Overland Africa Content:
Of all the overland off-road expeditions that it is possible to undertake through virtually any part of the world today, an overland trip through raw, wild Africa is without doubt one of the most appealing, and without doubt, the most rewarding. However, “appealing”, and “rewarding” should not be confused or equated with “easy”, or a walk in the proverbial park, because it is not; an expedition through any part of Africa, whether through the deserts of Southern- and Northern Africa, the rain forests of the equatorial region, or the vast, open savannah grassland of Kenya, Zambia, and Tanzania in the south-central regions, demands raw courage, dedication, patience, lots of time (and money), as well as an understanding that no matter which route you take, or where you are in this vast continent, time in Africa works differently to the way you may be used to.
Nevertheless, despite the hardships of an overland trip through Africa, the continent offers almost an embarrassment of riches in the form of sights, smells, and cultural experiences, and while it is possible to experience much of this without venturing very far off the beaten track, the soul of Africa only really becomes visible (and accessible) by going off-road, and especially so with a motor cycle. Engaging Africa on a motor cycle is not for the timid though; the logistics of such an undertaking is horrendously complicated, and most of the “comforts of home” that a 4WD vehicle provides must be foregone, but the rewards of such an undertaking are immense, and far beyond anything most people can ever hope to experience.
While other continents and countries may boast their own scenic attractions, it is only in Africa that the off-road tourist, or any tourist for that matter, is presented with life in its raw, natural state. Africa represents many things to many different people, and despite its wars, droughts, lack of infrastructure, and poor communication systems, Africa is home to more than a billion people who have largely managed to preserve most of the continent’s natural resources and scenic beauty. However, Africa should not be viewed from a First-world perspective; its huge lakes, indigenous rain forests, vast open plains, seemingly lifeless deserts, mist-shrouded mountains, and major navigable rivers are much more than mere tourist attractions- they are vital links in the complex chain of ecosystems that sustain life here, and can only be truly appreciated against this backdrop.
Life in Africa follows a pattern that is different from the rest of the world, and the only way to appreciate it is to see and experience it through the eyes of the people who live here. Tourists looking for 5-star accommodation around every corner will be sorely disappointed; while such resorts do exist, they cater for a different market, so instead of looking for, or expecting, Western standards in service and accommodation, rather spend the time appreciating the essence of the simple life that Africa has to offer. What difference does it make if you are served fish every day while you are on the MV Liemba, a cargo/passenger ship that had been traversing the length of Lake Tanganyika for the past 102 years? While the service on this old rust bucket that was launched onto the waters of the lake in 1913, may not quite compare to that on cruise ships in the Caribbean, the fish you are served on the MV Liemba is caught fresh every day, served with good grace, a genuine smile, and a sincere “Bon Appétit!”- which is more than one can say for the fish (or the service), on many a cruise ship in the Caribbean.
Taking a relaxed cruise on the MV Liemba is of course a good way to gather your strength for a five-day hike to the summit of the Ruwenzori Mountains in Uganda. Regarded as one of Africa’s best kept secrets, this hike up the Mountains of the Moon through mud, over icy glaciers, rain, freezing cold nights and some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery in the world, can be done for around 40 US dollars per person, and is excellent preparation for the rigours of driving the muddy and extremely challenging Transcontinental Highway through the DRC, on the way to Rwanda, to visit chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Rwanda may be better known for its gorillas, but the mountain roads/passes on the way to the Nyungwe Forest (which is where the chimps live), are among the most scenic in the world. You could of course also go and see the gorillas, but there are no mountain roads on the way- which makes visiting the gorillas not nearly as rewarding, at least from the off-road touring perspective.
Although Africa offers hundreds, if not thousands of similar attractions, getting onto the MV Liemba, into the Nyungwe Forest, or to campsites in Morocco where the only available water is brought up from 30 meter-deep wells with camel-skin buckets, (and where camels drink first), can be harrowing experiences. Bad roads, poor communications, a we’ll-see-what-tomorrow-brings world view, and time that runs at a different rate than in the rest of the world can test the resolve of even the bravest and hardiest among us, but little of this should matter to the off-road tourist looking to discover the soul of Africa. The secret of travel Africa lies in the moderation of expectations on the one hand, and the willingness to adapt to the rhythms of a different world on the other, but these are not particularly heavy loads to bear- you will have a much harder time of it adapting to your regular routine once you are back home, than you will have had easing into the relaxed pace of life and travel in Africa.
Africa has been described as the best off-road driving training area in the world, because every experience is preparation for the next, but you need more than just the desire to undertake such an adventure. For instance, for a Cape to Cairo expedition you will need at least three new, preferably identical, diesel fuelled, proper 4×4’s capable of preferably developing at least 400Nm of available torque, with low range, diff locks, and above average ground clearance. In addition, you will need a small mountain of camping and recovery gear, tools and spare parts, lots of money, at least eighteen months of preparation time, and very importantly- travelling companions you know well enough and trust sufficiently to stand their presence for as long as the expedition lasts. These are just the bare minimums: you need a lot besides these items to ensure the success of your expedition, or at least to prevent its total failure, and to help take the pain out of preparing for your epic off-road adventure, this series of articles will explore issues such as vehicle choice, possible routes through Africa, what to take along, what not to take, and everything else you need to know.
Most people only ever get one opportunity to undertake an off-road trip through Africa, and while this article makes no claim to be the last word on travel through Africa, the attentive reader of this series of articles dealing with travel in Africa is guaranteed to find much valuable information and many insights into the nature of travelling in Africa- most of which are the direct result of sometimes harsh experience.