When I was young child in the 1980’s I discovered a giant 1960’s Readers Digest world atlas floating around the house that had belonged to my late uncle. I grew up on a reasonably remote New Zealand dairy farm tucked away in a small valley surrounded by steep hills. Our one TV channel broadcast shows from America and the UK that showed a life very different to ours. So when I found the atlas I started by pouring over maps of the UK and Europe wondering what life was like for ‘normal people’ where the TV shows came from. Gradually I started exploring the rest of the world through this atlas, trying to link it to David Attenborough documentaries and historical British colonial and World War Two dramas. Eventually I’d just explore it for fun. I’d find a country on the map and wonder what it looked like, what people did and what kind of adventures I might have there. I’d often sit on a nearby beach and wonder what was at the end of the ocean. I’d look at hills I hadn’t been over and wonder what was on the other side of them. Unfortunately I never grew out of that and have been destined to living a life of always wondering what it is like somewhere else, never fully able to comprehend just staying in one place forever.
When I finished high school I toyed with the idea of university but this was around the time that New Zealand had got rid of free tertiary education so getting a degree was not taken lightly, even as a teenager. The general feeling was that if you were wealthy then you could go ahead and get a degree for the sake of it, otherwise the only reason to put yourself in debt to go to university was if it was necessary to fulfill a career that specifically required a degree such as a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I didn’t want to be any of those things, I just wanted to travel and hopefully get paid for it. So I decided to pursue a career in tourism, hopefully ending up as a tour guide or travel agent. Incidentally I didn’t really do either of those things full-time but it did lead me to a one-year vocational course in travel and tourism at a local technical institute that set me up for a life of travel.
Part of the training involved us using ‘real world’ learning aids as much as possible so we were encouraged to ask travel agencies for old brochures in order to study them. I amassed a pile in my bedroom and as I was browsing through them one day I came across one dedicated to overland adventures through Africa and South America. These were guided trips on specially converted trucks that carried camping and cooking equipment, enabling passengers to experience more remote parts of the world that only the most adventurous travellers can normally get to. There were pictures of them negotiating muddy roads through jungles and camping next to elephants. I discovered that you could spend 9-months traveling all the way from London to Cape Town on one of these trips. Sold! So at the age of 16 I decided that one day I would overland through Africa on one of those trips, ideally from London to Cape Town. All I needed was time and money.
23-years later I finally had the time and the money but sadly the world had changed and I could only find one company willing to traverse the northern part of Africa due to various wars and terrorist groups making the journey too dangerous for me to seriously contemplate. I normally ignore the terrorists when it comes to travel as my own little way of fighting back, but even I didn’t have the courage to travel overland through places like Sudan, Chad and Nigeria. The best I could do was Cape Town to Nairobi, a 42-night trip through 8 countries that began where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, crossed the Tropic of Capricorn in the middle of the desert and travelled through some of the poorest countries in Africa before winding up not too far from the equator.
There are a handful of companies offering this trip and other ones like it in Africa. I decided to book with Africa Travel Co due to the price, the itinerary and their good reputation. You can click here to take a look at the itinerary. I paid a very reasonable trip cost of around US$1,800 that essentially covers the travel, camping and your crew (a tour leader, a cook and a driver). When I met up with the tour leader in Cape Town I paid another US$1,200 which is known as a local payment. This needs to be given in cash as the crew use it along the way to pay for fuel, food, border crossings for the vehicle along with any camping fees and activities the company isn’t able to pay for remotely. And then there are the inevitable police bribes that need to be paid in some of the more corrupt countries. I also had to have enough cash to cover things like bottled water, snacks, beer, visas and any optional activities I wanted to do. All up I think the whole 6 weeks cost me US$4,000 excluding my flights which I managed to buy with air miles. Not bad considering that is 6 weeks of amazing experiences with everything included. I could have done it for less if I’d forgone a few of the optional activities and consumed less alcohol.
Although you travel as a group this isn’t so much of a guided tour that would include lots of commentary along the way. The tour leader is there to organize everything, to help you get through the border crossings and to tell you about the various activities on offer. If you want to ask questions about places you are traveling through you can and the leaders are very knowledgeable but I was relieved to find there wasn’t a commentary going the whole time so that I could learn things as and when I wanted to. It’s best to think of your tour leader as a trip expert rather than a guide.
The cook prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner over a camp fire with passengers helping with basic food preparation such as washing and chopping vegetables, as well as washing up your own dishes and cooking utensils. I was surprised at how good and plentiful the food was on our trip. Our cook was expert at finding good fresh ingredients in even the most remote places then creating healthy tasty dishes over the fire. He even made us a few cakes.
