As we rolled out of Nairobi, on a crisp and clear Kenyan morning, even the diesel fumes and bleating taxi horns on the Uhuru Highway seemed to be full of good cheer. There were none of those usual feelings of trepidation and nerves that I was used to on the first morning of a ‘big trip.’ For years I had been travelling under my own steam - frequently alone and almost always by public transport. Now I had been lured back to the Dark Continent on a road-trip of a very different sort: in a huge, wallowing yellow truck that was known in villages and backpacker lodges all over East Africa as ‘The Whale.’
Far from travelling on a wing-and-a-prayer, our itinerary had been carefully worked out to fit in most of the must-see sights of the four countries that separated Nairobi from Victoria Falls. The vague worry about where I would spend my first African night had been lifted from my shoulders onto those of Paul and Lisa, the driver and tour leader who would be responsible for finding us secure campsites during the next twenty-one nights. I was free to sit back and watch the world go by.
The overlanding brochures had all offered the chance to become part of a wonderfully balanced group of ‘like-minded fellow-travellers’ - in blind optimism I imagined a secret clique of world-wise souls who had learned invaluable lessons that were beyond the grasp of independent travellers. But the crates that were stacked in The Whale’s belly made me think that it was more likely that I was joining a gang of crazed 20-something Aussies who were intent on fuelling the entire trip on bottles of chilled Tusker beer. It was a love of wildlife and wide-open spaces that had brought me to Africa but as we rolled towards the Tanzanian border I was already asking myself whether the most fascinating wildlife activity might be that outside the truck or in it.
Of course, it takes all sorts and the stereotypical overlander no longer exists. There were Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and even four Argentines, from all walks of life among The Whale’s cargo. Two out of three passengers were females and the average age (about 28) testified to the fact that increasing numbers of ‘career-gappers’ now see overlanding as an opportunity to fit in the maximum amount of experiences before responsibility stakes its claim once again. What we had in common was a shared optimism for the 4,000 miles of African highways and dirt-tracks that lay ahead and a secret hope that not quite everything would go according to plan. This was Africa after all and we wanted a little bit of ‘rough’ to be taken with the ‘smooth’. An African overland trip is not for people who believe that the destination is more important than the journey - the days on the road can be long, hot and dusty - or for those who do not want to spend night after night with just a few millimetres of nylon between themselves and the African wildlife. This is not a guided package tour either and everybody had to be prepared to do their share of shopping, cooking…or digging The Whale out of mud-holes.
Our journey led us through Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti where we off-loaded into a convoy of Land Rovers and were lucky enough to witness the great migration with a level of exclusivity (3 people to a Land Rover) that even the best lodges cannot always guarantee. Then, onward to Zanzibar (via Kilimanjaro), through the vast savannah of southern Tanzania and down the ragged strip of tarmac that follows the shore of Lake Malawi. Overland crews are constantly testing out new routes and searching out the best campsites, and being able to reap the fruits of the overlanding grapevine is one of the less obvious advantages of a trip like this. You camp in picturesque valleys you would never have found alone; you cross remote wildernesses where no local bus could have taken you; you feast in local villages where your crew are already long-term friends with the headmen.
In a couple of short weeks we were entering what had become my favourite African country. I had travelled in Zimbabwe on other, more stressful, occasions (covering the aftermath of a particularly tense election) but I knew that, under more relaxed circumstances, this beautiful and hospitable country would be a highlight of the trip. By the time we arrived at Vic Falls - to raft the Zambezi and hurl ourselves off the bridge into ‘111-metres of Big African Air’ - we had tracked white and black rhinos on foot, celebrated sunrise over Great Zimbabwe Ruins, watched wildlife in several of Africa’s most impressive national parks, swam with horses across a crocodile-infested river (having been assured that their thrashing hooves keep the crocs back) and partied the night away on the old colonial Vic Falls Express.
It had been frustrating at times to be part of the great touring circus and we frequently wished we could stay for longer but many of us had made lasting friendships and we had all stacked up more than a few once-in-a-lifetime memories. Still the overlanding faith had failed to convert me entirely. I knew I would never totally give up the freedom and uncertainty of backpacking. Then, a few months later, I began planning a return to some old South American haunts…and overlanding snared me for the second time.
I just had to accept once again that I could never see all I wanted to see if I insisted on following Kipling’s advice that ‘he travels the fastest who travels alone’.
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By Mark Eveleigh