money in Tanzania and getting wads of it as it's 1500 schillings to $1

Exchanging money in Tanzania and getting wads of it as it’s 1600 schillings to $1

Local payments is what the overland companies refer to as the price for the activities on the tour. The “tour price” is actually just referring to the transportation and the guides. So if your tour incorporates going to a few game parks, these cost more money, and a lot of it. These are separate costs that need to be paid on top of the tour price and are referred to as the local payment. Many times, these local payments are in USD because that is the currency universally accepted in Africa.

Nomad, Acacia, and Africa Travel Co all display their prices by “Tour Price” & “Local Payment” whereas companies like Gadventures sum the price into one. In other words, don’t look at Gadventures and wonder why the same trip costs twice as much as compared to Nomad. It’s likely because of the local payments!

Most tours that I’ve been on, if you for some reason did not bring your local payment on the first day in US dollars, they will allow you to pay in the local currency of whatever country you’re in, at an exchange rate that’s most likely less favorable to you.

 

Optional Activities

On top of the local payments, there are many optional activities that are exactly that, optional. These activities are offered as a part of the tour because the tour stops in the area that the activities are offered. Victoria Falls is the best example as there are at least a dozen activities one can do. The white water rafting around Vic Falls for example costs $140. This is paid once you arrive at Victoria Falls to the company that leads the activity. The overland tour company are not the ones that put on the activities, they are merely the people that drove you to Victoria Falls so you can have the opportunity!

Most trip dossiers will have a list of all optional activities available on the tour so you can plan for it well in advance.

 

The trucks and crew


To the point of why overlanding isn’t for everyone, we first start with the truck. This is the beautiful vehicle, somewhere between a medium sized truck and semi, that will drive you from point a to point b for however many days. It is . The back has been completely stripped and fitted for long distance travel with 24 seats, and 24 lockers.

Namibia overland truck

Mixing it up and sitting in the front of the car with our driver in Namibia

The big distinction to understand with overlanding is that you’re driving 100% from point a to point b. If that means Cape Town to Nairobi, then that means you’re driving the entire way. Look on Google Maps, and it’s clear that it is no short distance. Throw in the fact that you’re traveling on a truck so any little bump or pothole will feel like an earthquake and the roads with the exception of South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana are mostly horrendous. Whatever estimate google maps’ directions give you, be sure to double that and that is conservative. There were some days where we drove for 15 hours!

 

The crew

The crew is usually 2-3 people where one drives, one cooks, and the other guides the group. Most of them are from the countries that are visited on the tour. At first I thought this was because they could speak the local language but there are hundreds if not thousands of languages spoken throughout Africa so as soon as we’d leave their home country, they could no longer converse in their language. Thankfully English has been made the official language of most of the countries visited (except Mozambique).

 

Where do they go?


Pretty much any part of Africa that is not in conflict or have serious political unrest. The majority of overland travel is concentrated in East Africa and Southern Africa. East Africa includes Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Southern Africa includes South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and even Madagascar. Countries like the DRC, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Somalia are absolutely not tourist friendly and no overland tours will be going there any time soon.

Botswana overland tour

Stopping to pick up some supplies in Kasane, Botswana on my overland trip with Africa Travel Co.

East Africa

East Africa offers a much more rustic and basic experience for the adventure seekers looking for out of their comfort zones. Aside from the big national parks in Eastern Africa, the rest of the country is very behind in pretty much everything. Roads are littered with potholes, houses are more like shacks, and towns get DARK when the sun sets.

Overland truck Mozambique

Having lunch next to our Nomad truck in Swaziland on our Mozambique overland tour

 

Southern Africa

The southern African countries are far more developed than their Eastern African counterparts in terms of infrastructure and tourism support. South Africa and Namibia are in fact pretty modern countries and they may not provide the “Africa” experience that many first time Africa tourists are thinking of. I’m guilty as charged on this one. Prior to moving to South Africa, I thought it would be a bit more chaotic in the cities and less developed but how quickly I learned the Southern African countries are probably closer to America in terms of infrastructure than to their Eastern African counterparts.

