Overland Truck Safaris in Africa

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Overland Truck Safaris in Africa
By Koala Vandruff and Susan Moeller

Overland Truck Safaris in Africa

Overland Truck Safaris in Africa

It’s not luxury, but it is a step up in comfort… that’s one difference between a regular African bus and an Overland truck. At least that’s what we found as we boarded the “African Travel Company” truck with our fellow travelers who had congregated in a hotel parking lot in Nairobi, Kenya. We climbed the ladder up into the passenger area to find our places among the seats in the place we would be spending many hours during the coming 3 weeks.

As an American traveler, I had never even heard of this type of travel before we got to Africa, and now here we were, embarking on a 3 week camping trip with a bunch of international strangers. Our fellow campers were mostly English speaking with accents that quickly revealed their Australian and New Zealand origins. There was also a young Japanese fellow on a 2-year world travel, a Spanish woman from Amsterdam, a Thai stockbroker, an Irish woman traveling with her daughter who works in Dubai and us two Americans. In Zanzibar, we added a wandering German woman.

Overland Truck Safaris in Africa

Overland Truck Safaris in Africa

The crew on an overland truck consists of a driver, cook and tour leader. Our cook and driver were from Kenya and the leader was an Australian woman. On an overland truck, everyone helps out. We all got assigned to groups and had to check our tasks each day. Besides putting up our tents each night, we were either going to be helping with meals, cleaning out the truck, scrubbing the pots after meals, or putting up the cook’s tent (so he can get right to work after a long day on the road). We all wash our own plates and cutlery-waving them dry in the ever warm air. We stored all our gear under the passenger area with all the cooking equipment, tents, and food. Valuables and money we could stash inside the truck in a locked area that required a witness to access. Security was important because people were traveling with most of the cash needed for the trip. ATM’s were not always to be relied upon and US cash was needed for extra trips and all visas at border crossings.

Traveling in Africa is not like travel anyplace else I have ever been. Besides being really hot and dusty most everywhere, bus stations are chaotic, overwhelming places that can be confusing to the traveler passing through. We had been in Uganda for about a month and had so far gotten around by bus, taxi, back of motorcycle and boat, but were becoming weary of overcrowded ejector seat buses and shoehorning ourselves into little taxis with too many other hapless passengers. So we were easily impressed by the large, luxurious looking passenger truck we spotted in the campground of the Entebbe Backpackers Hostel.

We were even more impressed when the passengers took us on a tour of their truck and told us how much fun they had been having while camping their way from Capetown for the last 6 or so weeks. Their cook was preparing a delicious looking dinner and their guide was a knowlegable and friendly fellow. By the time we walked away from there, we were about ready to become stowaways! We had heard of these things called “Overland Trucks” and even seen a few of them around, but going onboard and hearing actual traveler’s experiences, we started to see ourselves traveling this way.

So, we got online and did some research and began to wish we had known about this mode of travel months before we left home. There are MANY tour operators and there are pros and cons depending on what type of traveler you are. Commonly, the trips go from Capetown, South Africa and travel as far north as Cairo. The routes vary and run all over the continent (in fact, we discovered that there are overland trips like this in South America and Europe) but the one we joined and seems very popular is Nairobi to Capetown. We chose to go only for 3 weeks and get off the truck in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We wanted to join a trip leaving in the next 10 days, so had to leave lots to chance. We were warned that many of the trucks are “party trucks” full of 20 something Brits and Aussies bent on drinking their way across the continent. We were able to make contact via internet with someone in the office of Africa Travel Company out of Capetown and were assured that there would be a variety of ages on this truck.

And it turned out that they were right as we got to know the variety of characters who were aged from 28 to nearly 70. Some were on long, unlimited travels and others had jobs to return to. Some were heading home after years of working in London. All of them had known about “Overlanding” and had arranged their trips before leaving home. Indeed, we met only 3 other Americans at the many campgrounds we visited along the way.

The Overland Truck circuit has a culture all its own. This is a great way to get safely around the continent, but it tends to be rather insular as the travelers are camping each night in secure compounds usually with gates and guards. On the other hand, since we are camping, it is good to feel secure wandering around at night, “torch” in hand on the way to the “loo”.

The campgrounds and the truck are oasis of familiarity in the African landscape. All around them, fields and villages abound and just step outside, and you are the target of craft sellers who assume you are going to buy lots of carvings, paintings, or jewelry. It is not the way to get to know the people in the area, but it is a good way to see the countryside and get your fill of lovely African artwork.

Our trip included “options” like local tours or activities. Of course, the option to visit the beautiful island of Zanzibar was chosen by all. But not everyone opted to visit the “witch doctor” in Malawi, or take the various village tours, either. Completely unpopular was the 33 mile uphill hike to the old clinic of David Livingstone (would have been a great trip if not for the heat).

But there was something for everyone, even if that was spending time at the bar, or swimming in a lake or pool.

Overland Truck Safaris in Africa - Serengeti

Overland Truck Safaris in Africa – Serengeti

Our trip got us from Nairobi to Tanzania where we joined a safari (camping in our trusty tents) to the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater. Then we headed over to Zanzibar and went by ferry for a 4-night visit of that island. After that, we roamed south through Malawi (camping along the Lake) and Zambia, finally ending up on the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls just in time for Christmas eve.

Given more lead time, it would have been better to take more time to travel this route, or go less far and take more time to experience the areas seen. That said, we did see a lot of Africa and this included loads of amazing animals, beautiful vistas and sunsets, and met some truly warm people from Africa and all around the world.

Anyone interested in this way of seeing Africa should spend some time researching the various companies and try to find one that meets their interests. There are some that specialize in photography, bird watching and it seems, partying. Some include Gorilla treks or a hike up Kilimanjaro. Some are priced all inclusive, and some have more of a pick and choose approach the activities. All seem to include food and tents. I would think more Americans would like this type of travel — but it generally does require more than the stingy 2-week vacation given to most U.S. workers.

If you go, enjoy it and there will be a warm Karibu (welcome) when you arrive!

For More Information:

Africa Travel Company  is one provider of overland truck safaris in Africa.


Deborah “Koala” Vandruff  makes her home in Anchorage, Alaska. She has recently retired from her work as a nurse at the Alaska Native Medical Center and hopes this will give even more time for exploring the parts of the world she has on “the list” of must see places.  Besides travel, she is an avid gardener which makes her love to travel to see and work on gardens. She has worked on WWOOF (worldwide workers on organic farms) farms in Mexico and Italy and plans to do many more.  She has been published previously in a travel book “Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean – A Guide to 50 Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler” (published by National Geographic Society)  and tries to keep a blog at www.sandkvistas.wordpress.com.  She recently spent 3 months traveling through 6 countries in East Africa and is looking forward to fishing season in Alaska.

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