Published: April 6th 2010
April 6th 2010
Western desert. A comfort stop
I decided to add to this blog by providing a review of our drive through Africa on a truck.
When we decided to take a truck for a tour through Africa I had no idea that there were so many trucks doing this sort of thing. Admittedly, we wanted a truck to take us from top to bottom and there don't seem to be so many that do all of that but, if you are considering a trip through Africa and think a truck might be a good option, then have a good look around first. There are a lot of options and they may offer slightly different experiences.
We made the decision to take a truck because we wanted to avoid some of the hassles of finding places to stay, have someone else deal with the bookings and the organisation of what we might, or might not visit or see and to provide just a little more security in what has had the reputation of being a tough continent to travel through. The Dragoman truck trip achieved all of our desired outcomes well. (Now that we have been though, we are reasonably confident that we could do it
Parked in a town we tend to get attention
on our own.)
Truck travel is much more popular than I had suspected and there are a lot of people around who are highly experienced in this form of touring. But neither of us had even seen the type of truck that we might travel in before we fronted up on day 1. We had read the trip notes though and had some idea of what we might be letting ourselves in for.
I should perhaps say that, while I am not necessarily anti group touring - we have taken a couple in the past and enjoyed them - it is not my favoured form of travel. Groups can be great but it is difficult to get a group of people who all want to do similar things, have similar needs and don't get on each other's nerves. My main concern about joining a truck for 4 months was that we would be forced to be in the relatively close company of people we don't know for a long time. Some of them, inevitably, would find me irritating and there was every chance I would reciprocate. I was a little concerned, for instance, that the group would generally
be a lot of young party animals who would find someone as old as their grandfather on the truck a bit of a downer.
Most of my fears were not realised. There was normally a mix of age groups on the truck - and on a number of legs I was not even the oldest person there. As for my worry about the party animals, on a couple of legs there was a general consensus that people should at least stay up till at least 9.00 pm. On many a night we were the only ones left sitting around the fire after the 'kids' had gone to bed. There was also more space than I had thought would be the case. You were able, if you wished, to not have too much contact with someone you might not necessarily get on well with. I should say though that we met perhaps 40 people all up on the truck and there was no-one who was really objectionable at all.
Truck travel is not the same as being on a regular guided tour. Perhaps it is like a bus tour - although I have never been on one of those
The back locker job is constant and, at times, a challenge.
so I really wouldn't know. But it is different from, for instance, the relatively low maintenance type tour, where a guide/leader organises travel and accommodation and, perhaps, a few activities and leaves you to it for the rest of the time. With a truck the practicalities mean that you will travel together to a place of interest, get off, have a look and get back on. And, if you are not interested in the particular thing, then tough. Of course, there is still room for you to do your own thing where the truck is parked up for a few hours or days and you can move around on your own but, with a reasonably tight itinerary on a lot of trucks, these opportunities will be limited.
Through Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Sudan the primary tourist attractions are the pyramids and ancient temples. In Ethiopia there were a lot of old churches along with the spectacular mountains and in southern Africa it was more about game parks, nature and adventure. And all of these places are special and worth visiting. But they probably can't all be everyone's cup of tea. Personally, I was not always keen on
At Wadi Halfa in Sudan
the churches. I enjoyed the ancient history in Egypt though and the mountains of Ethiopia as well as the game parks and nature in southern Africa. It wasn't too much of a problem to deal with the churches. Some were worth looking at. No itinerary is going to suit everyone perfectly.
My only complaint, and it is a relatively mild one, is that there was limited opportunity to find out more about how the local people lived, worked and managed their land and water. It is possible to pick up a fair bit simply travelling through an area but there were limited opportunities on our trip to get much more information. Truck travel means that you are reasonably self sufficient with the capacity to camp out and and little need to interact with locals other than in markets and shops.
