What’s it Really Like to Overland Africa?

I realized that I never shared our experience through Africa, and that is such a shame because it was one of our favorite places. This post is heavy on words and light on photos, but I hope you will still enjoy it. It’s quite long, so grab a comfy chair and a coffee, and read all about what is was like for us to  take an overland trip through Africa.

We spent 5 weeks traveling though East and Southern Africa. Most of the nights were spent tent camping with our group. We travelled a whole lot of miles in a big yellow truck and passed through seven countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana. We spent the majority of our time in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, and other countries we just passed though.

So, What’s it Really Like to Overland Africa?

Taking an Overland trip through Africa was the perfect way for us to experience a piece of the huge continent while on a budget. Like so much of our Big Trip, we really had no idea what to expect once we boarded the airplane and landed in Nairobi. The little we did know came from a small collection of blog posts that I obsessively googled before we left, and the 30-page document that the company sent that outlined the trip.

Based on what I had read, I was excited but also slightly concerned. We would be spending 35-days camping with strangers. Would we have anything in common with these people? What if they were really strange? How many people would be on our trip? Would they be hardcore campers that set their tent up in 2-minutes and looked down upon newbies? What would the food be like? Would it be enough?

Marangu, Tanzania. The foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro

And let’s be real; my mind was churning with even more intimate questions (that I know you are all wondering as well) like: What if I need to poop while on a long drive day and there are no toilets? Or, will these people judge me for wearing the same outfit five days in a row? Do I have to hand wash my underwear in front of everyone? I decided that no matter how much information I was given about the trip, I still would have no idea what it would really be like until I was there.

So, How was it? The short answer was that it was incredible and my only regret is that I didn’t sign up for a longer trip! Africa rocks and is definitely one of my favorite places in the world. But, I know you all want the finer details about this trip; like, did we really sleep in a tent for over a month straight and, what was the bathroom situation really like?

The Overland Concept

Overland tours are a very popular way to see Africa. There are dozens on companies on the market, and each of them cater to different groups of people. In an nutshell, you travel with a group of people on a truck that was built to traverse the roads of Africa. Overland tours can be as short as one-week through South Africa to as long as a 40-week expedition that circles the entire continent.

We chose the company Oasis Overland, a UK based company, for a number of reasons; mostly, because it was the cheapest and offered a great value for our money. But also, the dates fit perfectly and we really liked the itinerary. The trip started off big with a safari in the Serengeti and ended big with the world’s most magnificent waterfall, Victoria Falls. In between there was island time on Zanzibar, and shore time on Lake Malawi.

Island time
Island time

Oasis is able to keep their costs low because they take an “all-hands on” approach to the trip. This basically means that you set up your own tent and the group takes turns cooking and cleaning the truck. Also, many of the “excursions” are optional, so you pay for what you want to do (such as going on safari in the Serengeti or taking a Spice tour in Zanzibar). As you might  expect, these do add up quickly, but we found that even when we paid for all the excursions we wanted to do it still came out cheaper than the other companies.

There are so many companies on the market that it can become overwhelming to choose one. We were drawn to the approach of doing our own chores to keep the costs down. We don’t mind getting our hands dirty, especially if it means saving thousands of dollars.

What Our Group Was Like

I would say we really lucked out with our group. My biggest concerns before meeting everyone was how many people we would have and would our personalities all get on. The average number on an overland trip really varies by company, but I know Oasis trucks have seats for up to twenty people. I think the average group number is around 14-18 people. I honestly think our experience would have been very different if we had more people.

We were fortunate and only had 7 people in our group (9 if you include our driver and guide). This was a small group by overland standards, but really was the perfect number for us. It was small enough that we all got to know each other (very, very well) but big enough so that we weren’t bored with each other.

