We have long advocated for the idea that overland travel in southern Africa is easier, less expensive, and more rewarding than you might imagine.
After three years and tens of thousands of kilometers of vehicle-based adventures in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, we’re starting a regular series on the blog called “Enlightened Overland”.
The idea is to share some of the lessons, tips, best practices, and “Doh!” moments we’ve gleaned over those many dusty miles.
Our very first “overland” adventure anywhere started the day we picked up a rented Toyota HiLux equipped with a roof top tent and a rattling Engel fridge from Asco Car Hire in Windhoek, Namibia. That was in 2015, and we haven’t looked back. At the time, it felt like a big leap – with little knowledge and nothing more than a willingness to accept the unknown as it came to us, we charged naively into the experience.
Our first night under the Southern Cross, we fled in terror to the HiLux from a slowly approaching phalanx of green-eyed marauders that we assumed were hyenas bent on raiding our camp.
They were gemsboks. Probably very puzzled ones. That very same night, while we shivered together in below-freezing temps, giraffes grazed in the acacia tree whose branches bowed over our tent.
Even when things have gone sideways, the bureaucracy has been maddening, or the travel days have been difficult, we wouldn’t trade a minute of it. We don’t claim to have all the answers, and we continue to learn more every day. Especially for our North American readers, and folks we’ve encouraged at Expo to visit Africa, we hope some of this advice will help you make the leap like we did. You won’t regret it.
We encourage you to share your ideas, tips, and tricks as we build on this series of posts, so we can all become a little more enlightened.
Enlightened Overland Lesson No. 1: Don’t Underestimate the Distances
There is a gif that has been making the rounds on adventure travel social media recently. It demonstrates the northern hemisphere size-bias inherent in the Mercator map projection:
There’s no getting around the fact that Russia and Canada are the largest nations on the planet, but their shrinking proportions in the animation demonstrate just how big the countries of southern Africa truly are.
Our temporary home, Botswana, is the size of Texas, and many of our neighbors – Angola, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, and Mozambique are even larger. Zimbabwe outstrips Germany’s total area by 40,000 sq. km. Africa itself, remember, is the second largest continent on Earth. Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve alone is larger than Switzerland.
Maybe it’s our Mercator-infected understanding of geography, but first-time overlanders in southern Africa often suffer from miscalculating how far driving distances truly are in this part of the world (our friend Chris Thompson at Hi-Range Safari City in Gaborone said as much in his interview on the blog last week). I know we have.
The drive itself is one of the great draws for folks who are looking for an overland adventure. However, you don’t want to spend all the precious hours in this amazing part of the world that you have paid dearly for, just trying to get from one point to another.
While, in general, primary roads and highways in southern African countries like Botswana and South Africa are in good condition, there are many hazards along the way that new travelers potentially are unaccustomed to:
- Random, VW-sized potholes
- Shoulders that disappear and reappear at unusual intervals
- Multiple police roadblocks where you must show your papers
- “Veterinary Fence” checkpoints where your vehicle may be searched for illegal beef
- You will likely be driving on the “wrong” side of the road
- The reckless and near-suicidal driving habits of your fellow motorists, especially bus drivers
- Catastrophic car wrecks that may hold up traffic for hours
- Rogue livestock lining the highways
Take all of these variables together, and include the absolute injunction against driving at night anywhere on this vast continent (uh, we’ve done it, and we don’t recommend it), and you have a driving equation that results in vastly longer travel times than you might expect.
When the tar roads turn to gravel and sand – the kinds of tracks we live for – the time factor only magnifies.
How do we try to tackle the travel time equation in our journeys around southern Africa?
- Plan your adventure with an eye toward more days over less distance. Resist the “FOMO” that tempts you to pack all of the “must-see” destinations into one short trip. You will enjoy your adventure far more when you are not driving every day, and you can spend two, three, or four days in one place.
- On days when you must transit between camps or destinations, add 1/3 the travel time you think you might actually need. In Botswana, on good highways, we have found our average speeds tend to hover below 90 km/h on average. On deteriorating roadways, it’s much, much lower.
- Plan even more time for unpaved and two-track routes in Game Reserves and National Parks – the slower you can drive, the better. You add mechanical sympathy for your vehicle, and you stand a greater chance of wildlife encounters. Plan for 40 km/h or less on average.
- Expect delays, and expect challenges. Much of the enjoyment you will reap from travel in southern Africa lies in its unpredictability. If you have built in time and patience for those inventible delays, you will approach them with more humor and less stress.
How do you tackle the challenges of long-distance overland travel? Enlighten us!