An Overview of Overland Travel
This past summer I went on an overland trip through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe through Nomad Overland Adventure Tours. I chose Nomad because they included The Great Zimbabwe complex on their itinerary, they were reasonably priced compared to other companies, they had good reviews, and their website looked appealing. The tour that I chose was “Four Country Trek” which involved 25 Days of camping…in southern Africa. I had never actually gone camping in my life! So, this is the review of a novice camper. Because it was my first time camping, I did have some misgivings. I feared that I was not be up for the adventure. My brother tried to talk me out of it, or at least talk some sense into me. However, there are plenty of people who go to Africa on overland camping trips. I am sure I am not the weakest or least adventurous of this lot. Am I? Well, maybe I am. Who knows.
The Flight: I flew from Duluth, Mn to Cape Town, South Africa. This in itself was an adventure, since it involved a flight to Amsterdam followed by a flight to Cape Town. This resulted in over 20 hours of flying time. It was pretty amazing to fly over ALL of Africa. I arrived in Cape Town at 11 pm and was glad that I purchased a transfer to my hotel, or for that matter, a hotel. While I try to be a frugal person when I travel, I have found that it is nice to stay in a hotel when I first arrive somewhere, rather than a hostel. This allows my body and mind time to adjust to my new environment rather than being immediately thrust into the discomfort of hostels. I was happy to have a hotel for my first two nights.
Cape Town: I spent the next day exploring Cape Town, which was the most beautiful city that I have ever seen. It is hemmed by cloudy mountains, strange forests, and the meeting point of two oceans. My solo adventures in the city involved visiting Robben Island, going on a Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour, a visit to the top of the table mountain, and wandering around the waterfront. It also involved a 45 minute frantic jog back to my hotel through darkened streets after a man grabbed me by the arm. That is another story for another blog post. I will only say that Cape Town was wonderful. I particularly enjoyed seeing a hyrax (a rodent like mountain animal which is related to the elephant) and a variety of unique plants (the Cape is one of several plant regions, which families of plants found nowhere in the world). Oh, our tour guide at Robben Island was once a prisoner on the island and was once part of the Black Consciousness movement.
Registration and the Truck:
The next morning, I went to Nomad’s office to sign in for the trip. This is where I first met the people who would be traveling with me, the guides, and the truck. Our overland truck was named Ottis. Ottis could fit 24 passengers. We were each allowed a soft duffel bag or soft backpack with a daypack and assigned our own locker on Ottis. Ottis contained all of our tents, cooking equipment, a freezer, electrical outlets, food supplies, a water tank, and basically everything we would need for our camping journey through southern Africa. Ottis was a sturdy truck with the capacity to take on the worst bumpy and dirt roads on our trek.
There were about 24 people on our trip, so Ottis was packed! We were squeezed onto the truck pretty tightly. The passengers came from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Germany, Belgium, Canada, France, United States, Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Switzerland, and Japan! I was one of three Americans on the trip. As a whole, it seemed that Netherlands and Dutch speaking Belgians made up the majority of those on the trip. This is perhaps owing to the fact that South Africa was originally settled by the Dutch and Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch. Just as there was a wide spread of nationalities, there was a wide range of ages. Most of the people on the trip were in their 20s, but there were a few people in their 30s, as well as some adults who were in their 50s and 60s. It can generally be said that everyone was well traveled and had a spirit of adventure. It can also be said that everyone was at least somewhat athletic, with several individuals who had trekked up mountains or hiked extensively. Many of the travelers enjoyed pursuits such as scuba diving, mountain climbing, skiing, biking, hiking, skydiving, etc. Compared to the others, I was definitely on the lower end of fitness and propensity for adventure.
The Guides: Both of our guides were from Zimbabwe, which was great since I was most excited for my time in Zimbabwe. The driver, Dingi, was a little older and generally had a good sense of humor. Dingi was patient and never lost his cool as we faced long, arduous days on dusty roads. Prince was younger and had spent some time working and living in the United States. Prince did more of the cooking than Dingi and was a fabulous cook! We all helped to prepare meals by washing and chopping vegetables, cleaning dishes, or otherwise helping as needed. Prince worked his magic over the rudimentary burners and campfire to create flavorful southern Africa meals. Both of them worked from before 5am to after 10 pm each night. They did not get breaks between tours, so they worked non-stop from early spring to December. They both tried to have a good attitude about it, as even the hyper-exploitative conditions paid better than jobs that they might find or not find in Zimbabwe. Their low wage is bolstered by the tips they receive at the end of the trip. So, as a note to fellow travelers: be sure to budget tip money.
