While there are many “ultimate” off-road travelling experiences available today, an independently arranged self-drive, and extremely difficult overland trip through Africa is without doubt the “ultimate-est” of them all. Bad weather, poor roads, difficult border crossings, war, elections and the almost inevitable rebellion against the results, political upheaval, unpredictable border guards and sometimes unexpectedly changed visa requirements during an overland expedition through Africa can turn boys and girls into fully grown, hard-hearted, and steely-eyed men and women almost overnight.
There is travelling around the world, but then suddenly, you are faced with travelling in Africa- which is something entirely different to any type of travelling you may have done up to now. Like the best laid plans of mice, men, and overland travellers through Africa, plans and routes in Africa can change at less than a moment’s notice, so don’t be too sure your planned overland route will take you where you want to go. The various routes through Africa only offer you a theoretical opportunity to start at one end of the continent and end at the opposite end. Africa has never been known for the high standards of it roads, nor for the fact that you will actually arrive at your intended destination by any chosen route. Many roads and routes appear only on paper maps- where the road should be, you may only find forest, swamps, or vast stretches of mud and/or sand. Yet, in spite of all of this, Africa is being crossed overland from south to north, and from east to west on almost a daily basis, and frequently by a combination of the main routes.
Overland Route Contents:
The short answer to this is that any intended crossing of Africa demands extremely detailed planning and preparation. However, not even the most detailed route planning offers any sort of guarantee that you will arrive at your intended destination. The purpose of the months of overland route planning you are required to do is only to provide you with a basic outline of possible routes. Apart from this, you will also need back-up, or escape routes, as some experienced travellers refer to them.
While in most other parts of the world it may be possible to stick to a pre-planned route, this is impossible to do in Africa, firstly because there are so few roads, and secondly, because there are no definitive or reliable road maps that show local, or even regional road networks. Nonetheless, it would be a serious, if not fatal mistake, to trust to luck alone; an undertaking of this magnitude requires as much detailed information as can be obtained, even though the proverbial devil might be lurking in the masses of sometimes conflicting detail. It is absolutely essential that you have the clearest possible understanding of where you want to go in Africa, and the best way of getting there, based on the most up to date information available.
GPS devices only cover the main routes through Africa, and then not always the entire route. Moreover, the main routes often bypass entire countries, and the only way to get through these countries is by visiting your country’s diplomatic mission in those countries, if there are diplomatic relations, of course. Diplomatic missions are the best, and most reliable sources of local knowledge on anything from where to shop, which areas to visit (or avoid), the best sights to see, and the best ways of getting there, or to get out of the country.
However, before we get to the actual routes through Africa, there are some other issues that need discussing first, i.e., visas, current wars, time of year, and time available, among others. However, the points mentioned here are the most important ones, so we will briefly discuss each.
Your intended route through Africa is governed by the countries you can obtain visas for, more than any other single factor. Not all African countries issue allow nationals from all other African countries, and some do not allow anybody from anywhere. Once you have decided on a possible route, allow around six months for visa applications to be approved or denied. Build your intended route according to which countries will issue you a visa, or not, as the case may be.
• Current wars:
Wars in Africa can start for no apparent reason, and although the security situation has largely stabilized (by African standards), there can be any number of wars and rebellions happening at any given time. For obvious reasons, avoid not just the countries involved, but the entire region. Adapt your intended route to suit the military/security situation.
• Time of year:
If any part of your intended route passes through central Africa from east to west, or the other way, only do this section in the dry season between June and September. This part of Africa has the fewest paved roads, and there are huge sections that have no roads at all, apart from scattered two-wheel tracks through the rain forests. While you can still encounter lots of mud here in the dry season, it will at least not be so bad as in the wet season, when trucks that get stuck are often abandoned until the dry season, when recovery might be an option.
• Time available:
Time should not be a factor when deciding on routes through Africa: delays due to road closures, ferries and ships that are several days late, unexpected border closures, and all manner of other delays make it impossible to plan travel times between points effectively, and a south to north traverse of Africa could take anything from 60 days to 12 months, or even longer. Do not plan to cover more than 100 kms per day: it might be possible to cover three or even four times that in a single day, but then again, it might be impossible to cover even 20 kms in two days due to bad weather or other factors. Take each day as it comes, but be prepared to make radical changes to your intended route to avoid being caught in any African country with an expired visa, which is an unfortunate circumstance that can have extremely unpleasant consequences, such as a huge fine, confiscation of all your equipment, imprisonment, or all three.
It goes without saying that planning a route through Africa should start with a good overland map that shows all international borders, legal border crossing points, as well as the current state of the Trans-continental road system/network. However, the owners of this site do not guarantee that any of the roads shown on any map are still in existence, or driveable. All information is correct as at the time of writing- January 2015. It will also be noted that the main routes by-pass some countries completely, and more information on the road network in these countries should be obtained from the diplomatic missions of the countries involved.
South-North Overland Routes:
There are three main routes from the south leading to different points in the north of the continent, all with their own particular attractions and disadvantages. Nonetheless, beginning with the western-most route, these are the:
• Algiers–Lagos Highway, also known as Trans-African Highway 2, or the Trans-Sahara Highway. At 4504 km long, this road is essentially complete, with only about 200 km of desert track that still has to be sealed. However, severe security controls by the military forces of several countries make usage of this road extremely difficult, if not impossible at times.
• The 10 800 km-long Tripoli–Windhoek–(Cape Town) Highway, also known as Trans-African Highway 3, is by far the most incomplete, and requires almost complete re-construction. Only the paved sections within the borders of Libya, Cameroon, Angola, Namibia and South Africa are usable to any degree. This road will eventually include Cape Town, but this could be decades into the future.
