The Big Africa Trip… And Why You Should Travel Overland More
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Want to travel overland… but don’t know where to start? Well, here’s a good place (and even if you don’t, we’ll convince you). Overland travel — especially via public transportation — is an amazing way to organically experience the world. There’s something beautiful about starting in one place and finishing in another, while encountering a million highs and lows along the way. So grab your bag, book an open jaw itinerary and get ready to leave your comfort zone in the dust (and probably something else).
Although we’ve done a few overland journeys of varying shapes and sizes, the Big Africa Trip remains our favorite. From cramped bus rides to rattling trains and beat up sedans, we’re not talkin’ your typical Eurotrip. With something new around every corner, Africa will kick your ass six ways to Sunday, yet always keep you coming back for more. Our goal was pretty simple: start at the top and finish at the bottom, doing as much as possible overland by public transit. To be clear, we’re not trying to condense this journey into one article; we’re just providing some highlights to whet your appetite and get you out the door.
Before we delve too deep into the Big Africa Trip, let’s talk strategy. In general, overland routes fall into three categories. If you’re a beginner, try the “ease in” approach: start somewhere more manageable and then move outside of your comfort zone. Second, you have the “drop me in the shit and I’ll try to get out” approach, which is pretty much just that. Finally, there’s the full circle approach (which we followed for the Big Africa Trip), where you start somewhere more manageable, quickly move outside of your comfort zone and then gradually progress toward another more manageable location.
Now, let’s get to the good stuff…
Landing in Malaga, Spain, we eased into our journey with paella, vino tinto and mediterranean vibes. Malaga is a fantastic local city and worth a visit if you can make it happen. After two nights, we hopped the bus to Algeciras and then the ferry to Morocco. Game time.
Our gateway to Africa was the Port of Tangiers, a seedy place leaving little to be desired. We won’t delve too deep into our Morocco adventure, as it’s well documented. Nevertheless, we did love exploring ancient medinas (old walled cities), chowing down on tajines (Berber dishes cooked in clay pots) and camel trekking across massive sand dunes (large amounts of granular particles).
From Morocco, we hopped on some normal sized busses for aggressively large amounts of time. We traveled nearly 1,500 miles across the barren landscape of Western Sahara — the disputed territory south of Morocco — and into Mauritania.
Now, with all due respect to the folks that live there, Mauritania is a giant sandbox shit hole. It’s dusty, largely uninteresting and devoid of booze. Oh, and the people really aren’t that friendly — sorry we’re not sorry. However, after all that, we will say that Mauritania is home to one of the most epic overland (and travel in general) experiences in the world: the infamous iron ore train. Check out our crazy story on riding these rails and how to make it happen…no joke, this trip is not for the faint of heart!
Ready for a new country and a cold beer, we headed towards Senegal in a cramped minivan. After multiple roadside stops for other passengers to pray, and us to awkwardly watch, we arrived at a typically unpleasant border town. It only takes one international crossing on this continent to realize that most border towns are the African equivalent of Mos Eisley spaceport (think scum and villainy, not overdone special effects). Be prepared for harassment and the occasional robbery… and don’t trust anyone. Get in, get across and get out.
Illness and self depreciation characterized our time in Senegal. It all started at the border, where one of us had a close call en route to the most disgusting bathroom known to man (a 100+ degree closet with feces strewn about and a hole in the floor). Later that afternoon, this same unnamed person sprinted from a public taxi to use the bathroom in the middle of a field… next to a pile of cow shit. The next day, not to be outdone, the other repeatedly dodged evening beach goers while frantically digging holes in the sand to pee out of his butt hole. It’s a long story — catch us over beers sometime and we’ll share it.
Going coast to coast, we flew from West Africa to the tropical paradise of Zanzibar — our one flight on the Big Africa Trip. After a few blissful days of azure waters and white sand beaches, we grabbed the ferry — or more aptly called the vomit commit — to mainland Tanzania. Let’s just say that one of us was leaning over the side of the boat throughout the trip.
From Dar es Salaam, we traveled across Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda by cramped bus. Highlights along this route include watching the New England patriots blow out the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl (okay, maybe it wasn’t a blowout), more water out of the butt for one of us and camping under the stars…and amidst wild animals.
Our East African experience really heated up with a trek to the Nyiragongo Volcano (just killing the puns here) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After a multi-hour climb alongside armed military guides, we reached the lava-filled crater. Spending the night on the side of the volcano, we ate grilled rabbit, took swigs of cheap whiskey and watched in awe as the bubbling lava set the sky ablaze.
More buses and a couple cramped sedan rides later and we found ourselves through Rwanda and into Burundi. Bujumbura, the capital city, was eerily quiet during our stay. With impending elections, and the inevitable ensuing civil unrest, our Belgian hotelier encouraged us to move on. However, we did spend one lovely afternoon at Bora Bora Beach Club alongside Lake Tanganyika.
From Burundi, we began a traumatically miserable overland haul across Tanzania and into Malawi. We’d prefer not to rehash this leg of the journey too much. However, we will say that it’s these experiences where you earn your overland stripes — twelve plus hours per day for four days on sweaty, smelly, dusty, bumpy and cramped modes of transportation. Terrible in the moment, nostalgic in hindsight.
Recalling our earlier strategy discussion, we started in Spain, which was more manageable, and then moved on to the likes of Mauritania, which was, well, you know. Now, in order to complete the full circle, we gradually moved back to more manageable as we progressed into southern Africa.
The bus quality started to improve as we traveled through Zambia. For example, we no longer had strangers in our laps. We traveled from Lusaka to Livingstone, where we spent an amazing few days, complete with extreme white water rafting (i.e. flipping the raft like one hundred times) and exploring Victoria Falls. Next stop: Namibia.
After over 1,500 miles and twenty hours on a bus, we pulled into the fairly modern capital city of Windhoek. The next week consisted of cruising around dramatic landscapes in a rental car, exploring shipwrecks, avoiding an annoying Spanish dude, playing with rambunctious seals, drinking steins in a German village and hanging out with an annoying Spanish dude. Once back in Windhoek, we boarded our final bus, en route to Cape Town.
Our time in South Africa was nothing short of glorious… and the exact vibes that we needed after a long trek across the continent. After a few chill days in Cape Town, and a few too many beers and kudu burgers bru, we grabbed some wheels and hit the road. We hung out with penguins at Boulders Beach, watched an epic sunset at the Cape of Good Hope, went great white shark diving in Hermanus Bay and chugged red wine in Stellenbosch. At this point, there was really only two things left to do: walk on the wild side in Kruger National Park and enjoy (but not too much) strip club buffets in JoBurg. And just like a fine young lady’s legs around the pole, our Big Africa Trip came to a close.
The Sage Conclusion…
Overlanding will not only change your perspective on travel, but it will also change your life. That might sound dramatic, but we’re dramatic dudes, so it makes sense. When you overland, you experience the world in a uniquely normal way. You smell every scent, feel every bump, connect with complete strangers and perpetually wonder when the hell you’re going to get where you’re going. Overlanding is beautiful, miserable and everything in between… so book a damn ticket and embrace your unknown.