African Overland Trucks

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Nouakchott, Casablanca, Timbuktu, Arusha, Khartoum, Lilongwe, Swakopmund, Freetown, Bujumbura, Conakry, Fez, Lalibela, N’Djamena, Mombasa, Sfax, Ziguinchor, Laayoune, Brazzaville, Yamoussoukro, Abu Simbel, Harare, Lubumbashi, Mbabane, Ngorongoro, Douala, Ouagadougou. These names sound made up. They sound like a fairy tale that parents tell kids about far, far away lands and other dimensions. They sound exotic. And truth be told, most people, including many of you reading this right now, don’t know where half of these places are. That’s because they are all in Africa. They encompass the whole of the Dark Continent. They are places most people will never see. They are places most people would have no idea how to see, even if they wanted to. In reality, there is only one way to see all of these places without dealing with an unheard of logistical nightmare. A Trans-African overland truck.

Just writing those names makes me yearn to go back to Africa. Even though I have been to every African nation, the continent gets into your blood. You can’t help but love it. Africa is the most exciting place to travel on the planet. It is the purest place to travel where you get real people; real life; real problems; in your face; you have no idea what’s going to happen; like it or not. It is an addiction that is tough to explain and I cannot wait to go back.

I have traveled the whole continent, mainly overland with some flying thrown in as well. However, if I was going to Africa for the first time and wanted to see and do a lot of different places and things; I wish someone had given me this advice. Take a truck.

Many of you are probably saying what the hell is Lee talking about? Here is what an African overland truck is.
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A standard truck is converted to carry a couple of dozen passengers. It is certainly not luxurious but it is certainly better than taking bush taxis and mini busses. But the overland truck provides an ideal way to reach parts of Africa that are expensive or difficult to reach on your own. Overland journeys mean hands-on, dust in your hair, face and mouth travel. You need a taste for adventure and a yearning for the unknown. On most overland trips, you put up your own tent, and help with cooking or buying supplies along the way. When the truck gets stuck in mud, you help push it out.

You participate, but you don’t totally rough it as any of the old time Africa veterans will tell you. In overlanding’s early days, trucks were ex-Army Bedfords with wooden benches in the back and some basic equipment tied to the roof. Today, purpose built Scanias, Fords and Mercedes have comfortable seats that recline, personal lockers, a make shift kitchen, fridge and music system. You still camp, but most overland companies intersperse canvas with simple hotels. Some offer more hotels than camping and even the services of an on board chef but others are just cook for yourselves where everybody will contribute their share in cost and labor.
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Overlanding is ideal for young solo travelers, and provides a great introduction to Africa for first timers. After an initial taste in an overland truck, many people go back for a deeper experience such as a specialist wildlife safari or just a more comfortable one. Travel by overland truck also means the logistics are taken care of. The driver handles things like entry permits and border-crossings, while you just sit back and enjoy the scenery.

Overland expedition trips are different from other trips you may have taken. They can and will go through areas where no tourists generally go, the roads can be bad, food can be limited to what is stocked on the truck, campsites are few and basic, visas can be hard to get and communication to the outside world limited or unavailable at times.

African Trails, which is likely the top overland truck company operating on the continent says, “We guarantee; we’ll break down, that we will have to wait somewhere we don’t really want to be for visas, spare parts or just for someone to open a closed road and we’ll have to dig the truck out of mud and sand.” Such is Africa I suppose!
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“The trip might overrun and finish late; the route can change due to rains, closed roads, visa issues, breakdowns and politics. It’s best not to book your return flights home until you finish the trip.”

“To join these trips you need to be prepared to work as part of a team and to share with the others on the trip. Some of the things you’ll never forget are the satisfaction of getting a 16 ton truck unstuck, cooking over open fires after collecting the firewood, pitching a tent and getting it right even when it rains, going to sleep when its dark and waking at dawn and wanting to get out of your sleeping bag to start another day in which you have no idea of what will happen, washing in rivers, not washing and not caring that your dirty, living outside for months, seeing more than you have ever before, trying to learn French, Arabic or Swahili and having people understand what you say, finding out just how far places are away from where you started and how different places can be and how unaffected out of the way places are from the world we normally live in.”
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I am getting pumped reading that and want to go myself so bad. I never did a truck like African Trails’ Ultimate Trans Africa. It starts in London and goes to Turkey down the west coast of Africa all the way to South Africa and then up the east coast up through Egypt, Jordan and Syria into Turkey. This trip is about a year and is completely overland with the people on your truck. It must be amazing.

A Canadian friend of mine, Suzanne, who I met this past big trip I did in Windhoek, Namibia is on this Ultimate Trans African truck right now and I just chatted with her on Facebook and she inspired me to write this story. I am so envious of their exploits as I met many of the people on the truck as we all had dinner at Joe’s Beerhouse in Windhoek as you may recall from my trip blog. They are currently in Uganda and have another 3 months and they have so much more to see and do. It has and will change all of them for the best. It’s the type of thing you’ll look back on in several years and think, how the hell did I do that?! I know because I feel the same way about my travel and experiences in Africa.

Living in filth, meaning your own body, but not caring at all and sharing the experience with anywhere from 10-20 other like minded free spirits. I have run into many trucks in my over a year of my life in Africa and they are always filled with fun loving awesome people. Mainly Canadians, Brits, South Africans, Aussies and Kiwis. Americans have never even heard of this method of travel so I am trying to spread the word. I always wish I had done one so I am telling you guys out there who are interested in the continent to consider it. It is the cheapest and most adventurous way to see and do a lot. Additionally, you can tailor your trips to certain areas and for shorter time frames. You don’t have to do the Ultimate Trans Africa trip. There are a few week trips available around just southern, east and west Africa. You’ll make friends and experiences that will last a lifetime.

