Guest blog by Dan Gilby
Spend any time travelling in Africa and the chances are you will see a large overland truck transporting tourists across the continent. In fact, if you’re travelling in Africa you may well be on one of these trucks. From Nairobi to Cape Town, Johannesburg to Cairo and beyond these trucks criss-cross the continent providing tourists, particularly western tourists, with a cost effective, safe and relatively quick means of visiting Africa.
I recently spent three weeks on an overland truck travelling from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to Cape Town in South Africa. My experiences on this truck led to some interesting reflections which I thought it would be good to capture in a blog post. Although I’m blogging regularly about my travels, the conclusions I’ve reached felt more suited to this blog.
What is an overland truck?
Generally speaking, overland trucks are 25-30 seater trucks, which enable tour companies to offer tourists a means of covering large distances across Africa in short spaces of time. They are designed to be able to cope with the tough African roads and are equipped to carry all the tents, cooking equipment and other resources you need on this sort of journey. They are generally staffed by an African crew, made up of a tour leader, cook, and driver. Itineraries range from a few days to a couple of months in length and with the range of companies operating, you can probably find an overland truck leaving major cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Livingstone almost every day of the week, all year round. Each day of the trip is set out clearly when booking, with most of the accommodation in campsites along the route, usually equipped with a swimming pool, bar and internet access.
Why did I take an overland truck?
From my arrival in Nairobi in October, I’d travelled independently across Tanzania and Zambia to get as far as Victoria Falls, so why did I choose an overland truck for the next leg of my journey?
Essentially it was because I was travelling on my own and my journey through Botswana and Namibia would prove difficult to do independently. While I could have travelled much of the distance on private coaches, it would have proved difficult (or at least very expensive) to do any of the excursions en route such as the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park and Etosha National Park which make visiting Botswana and Namibia so worthwhile. Therefore, based on advice from others who had travelled this route and having consulted various guide books, I chose to book a three week trip from Victoria Falls to Cape Town.
Why do I normally travel independently?
For me, the joy of travelling comes when I arrive in a new town or city and step into a new environment to face whatever challenges that may bring. Finding a hostel to stay in, haggling with a pushy taxi driver, getting used to a new currency, establishing where you might be able to get a cheap but tasty meal – these are the basic elements of travelling in new countries that excite me as much as the breathtaking scenery or meeting new people. Travelling on your own only increases this feeling as you don’t have someone familiar to turn to when you’re not sure which way to turn, and it also pushes you to engage with the people around you, whether they be locals or other travellers. And whilst there are undoubtedly downsides to this (getting lost, getting ripped off, being a target of thieves or being followed down the street by someone who wants to sell you a trip/curio are particularly common) I don’t think this is particularly unique to Africa and is also something that can be relatively easily managed by exercising a little caution and common sense.
The overland truck experience
It was therefore perhaps inevitable that I found travelling on an overland truck very different to my usual experience of travelling independently. Without the independence and uncertainty of the first part of my travels in Africa, I found it easy to become swept along by the daily routine of the truck – getting up at a specific time announced the night before, jumping on the truck to be driven to the next destination, and then getting off at the other end to again to be told where and when to be for that afternoon’s activities. You can quickly lose your sense of self-control and independence and the sense of being on some sort of extreme school trip can develop.
I also found that the experience became very time focused, with lots of discussion about what time we’d get up, what time we’d leave, and how long it would take to get somewhere. My experience of travelling in Africa up to this point had taught me that time was a more subjective concept here, and that patience was perhaps the most useful resource you could have. The concept of ‘Africa time’ will be well known to anyone who has travelled in Africa before, but it didn’t seem to fit comfortably with the overland truck experience. My fellow travellers often became frustrated at small delays or commitments on time not being honoured, even when only 15 minutes or so was lost. For me, having experienced ‘Africa time’ on my trip already and having come away travelling to get away from London and the daily concerns of late trains or slow restaurant service, I found the level of impatience with such delays unnecessary a lot of the time. To me ‘Africa time’ should not be taken as an excuse for poor service or unacceptable delays, but at the same time it is a reflection on the tough nature of life in Africa and something to be embraced and accepted, rather than a statement on the punctuality of African people or their attitude to western tourists.
