The long and short of overlanding

Crossing continents by truck is one of the cheapest ways to travel – and you don’t have to have months to spare

5 mins

A truck can be more than just a truck. It’s a viewing platform, a social club, a kitchen, a security blanket, a library, a home – and a way to cross continents and explore remote areas from under £20 a day.

During the four decades that overlanding trucks have been trundling across the planet, five classic routes have been forged. And it’s now possible to pick short sections of each – so you can cherry-pick the choicest moments and get a flavour of the overlanding experience in just a couple of weeks. We’ve outlined the main events as well as the best of the shorter tasters.

Cairo to Cape Town

Connect the Pyramids with the southern tip of Africa on this wild, epic ride

Typical route:  Egypt – Sudan – Ethiopia – Kenya (optional: Uganda/Rwanda) – Tanzania – Malawi – Zambia – Zimbabwe – Botswana – Namibia – South Africa        

Typical duration: 16-18 weeks

The long version

Guide price (inc kitty): £5,000 – £7,000


- Marvel at the Pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt and Sudan

- Meet the tribes of the Omo Valley

- Spot game in Kenya and Tanzania

- Ride hippo-infested white water on the River Zambezi, Zambia

- Canoe Botswana’s Okavango Delta

- Climb the vast dunes of the Namib Desert, Namibia

What’s it like?

Is this the ultimate overland challenge? Roads can be quagmires or quicksand, border crossings can be testing – but the rewards are many: a sense of connection with the continent and its diverse peoples, and some of the planet’s finest wildlife-watching.

Waved off at Cairo by the Sphinx, the route soon delves off the tourist trail and into the Nubian Desert, camping out under the stars and discovering the temples of Sudan (which predate even those of Egypt) – notably the steep-sided pyramids of Meroe.

Trucking south into Ethiopia, take in Lake Tana’s island monasteries and venture to the source of the Blue Nile before heading to the Kenyan border to meet the unique tribes of the Omo Valley.

East Africa’s wildlife is the big draw, and overlanding allows travellers to visit a number of parks and reserves on a budget. Safaris will be structured within the itinerary – Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater and Kenya’s Samburu National Park are particular highlights – and it’s here that the value of overlanding is most evident. You’ll be seeing the same animals as travellers on private safaris, but at a fraction of the cost – granted, you’ll be camping every night and might forgo a shower or two, but wildlife doesn’t discriminate between budget and top-end travellers.

Further south, rich savannah morphs into stark, sandy plain – and the focus shifts from animal encounters to desert survival. Trade tobacco and tales with the hunter-gatherer Xhosa tribes and pitch camp on Namibia’s lonely Skeleton Coast and amid the dunes of the Namib Desert – indeed, by now you’ll be fully signed up to life under canvas.

Whether pitched tents in the Okavango Delta or on the banks of Lake Malawi, primal priorities always remain: food, shelter ­– and a beer to toast the sunset.

Top tip: Visa costs can add up, and though some are available at borders, others must be obtained in advance. Check with your overlanding company and the Foreign Office well before departure.

The short cuts

8 days: Garden Route Adventure: South Africa

Hike along the Wild Coast, spot eles in Addo Elephant National Park, be dazzled by the flora of the Garden Route and sip fine wines in vineyards before climbing Table Mountain.

Who: Intrepid (£605 + 650 rand kitty)

12 days: Falls to Jo’burg: Zimbabwe – Botswana – South Africa

Hear the roar of the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ – Victoria Falls – cruise among hippos and eles in Botswana’s Chobe NP, choose to float along the waters of the Okavango Delta and hunt for the Big Five in South Africa’s Kruger NP.

Who: On the go tours (£255 + US$345 local payment)

18 days: Mountain Gorillas to the Mara: Uganda – Kenya

Be dazzled by the pink flamingos of Lake Nakuru, trek through the highlands of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in search of mountain gorillas, and roam the vast savannahs of the Masai Mara.

Who: Acacia African Adventures (from £1,025 + US$640 local payment)

21 days: Nothern Explorer – Victoria Falls to Nairobi: Zambia – Malawi – Tanzania – Kenya

Aimed squarely at photographers, this links some of the continent’s most varied and photogenic spots: Victoria Falls, Zanzibar, Lake Malawi, Ngorongoro Crater, Mt Meru and – for leopard-lovers – Zambia’s South Luangwa NP.

