Overland Travel in Africa has come a long way over the years. The sense of fun and adventure remains, but in many ways, African overland trips have changed, for the better.
Nothing beats that feeling of setting off on holiday. Travelling somewhere you’ve never been, but always wanted to explore. New places, new people, new experiences. Maybe taking it easy on a beautiful beach somewhere. Or sitting at a sidewalk café, watching life unfold in some city far away. Sound good? Thought so.
But if you really want to shake up the ordinary and every day – travel to Africa! Game drives in the Serengeti National Park, mokoro safaris in Botswana's Okavango Delta, watching the sunrise from the top of a sand dune in the oldest desert in the world ...
Travel in Africa is filled with moments like these. Unforgettable firsts that, years later, still sit amongst life’s greatest adventures.
Of course, Africa being a huge continent raises some big travel questions.
How to get around? Distances are vast, flights expensive and road conditions rather too rattly for your average rental car. And where to travel? Each country has its own unique identity, culture, and attractions; and the real highlights lie not in cities but in beautifully wild and remote locations. All of this can make planning a trip rather daunting.
The solution? Overlanding Africa.
Intro to Overland Travel in Africa
Overland travel started growing in popularity in the 1980s. Back then Africa overland vehicles were often big ex-army trucks. There was no GPS for crossing deserts and no smartphones for contacting home. Just you, your travelling companions, your truck, your crew and miles upon miles of open roads.
Today Africa overland travel is often simply referred to as 'overlanding'.
Overlanding has come a long way since then, but that same spirit of adventure remains.
Together you and your travelling companions climb aboard a (now custom-built) truck. You will have some big drive days, and (depending on the type of trip) a good deal of pitching in to help to prep meals and put up tents.
And before you know it, you’re part of this tight-knit group sharing an incredible journey, where each day on the road is memorable for all the right reasons.
Which is why it’s hardly surprising that, over the decades, overland travel in Africa has grown into the hugely successful, multimillion-dollar industry that it is today.
To find out more about ways in which Africa overland travel has changed and evolved, I chatted to Ken Hill and Vivian McCarthy.
Ken is the CEO of Drifters and has been in the industry for the best part of 30 years (starting back in 1990). Vivian, the Director of Acacia Africa, went on his first overland tour back in 1987. He later he became a tour leader for 2 or 3 years, before joining the Acacia Africa team.
Overland Trip Length: Days, Weeks or Months?
Vivian’s first trip to Africa was on an overland adventure, booked and arranged in the UK. The trip started in London and (a good 25 or 26 weeks later!) ended in Johannesburg. Getting from London to Nairobi was about a 16-week journey that included crossing the Sahara Desert, and then from Nairobi to Joburg took another 6 or so weeks.
People tended to have more time in those days, so a number of UK and US-based overland travel companies offered this trans-Africa route. In the early 90s, security issues in the Sahara led to operators finding an alternate route from Morocco around the coast. But by then, tours had already started shifting from trans-Africa epics to shorter trips.
Nowadays, travellers with time to spare can opt for an epic Africa overland trip from Kenya to South Africa. That section of the original route hasn’t changed much, then again why would it? It’s an incredible 6 weeks with a great mix of scenery, fantastic game parks, beautiful beaches and the chance to see thundering Victoria Falls. Like this Kenya to Cape Town Overland Camping Tour.
And if you don't have 6 weeks? No problem! Overlanding Africa these days has expanded to include a huge variety of trips. Victoria Falls to Cape Town is always a popular choice, or maybe for your first journey you just want to test the waters with a shorter itinerary like this 9-day Delta & Victoria Falls Safari.
Camping or Accommodated Overlanding? Your Choice
The overlanding route from Kenya to Cape Town may not have changed much, but what has changed is the campsites along the way. In the early days of overland travel camping wild was the norm, whereas now there is a wide range of great, secure rest camps – some with excellent facilities including restaurants and bars.
This doesn’t mean that nowadays you’re guaranteed a hot shower at every stop. Instead, there’s usually a good mix where some nights are spent in more built-up campsites and others camping wild under the African skies. It generally comes down to the countries you’re travelling in, for example, campsites in Southern Africa tend to have better facilities than those in East Africa.
Also, these days if you grow weary of sleeping in a tent, then there’ll probably be the option of upgrading to a room for a night or two along the way. Or, if camping isn’t your thing, when booking your overland trip you can choose to pay a bit more for an accommodated itinerary.
Overland travel has evolved to include a wide range of accommodated tours. This Cape Town to Nairobi Overland Safari includes the same spectacular highlights as the camping itinerary, along with the added comfort of sleeping in a bed every night.