You have a crew that will consist of a driver, a leader - and they may be the same people/person - and possibly a cook.. Trucks provide the option of camping away from towns, camping in organised camp grounds and staying in other sorts of accommodation. You are likely to be expected to do your duty on jobs
such as cooking for the group, cleaning, setting up camp and packing. We saw some tours where the crew seemed to do most of the 'work' but I am not sure how comfortable it would be to sit around having a beer while people who have been working all day put up tents, clean and cook.
Travelling in a group can have considerable advantages. There are more people to talk to and they are all sharing pretty much the same experiences as you. Most of them enjoy travel and most will be looking forward to the sights and activities that are to come. Many will have a great deal of information about the trip and the things we are to do as well as information about other similar things that they have done. On our truck we had between 17 and 22 people at a time. Some left after each leg and others joined with 8 remaining constant for the whole of our trip. So there were always new people to get to know.
On our trip there were some people at various stages who apparently hadn't read the trip notes, might not have appreciated what was meant
or simply did not appreciate that the trip might be rough in some places. It wasn't perhaps as enjoyable for those people as another type of trip might have been. Camping was an issue for some. The camping, for us, was a positive feature and cooking, while no one actually seemed to look forward with anticipation to their time on the cook group, was not too traumatic.
We had experience both with a cook and without. The times we were without tended to be in countries where it was a little difficult to obtain all of the types of food that would satisfy all people but I think that we did pretty well. It was certainly enjoyable hitting the local markets and negotiating for our food. We were all likely to have been over-charged compared to the locals but we still fed ourselves well for about $3US each per day. It was a higher cost after we had a cook but this also coincided with the more expensive countries.
Trucks are not buses. They are starting to look a little like buses and they do act like buses some of the time, but they are not. They have,
for instance, much harder suspensions and you will have a rougher and harder ride. They will be less comfortable. They can also go more places. Rougher roads are not so much of an issue with a truck having better ground clearance than a bus. You will also be able to camp in the bush more easily because a truck can get into places that a bus cannot. You may also get bogged more and have to do some work to get the truck out.
On some occasions in the deserts of Egypt and Sudan where the truck became bogged some distance off the road, the looks on the faces of the some of the passengers, along with their comments, suggested that they had never contemplated this sort of thing, had never seen a sand-mat in their lives and were aghast at the thought of being bogged this far from 'civilisation'. Most handled it pretty well though.
The level of dependance of the group on the leaders and drivers is greater than it is for other types of tours. You are living with them for the entire time. Whether you, or they, like it or not, you will get
Waiting patiently for us to pay attention near Meroe pyramids in Sudan
to know their faults and their positives - just as they will for you. There may be some opportunities for a break from each other at times but, inevitably, you will be together for a lot of the time. We heard from some who had had lousy leaders and drivers and it made for a much less enjoyable trip. We were very lucky with ours. They were a positive benefit to the trip, very caring and thoughtful and very capable at both looking after and driving the truck and in ensuring that we all had the best possible experience..
Trucks have been big in Africa because there has not been much alternative. The roads are improving though and it won't be long before buses become a much more viable option. It will be interesting to see if the trucks continue. I suspect that, if they do, they will be the ones that are prepared to offer a bit more than simply transport with camping. Some may be able to differentiate with the types of areas they are prepared to go to but the ones that survive will need to offer a better experience than their competitors.
some possibilities for differentiation. For instance, some mountain bikes carried on the front and back bars of the trucks would allow some of the passengers to ride ahead, or behind, the truck for some distance each day. Tours that target a specific category of experience or activity might be a goer. A tour that guarantees the same group for the whole way - and/or sells itself to a group that knows - and likes - each other could be a possibility. And, just for me, a tour that eschews all religious places. That could get me back on a truck, but I would probably be the only one on it. Might not be much fun after all.
After all of that I can recommend overland trucking but see that you look around to make sure that you get what you are really after.
And if you can find one with Jay and/or Jimmy in charge, take it.
There are more photos below