The following is a guest post by Deborah O'Kane. If you'd like to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read our submission guidelines.
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.
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 round 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.
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.
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.
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.