Introducing the Overland Expedition
In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, TE Lawrence wrote: 'Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.'
Every year, hundreds of Western travellers set off to live their dream at the wheel of a 4x4, driving into the heart of Africa on independent vehicle-based expeditions. There they learn that while most forms of travel broaden the mind, expedition travel cracks it wide open.
Overlanders can get off the beaten track to unspoiled regions where the tourist is unknown, where traditional cultures survive untouched by the Western world. They can change their plans at a moment’s notice, interact with local people without the distorting insulation of a guide — in short, they can taste the authentic, 24/7, 360-degree Africa.
Above all, they can experience the overwhelming joy of truly self-sufficient exploration; the empowering, liberating thrill of setting out to do something a little bit amazing — and discovering that they can.
The 4x4 expedition has more to offer than most forms of travel, but it also presents some of the greatest tests. Package tourists pay a company to anticipate all their needs and backpackers find local people to satisfy their requirements — but expedition travellers depend solely on themselves.
For independent overlanders, deprived of the safety nets of Western life and the tourist circuit, every day is a step into the unknown. It sounds daunting, and it is: when the only certainty is uncertainty, you can never expect to feel completely in control. Yet with this uncertainty come enormous benefits: the buzz of independent discovery; the excitement of coming across something unplanned, unexpected and marvellous.
If the practicalities detailed here seem intimidating, then absorb the underlying theme: that a 26-year-old, mechanically-incompetent guy from Slough drove 50,000 miles to South Africa and back in a disintegrating, 20-year-old Land Rover — and loved every minute.
So maybe you’ve got a dream; a hankering to feel the freedom of Africa. If so, you know your next move: to 'act your dream with open eyes, to make it possible'. If my experience is anything to go by, it might just be the best experience of your life.
Routes Across Africa
The ultimate African expedition, of course, is the journey from Cairo to the Cape. After a period during which wars in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad and Sudan blocked this route, it now carries a steady trickle of 4x4s. True, the Congolese and Angolan conflicts force drivers to head down the east coast through Kenya and Tanzania, while the Algerian insurgency precludes east-west travel across North Africa.
Furthermore, the Egypt/Sudan border crossing is so expensive and unreliable that many drivers reach Sudan via Morocco, western Africa, Nigeria and Chad. Yet the Cape to Cairo route is, fundamentally, open. Many of those new to expedition travel, however, prefer to ship their vehicle to South Africa or Namibia, where the roads are tarred and the language is English.
Breaking themselves in gently, they then travel through Mozambique, or Botswana and Zambia, to Malawi. From here, the road runs north to ports in Tanzania, Kenya or Djibouti. A sensible option, this route offers a travel experience of gradually increasing intensity, with the option of finding a container ship if it all gets a little too challenging.
The best way to learn the art of expedition travel — and it's certainly not a science — is to set off on an expedition. Yet some skills are prerequisite: it would be extremely foolish to leave without a basic knowledge of off-road driving techniques, recovery, mechanics and navigation.
All these skills can be easily learnt in Britain. Many off-road centres, such as the Land Rover company's 'Experience', offer training in 4x4 driving and some also run courses in vehicle recovery (try Tuff Trax, 01788 510575, or David Bowyer, 01363 82666).