Soaking in the sunset views at our campsite in the Etosa.

Soaking in the sunset views at our campsite in the Etosa.

 

The food on overland tours


Food is mostly provided for on overland tours. The guides will explicitly tell everyone ahead of time when food isn’t provided for, and this is usually when the tour stops in a town for a few days. The food served depends on the country you’re currently in and the guide’s ability to cook although even a master chef can only do so much with limited ingredients.

Sossusvlei breakfast

A delicious, much needed breakfast prepared by the crew after our morning hike in Sossusvlei with Nomad Tours.

Food in Eastern Africa

Eastern Africa has limited culinary options so expect to eat a lot of stews, pasta and just basic food. In Namibia and Botswana however, meat is much cheaper and easily obtained so expect to chow down on some local game and steaks. Breakfast is usually something simple with bread and cereal. Lunch is also simple with basic pastas and/or make your own sandwiches. Again, overland tours aren’t luxury, so don’t expert 5* food. It’s an “adventure” tour, not a “relax, and be serviced 24 hours and get fat” tour (although good chance you’ll gain weight on one of these tours if you’re on it long enough).

Yes they cook most of your meals, but don't forget to try some of the local foods too, like these delicious chapatis in Uganda.

Yes they cook most of your meals, but don’t forget to try some of the local foods too, like these delicious chapatis in Uganda.

The guides try and cook something that’s local to the area but keep in mind that there’s 2-3 crew members trying to cook for 20+ people with limited supplies. There will be some mediocre meals but some delicious ones as well. The best meal I had was a beef stew with pap (Maize meal, Asia has rice and Africa has pap).

Mozambique seafood grill.

And if you’re in Mozambique, well, this is the holy grail of cuisine’s in Africa so definitely be sure to have some seafood here

The crowd


One of the best parts and potentially worst parts is the crowd. After going on so many overland trips, I’ve learned that the trips are always a good time because well? You’re seeing some amazing stuff. However, the group you’re with will make the difference between a good trip and a great trip.

The overland groups usually range between 12-22 people. Thankfully, all the trips I’ve been on have yielded some of the coolest people I’ve met. Some, I’ve seen again in some capacity even after our tour. Many, I still keep in touch with! I honestly think it’s hard to be in a bad group because at the end of the day, we’re all like minded people; eager to see and travel the world.

Victoria Falls sunset cruise

Part of the group getting sundowner drinks on a sunset cruise in Victoria Falls. The group you’re with is really what makes the trip worthwhile.

The most common nationalities I’ve come across on my trips are from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany. I’ve yet to meet a single American on my overland tours which is no surprise given how awful our vacation allowances are as well as the general mentality towards seeing the world vs Europeans and Australians. Hell, I’ve seen more Canadians on my trips than Americans and we outnumber that country 10-1. I am American but I’m a bit of an outlier as I live in South Africa, and have twice as much vacation as the average American.

The cook making us some boerewors in the Okavango Delta

The cook making us some boerewors in the Okavango Delta

Camping vs Glamping vs Accommodated


If you love everything you’ve read up until here about overlanding except the camping part, worry not, there are alternatives to camping. Trust me, after a week of camping, it gets old quickly having to set up the tent every night and sleeping on a mat instead of a bed. For those that can’t stomach camping in a tent, there are accommodated options for a premium. These accommodation options aren’t anything to write home about and certainly aren’t luxurious but they provide a proper roof over your head and at the very least, a twin sized bed. No sleeping bags, and no tents required.

Masai Mara tent on overland tour

Now that’s more like it. This tent in the Masai mara is actually on the upscale side. This is considered “glamping”

The accommodated tours function separately to the camping ones but they will all take the same routes, but just stay in different areas for the night. For the overland trip to Uganda, the accommodated and camping people will be together as all the campsites had camping and lodging available. It’s at these campsites that a camper has the option to upgrade to a lodge for an extra premium, called “glamping”.

A much more basic campsite at Spitzkoppe in Namibia.

A much more basic campsite at Spitzkoppe in Namibia.

