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Independent vs. Overland – What’s Best in Africa?

The following is a guest post by Deborah O'Kane

Having read Viv McCarthy's post on the benefits of overland tours versus independent backpacking in Africa, I am inspired to add my two kwacha's worth to the debate.

I appreciate there's no simple answer to the question of what's “best”, and in my experience, there's a place for both options, though personally, I'd err heavily on the side of independent traveling.

But only if you're resourceful, adaptable and have a few dollars at your disposal for the inevitable dramas you'll encounter.

If you do, I guarantee you life-enhancing, deeply moving and unforgettable experiences and encounters.

My husband and I quit our jobs in early 2007 and flew to Johannesburg.

We visited Durban, Swaziland and then Baz-bussed around the coast.

Our travels started in earnest with a 12-hour bus trip from Cape Town to Keetmanshoop in Namibia.

Carrying a tent, sleeping bag and cooking kit in our backpacks we spent the next couple of months wandering in a haphazard way towards Nairobi, and our date with a Nomad trip to Rwanda and the mountain gorillas.

Mountain gorillas in Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda.

Mountain gorillas in Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda.

Between times we had many campsite encounters with overland travelers.

Seeing them often coincided with that sinking feeling as a dozen or more 20-somethings arrived in an enormous truck, music blaring, generally taking over the campsite and destroying any sense of intimacy with the local landscape, animals or the people.

We'd read en route of people who'd abandoned their pre-paid trip after a few weeks, desperate to get away from irritating fellow passengers and the booze-driven itineraries or wanting a slower and more genuine “Africa” experience.

We chatted with a few of these young overlanders, most of whom expressed amazement or even disbelief at our own plans.

They were generally pleasant young people, often bold on the surface but actually completely freaked out at the idea of being left to their own devices in this most mysterious continent.

Having done their obligatory six weeks volunteering in some orphanage or school, they were now using their parents' credit cards to nip around a few African highlights to add to their brag card when they eventually returned to England, Germany, Australia or the US to pick up university studies.

Unloading tomatoes from the Ilala, Lake Malawi's 60-year-old ferry

Unloading tomatoes from the Ilala, Lake Malawi's 60-year-old ferry

Naturally, these encounters made us nervous about what our own overland experience would be like.

We'd booked an organized tour for this portion of our six-month Africa sojourn for a few reasons.

While I love my husband to bits, after three months in a tent with each other we figured we could probably both do with some other company for a bit; getting permits to visit the mountain gorillas seemed like a hit and miss business and this way we'd be assured of getting to see them; it would feel like a “holiday” within the trip – a couple of weeks when we wouldn't have to make lots of decisions but could just sit back and enjoy the ride.

And so it was. We were fortunate that our eight companions were like-minded souls, or like-minded enough anyway.

We had a lot of fun, saw parts of Uganda and Rwanda that we probably wouldn't have otherwise visited, and yes, got to see the wonderful gorillas.

Our leaders were local Kenyans, kindly and caring, and the truck was a comfortable way to travel through challenging mountain and jungle roads.

We couldn't help but notice how much trickier borders become with a truckful of foreigners to get across.

We were used to walking freely from one country to another.

But, whatever happened, it wasn't our problem and we learned to take a back seat, leaving anxious frontier discussions and decisions on routes to others.

Waiting for the bus with the locals, north of Nairobi.

Waiting for the bus with the locals, north of Nairobi.

However, these two weeks were a mere blip on the months of unfettered travel we otherwise enjoyed.

How to put a price on arriving at a Botswana campsite after 12 hours of traveling from the Caprivi Strip – via ferry, taxi, the back of a ute and finally a bus – and to be upgraded from a tent site to a bungalow by the friendly owner who obviously took pity on our disheveled state?

Or the time an elegant African man politely wished us goodbye after sharing our bus for eight hours in self-contained silence, before returning to show off his twin babies to us through the bus windows.

Or spending a couple of hours near the Eritrean border amusing local Ethiopian boys with my digital camera, waiting for Max to emerge from the men-only monastery of Debre Damo.

Or sleeping alone under the stars (and the sand!) at the pyramids of Meroe in Sudan, before hitching back to Khartoum with a local truck driver.

Everyone dresses in their best white robes for Sunday church services in Ethiopia.

Everyone dresses in their best white robes for Sunday church services in Ethiopia.

Our own unique experiences of Africa were deeper, more meaningful and memorable because they were ours, and ours alone.

No-one else could write the story of our trip.

Working out a route, negotiating rides, waiting for hours at the side of the road with the locals for a bus that never comes, and then moving to Plan B as night falls doesn't just make for a good yarn.

It grows you in a way that being driven to a campsite just won't.

Use the tours if you want, just make sure it's on your own terms.


About the Author: Deborah O'Kane has 25 years of backpacking under her (money) belt. Six months in Africa has been her longest stint on the road and was the first step in a mid-life relocation from New Zealand to the UK. She now lives in London from where she visits Europe frequently and runs a blog BasedinLondon. Follow her on Twitter @debokane.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:


Tuesday 19th of August 2014

Hi we are organising a Overland truck trip driving from ..................Reykjavik to Cape town. leaving Iceland in January 2015, we will be taking 6 months and going across 20 country's travelling through Europe, West and Central Africa. Mostly camping...getting to some real remote areas....

There will be 14 passengers on the truck...anyone want to join?