• The Trans-African Highway, or the Cairo–Gaborone–(Pretoria/Cape Town) Highway, is at 10,228 km long the most viable route from south to north, or vice versa. With the recent paving of the sections from Dongola to Wadi Halfa, in Northern Sudan, and the stretch from the Galabat border crossing in the north-western reaches of Ethiopia, only two sections remain to be paved- the aptly named Road to Hell, from Isiolo to Moyale in north of Kenya, and the stretch of gravel road running through Dodoma in Tanzania. However, for some years it has not been possible to cross into Egypt from Sudan, and vice versa, by road. The only legal way to cross this border is by the vehicle ferry on Lake Nasser.
West-East Overland Routes:
Crossing Africa from east to west, or the other way round is not quite as problematic, there being several viable routes, although the routes through Central Africa should not be attempted lightly in the wet season, which is from October to July. However, the west-east routes all fall in widely differing climatic regions, and extreme heat, rather than mud is the main problem on the northern west-east routes. Thus, beginning with the northern-most route, the west-east routes are:
• Trans-African Highway 1, also known as the Cairo-Dakar Highway, is at 8,636 km long essentially complete, and runs along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, before following the Atlantic coast of North-West Africa. Note that the border between Algeria and Morocco is currently sealed off. Trans-Africa Highway 1 also links up with Trans-Africa Highway 7, thus forming an alternative north-south route around the western reaches of Africa.
• At 4496 kms long, the Trans-African Highway 5, or the Dakar-Ndjamena Highway, is currently about 80% complete, and links the West African countries of the Sahel.
• Contiguous with Trans-African Highway 5, Trans-African Highway 6 is 4219 kms long, and runs through the eastern Sahel from Ndjamena to Djibouti on the Indian Ocean coast.
• Known locally as the Dakar-Lagos Highway, the 4010 km-long Trans-African Highway 7, or the Trans-West African Coast Road, as it is also known, is around about 80% complete.
• The 6259 kms long, Trans-African Highway 8, or the Lagos-Mombasa Highway, is contiguous with Trans-African Highway 7, and together they comprise a 10,269 km-long west-east route across Africa. Although the eastern half of this highway is complete inside the borders of Kenya and Uganda, the western part through Nigeria, Cameroon and Central African Republic is only now nearing completion. However, a several hundred km-long section through the DRC is missing, and is unlikely to ever be constructed, making this an impractical route through Central Africa.
• Trans-African Highway 9, or the Beira-Lobito Highway, is at 3523 km essentially complete except for short sections in the eastern half. However, the western sections of the highway crossing Angola and the south-central reaches of the DRC require extensive reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Road maintenance in Africa has never featured high on the list of priorities, which means that roads that were in daily use a few years ago, might no longer exist. The roads in Africa seem to follow the Inverse Square Law, meaning that while the roads in the vicinity of large population centres might be in reasonable condition for some distance around these centres, the further you move away, the worse the roads become, and at an exponential rate. However, being forewarned is being forearmed, so take careful note of the information below; it might save you hundreds of kilometers of back tracking, or hours, if not days of driving in circles, looking for the right road.
• Although slightly more than 50% of the African road network has been paved or otherwise sealed, maintenance, or the lack of it, remains an intractable problem. The African road network is fragmented by dozens of “missing links”, or even sections where there had never been any roads at all, despite the fact that main overland routes may appear complete, and uninterrupted on some maps. For instance, Trans-African Highway 3 has a 200 km-long gap in the Central African Republic between the towns of Salo and Ouésso. In this case, the missing road is the result of the fact that nobody thinks highly enough of the region to build a road linking the towns. Other reasons for missing road sections include rock-falls in mountainous sections, long sections of road that become permanently buried by sand storms, or roads that sink into swamps because of poor construction.
• As a direct consequence of the fragmentation of the road system, year-round travel by road in the five major regions of the continent,—North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa, is limited to travel between East and Southern Africa- on a single two-lane tarred road that runs through the south-western reaches of Tanzania.
• Although North- and West Africa have a tenuous trans-Sahara link, the biggest single short coming of the African road system is the fact that there are no tarred roads crossing central Africa, with the result that this region, which comprises several countries, is deprived of trading opportunities with East- and West Africa, as well as road contact (and trade), with the entire Southern African region. Whatever paved roads there may be in central Africa, be aware of the fact that they only reach the very fringes of this vast region, and that they form the terminal ends of roads leading from other regions, because despite the best efforts of legions of road engineers, the terrain, climate, and rain forests of the central African region, especially in the catchments of the Congo, Ubangui, Sangha, and Sanaga Rivers, make road construction impossible. While semi-permanent roads in Cameroon and Chad further north have been constructed, the rugged, hilly terrain, and flood-prone plains inhibit the construction and maintenance of any sort of permanent road system.
If you are ready to leave on your epic overland trip through Africa, enjoy it, but bear in mind that Africa offers some of the toughest off-road driving in the world. Most of your route will be on unpaved roads, and you will be on your own for most of the journey. It makes no difference how tough and challenging some of the off-road eco-trails you have done had been- in Africa, the overland route is a destination in itself, and you will be doing battle with it all the way to the end.
Here, you will not be able to call for a tow vehicle should you break down, nor will you find replacement parts virtually on every corner: in Africa, you are truly on your own, and if the thought of not having GPS guidance when the highway you are on suddenly turns into a forest track at sunset scares you, you should probably tour Africa with a group-in an enclosed 2×4 truck that is neither a bus, nor a suitable expedition vehicle.
But then again, it is only through courage and determination that great things are accomplished, and make no mistake, crossing Africa from south to north, or in any other direction for that matter, is no small thing, and something every off-road enthusiast should attempt at least once in his/her lifetime. Go for it!