Overland Safaris are one of the options to choose from when looking at travelling in Africa. They come in all different shapes and sizes – small and large group, budget to upmarket. But how do you know if they are the right safari option for you?
One night, while on overland safari through South Africa & Zimbabwe I had a chat with one of our guides about overland safaris and people’s expectations. We had arrived Punda Maria, one of Kruger’s most northern rest camps just before the gates closed at 6 pm and Wayne was preparing a delicious stir-fry for our dinner. The rest of the group were relaxing in their rooms, so it was perfect timing to talk about what guides wished their clients knew before embarking on an overland safari.
His answer? – the travelling distances and the time to takes to get from A to B.
Even within our merry group of travellers, I could see people balk when we were told that there was still another 300km to travel before we would arrive at our next night’s accommodation. With road conditions (bumps, wayward cattle & donkeys and in Zimbabwe random police checkpoints) it was going to take more than 4 hours to get there.
Africa is BIG – bigger than you can imagine.
Driving 400km or more (the equivalent of a trip from Auckland to Napier ) is a normal overland safari day in Africa. The well-trodden safari route from Cape Town, through Namibia and Botswana to Victoria Falls, is approximately 4900km – the same as driving from Auckland to Invercargill, back to Auckland and then to Invercargill again – all in 21 days. If you are not sure how big the continent really is check out this short You Tube video taken from Sir Richard Attenborough’s Epic BBC Africa Documentary Series.
A good overland safari is carefully planned so you’ll have a couple of days in most places – but sometimes one night stays are unavoidable. It might only be worth a short stop or it could be a midpoint between two big safari highlights. I stayed one night at Great Zimbabwe – arriving at 6 pm after a day of travelling from the northernmost reaches of Kruger and through the border at Beitbridge. The Ruins are spectacular you will see all you need in 2-3 hours. It doesn’t make much sense to stay another night before you move on to Matopos – about 350kms away. With the narrow potholed roads, wandering stock, people’s bladders that need to stop for ‘bushy bushy’ and Zimbabwe Police traffic safety checkpoints – it can take anywhere from 5-6 hours to drive there.
4 Things You Can Do in your Safari Truck on an Overland Safari
1: Look out the window – and I mean really look!
Seems a bit obvious, but actively looking with your eyes and not just through the lens of a camera at the landscapes and what people are doing. Notice the changes from area to area. Ask your guides questions about what you see some of their answers may surprise you. There is no better way to learn about the everyday way of life than to observe and ask!
2: Talk to your fellow travellers
On a good trip, your guide will talk about seat rotation and it not only ensures that everyone gets a window seat, but it is also a great chance to get to know your fellow travellers. On my Zimbabwe and Botswana Game Tracker Safari, I was joined by 2 Australian’s, 2 Germans, 1 Spaniard, 2 Americans and 3 Brits – ranging in age from late 20’s to their early 70’s. It was nice to chat about where they are from, what they do and where their travels have taken them.
People that choose to join an overland safari are adventurers at heart and a lot of chat is swapping notes on destinations you have in common and getting ideas about other adventures you are yet to enjoy.
Crossing borders can also take time and you may need to stand in a queue. Chatting to travelling locals is always a nice way to pass the time. I have a 9-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter so I often end up talking to local women – swapping notes about our children always breaks the ice and what starts out as a shy conversion often ends with a lot of laughs and smiles.
3: Delve into your guides personal library
Guides each have their own collection of reference books. You can read a bit more about the flora and fauna you have seen or would like to see. Tap into your guides knowledge – the web of life in so intricately woven in Africa
“It seems to me that the Natural World is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”
– Sir Richard Attenborough
4: Keep hydrated
Dehydration can sneak up on you while you cruising in your safari truck or bus. There is nothing worse than adding a splitting headache and feeling of utter exhaustion to a long travelling day. So keep sipping on your water bottle. Some safari trucks have tanks that can carry their own water and some smaller vehicles don’t. Always buy water in the big bottles – these are easy to give away to locals who will put them to good use.
“An overland safari is a travelling holiday – it is not the flop on the beach sort of holiday.
No matter how comfortable your vehicle is an ‘attack of the numb bum” is inevitable!”
