Lizzie Matthews follows the legendary explorers of the past on this epic journey across sub-Saharan Africa
One truck, ten weeks, 15 strangers, half a continent and a driver who you pray knows the way. From the grassy savannah of Kenya to the noble silhouette of Table Mountain, this classic trip passes the icons of east and south Africa – the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Victoria Falls, Okavango Delta, Namib Desert – leaving a dusty throng of extraordinary wildlife blinking in its wake.
The 15 strangers that you share everything with for the next few months (from perfect sunsets to longdrop loos) are – like it or not – going to become just as important a part of your travels as the African people and countryside. But rest assured that they are guaranteed to be as excited about the adventure as you are, and there is bound to be a potential lifelong buddy in there somewhere.
The organised group overland trip is the epitome of the once-in-a-lifetime journey but with little of the hassle or headache involved with planning routes, sorting budgets or coping with red tape. Instead, you have the back-up of a specialist tour operator who has vital know-how. Charlie Hopkinson from Encounter Overland stresses that tour operators have the experience to take people off the beaten track: “One of the most common reactions we hear from our returned overlanders is: ‘We could never have done the things we did if we’d been on our own’.”
Whether you decide to go with a group or set off independently, Nairobi to Cape Town is one of the most rewarding routes you can choose – but always be prepared for the unexpected. Having clocked up over 25,000 overlanding kilometres, prolific traveller Sue Grimwood knows a thing or two about trucks and tantrums: “A typical day? There’s no such thing. That’s what makes it so much fun.”
1. Plan your expenses meticulously, giving yourself a weekly budget that you cannot exceed. Account for fuel, visas, accommodation, living expenses and activities for two people.
2. Choose a route but be flexible. Recommendations from other travellers, permit problems, weather conditions, budget – all can affect where you go next.
3. Make sure you have some mechanical knowledge before you leave, and make regular checks on your vehicle.
4. Try to get as many visas as possible before you leave. And try to cultivate the patience of a saint and a winning smile for coping with border control red tape.
5. Allow at least six to eight litres of water per person per day, especially when travelling through desert.
6. Make sure nothing is on show when you leave your vehicle, and split your money up into small amounts and hide it around your vehicle and luggage.
7. Make regular calls to family back home and let them know where you are heading next. Tell any hostels or guesthouses you stay in where you are off to and what your plans are.
A diversion here or there to an unspoilt area or little-known national park can make the difference between a good trip and an unforgettably great one – here are a few suggestions:
Tsavo East National Park, Kenya An extraordinarily varied landscape, from lush rivers to semi-desert. The stars are the huge herds of elephant – over 100 strong – that lumber through the trees.
Gombe Stream National Park Tanzania’s tiniest park, but nevertheless a fascinating place. This is where Jane Goodall arrived in 1960 to study wild chimpanzees – there are still 150 of them swinging through the trees.
North Namibia Don’t immediately head south from the Caprivi Strip on your rush to get to Etosha. Travel north to the Kavango region, criss-crossed with rivers and filled with butterflies.
Lower Zambezi National Park Zambia’s most recently designated park is renowned for its seclusion and natural beauty. This is the place to leave the wheels and go for a walking safari (with a guide, of course).
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe A fine colonial town where batteries can be recharged and food stocks restored. Explore the leafy avenues, excellent museums and huge collection of restaurants.
Swaziland Explore the rugged mountains and woodland of this peaceful country. There might not be a huge amount of game to see but the Malolotja Nature Reserve is one of the most captivating landscapes in Africa.
Namaqualand, South Africa If you’re passing through Namaqualand in spring, stop to witness one of nature’s finest displays: after good winter rains the mountains and plains are covered in a knee-high carpet of wild flowers.