Michael Dean

Friday 11th of May 2012

Buffalo Campers, who rented a vehicle to me, in which I was subsequently involved in an accident. My wife, who was driving the vehicle, suffered a broken neck. The accident occurred on the 02/05/2010 - at about 1.30pm in Botswana she was flown to Johannesburg from Maun.

The vehicle that was hire was a Toyota Hilux 4x4 with caravan - having a foldaway tent mounted on its roof. I took the vehicle on the 29th as far as Zeerust on the N4 and stayed in a chalet for the night. During this first period of our journey we noticed that the radio did not work or the CD player. The cigarette lighter used to power the sat nav did not work - the sat nav we hired went flat. The heater did not work. When reversing in the dark at Zeerust the reverse lights did not work. We continued our journey to Francistown were we stayed the night and realised that the vehicle tended to wonder from side to side and speeds higher that 100 KPH. There was also section on the road that had pot holes and we drove in a manor as to avoid hitting them and causing damage to the vehicle and tyres. I drove from Francistown to Nata were we stayed from something like an hour, bought some gift items from the shop and a soft drink to refresh ourselves and wondered around to have a look. I then took the vehicle a Little way from Nata and Teresa then took over the driving. Teresa also drove to avoid the pot holes prior to the accident although my wife does not remember the accident I am assuming that as she approached a pot hole she turned the steering wheel and the vehicle turned sharply to avoid the pot hole the vehicle went out of control and rolled into the bush. The Air Bags did not deploy on both the drivers side and passenger side. No other vehicle was involved.

When the Botswana police attended the scene, they noted that the licence disc on the windscreen was dated 2008 - together with the faults with the vehicle make me suspect that the maintenance of the vehicle was not to a sufficient standard for a vehicle rented out to the public, there is a duty of care here. There should be records of the service history of the vehicle to show that repairs and maintenance was carried at a regular basis and for accounts and tax purposes. The owner of Buffalo Campers, Mr Vaughan Colette who rented the vehicle to me will not provide this information. I believe that there was a lack of maintenance due to none functioning of electrics and the large side to side movement of the vehicle at over 100kph - this would have contributed to the loss of control and if properly maintained may have prevented the accident altogether.

Phil Paoletta

Wednesday 3rd of November 2010

Deborah, Very much appreciated this post. And Dave I appreciate you facilitating a little back and forth on this topic. I am also in the independent travel camp and I more or less agree with everything you have written here. I am writing this from Bamako and at the moment there is an awesome dance festival going on. Two days ago I met a few folks from an overland tour (going from Senegal to Cameroon) and they were in town for the first night of the festival. They had a great time dancing and watching performances, but they lamented the fact that they had to leave the next day. Rather than stick around to enjoy the rest of the festival, they had to head out with the tour as they blazed their way south. It's not just that Overland Tours propagate the myth that Africa is impossible to travel independently, it's that they are antithetical to slow travel, and if you want to truly experience a place, I believe slow travel needs to be a part of your philosophy. B well, Phil


Wednesday 3rd of November 2010

Hi Phil, there is certainly a give and take that occurs when you decide to join a package trip. Having taken a few in Africa (Kruger Park, Okavango Delta, and a media trip to Rwanda) I can say their efficiency in certain instances is hard to beat. But overall, I'd like to think when my time comes to tour more of Africa, I'll do it independently.

Deb Okane

Wednesday 3rd of November 2010

Phil, Bamako sounds fantastic, and western Africa is definitely on the agenda sometime in the next couple of years. Not having a timeframe is an enormous privilege though, and I feel incredibly lucky to have had the experience - and it has changed the way I think about that abstract concept of "time" now. I don't turn down the opportunity of quick trips, hey, we take what we can get, but I know it takes time to get into the rhythm of a place, not to mention the rhythm of travelling itself. And Africa is just not the place to go if you expect or require things to run to time. I had a friend back home in NZ who'd done the Africa overland thing and told me "but you can't do it independently - there's no public transport in Africa." It worried me a bit, but then common sense took over. After all, everywhere people have to move from A to B. Right? Maybe just not very efficiently. Mind you there were some fairly informal forms of public transport and a few times when I seriously wondered just how we were going to get out of a place. But there's always a way, and as I mentioned, having some spare cash is a useful buffer against the fear of sleeping on the side of the road.


Wednesday 3rd of November 2010

Great article, it's so true that your own experience of a place can't be fully described in words. It seems like you had an amazing experience.

It was fun reading that you spent 3 months in a tent with your guy, I spent 3 months traveling with my boyfriend sleeping in a tent too, which is an experience just by itself..! :P

Deb Okane

Wednesday 3rd of November 2010

glad you enjoyed the story Sofia - and you're right about the tent experience. It took a little persuading to get me back under nylon, but we've just splashed out on a larger tent and it makes all the difference. Must confess though that there's very little comparison car-camping in Europe with the backpacking African version.


Tuesday 2nd of November 2010

I agree with Deborah and whoever it was that said "its not the destination, it's the journey". My own African experience, now some years ago, included both an overland trip and independent travel. An overland trip certainly has its place - particularly if going off the beaten track and/or you are short of time. We found several kindred spirits on our truck, alongside a sprinkling of those with whom we would not seek to spend our precious time, given the choice. But given time, preparation and resourcefulness, you can not beat the experience of free travel, adjusting your agenda as you go according to your own whim and the quirks of local travel schedules. Even throwing up out a bus window in 35c heat on a dusty, pothole-ridden road, with imminent threat of bandit hijack, squeezed in beside a very large women and her chicken became an adventure to be experienced rather than a misery to be endured.

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