Who: Africa-in-Focus (from £965 + US$560 local payment)

Quito to Rio de Janeiro

Zigzag across South America, from the volcanic Andes to Christ the Redeemer.

Typical route:  Ecuador – Peru – Bolivia – Chile – Argentina – Paraguay – Brazil 

Typical duration: 14 weeks

The long version

Guide price (inc kitty): £3,500 – £6,500


- Browse Ecuador’s Otavalo market

- Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

- Traverse the surreal salt flats of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni

- Trek Chilean Patagonia

- Cool off in the Iguaçu Falls

- Sun-laze and samba in Rio

What’s it like?

This South American odyssey doesn’t follow a straight A-to-B – though you could trace the PanAmericana highway from Colombia’s Darién Gap into Patagonia.

But this epic zigzag isn’t a random jaunt: it joins the dots of South America’s highlights, and offers a comprehensive introduction to the landscapes, people and animals.

The allure of the truck tour here goes beyond company and cost – Latin America’s a great-value destination in any case. Roads can be daunting (not least the ‘death road’ between La Paz and Coroico in Bolivia); better to trust your experienced driver than a local bus.

The route is a game of two (uneven) halves: the first, longer section traces the continent’s spine – the Andes: Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes, the Inca eyries of Peru – not least Machu Picchu – the chill plateaus of Bolivia and Chile, the craggy spires of Patagonia.

There’s also a taste of the Amazon in the Oriente (Ecuador), canyons at Colca and coast at Pisco (Peru), and vineyards (Chile).

Having touched the continent’s extremity at Tierra del Fuego, the route north traverses Argentina’s Pampa before things warm up: tango in Buenos Aires, ruined missions among the steamy interior of Paraguay, the cascades of Iguaçu and the turquoise waters off Brazil.

And if that’s given you a taste of the region, it’s easy enough (if you’re in no hurry) to create a full 360° circuit by continuing from Rio through northern Brazil, across the Amazon basin, through Venezuela and Colombia, and finally back to Quito – South America Overland and Tucan both offer the full monty.

Top tip: If you want to trek the Inca Trail, book far in advance – most overland operators can organise this for you, but permits sell out fast.

The short cuts

13 days: Southern Explorer: Argentina – Chile

Patagonia is all about big thrills: looming Mt Fitz Roy; the calving Perito Moreno Glacier; the granite fangs of Torres del Paine NP; the penguin colonies of Seno Otway and the ends-of-the-earth isolation of Tierra del Fuego.

Who: Viva Expeditions (£1,095 + US$750 local payment)

21 days: Lima to La Paz: Peru – Bolivia

A three-week dip into Inca culture takes in the colonial gems of Cusco, the Inca sites of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu (including the option to trek the Inca Trail), and – most intriguingly – a chance to meet Uros Indians of Amantani Island on Lake Titicaca.

Who: Gap Adventures (from £1,159)

UK to Australia

Delve Down Under without flying (much) on this immersive bus ride.

Typical route: UK – France – Germany – Austria – Hungary – Romania – Bulgaria – Turkey – Iran – Pakistan – India – Nepal – Tibet – China – Laos – Thailand – Malaysia – Singapore – Indonesia – Australia – 24 weeks

The long version

Guide price: £5,000 – £6,300


- Feel surreal in fairytale Cappadocia

- Be wowed by blue-tiled Islamic masterpieces of Esfahan, Iran

- Pay your respects in holy Varanasi, India

- Gawp at Mount Everest, Tibet

- Meet monks in Luang Prabang, Laos

- Wake up in the Outback, Australia

What’s it like?

Possibly more than any other overland route the trail to Oz is a concept more than a journey – and one that’s captured the imagination of travellers for the best part of half a century. In a sense the stops on the itinerary are incidental, mere stepping stones on this hemisphere-hopping odyssey; however, the true pan-global overland companies (notably Oz Bus and UK to Oz Overland) do tend to follow similar routes.