 

What to pack for overland tours?


Depending on the countries visited, one should pack different things. The obvious things are

  • Sunscreen (the sun is strong in Africa)
  • Insect repellent
  • Ample change of clothing
  • Cash (USD in post 2006, large bills for Eastern Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia)
  • Large backpack (Do not bring a suitcase)
  • Good camera (it’s a trip of a lifetime so make sure to capture it)
  • Yellow fever certificate (absolutely necessary)
  • Malaria tablets, the countries in East Africa are more of a threat

Overland Tour Companies


There are many companies that do overland tours in Africa. There’s no shortage of demand for these tours, and with good reason, it’s amazing here! The main overland companies I’ve come across are

Nomad and Acacia are both South African companies that quote all their prices in Rand. With the current weak rand environment, these two companies are significantly cheaper than the others that charge in either dollars or sterling. I’ve traveled with Nomad, Acacia, and Africa Travel Co. I’ve had good experiences using all three. Nomad and Acacia are almost mirror reflections of each other in the way they operate. Africa Travel Co is more on the budget side with bigger groups and cheaper prices.

I used a booking agent, who had access to all of these companies and always quoted in rands (which made the trips cheaper) and would highly recommend them.

 

The local experience


Helping the local kids with some physical labor. Not as easy as it looks...

Helping the local kids with some physical labor. Not as easy as it looks…

One of my favorite parts of the overland trips are the experiences with the locals. Because we are driving from point a to point b, we see a lot of a country that vacationers of the more luxurious route wouldn’t see. We stop in random towns to pick up supplies and it’s just very eyeopening to see the way of life in these countries and talk to local people that are equally as perplexed to see a large group of foreigners that are in an otherwise completely untraveled part of their country, aka not the game park.

Uganda kids

There are absolutely no shortage of curious kids wanting to play with you.

In addition, as these tours are not luxury based at all, many times the campsites are situated right next to a local village. In Uganda, we ventured out of our camp and just walked around the village, talking to people and playing with the kids that were so awe-stricken by seeing foreigners around.

 

Travel insurance


This one is pretty self explanatory. The tours all require you to have travel insurance for unforeseen consequences. It’s absolutely a smart move. If for some reason you just don’t want to get it, you can just give the tour companies BS policy information and there’s really no way for them to check. Don’t be stupid though, get trip insurance. World Nomads is a great site with cheap rates.

 

My trips


Well I’m no stranger to these tours. I’ve done a total of five now. One with Acacia, one with AfricaTravelCo, and three with Nomad. Again, these companies all take the same routes through Africa, so the Cape Town to Namibia Tour I did with Nomad, I could have done with Acacia as well. The timing just happened to work better with Nomad at the time.

 

Just do it


In my opinion, if you want to visit Africa but do not want the responsibility of organizing anything, then consider an overland tour. If you have 2 weeks or more, and you want to see as much as possible, the overland tours are the best way to go. Organizing transportation in Africa to go long distances is tedious and expensive. Flying is expensive as well and flights within Africa will only take you to the African capitals, and you’ll still have to charter a car which is more $.

The combination of the different people on the tour with a knowledgeable guide makes these tours a great way to see Africa. Albeit not luxurious at all, these overland tours are the best way to see Africa, especially for those on a budget.

Showing 10 comments
  • Kate
    Reply

    Hi Johnny
    I have a question that perhaps some people are wondering but are too afraid to ask. What are the toilet and shower situations? What happens if you get sick on the truck? Like ya gotta go! Are there toilets on the trucks?

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Great question! And yes, very important :).

      There are no toilets on the truck. When you’re on the road on the overland truck, the toilet situation is bush toilets. They’ll occasionally pull over to the side of the road and people will just find a bush to pee in. Totally unfair to girls I know, ESPECIALLY if you’re in Namibia where it’s just all desert but this is Africa after all!

      Each campsite is different depending on the country you’re in. Southern Africa usually has better facilities and Eastern Africa has questionable facilities by Western standards. Most places I went to have regular toilets but make sure to bring your own toilet paper!

