Africa is such a fascinating destination. It’s a continent abundant with wild animals, spectacular terrain and fascinating tribes. The continent is huge and travelling around it would take you several months.
Visiting Africa and seeing a safari is probably on your travel wish list and there are safari companies that do this where you see one country and experience the National Parks and the Big 5. But what if you want to see more of Africa and have weeks or even months to spare?
The best way to see the best of Africa is to go on an overland tour. I personally don’t take many tours, preferring to travel independently on a budget from country to country. Going overland is my favourite way of travel, crossing land borders instead of flying in and out of airports but for Africa, I feel more comfortable on an overland tour..
Having spent over 4.5 months in Africa (and going back again this month), I’ve written my experience of 3 different overlanding tours so that you can decide if an African overland tour is for you.
What Are Overland Tours?
Overlanding trips – specifically overland tours in Africa – are generally camping trips. You travel on a huge overland truck with a driver and a guide. In East Africa you usually get a chef too). You join the tour in a specific country then travel overland across borders with the truck and the group, leaving at the end of the route or in some cases, hopping off in another country of your choice (depending on the flexibility of the tour).
You pay for the tour before you go and when you arrive, you give the tour guide a local payment. This is in cash and covers the food kitty and camping fees for your trip. Transport, accommodation (tents) and food is generally included.
Why Choose an African Overland Tour?
In West Africa specifically, you’ll find a lack of tourism infrastructure and corrupt border officials. Many countries only have a bus network which connects the main cities, so going off the beaten track can be a challenge and you may have to take shared taxis or mototaxis in countries such as Benin and Togo.
What I love about an overland tour is that it makes it easier to see countries that you may feel intrepid about travelling to alone especially if you want to visit countries where you can’t speak the language. You get to join a group of other travellers equally as excited about travelling to the same region so they are a great way of bonding with like-minded individuals.
You don’t need to obtain all your visas before the tour. This makes it so much easier. Instead of several trips to the embassies in your local country and sometimes being refused a visa (hello Cameroon!) you’re with the group filling out the paperwork together and hanging out in embassies in Africa. Although this can take up some of the free time you have on your trip, it’s much better being with a group to know what to fill in on the forms.
You really get an immersion into the country. Sitting on a truck waving at the locals, crossing borders with chickens running around and children wanting to say hello to you, is the most rewarding part of the trip. It’s raw and I honestly don’t think that you can have a more authentic experience. Plus, as a group, you get to experience things that only you will experience together. And there is nearly always someone on the tour who can speak the language that you need for the next country, whether that’s French, Portuguese or even Spanish!
What If You’re Not a Camper?
Depending on which countries you are travelling through, there is the option to upgrade. I’m not a natural camper and the first time I went on an overland camping tour, I was honestly so nervous that I cried! (I was also getting over a divorce at the time). Now, I’ve been transformed into a hardcore camper. But as nice as it is waking to the sounds of nature in your own tent, I still upgrade whenever I can if it’s cheap enough. Some upgrades are from $10 and you can share a room with someone else on the tour to keep the costs down.
It’ll definitely toughen you up. I had no idea what a groundsheet even was before I did it! It teaches you how to live in the bush and also how to cook too.
What To Expect From Overland Trips
An adventure! – No two days are the same when you’re on an Africa overland tour. Even crossing a border and seeing how the border guards respond to you is an adventure then cruising through No Man's land to reach another country. That’s why I love it so much.
Travel on a budget – Overland touring is usually budget so expect it to be basic with no thrills.
A lot of waving – This is one of my favourite parts about being on an overland truck. The windows are usually open as it's so hot, so you get to hang out and wave at the children on the roadside and shout “hello” or “bonjour” depending on which country you're in.
Insects – There's no escaping them in Africa (especially in the Namib Desert). Depending on the time of year for your overlanding travels, you may encounter Sandflies, mosquitos, spiders and even scorpions. I took my anti-insect pyjamas with me on my last trip to ensure that I wasn't going to get bitten. For someone who hates spiders, my tolerance level is much better.
No showers – This doesn't happen every day but there are times when you have to go without a shower for a couple of days (take biodegradable wet wipes with you). When you do arrive at a campsite that has water, it may just be a bucket and cold water. You could find yourself washing in rivers too. This also applies to toilets. Expect to pull up along the roadside and find a spot to go or to take a shovel with you if you're bush camping. But the positive of feeling unclean is that you really appreciate it when you do finally have a shower.
Sharing a tent – As a solo traveller you will probably get paired with another solo traveller (of the same gender if you prefer). For my last tour we were able to take our own tents for more privacy.
Cooking – The truck is self-sufficient and literally carries everything that you need for the journey. There are pots for cooking. If you don’t have a chef onboard (you won’t in West Africa), you’re put into a cooking team and cook every few days depending on the rota. If you’re not the best cook (like me), you usually get paired with someone who loves to cook and instead you can do most of the prep and cleaning up. (cooking for 20 people is a lot!)