In addition to negotiating some challenging roads and very long trips, the driver is expert at border crossings and dealing with often corrupt police. Our driver was fantastic and I left the trip as friends with the entire crew whilst having a huge amount of respect for each of them. It’s not negotiating deepest Africa that is the big challenge for them, its dealing with the passengers that they have to live with 24/7. Many of us have worked in customer service and know how challenging it can be, but even after a 12 or 18 hour shift you get to leave them somewhere and have a break either alone or with your loved ones. These guys don’t have that luxury. If someone is difficult they are stuck with them until that person leaves. And there are a surprising amount of difficult people taking overland trips through Africa.
The trip I did can be split into shorter chunks and only three of us went all the way from Cape Town to Nairobi. For example, three people were only with us for one week from Cape Town to Swakopmund in Namibia where one new person joined us. That whole group finished their trip in Victoria Falls where we were joined by another 8 passengers but 6 of those finished in Zanzibar. The benefit is that every now and then you get to meet a new crop of people but it is also hard to say goodbye to those you’d like to spend more time with, not to mention nerve wracking to worry about what the new people will be like.
In terms of ages they ranged from 18 to nearly 60 years old and for most of the trip the majority of us were female solo travellers but again that dynamic can change as people leave and join along the way. For one week from Botswana to Victoria Falls we were swamped with Australian couples, then from Victoria Falls to Zanzibar we had four German friends join us who were all men. The prevailing nationality we encountered throughout Africa seemed to be Australian followed by Dutch and Italian. However on our truck we managed to keep things varied with people from Korea, Japan, USA, Canada, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, UK and Australia which gave a nice balance. For a brief period 11 out of 19 of us were Australian and we all (including the Australians) missed having the variety of nationalities on board.
When it came to numbers we were also lucky. Whilst the trucks can take around 26 passengers our largest group size was 19 and only for a week, the rest of the time we stayed at around 13 people until the very last week when there was just six of us. Again there are benefits to the low numbers such as more room to spread out on the truck but a larger group would have offered more people to get to know on the longer stretches.
If you enjoy watching human behaviour a trip like this is perfect simply because a group of strangers have to live, eat and travel together 24/7 through a fairly remote part of the planet in sometimes challenging conditions. For the most part everyone got along but occasionally tensions ran high and divisions occurred. At one point a group of friends joined and created absolute havoc for everyone including the crew yet later a smaller group of friends joined and made the whole trip so much better. This Big Brother House-esque manner of travel was a huge learning experience for me.
With a few exceptions I loved all of the people I travelled with. They were good people and I enjoyed their company yet we were all traveling for different reasons which was sometimes perplexing. I’d spend hours gazing out the window of the truck at life in Africa whilst others all but ignored that in order to play cards or sleep, something I found odd considering how far we’d all come to see this continent. But unless you are planning to engage in something illegal or immoral there is no right or wrong reason to travel nor is there really any right or wrong way to do it.
I had been waiting for this trip for over half of my life and my reasons began with curiosity but developed over the years into a deep desire to try to understand what Africa was all about. I’ve spent many weeks, probably even months of my life working in South Africa but to experience South Africa isn’t to experience Africa, just like experiencing France isn’t experiencing Europe and experiencing California isn’t experiencing the United States. If anything my time in South Africa witnessing the aftermath of apartheid and the AIDS epidemic increased my curiosity about the rest of the continent. If I’m honest I think I needed to find African countries doing it better as that would somehow make me feel better about the world.
I was far more interested in ‘seeing’ than ‘doing’ on this trip. I wanted to spend long days on the truck looking out the window at life in Sub-Saharan Africa. I wanted to see how people lived and what they got up to in the multitude of towns and villages we would pass through. I wanted to study the landscape and watch it change in order to comprehend the distances and variety the continent offered. But most importantly, I wanted to bear witness to all of this myself. I knew that everyday Africa was a far cry from what we are fed in the news and on charity ads in the west. We are left with a perception that if Africans aren’t trying to survive wars and famines then they are all dying of horrible diseases like Ebola and Malaria. It is portrayed as a desperate place, unable to help itself and therefore reliant on donations from the west and UN interventions.
That is not Africa. A few parts of the continent are currently war torn, some places occasionally experience famine or a disease outbreak, but to define life in Africa by these things is no more intelligent than defining life in America by Hurricane Katrina and gun crime. So I wanted to fully understand this for myself and bring back personal accounts I could share with others.
My small blog can’t change the world but if I can inspire a few people to think outside of what they are fed on TV and to view Africa with the respect it deserves then I’ll be happy. Over the next several blog posts I’ll cover the countries I visited in terms of scenery and experiences we had along the way and whilst I promise not to take things too seriously, I’ll also try to share what I saw when it came to how people live and how countries function in order to show readers that Africa for the most part is a safe place with a big heart, a lot of self-awareness and plenty of ambition.