An overland safari is a travelling holiday – it is not the flop on the beach sort of holiday. No matter how comfortable your vehicle is an ‘attack of the numb bum” is inevitable! In addition to the above, you can always have a snooze, meditate, listen to music or read your book…
4 other handy things to know on an Overland Safari
1: Toilet stops won’t always involve a toilet
The guides don’t call it bushy-bushy for nothing! Typically, it will be boys on this side of the road and girls on the other side. In areas where there may be wildlife the guides will be a bit more specific i.e.. “go behind that bush right there”. If a ‘shake, or rattle and roll’ is not something you will entertain over using toilet paper – please be a tidy meerkat and bury it.
Always try to avoid using toilets at border posts – they are never pretty from experience you need a strong stomach and no sense of smell! Listen to your guide when they say that this is the last toilet stop before the border and go even if you don’t think you need to.
2: Understand what level of participation your trip requires
Not all overland safaris involve camping, there are a number of options that stay in a variety of different styles of accommodation. One thing to look for is if the trip required limited participation, no participation or full participation. With Sunway Safaris they offer limited participation camping and accommodated safaris and also a more comfortable ‘Classic’ Safari where there is no participation.
What does “limited participation” mean?
On a camping safari you will put up your own tent and pack it away but on the whole, it means that you’ll ask you guides how can I help? At meal times expect to be asked to chop up some tomatoes, put out the condiments or stir a pot. You’ll have a few turns at washing up the dishes. If you are staying in accommodation on your overland safari, expect that you’ll take your bags to and from your room. It is not asking a lot to do these wee jobs and these are the times when you chat with your fellow travellers and guides. A little bit of help from everyone means all the camp chores are done and dusted quickly.
3: You may be eating your meals in your lap and if it is dinner time it will probably be dark.
If your guides are cooking and preparing the majority of your meals on your overland safari (rather than eating in a lodge restaurant each night), you’ll more than likely eat these on your lap sitting in camp chairs around a campfire. A head torch is an essential item to pack as by the time dinner comes round it will most likely be dark especially if you are travelling in the peak safari months of July to October in Southern Africa. You won’t be eating Michelin Star rated food but you will enjoy nutritious home-style meals and the guides usually include a seasonal African style meal or two.
4. Be flexible!
The clock seems to tick a little slower in Africa and if you fight it you will not enjoy an overland safari – or any safari. Also, expect the unexpected and just take it as it comes. It is not unreasonable to have a least one puncture on your journey, avoid some massive crater-like potholes and get slowed up by local traffic – whether it is donkeys, goats, people or a combination of all three.
On my recent overland safari in Zimbabwe, I mentioned the traffic safety police checkpoints. You don’t get stopped every time but a mild annoyance soon became game as we made bets on how many checkpoints we would encounter between our start and end point for the day. Needless to say, Kev from California is the reigning checkpoint guessing champion!
Because it’s worth it!
Every time I return from an overland safari I feel that I can get that much closer to Africa and its peoples than I do on some of the more luxurious safaris. I’ve danced around a campfire in fits of laughter with our local poler guides in the Delta, chewed on some fried and well salted Mopane worms, watched late afternoon sunbeams reflect on the warm granite rocks of Matobos and tried to capture (in vain so far) the huge fiery ball of the sun rising across the African plains. I have watched lions mate, a newly born elephant suckle and unsuccessfully tried to join hands in a circle around a giant Baobab tree. And I always make new friends.
Overland Safaris can be a rewarding adventure but they are not for everyone. It might be the only way you would consider travelling in Africa and perhaps it is the step outside of your comfort zone that you are looking for. Or perhaps after reading this, you will come to the realisation that this is not the way you want to discover Africa – and there is nothing wrong with that.
“…I don’t buy into the tourist versus traveller argument – shouldn’t we just be ourselves, forget the labels and just get lost in the experience?”
Personally, I don’t buy into the tourist versus traveller argument – shouldn’t we just be ourselves, forget the labels and just get lost in the experience?
Ask questions if you are unsure, look past the advertising fluff, if a deal seems too good to be true it probably is, be honest in your expectations and your budget and most importantly book on the right trip for you and you’ll have a fabulous safari in Africa.