My introduction to camping was my first night in the Cederberg region of South Africa. We stayed at a campsite that was adjacent to a farm/vineyard. A burly Boer regaled us with tales of leopards that pass through the farm. I went to bed feeling giddy with my new adventure. However, that night it rained very hard and became chilly. My tent got wet inside. I got wet. I was miserable as I had to take apart my tent in the rain, pack it up, becoming covered in mud. This was not the best introduction to camping. This was one of the worst nights. I will note that camping was much colder than I had prepared for. I thought that it would be warmer…after all, it was Africa. I come from Minnesota, where winter can involve 110 inches of snow and weeks of below zero temperatures. I could not believe that winter in Africa could possibly be cold. I was wrong. There were nights that were near freezing, especially in desert areas. I did not prepare myself well enough. My sleeping bag was not up to the task. So, there were some miserable, shivering nights. However, there was also a sense of accomplishment and adventure. Each day we had to get up early and take apart the tents. Each day we had to put them back up. It ended up being more work than it sounds like. Also, because it was winter, the sun set early. We were always putting up and taking down tents in the darkness of winter. We chopped vegetables and did dishes in the dark, coldness of desert night. It was fun, challenging, and beautiful all at once. I never felt demoralized, but I also counted the days to my next warm shower and bed. Thankfully, our longest stretch of camping was about five days. Then, we had a reprieve in a city, where we stayed in a hotel. This would be followed by another stretch of camping, with the eventual reward of a stay in a city.
Showers and Bathrooms: The shower and bathroom situation was better than expected. To be fair, I expected that I would probably be digging a hole and burying my pooh. I also expected no showers or only cold showers. In actuality, the bathroom situation was pretty good in South Africa and Namibia, which public restrooms at gas stations (which could be accessed for a fee). The camp grounds featured flush toilets. Showers tended to be either extremely cold or burning hot, with no way to moderate the heat. This made showering a challenge, but since I was always extremely dirty it was worth the challenge. Showers often did not have any lights, which meant showering with a flashlight or headlamp. We did “bush camp” in Namibia for one night, which meant there were no showers and only an outhouse. Really, I don’t mind outhouses. In Botswana, the toilet situation took a turn for the worst. The gas stations no longer had public toilets or running water. I remember at one point, I had to use the toilet, but there was no toilet. So, I had to trek away from Ottis, our bus, to find a secluded area to do my business. However, ALL of the trees were variations of acacias. Each tree was covered in terrible sharp spikes! I squatted by this not very concealing, thorn covered tree…which jabbed by butt with a nasty thorn. I pulled up my pants in disgust! I was so angry that I couldn’t even answer nature’s call. I felt angry at nature…angry at these mean trees that were neither concealing nor kind. There was also a public restroom in Zimbabwe which was basically a tennis ball sized hole in a cement floor. Despite some minor challenges along the way, I had access to flush toilets for most of the trip and a temperature controlled shower at least once a week.
The food was far better than I expected. Each day that we camped, we started the day with a modest breakfast. The breakfast consisted of cereal, tea, instant coffee, toast made over the campfire, fruit, and granola. Sometimes the guides would make us bacon or eggs, but I never had these since I don’t eat meat and I prefer a light breakfast. Each morning, I basically ate toast, fruit, and tea. Our lunch was usually taken very quickly at a rest stop. So, this usually consisted of cold sandwiches. I ate a lot of cucumber, cheese, and tomato sandwiches on the road. Since we made bathroom stops every few hours, there were opportunities to buy snacks and drinks. Dinner was more of a production. Once the tents were set up, we helped prepare dinner by cutting vegetables, setting the table, washing, or whatever else was needed. Prince tried to make traditional foods, but also catered to my vegetarian diet. I was the only vegetarian and didn’t ask for any special treatment. Despite my protests, he always made me something special. Our evening meals consisted of cooked squash, sweet potatoes, mealie pap, chakalaka stew, game meats, fish, pasta, curry vegetables, etc. The food always tasted fresh and delicious. There were always plenty of vegetable dishes and I never felt hungry. Also, I usually get sick when I travel. However, I did not become ill the whole time! So, my digestive system handled the food very well.
Before I went on the trip, I visited a travel health clinic. Actually, it was my first time doing this, as usually I have not been too worried about my health while traveling. I was given a variety of vaccinations, including yellow fever, meningitis, Hepatitis A/B, and typhoid. I was also given malarial pills and anti-diarrhea pills. I was told to take the malarial pills before beginning the trip. Really, I was the only person on Ottis who was taking malaria pills (until Botswana). Oh well, at least I gave my body a long time to get used to the malaria pills. I had no symptoms from the malarial pills other than vivid dreams. I took them at night with my dinner, rather than at breakfast, since I did notice they gave me a little diarrhea and it was easier to deal with diarrhea at night rather than during the day while on a truck. Otherwise, I had no major health issues during the trip. Because it was winter during the trip, I really didn’t see any mosquitoes. I had a few bites on my hands (since the spray was washed off), but mosquitoes were not very active. Winter was also useful because snakes, scorpions, and insects in general were dormant during the trip.