Most interestingly for me, I was the only person among the group of 12 travellers on the truck, who had travelled for any significant length of time in Africa away from an overland truck. Others had travelled from Nairobi or Johannesburg on other overland trucks with the same company and would be flying out of Cape Town within a few days of arriving. When meeting my fellow travellers and explaining that I had travelled on my own from Nairobi, the reaction was one of surprise and even a little amazement that I managed to make this journey on my own. They seemed not to have considered undertaking their journey in Africa independently, despite the fact that many of them had previously travelled independently in Europe, South America and Asia.
So what is it about Africa that sends western tourists scurrying for the safety of an overland truck? Is it a rational and sensible response to the inherent dangers of travelling within this often challenging and somewhat chaotic continent? Or does it limit the experience of travelling here, affect the interactions you have with the people and places you visit, and reinforce the sense of it being too dangerous for any other form of travel?
For perhaps understandable reasons, our crew often warned us to look out for our valuables, that campsites were sometimes visited by thieves from the local village, and to stick to the area immediately around the supermarket when stopping off in a town. All good advice perhaps, but something which risked reinforcing pre-conceived ideas about Africa. I look after my valuables wherever I travel (and at home too for that matter) so while I understand the need for tour companies to spell out all the possible dangers (if only to avoid accusations of insufficient warnings if something untoward were to happen), I did wonder if the sense of danger that this engenders only serves to reinforce current and future travellers use of overland trucks as well as to only further widen the distance between those inside the ‘safety’ of the truck and the ‘dangerous’ other outside it.
From what I saw and experienced on the truck, there is a risk that travelling through Africa solely on an overland truck can turn your experience into one long safari, with Africa one big game park to explore from behind a locked door and glass windows through which you tentatively poke out a camera. This is admittedly something of an exaggeration, but this feeling of passing through Africa at a distance rather than truly experiencing it nagged away at me throughout my time on the truck. My fellow travellers (all good people who I got on well with) seemed quick to make generalisations about the people and places they were seeing, something which I found difficult as we were passing across huge areas, spanning many different cultures, languages, and social norms.
There is therefore an extent to which, in my view at least, travelling on an overland truck can restrict your experience of Africa and give you a limited perspective of the places you visit. At the same time, I wouldn’t like to pretend that my own experience when travelling independently is significantly more ‘real’ (see Rachel’s blog post about what does or doesn’t constitute the ‘real Africa’). I have largely stuck to more touristy areas, relied on guide books, and travelled relatively quickly between major cities and tourist centres. However, I do feel that stepping out of your comfort zone, interacting with local people and eating, sleeping, and travelling in the way that local people do for at least some of your trip is an important part of any visit, and is something which I have managed to do far more effectively away from the overland truck.
So perhaps it comes down to personal preference on how one travels, which of course I fully respect. Many people will come to Africa for a short two week holiday and won’t have time for the more adventurous experience (and risk of delays and other problems) which for me is part and parcel of my much longer seven month travel experience. If the overland truck companies enable people who might otherwise avoid travelling across Africa to come to this fascinating, complex continent then that has to be a positive. However, it is important that such trips are undertaken with a level of self-awareness of the nature of the experience you are having, and with some resistance to making significant conclusions about the countries you visit (however you chose to travel through them) for risk of jumping to ill-informed judgements, particularly when these are based upon little engagement with people from that country or community outside of the dominant visitor/visited paradigm.
Whether on a truck or not, the most important thing is to be open to the experience of travelling, talk to as many people as you can and take a few (well-calculated) risks. Doing so will enable you to get away from the comfort and safety of more western styles of travel and as such will open you up to a richer, albeit sometimes more challenging, experience.