Living for three months in close confinement with 15 or more complete strangers is not most people's idea of fun. Being out of contact with your loved ones, spending long hours in cramped conditions on appalling roads, arriving late at a patch of waste ground a hundred kilometres from the nearest cheap hotel, collecting firewood to boil water just to make a cup of tea, erecting tents in the dark with a broken torch, only to have the canvas washed away by a thunderstorm at 3am - these are not events that which most people would look for in an average holiday.
They are, however, just some of the features of overland travel.
What Is It?
Essentially, overlanding is a form of extended adventure holiday. It enables medium-sized groups of like-minded individuals to embark on long journeys, specifically designed to satiate their collective wanderlust. An overland company provides a 'truck'1 and a tour leader to drive it. The group travels together overland for a period of weeks or months, cooking their own food along the way and sleeping in tents or the occasional cheap hotel. They journey from place to place, seeking out obscure areas of natural beauty, interacting with local people, visiting countless museums and game parks across many different countries, and taking an awful lot of photographs along the way.
The Tour Leader
The tour leader is at the heart of every expedition. On the longer trips there are often two drivers. Both are usually qualified engineers and they are often multi-lingual. The majority of tour leaders seem to hail from Australia or New Zealand and almost all of them choose to adopt a rather silly nick-name2. The tour leaders take care of all the bureaucracy involved in long distance travel, particularly with regard to crossings frontiers, bribing self-important officials, registering people and equipment, planning excursions, coping with accidents and mediating disputes between passengers. This leaves everybody else free to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Companies involved in overland travel actively seek to provide tours to some of the most remote places on Earth. Many of the countries visited will have poor human rights records and high levels of corruption. Travelling through these countries therefore contains a certain element of risk. It is possible, for example, that your tour leader will be arrested at some point during your trip. It is possible that you or one of your fellow travellers will be robbed. It is even possible that your own tour company will turn out to be a front for a group of international gun-runners3. In recent years, overlanders have been kidnapped, beaten and murdered; they have been caught up in riots, military manoeuvres and civil wars. There have been instances of rape, mugging, and long-term imprisonment. There has even been the odd death from natural causes.
The vast majority of trips, however, pass without any incident whatsoever. Hundreds of expeditions are run each year across six continents and serious problems are rare. In fact, being part of a large group provides considerable security. It is far harder for 20 western tourists to disappear suddenly off the face of the Earth than it is to misplace one isolated back-packer. Where adventure travel is concerned, there is definitely safety in numbers.
In fact, despite all the horror stories you may hear, the most likely way you will come to harm on an overland trip is through your own misadventure.
The relative cheapness of this style of travel is one of its major attractions. Without the cost of expensive hotels or gourmet food4, long distance travel becomes accessible even to those on very limited budgets. Resources are pooled amongst the group, usually in the form of a kitty5, and the combination of bulk buying and group deals enable people to devote more of their money to the most important thing: having fun.
Of course, this can mean different things to different people. For many, the fun is in the social aspect: the drinking and the dancing. It is the chance to make new friends and to sample the nightlife in a dozen different cities. For some people, overlanding is just one long, hedonistic party.
For others, the value is in the places that you visit. It is the opportunity to interact with strange and radically different cultures, to learn something of their people and history and to experience life as it is lived in countries far removed from your own.
On top of this, overlanding provides a framework within which to realise some of your most cherished ambitions.
Ever dreamt of coming face to face with a mountain gorilla in his native environment? Going scuba diving in the Indian Ocean? Wandering through the ruins of ancient Persepolis? Or floating down the Amazon in a rubber ring? All these things and more are possible.
And it would be wrong to assume that you will always be tied to your expedition vehicle. Overlanding is nothing if not flexible. So if you want to head off for a few days into the depths of the Amazon Jungle, feel like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or hiking the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu, there is nothing to stop you doing it.
More than anything, though, it is the people you travel with that are the making of an overland trip. It is often the moments spent working alongside these others - perhaps erecting tents or washing dishes - that you will remember most vividly on your return.
Flights are rarely included in the cost of an overland excursion. Passengers are expected to find their own way to the official departure point (whichever continent it happens to be on) as well as finding their way home afterwards.
Visas for certain countries need to be obtained in advance, though many can be acquired at border crossings along the way. Passports must be up to date and have sufficient room for all the border stamps that will be obtained en route.
Proper insurance is also important. It is a booking condition for most overland companies. If you are planning on taking part in adventure sports during your trip6 make certain that your policy specifically covers you for this.
Be sure to consult your doctor at least six weeks before departure. He or she can give you up to date information about local diseases and will health advice for travellers.
Also, it is a good idea to find out a little about the places you are visiting before you leave home. Your tour company will usually send you plenty of information with regards to climate and terrain, as well as any local customs you need to be aware of. The more information you have to hand, the less chance there will be for any misunderstandings
Overlanding provides a unique opportunity to fulfil life-long ambitions.
It is a no-frills alternative to normal short-duration holidays. It allows ordinary people to travel the world, cheaply and with the minimum of fuss. It enables you to live out your fantasies and gives you the time to do it properly.
For all the uncertainties involved, it is the easiest way of making your dreams come true.
As the Researcher has mentioned, overlanding can be a dangerous pastime. Check out this article on Holiday Danger Hotspots for multimedia advice from the BBC and caveats from the British Foreign Office.
Some events are, sadly, unforeseeable. The Massacre of Tourists in Luxor, Egypt is only one example of what can go wrong.