Group pic on Zanzibar without Marcel (he was diving)
Group pic on Zanzibar without Marcel (he was diving)
Group pic in Chimanimani Mountains without Sarah (she was sick)
Group pic in Chimanimani Mountains without Sarah (she was sick)

Our group ranged in age from 18-36 (and then 25-38 when one person left and then another one joined in). With the exception of our friend James (Hi, James!), who is about to start college, everyone had taken a break from their professional careers to come on this trip. We had two ICU nurses, a veterinarian, microbiologist, finance manager, and an IT guy. We were mostly all from different countries. It gave us a lot to discuss and we all became fast friends. We spent nearly all of our time together, but everyone was amiable and drama-free, so it was all good.

What the Overland Truck is Like

We had the pleasure of spending much of our time in Africa in the company of our Big Yellow Truck. The truck was basically the size of a semi-truck and had plenty of room for our small group. And by plenty of room I really do mean plenty. We could all lay out fully on the seats and sleep during the long drive days. The truck has two coolers, a stereo, and a “beach”. The beach is a built in mattress in the front of the truck for extra lounging. Yes, we were spoiled.

Underneath the seats there is built in storage for personal belongings and there was plenty of space for all of our stuff. The floorboards of the truck store all of the stocked up dry food and cleaning products. There is also built in storage on the outside of the truck for the kitchen area, cooking supplies, and tents. It was very cleverly designed and housed everything we needed without excess.

Setting Up Camp

We quickly learned the routine of setting up and breaking down camp. As soon as we pulled into  our campsite for night everyone pitched in and pitched up.

The tents were high quality, spacious, and remarkably easy to set up (it makes me sad that I have to go back to my cheap Coleman tent when I get home). At first I thought the idea of setting up a tent and breaking it down nearly every single day sounded like a nightmare. However, it was so simple to do that I didn’t mind at all. It only sucked when we had to wake up at 5am and take down the tent when it was still dark, cold, and wet outside.

Once the tents are set up everyone gets out the kitchen supplies and purified water. If we needed a campfire, we start collecting wood for it. Sometimes extra chores needed to be done, such as refilling our water cans and purifying the water. Our guide would usually assign a couple of the guys to the extra jobs.

Typical evening at camp. Robert is tending to few and Sarah and I are preparing dinner in the back
Typical evening at camp. Robert is tending to few and Sarah and I are preparing dinner in the back

Once camp is set up you are free to do your own thing until dinner (unless you are the one cooking dinner that night). Usually we would just hang out or catch up on personal chores, like hand-washing laundry. After dinner was served everyone pitched in and help clean, dry, and put away the dishes. The rest of the night is yours to enjoy how you wish. There was usually a bar at the campsites, and you could generally find our group hanging out there (surprise, surprise).

Early mornings were quite common and we typically completed our chores in a zombie-like trance. We had one hour to wake up, break down the tent, gulp down cereal and instant coffee, and hit the road again.

Cooking Groups

Being the foodie that I am I was naturally slightly concerned about the food situation for this trip. I knew I would be expected to cook for a group of nine people and I was hoping that no one was expecting any culinary delights.

Everyone is assigned to a cook and clean group. Our group was so small that it was more like cooking partners and it was our turn to cook every fourth night. The cook group for that night is in charge of buying ingredients with a budget allowance for dinner and setting out breakfast in the morning. The budget was usually in the range of $18-20 USD for a group of nine people. We typically stopped at a grocery store every couple of days and the cook groups would purchase their supplies.

Cooking for so many people on such a small budget was definitely a challenge at first. We usually cooked over charcoal and only had two burners to cook on. We had one vegetarian and two people allergic to eggs, and one allergic to chicken. This wasn’t a big deal because chicken was usually out of the budget, ha! Ground beef was very cheap, and we had a large stock supply of pasta, rice, and canned vegetables on the truck.

Luckily, our driver, who has 17 years of experience, also used to be a chef for another company. He was so much help and was so creative with dishes. Most of our meals were surprisingly very tasty and diverse. We did eat a lot of mashed potatoes and pasta, but we also had more unique meals like sweet potato soup, pizza made in a cast iron pot, and even homemade lasagna (they  made the pasta from scratch!).

I have no photos of our meals, so here you can get a photo of us at the gate to the Serengeti!
I have no photos of our meals, so here you can get a photo of us at the gate to the Serengeti!

