Fancy travelling the world's greatest routes with a bunch of like-minded travellers? Then overlanding could be for you...
What is overlanding?
Any journey that doesn’t involve flying could be classed as ‘overlanding’. However, when most use the term, they mean long-distance journeys on specially designed, all-terrain trucks that allow groups of travellers to traverse the likes of the Central Asian Steppe, the backroads of Africa or the entire South American continent.
A number of specialist tour operators, including Dragoman
and Oasis Overland
, offer trips of this kind. They plan the route and the itinerary, and take care of any necessary paperwork, plus guides, food and accommodation.
By night you’ll stay in hostels and hotels, with local families or in tents. Wild camping is a major feature of overland trips and most companies provide all of the necessary gear. “Sometimes we’ll stay in the same hotels as every other tour operator or backpacker,” says Charlie Hopkinson, CEO of Dragoman, “but then we might go and camp in the grounds of a monastery in Myanmar or visit an Argentine estancia to spend a night with the gauchos.”
Choosing the right trip
There is a huge range of trips on offer – from a ten-day excursion in Peru to a six-month Silk Road transit. Picking the right one can be tricky. “My biggest advice would be: go for as long as you can,” says Charlie Jacques (‘CJ’), overlanding guide and Silver winner at the 2014 Wanderlust World Guide Awards.
“If one brochure mentions a trip from Nairobi to Cape Town in five weeks, and another says eight weeks, and they appear to go to the same places, choose the eight weeker – it will be much better paced.”
Trips also vary in terms of comfort, with some operators offering a higher proportion of hotel stays versus wild camps. But make no mistake – even at the plusher end of the spectrum, overlanding is far from luxurious. Long-distance drives along dirt roads can be arduous. Sometimes you’ll be roughing it. “I’d ask myself: am I ready to sleep in a tent for a few nights at a time? Can I cope without a shower for a few days? How about a toilet?” advises Luca Alfatti, former Dragoman guide and Guide Awards winner. Yurt camping with Dragoman in Mongolia
Some more upmarket trips employ cooks and porters, but on most overlanding expeditions you’ll be expected to pitch in with the food shopping, cooking and camp set-up – even jumping out to push if the truck gets stuck. “It’s about participation,” says Charlie Hopkinson. “If you want a tour where everything is given to you on a plate then overlanding isn’t for you. The more people put in, the more they’ll get out of it.”
It pays to be flexible too. “A truck might break down, there could be delays at borders. People have to be prepared for the unexpected and not get frustrated if things go slower or go wrong,” says Oasis Overland’s Chris Wrede.
So why do it?
“You see a place warts and all,” says CJ. “This is travel on a human scale: yes, you see the highlights, but also the everyday. It gets you to those places that are hard to get to on your own.”
Luca agrees: “Sometimes solo travellers can miss out, relying mainly on guidebooks, using night buses and often staying in hotels rather than villages and with families.”
While you could travel the same routes independently, the logistics can be both daunting and expensive. “It takes the hassle away,” says overlanding veteran Jemma Dunn. “I’ve done a lot of trips across Central Asia. I think it would be pretty impossible to do some of that without doing it through some kind of overlanding company.”
It’s also a very sociable way of travelling. “Many solos travel in this way to find like-minded people, but all sorts are attracted to it,” says Luca. “I’ve led professionals, young gappers, retired people, singles and couples – even a couple on their honeymoon!”
The demographic varies depending on the route. “Our trips across Asia, for instance London-Beijing, tend to attract a higher average age,” says Chris. “It’s more common to get people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s on that trip. Africa tends to attract a younger age group. South America is in between.”
Testimonials on company websites and Facebook pages can give you an idea of the kind of travellers on your chosen route; most operators will supply an age profile of passengers on request. The occasional personality clash is inevitable, but most overlanders have a positive experience and many form lifelong friendships.
“There are many groups of friends from older expeditions I have led who still keep in touch and organise reunions,” says Luca. “And in September I will be marrying my lovely fiancée who is a former passenger of mine from a West Africa crossing a few years ago!”
If the group gets too much, there are opportunities to do your own thing. You’ll stop to explore cities and parks, and there’s the option of tagging on excursions, all of which you can do independently, if you choose. You can also leave and rejoin trips at certain points along the route.
Many travellers take this approach and see overlanding as a complement to independent travel – a way of getting to those hard-to-reach places. “I am a firm believer that some countries are best travelled in by overland tour, others independently,” says Luca. So, maybe your next trip should be by truck?
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