Being on cooking duty also means buying food from local markets and preparing a meal from what you are able to find. Some West African countries have limited vegetables so you may need to get creative with tinned goods.
Be prepared to work – As well as being put into cooking teams and buying food from local markets you may need to help collect firewood, load the bags or tents each morning when you pack up, clean the floor of the truck or wash the windows. Everyone usually mucks in and you may get assigned a specific role.
Camping anywhere – Bush camping is pulling the truck up and pitching your tent anywhere. You could find yourself camping on the side of the road at a village, on a football pitch, a gravel pit or a cow field. You may even be camped next to a border crossing and it may not be even ground either.
A lot of driving – It’s called overlanding for a reason and it’s fast-paced. To see 5 countries in 5 weeks you have to cover a lot of ground. The most places I’ve seen in a country is 3 different destinations. Some days you can be on the road for up to 12 hours and it can be bumpy with potholes or lack of road infrastrcuture. Expect to be up early in the morning sometimes before the sun rises and on the road.
Not much alone time – You need to be comfortable being in a group for a long period of time. There are moments when you can slip away and have some alone time, especially at night when you can read in your tent if you choose to opt-out of playing card games or drinking in the camp at night.
New experiences – Expect new experiences from making jewellery in Ghana to witnessing a voodoo ceremony in Benin. Visiting museums in the capital cities give you an insight into the country’s history.
Making new friends – East Africa tends to attract social people whether they are travelling solo, as friends or in a couple and can be a younger demographic. My West Africa trips seemed to have older travellers, the majority of them solo. West Africa attracts more experienced travellers too as they’ve usually been along the East Coast and seen all the wildlife and the sights.
Which Region is For You?
South Africa – South Africa is for wine lovers, wildlife and beaches. Choose South Africa up to Kenya for the Big 5, visiting townships, learning about tribes, sandboarding, This is the area for some of the world’s best safari parks.
East Africa – East Africa has the best tourism infrastructure. The landscapes are stunning, there are campsites so you don’t have to bush camp that often. East Africa is for sightseeing, wildlife, partying, and trekking Mount Kilimanjaro.
North Africa – North Africa is Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Western Sahara. It’s a region for colourful riads, souks and deserts. And there is a lot to see here. From ancient civilisations and tombs to desert villages. Expect to buy lots of souvenirs and experience a different culture.
West Africa – You visit West Africa for the people and not really the sightseeing. Exceptions are Senegal (which is fab!), the Gambia for beaches and monkeys and Ghana where you can see elephants in Mole National Park. West Africa gives you an education about the slave trade and you visit forts and museums to learn more or visit Benin and Togo to experience the voodoo religion.
Central Africa – Hardly any companies go here because it’s so unpredictable (except Madventure). Borders can close due to conflict taking place in the country, governments get overthrown and there can be tensions in the country when there are elections.
Which Overland Africa Tours Should You Choose?
I’ve used three companies so far: Africa Travel Co, Overlanding West Africa, and Madventure. My personal favourite was Africa Travel Co. The guide, driver and cook were absolutely amazing! Trips last anything from 12 days to several months.
Madventure – My last overland tour was the most hardcore I have been on. It’s marketed as Madventure because it is literary for the mad traveller. The one who wants to go to places that others don’t usually go to. They travel all the way around Africa from Morocco to Egypt and also in other parts of the world too. I joined Madventure in the Gambia and travelled through the Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia with them.
The last time I wrote about West Africa, I had culture shock (read my lessons here). This time I was more confident and prepared for the region. I knew it would be basic, dusty and an adventure.
Overlanding West Africa – This company do what they say… overland West Africa. They travel from Dakar or Accra to Freetown and vice versa in the opposite direction. As well as Dakar to Marrakech and Accra to Accra. I travelled from Ghana to Togo and Benin and back to the north of Ghana. I was meant to travel onto Burkina Faso but a war broke out at the time so we took a diversion back into Ghana to end the tour there.
Africa Travel Co – This company operates overland tours Africa in Eastern and Southern African countries. These are great if you don’t have much time as their trips start from 12 days experiencing Johannesburg, South Africa to Victoria Falls and Zimbabwe. I joined them in South Africa and travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Zanzibar with them (find my adventures under the Africa section).
Dragoman Tours – I haven’t personally used this company but when I used to work as a travel consultant, we had a partnership with Dragoman. They have been around for 40 years and are known for overlanding. They offer a Classic Africa Overland Safari for 20 days starting and ending in Nairobi including trekking Mount Kilimanjaro and game viewing.
African Trails – This company is another one that has been around since 1980. They have 60 different safaris and I’m considering doing a tour with them for the sector from Cameroon. Their Trans Africa Expeditions include West Africa and the Nile from 9 weeks to 41 weeks. You can also explore South and East Africa with them too.