Breakfast was usually cold cereal with boxed milk and instant coffee. Lunch was generally on our own; many times we would stop at a supermarket to get dinner supplies and just grab something from the deli or from the side of the road. A few times, on long drive days, we would pull over and have leftovers or throw together a pasta salad (if someone remembered to boil pasta the night before).

Overall, the food was generally tasty, and it was nice to eat a homemade meal among friends in the middle of Africa. I had come prepared with protein bars just incase the food situation was a disaster, but it ended up being fine.

Day to Day Grind

Some days in Africa are l-o-n-g. Like, really really long. We would wake up before sunrise, break down camp, and be in the truck and on the road within the hour, only to sit in the truck for 12 hours. Border crossings could take hours, and we were constantly changing currencies (efficiency isn’t their strong suit). Luckily, these long drive days and border crossings weren’t very frequent. We would usually not even bother to roll our sleeping bags up and just throw them on the truck and get right back inside of them and sleep the morning away on the drive (I told you we were spoiled).

When we didn’t have long drive days we were out and about experiencing Africa. Sometimes the group split to do their own thing, and sometimes we all stayed together. Usually when we arrived to our destination, the company would have their local partners come and talk to us about the optional activities on offer (read: paid activities). Mostly, we tried to support the local communities and at least do a village walk; often times the guide is only working off of tips from our group. Tipping culture in Africa is identical to that of the U.S., but your dollars go much further here.

On our village walk
On our village walk

Our group spent so much time together with no internet connected devices that we were forced to actually talk to each other and get to know one another (imagine that!). It was a highlight of our trip. We passed time by playing lots of rounds of UNO and other card games that people came up with.

The Bathroom Situation

Okay, okay, we are finally at this topic. The bathroom situation was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be! Most campsites had flush toilets and showers. Not all, but most. The showers were only hot about 50% of the time, but it was fine. As far as “other” things go- If you needed to do your business while at a bush camp, well, you just grabbed the shovel from the truck and off you went to find a nice spot away from the tents. Whenever we were driving we had a buzzer to press that told the drive to pull over for a toilet stop. Once he found an appropriate spot with enough bush cover and away from a village he would pull over and everyone piled out. It was girls on one side and guys on the other. It really became so routine that no one batted an eyelash or thought anything of it. I really think that for some people, this would be a big deal, but it’s really only a big deal if you make it one.

Typical pull-off for a bathroom break. Now you can see why we didn't really mind ;)
Typical pull-off for a bathroom break. Now you can see why we didn’t really mind 😉

This is Africa

Overlanding Africa was a great way to actually experience Africa without the buffer and safety net of an expensive lodge safari. I met another guy who was on a similar trip, just a higher budget, and he told me that the people on his group refused to cook or use the bathroom at the toilet stops. I personally don’t really see the point in traveling to a place and claiming to want to know and experience the culture if you are not willing to come face to face with the unfamiliar. This isn’t Europe or North America, and if you expect those luxuries then you should have stayed home.

There is no escaping the poverty of Africa. It is in your face every day. Sometimes it hits you so hard and you feel helpless. When you have young kids staring at you while you eat your lunch, just hoping you will give them leftovers, it makes you lose your appetite completely. When you tour a “hospital” that is completely funded by Unicef and the doctor asks you if he can keep your pen because those are hard to come by, it makes you feel guilty for every complaining about health care back home. When you are sitting by a fire with your tour guide and driver and have to explain the strange concept of a washing machine and a dishwasher to them, you realize you have just been a spoiled brat when you complained about laundry duties back home.

Africa is a totally different place than anywhere we have ever experienced, and that is what made it so great for us. For every beautiful landscape and amazing animal we saw, it seems we saw just as much poverty and corruption. But equally, for every corrupted police officer demanding money there was a honest and smiling local, waving to you as you passed by their village.

Every antimalarial pill, every immunization, it was all worth it to see and experience just a sliver of this vast and diverse continent. Taking an overland trip through Africa was incredible and full of memorable experiences. We cannot wait to go back again someday and travel through the rest of the continent.

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