      On my Okavanga Delta trip, we camped in the complete wild and there were no facilities at all there. We had to dig our own drop toilets but that’s probably the most extreme experience I’ve had.

  • Martin
    Reply

    In my years as a tour operator with Kenya safari tours, overland is one of those trips I have wished for but dreaded. reading Johhnny’s story gives me the courage to undertake one and I know I will do this sooner than I thought.

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Thanks Martin, glad to hear it!

  • Charlie
    Reply

    Hi, Loved the article. I live in England but I am obtaining dual citizenship (British-Kenyan) as we speak, I have been to Kenya at least once and often twice a year for my whole life (I’m 18 now), so I know the place pretty well and have lots of contacts throughout. I am planning on doing a road trip around eastern and southern Africa in a Land Rover Discovery with 2 of my mates from school, this is a gap year plan that is in the making and one of my mates also has plenty of contacts in SA which will obviously be helpful when we get there (for accommodation purposes etc.) We are all happy staying in dead basic accommodation and camping in a roof tent on top of the car. Obviously it is not advisable to camp on the side of the road in a lot of areas, as it is unlikely to be safe to stay overnight and not be bothered… You were speaking about the campsites (basic ones) and I was just wondering how frequently these were available? Cost? And if they were available for anyone, or just the tour companies that one pays to travel with? Would be of great help if you could fill me in!
    Thanks

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Hey Charlie, awesome plans! There’s DEFINITELY camp space available for you and your mates. On our overland trips, we saw loads of 4x4s camping out next to us, doing exactly what you guys plan to do with the tents above the car. At least in Southern Africa, there were many camp sites all over (as it’s more developed). Eastern Africa had its share too but defiinitely need to plan beforehand and make sure you know where youre going. All in all, they’re very cheap too. I’d be surprised if they were more than $20 a night for the car.

  • Tim B - 56 countries and counting
    Reply

    Great article Johnny… I am keen to do an overland, main thing I am tossing up between is the camping or the accommodation on a bed. I have a feeling that pitching and breaking a tent everynight for 3-4 weeks would get old…. but on the other hand I don’t want to miss the noises of the bush etc if I am in a building, rather than in a tent. Last question… how thick are the sleeping mats? Are they like a thermarest – too thin for me now in my old age… or are they a little thicker?

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Hi Tim, the sleeping mats are pretty basic to say the least. They don’t provide much comfort and you still need to bring your own sleeping bag and pillows. Neverhteless, there were some places I’ve very glad I camped (Serengeti, Queen Elizabeth NP in Uganda, etc.) and other places where I just really wanted a bed. Pitching a tent got old to me in a week so 3-4 weeks would have been etoo much!

      Thankfully, mostly places have the option to do camping or accommodated if you’re willing to pay a small upgrade fee. There were plenty of times where I said screw it and paid the extra $20-30 to get a room with a bed, whether that be in a lodge or a permanent tent. Your guides will usually tell you exactly which places will have both options so I think you’ll be fine regardless of which option you use! Enjoy your trips, wherever they’re taking you around Africa!

  • Aanchal
    Reply

    Hi, Great article! I am planning a trip to South and East Africa for 2 months. So I might either do a long 73 or 58 days tour or few short ones and give myself a break in the main cities, with either G adventures, Dragoman or Absolute Tour; would you have any recommendations?

    I have never camped before but I can rough it though not too much. However I am 30 years old and my main issue is that I don’t want to be stuck with 20 something party goers, or on campsites with blaring loud music. Does this happen with most tours?

    Thank you so very much for your help!

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Hi Aanchal! I never did the super long trips with those companies so can’t say. I was apart of many overland trips where some of the travelers were going for 6+ weeks and at the end of it, they had nothing bad to say. Personally, I don’t know if I could camp for that long.

      As for partying and noise, I don’t think you need to worry about that because campsites usually have enforced quiet hours and most of the time you’ll be so tired, or have to wake up so early the next day that no one is staying up late. Also, most campsites are pretty bare so buying alcohol is limited.

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