My Overlanding Tips
Have no expectations. And I’m talking none. If you expect these countries to operate the same as they do back home then you’re already setting yourself up for an uncomfortable time. Expect to be uncomfortable whether that’s with the communication, the corruption, what you witness or the weather. It can be hot and humid, cold at night in the desert, or dry and dusty and even all three!
As with any tour, expect there to be some negative Nancies (negative people). Parts of overlanding can be rough and you need to keep an open mind. Remind yourself that every day is a brand new day and that ‘this is Africa (TIA)’ and you'll have a better experience.
How difficult is it to travel with Covid restrictions?
In my experience land borders vary to arriving by air. Some may need a PCR test to cross over, others a Covid certificate but most look for your yellow fever certificate. We were still following government protocols but with some land borders just a small shack, it’s not as strict and the same rules didn’t seem to apply.
Travelling Africa Solo
Can you travel around Africa by yourself? If you feel comfortable, yes you can but don’t expect transport to run on time here, as public transport can be unreliable and uncomfortable. An open mind is definitely needed for getting around.
You have to be over 25 to hire a car and the best countries to drive through are Morocco, Botswana, Mozambique and Eswatini, but if travelling overland seems like too much stress, consider flying instead, but be prepared for delays. If you do choose to hire a car and are planning to visit more than one country, check that you don’t need a Carnet de Passage, which is a document that allows you to cross international borders.
There are trains here and you may feel more comfortable using a train than local buses, as they can be safer if you’re travelling alone, but they can be slower. If you’re travelling overland for many hours, consider a sleeping compartment, and lock the door and windows at night. The trains in Tunisia are really cheap with respectful travellers. Taxis are also reasonable here and can take you around the country.
Morocco has a good bus network, with buses running throughout the country. Choose the company called CTM if you prefer to travel in comfort. Domestic flights tend to fly via Casablanca, so travelling overland could be quicker and cheaper.
In Egypt, feluccas or river cruises take you along the River Nile at a leisurely pace, stopping at the incredible Egyptian sites, such as Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. The rest of the country can be explored on cheap trains and buses, and there are internal flights, which are easier when visiting Abu Simbel.
Travelling by bus is an option, but not all roads are well paved, so it could be a bumpy journey, especially around the Masai Mara safari park. Public transport is difficult in Malawi and you’ll often see people just walking miles along the roadsides. Although there is a lack of transport in Namibia, there are buses between the main cities. Botswana has a good bus and minibus network.
If you’re travelling in Tanzania, you’ll need to find a reputable bus company, as some of the roads aren’t in good condition. Mozambique is also hard to get around. In Kenya, you can take a night bus to Mombasa, which has security cameras onboard for extra safety. This eight-hour bus journey is without any stops.
There are intercity buses in South Africa and also international buses with air conditioning or, if you’re just travelling through countries, there are minibuses known as matatus, which generally wait to be filled before they leave. Be prepared to be the only traveller on one of these.
Riverboats may be crammed and ferries may be overloaded, but they are a cheap way of getting around. If you’re travelling from Mombasa to one of the beaches, be prepared for the boat to be busy and to be the only Westerner. A good ferry service takes you from Dar es Salam to the island of Zanzibar and you’ll find ferries taking you across the larger lakes throughout the continent.
Be careful in Kenya, where there’s a chance of getting mugged, although they do have security cameras on overnight buses. In downtown Nairobi, you’ll often see people sniffing glue openly on the streets.
In Ethiopia, you could be a novelty, so expect attention from beggars and curious locals. If you visit Uganda independently, you may find yourself very alone if you’re not on a tour. You may feel more comfortable in countries with more travellers and tourists.
West Africa is made up of countries once colonised by Europe. Expect to speak Portuguese, French and even Spanish in one!
If you are travelling here, you’ll find a lack of tourism infrastructure and corrupt border officials. Many countries only have a bus network that connects the main cities, so going off the beaten track can be a challenge and you may have to take shared taxis or moto taxis in countries such as Benin and Togo.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t travel there, as countries such as Senegal and Ghana are very welcoming, but the majority of the region is definitely better seen with an organised tour.
I hope that my post has shown the reality of overlanding Africa. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different. You may get a fantastic tour guide, meet amazing people and have no mishaps where everything is plain sailing.
One thing is for sure, when you’re on an overland tour, cruising across African plains, you really feel as though you’re in a completely different reality. Africa really makes you feel alive and these trips are life-changing.
Still not sure if an overlanding camping tour is right for you? Join our Facebook community and ask any questions that you may have.
- My Experience of Camping in Africa
- Solo Travel in Africa
- Lessons Learnt Travelling To West Africa
- Camping For Beginners
- Benefits of Camping For Solos
- Anti-Mosquito Pyjamas
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