Guide To Overlanding in 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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.