The days were usually long and involved a lot of driving. There were places where the roads were extremely bumpy and dusty, resulting in hours of a slow slog through clouds of red dust. At one point, the vibrations from the bumpy roads caused one of the windows to shatter into thousands of pieces. We used a mattress to cover the window until it could be repaired. I usually awoke before 5am, however I rose early to make sure I had enough time to shower and take down my tent. I never wanted to make people wait for me. Usually, we were sleeping by around 10 pm. On days when we were not driving, we usually ended up in a vehicle …as we did wildlife drives to see animals!
The Excursions: Many of the activities were covered in the activity package I purchased. However, many of the stops had the option for some optional excursions. Many people did not partake in these optional excursions due to the price or the fact they wanted to relax after spending time on the road. I went on several optional excursions, which I found to be fun, but not necessary. For instance, I went canoeing on the Orange River. I thought this was a good activity because I wanted some exercise after being cooped up in the truck. While I Swakopmund, I went on a tour of the Cape Seal Colony via a boat ride. This was also well worth the money, since when are you going to see hundreds of seals on a beach and in the water? The land was dotted with the swarm of dark bodies. I also went on a night wildlife drive at Etosha National Park. Once again this wasn’t necessary, as we had a drive earlier in the day. However, it offered me the opportunity to see nocturnal animals such as hyenas and an aardwolf. This tour was freezing cold, as we were in an open jeep. However, a group of hyenas brushed by our vehicle, a few feet away from us. I also went on a helicopter ride over Victoria falls. This was spendy, but worth it, because I had never been in a helicopter before and it offered the full view of Victoria falls. Nevertheless, a person could be perfectly satisfied without spending any money on extra excursions- as there was plenty to see and do without these excursions. Money: On a day to day basis, I didn’t spend much money. I don’t drink alcohol, which was popular with other passengers. I also tried to limit my snacks, as I didn’t want to gain weight (from the sedentary days on the truck). Most days did not have optional excursions, as there were included activities such as walks, wildlife drives, or city tours. My main expenses were water, soft drinks, and supplemental snacks. This made me feel less guilty when I splurged on a helicopter ride. I don’t like buying souvenirs, so I waited until the end to pick up a few small items. In the end, I had money left over in my budget as I had not spent as much as I thought.
- Seeing rhinos and elephants acting aggressively towards each other at a watering hole.
- The Great Zimbabwe Ruins
- Climbing Dune 45
- Seeing the Cape Seal Colony
- Visiting Robben Island
- Taking the cable car up the Table Mountain
- Sitting a few feet away from lions eating a giraffe (in an open vehicle)
- Squatting in the grass a few feet away from a wild white rhino!
- Seeing 200 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and plants
- Sitting in a canoe- watching hippos in the Okavango Delta
- A helicopter ride over Victoria falls
- Star gazing in the Southern Hemisphere
- Visiting Cecil Rhodes grave
- Spotting a leopard!
- Spotting all of the Big Five: Lion, leopard, cape buffalo, rhino, elephant
- Seeing my first elephant, first lion…first zebra…first….etc.
- Scurrying across the border to Zambia..by myself
- Seeing both sides of Victoria Falls
- Meeting lion researchers in Okavango delta
Overland camping involves long days in a crowded truck on bumpy roads. In the winter, it was uncomfortably cold with late sunrises and sunsets. I was covered in dirt and my skin became extremely dry. However, it was still less challenging than I thought it would be. It involved early mornings, effort, and cooperation. Nevertheless, I think that anyone with a positive attitude, patience, and open mind could enjoy this kind of trip. The reward for sleeping in a tent, is waking up to fresh, brisk mornings and nights under the expansive and exotic sky of the Southern hemisphere. The group effort and shared discomforts builds camaraderie. There is also something nice about sitting in a circle around a campfire with people from around the world. They all have stories about where they have been and what they have done. It is inspiring. The days on the truck are also rewarded with sights of birds and animals that you would otherwise only see in the zoo. There is something wonderful about seeing these animals in nature, behaving as they would naturally (eating one another, fighting, or showing indifference to each other). Each day I saw or experienced something completely unique and fascinating. It enlivened my curiosity and made me feel like a child. With that said, I highly recommend overland camping!