Again, Africa is real. It’s bright, it’s big, it’s fast paced, it’s slower than slow and it’s unlike anywhere else. The continent is divided between several different cultures, languages, climates, economies, resources and these types of trips allow you to see many of them in one shot. I have been to Africa some 12 times to put it into some comparable perspective. Get out there; do it. See it for yourself and send me updates because I’ll be jealous!
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Comments

  1. I’ve never heard of these trucks but they sounds like a lot of fun. Although, it’s be tough for me to clear a year of my schedule!

  2. Very cool idea but I don’t think I could ever actually do it!

  3. Hey Lee, I’ve always wanted to do a truck. they are quite popular for us English. I could never pull the trigger however. Sounds like your friends trip is amazing.

  4. When I read the title of this post I thought you were being facetious, thinking of all those ridiculously overloaded and death-defying trucks struggling over less than ideal roads through West Africa (that picture doesn’t even do it justice), but OMG – I SOOOOOO want to do this, looks amazing!!! And I hate camping . . . but I think this might just make it worth it. Anything to get out of my office. 🙂

  5. Ya EBell it looks amazing doesn’t it. I am not a huge camping fan either but after a few days you get used to it, if need be. We basically did the route the truck did thru West Africa and a ton more in a little Toyota Corolla and a few other less than ideal cars! That was so awesome!

    By the way, all those truck people I met in Namibia got stuck in Bamako for like 5 weeks and hung out at that bar/restaurant we went to, Appaloosa!

  6. I’ve done the overland trucks twice now in Africa, including a monthlong trip for my honeymoon. It definitely takes out most of the ‘work’ of getting around. I can’t imagine doing one for a year though…

  7. Sounds amazing to me. I’ve never been to Africa but it’s refreshing to see the way you write about it so reverently as opposed to most people always shitting all over it.

  8. I thought about doing the big 1 year UK to South Africa, S. Africa to Egypt before but in reading the trip reports on a lot of them it just sort of seems like a grind, with a lot of super long driving days on bad roads and 2 weeks without proper showers (and even longer for a real bed).

    One that I do think would be awesome, a hits some incredible areas and stays in more hotels, is the London to Sydney overland which goes through Iran Pakistan, India, China, all over SE Asia, etc. They have a 26 week one, and a 28 week one (http://uktooz.com/). They also run a 40-wk Alaska to Brazil trip (http://www.eoe.org.uk/).

    There is also another company called Overlanding West Africa which hits all the other countries most overlanders leave out going from Dakar to Brazzaville in 113 days (http://www.overlandingwestafrica.com/)

  9. Lee! What’s up mate?! It’s Aaron from Cape Town. Glad to see the rest of your trip was good. Nice story and many of my mates have done the trucks from South Africa. Everyone loves them but it doesn’t seem like the American thing to do. You could probably do it but certainly not those Jersey shore people! Keep in touch and safe travels.

  10. I’ve only even heard of Timbuktu an Casablanca but I have no idea where they are LOL

  11. I don´t see a point on taking a truck!! You will be in a bubble, with other travelers, and will not enjoy as much as you could. I would never recommend an overland truck.

  12. Why not? The truck takes you all over, relatively comfortably and you spend a lot of time in a ton of different places. You have plenty of time to go out and meet locals and do things in towns, cities etc…seems ideal for me plus you’ll meet other travelers and develop lasting relationships and friends…again, I’ve not done it but seems ideal for a young traveler starting out in Africa

  13. I’m sorry Lee but I would combine this article with the other about travelling on your own. I mean, go to Africa but alone!
    I travelled in Africa for 13 months on my own and it was the best experience of my life. It’s when you really meet the locals, you share with them some food and smiles in the local buses, you have all the same mechanical problems you can have with the truck but you don’t have the guide to fix it. It’s pure adventure, pure freedom and pure Africa!
    I met dozens of overland trucks and they were too crowded, too noisy, too fast and the contact with the locals was minimal.
    Anyhow I reckon it’s a good way to know Africa if you don’t want to be alone, you don’t want to worry for anything, you’re lazy to plan the trip and you want to party every night 🙂

  14. Hi Lee, I was told about your travel website by a co-worker/friend. I must say every time I read one of your adventures stories and see the pictures, I get an itching to throw caution to the wind and go on one of these ( I am sure ) life changing expeditions. I suppose the only thing holding me back is that I would be alone
    (and as a female) this tends to worry me a bit. How safe are your trips for a single female?

  15. Hey Johanna and thx for the comment. They are all safe as long as you are smart. See my story or traveling alone…it’s a few down if you scroll from the main page. I really believe in traveling alone being a great thing and very safe for women. My friend is on a truck now in Africa for a year as a single woman. I meet them all the time and they all say how great it is and how much easier and less scary than you’d think. Good luck and let me know if you end up doing it!

  16. I make a trip from Cape-Town to Victoria Falls,It was amazing.
    I travel with Real out of Africa Tours it whas the best overland company I Find on internet all inclusive airco and toilet on the truck!!!!!
    http://www.realoutofafrica.com

  17. Hi
    We will be driving from Reykjavik to Capetown in January 2012, taking 6 months…we are in a old bedford and we are doing it old school syle, rough and cheap, taking 15 passengers ,anyone want to join
    Vikings Across Africa

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