Or how about Mozambique? This relatively new overlanding destination has beaches, snorkelling and tropical islands that are easily combined with neighbouring South Africa. Take a look: Mozambique & Kruger Accommodated Overland Safari.
Whether booking a camping or an accommodated overland tour, Ken says there’ll be one night where their guide still encourages the group to sleep under the stars. For many this is a first and, although initially apprehensive, lying under the bright blaze of the Milky Way turns into a true highlight of their overland trip.
Overland Africa Itineraries: It’s All in the Details
Something else that has certainly changed is the itineraries.
Both Ken and Vivian agree that in the early days of overland travel in Africa, itineraries were vague at best. Something along the lines of: “Week 1: Southern Botswana”. So you’d know the major highlights, but not the daily details. Along the way guides would chat to each other, maybe try a slightly different route or spend a bit longer in one spot. It was all rather flexible.
Nowadays, neither Vivian nor Ken would dream of sending clients on an overland trip without a day-to-day detailed itinerary. Before stepping foot on a truck you’ll know where you’re going, where you’re staying, and all the stops and activities in between. Sure, things can change. After all, TIA (This is Africa). But it's pretty rare.
Expectations have risen, and so too has the level of professionalism within the African overlanding industry.
Travelling Africa by Truck
Equipment too has come a long way. Gone are the days of bumping along in an old Bedford truck with some basics strapped to the roof.
Nowadays, overland companies have custom-built safari vehicles where cushioned seats, large windows, and individual lockers come standard. There are charging points for cameras and phones, and camping trucks have a fold-out kitchen and all the cooking necessities for prepping bang-up meals in the African bush.
There’s even the option of luxury overland travel in smaller, 12-seater vehicles with super comfortable seats, air con, and extra legroom. For example, this Southern Africa Small Group Safari crosses South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho in style in a 12-seater Luxury Adventure Vehicle.
Local is Lekker
Back in the days of those epic trans-Africa trips, reaching Joburg or Cape Town came with a massive sense of achievement. Crossing the African continent really was the goal in itself. Whereas now, the focus has shifted from conquering the route to engaging more with people and places as you travel. For example, these days most overland tour operators use local suppliers for game drives and other activities.
As for your crew, your driver and tour guide are now far more likely to come from Zimbabwe, Kenya or South Africa than from Europe or Australian. And again, the level of professionalism has increased. It’s no longer enough to have been on a few similar overland trips. These are qualified guides who have a great passion for the countries you’re visiting and loads of interesting stories to share.
The Age of Overland Travellers
The overlanding style of travel is more about the right attitude than the right age. Yes, a good percentage of overland travellers are in their 20s or early 30s, but since its beginnings, overlanding has attracted people of all ages. And because it has such a wide appeal, overlanding in Africa keeps expanding to include new tour options. Accommodated or camping is really just the start!
For example, there are now trips specifically aimed at travellers over the age of 40. Safaris for senior travellers in their 50s and 60s are in fact becoming increasingly popular!
These overland tours for seniors are a little more luxurious. For starters, they’re fully-serviced, so no chopping vegetables or setting up camp. Group sizes are kept relatively small (no more than 15 travellers per trip), and there are three crew on board – a driver, a guide AND a cook.
So, on a 40+ camping tour like this 21-Day Southern African Safari Adventure, you can have a drink while your tent gets pitched. And while most nights are spent in your tent camp bed, there will be the occasional stay in a hotel or guest house.
Or you can opt for a 40+ accommodated tour like this 22-Day Overland Lodge Safari from Victoria Falls to Cape Town. No basic bungalows or shared bathrooms here! It’s 3 (or even 4) star lodges all the way,
Travel Africa on Your Terms
If you’re a single traveller, then overland group travel has always been an excellent option. It’s safe, cost-effective, and comes with a ready-made group of travelling companions. For more on the perks of joining an African tour see our Solo Safari post by Jo Duxbury.
Then there are tailor-made safaris. What about an Africa overland tour for just you and your friends, family or photography group? That’s now not only possible but is becoming more and more popular - and it’s easy to see why.
To get a better idea of how it all works, take a look at this private group page. You give an idea of your group size, the amount of time you have available and any must-see destinations on your wish list – and you get your own made-to-order overland Africa trip!
That Same Sense of Adventure
Overlanding in Africa is continuously evolving with new routes being added and new tour styles. But whether you join a large group on a basic camping trip or create your own accommodated charter trip, one thing remains the same: that feeling of excitement and adventure. Every day on the road is different, and you can see and experience so much on a single trip!
Yes, the trucks are more comfortable. But the places that they take you to? Those deserts, rainforests and vast game reserves? Those haven’t changed. They’re still as wonderfully wild as they ever were.