Tripping lightly through Europe, you’ll touch on medieval towns and mountainside vineyards – but the real adventure starts past the Balkans and into Asia. Stretches of open landscapes – across Turkey and Iran, mountains and salt deserts offer excellent hiking – are interspersed with the souks and lavish mosques of Tehran and Esfahan, then the teeming nations of Pakistan and India before the wild peaks of the Himalaya loom. In a sense it’s a combination of city sightseeing and wilderness trucking, with some classic icons thrown in – Taj Mahal, Everest, Uluru, and maybe the Potala Palace and Angkor.

Through the Middle East and Asia, accommodation is usually in guesthouses and hostels – but the Australian Outback is the perfect campsite.

Top tip: Pack lightly – you’ll pass through some of the world’s best markets. Pick up essentials as you travel, and hone your haggling.

The short cuts

9 days: Wild Kimberley: Australia

The Gibb River Road is the real Outback deal: a dusty, corrugated trail passing crocodile-inhabited gorges and vast swathes of russet-hued emptiness. Camp in swags at isolated billabongs, dive into Lake Argyle, saddle up at a cattle station and explore the bizarre beehive domes of the Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park.

Who: Intrepid (£1,095)

16 days: Moguls, Mosques & Mahals: India – Nepal

Starting from Delhi, gawp at the Pink City of Jaipur and dreamy Taj Mahal, admire the erotic carvings of Khajuraho and the tigers of Bandhavgarh NP, float past the burning ghats of Varanasi and wander the medieval streets of Nepal’s fascinating capital, Kathmandu.

Who: Dragoman (from £525 + US$340 kitty)

Istanbul to Beijing

Follow the footsteps of Marco Polo on a cross-Asia odyssey.

Typical route: Turkey – Iran – Turkmenistan – Uzbekistan – Kyrgyzstan – China  

Typical duration: 14 weeks

The long version

Guide price (inc kitty): £6,000 – £7,000


- Bargain for carpets and tribal rugs in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

- Bed down in yurts in Kyrgyzstan

- Drive the Karakoram Highway

- Cross the Yellow River, northern China

- Ogle Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors

What’s it like?

Marco Polo did it. Ibn Battuta did it. Caravans laden with goods did it, for century after century. The Silk Road is a nebulous, evocative trail across Asia, from the Syrian and Turkish ports of the eastern Med through Central Asia to the trading centres of China. This is a journey into Asia’s heartlands: the famed cities – with such tongue-tingling names as Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar – still boast magnificent bazaars, and the distinctive cultures of remote nomadic settlements remain intact.

But of course the Silk Road never was one single entity; countless paths ribbon and merge across the region, some snaking south through Iran and into Pakistan and even India, others spreading across China.

You’ll discover the remains of the Persian Empire in Iran, retracing the path of Alexander the Great to the ancient cities of Esfahan and Persepolis. After crossing into Turkmenistan, the Oxus Valley and the ruined city of Kunye Urgench provide some spectacular hiking trails, and Ashgabat’s vast Tolkuchka market allows you a chance to practise the timeless art of ruthless haggling.

Nights are usually spent in guesthouses or under canvas but, when visiting isolated villages and towns, there are chances to stay in private homes and camps. In Uzbekistan’s Kyzylkum Desert you’ll stay in the yurts of nomadic families, and over the Kyrgyzstan border in the Tian Shan range it’s possible to ride mountain ponies across the rugged peaks (pictured).

This is a tough trip, passing through cold, high-altitude areas, with treacherous roads and unpredictable weather to boot. But by doing the route with an overlanding company, there’s invaluable support – and the chance to get right off the beaten track.

Top tip: Pack layers for cold Himalayan nights, and make sure that you’re fit enough hiking at high altitude.

The short cuts

15 days: Samarkand & Tamerlane’s Testament: Turkmenistan – Uzbekistan

The crossroads of Asia, Uzbekistan is home to the great trading centres of old: explore Samarkand’s grand Registan Square, the Kyzylkum Desert, the mausoleums and minarets of Bukhara and the well-preserved khanate of Khiva, as well as Turkmenistan’s harsh Karakum Desert and the extravagant buildings of its capital Ashgabat.

Who: Dragoman (from £800 + US$420 kitty)

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