An overland safari through Africa is an incredible experience and one of the few affordable ways to travel Africa. For us, and I am sure many other people, we didn’t know what to expect on an overland safari.
So we put this guide together to give some insight of what life is like on an overland safari through Africa. We spent 43-days traveling from Nairobi to Cape Town with Acacia Africa and then returned the following year for 58-days Nairobi to Cape Town again but trekking to the mountain gorillas in Uganda.
Along the way, we ran into different trucks from other companies and learned most safaris run in a similar fashion. While there maybe a few specifics that vary between companies, overall this is what to expect on an overland safari. This is the stuff we wished we would have known before going on an African safari.
Life on an overland safari revolves around the truck. The truck gets you and all of you stuff from place to place and campsite to campsite. The trucks themselves are a unique setup, designed for everything you will encounter on an overland safari. Most are built on a large straight truck platform, with a cab for the driver and tour leader. The back is custom built to haul 18-24 people in relative comfort. All companies are not built the same and should be considered when selecting an overland company.
The more budget carriers have vinyl flexible sides instead of steel and windows as in the nicer trucks. We saw many different style of trucks along our 43-day trip from Nairobi to Cape Town. Some had front-facing seats, while others had benches along the sides that face inwards. Comfort is important when it comes to the inside of the truck because you will spend a good amount of time in the truck.
You will be in the big overland trucks when driving between the different attractions on your safari. There are some days where the entire day will be spent driving. On average plan on several hours per day depending on your route, which was much more than we expected.
The trucks also hold all of your personal gear, and the equipment used at camp. Each passenger is given a locker usually at the back of the truck to store their bags and everything they brought. The lockers range in size truck by truck even within the same companies. Its best to check the company’s website to see their dimension before packing your bag.
I would not recommend bringing traditional luggage, soft duffels or backpacks will work much better. Most lockers are locked by a personal lock that you bring. When bringing a lock keep in mind a few things: the lock should have a narrow u-shaped bar because the holes on the latch are generally small. Its best to use a combination lock so you aren’t always looking for your key, how ever the constant bouncing seems to break these locks occasionally so bring an extra or two. We had a lock break as well as two other passengers. For more details on personal gear and what to pack checkout our recommended safari packing list.
The truck also holds everything your guides will need to cook and for general camp stuff. On overland safaris, you will also need to help out with general cooking and camp duties. With large groups, the guides often setup a duty roster with chores that rotate for each passenger. Duties can be unloading and setup of cooking gear, cooking (with tour leader in charge), cleaning dishes, clean up of the truck, etc. Everyone is expected to pitch-in according to the needs of the driver and guide. For the most part, the jobs are easy and it helps keep the costs down not needing to have another crew member.
As for the food you will be preparing and eating, that will depend widely on what part of Africa you are in. How it works is the tour leader will stop along the way to buy food and store it in the truck. The trucks generally have one large freezer for the main meals, and then some coolers for personal drinks and snacks. In larger cities like Nairobi, Lusaka, and others your guides will have access to a good amount of food options. However, in between, there are not nearly the options and the food choices are greatly reduced. On our trip, this was the worst in East Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi. The further south you are the better and more western options you will have. It started to get better somewhat in Zambia and Botswana, but once in Namibia and South Africa the grocery stores are almost like at home.
The meals prepared outside of camp are also something to note. On days where you travel into the national parks are generally contracted out to smaller safari companies. The smaller companies drive you, prepare meals, and guide you through the national parks. The Maasai Mara, the Serengeti, the Okavango delta, and others are operated in this fashion. The meals provided here I found to be not as good as what is cooked at camp. In particular, the boxed lunches on game drives are lacking. At different points along the safari, your tour will stop in a few cities for longer periods, on those days meals are not always included. Check your itinerary for details for your tour. On our tour, all breakfasts were included, but several lunches and dinners were on our own. For us, this was Zanzibar, Victoria Falls, Windhoek, and Swakopmund.
There are few companies offering accommodated overland safaris, but for the most part, it’s a camping trip. Your home for the duration of the safari will be a two man durable canvas tent. We are not outdoor experts or avid campers and we did fine for our 43-day safari. It got to be easy setting up our tent daily, we got used to it and they are pretty easy tents.
Nearly every company we camped with had similar tents, same brand and everything. You should be provided with a sleeping mat (double check, this is a must to be comfortable), but the sleeping bag and pillow are on your own. Our tents were in good condition with no holes and tight zippers to keep bugs out. However, that doesn’t stop things from crawling in your tent when you forget to zip the zippers as we found out one night.
We found camping to be easier than expected, but I would highly recommend bring or buying a decent pillow if you are on a longer safari. Camping on travel pillows will make for a rough trip for anything more than a short safari. There are a few breaks from camping along the way (depending on your tour operator). We got real beds in Zanzibar and Swakopmund, and there were options to upgrade along the way if you needed a break. We upgraded a few times but found it not worth it for the most part.
The camp grounds vary quite a bit, and will greatly between companies. Most days we were in a formal, fenced camp ground with communal toilets and showers. There were many days without hot water or with what most would consider ‘hot’ water. I would say we averaged 75% hot showers, it was worst in East Africa with that number closer to 50%. The grounds are generally fenced with some sort of security, but this is company dependent. Some budget companies will do more ‘bush camping’ meaning without running water or hardly any facilities. On the nights before and after the national park visits will be spent inside or very near the parks, one night we slept with the elephants.
Africa is not as cheap as you may think. The most costly aspect of the trip we found were the activities. Everything that is not included, or is optional adds up quickly. No place more so than Victoria Falls area.
There are many amazing activities but at ridiculous prices. The cost of food I would say is on par with European prices, more expensive than in America, and slightly cheaper than in Australia. The bus rides are long and you are going to want some snacks for the ride. For the picky eaters (like Hannah) you can get Snickers, Kit Kat, Lays Chips, Coke, almost all brand names.
Most safaris require a local payment, and that money is supposed to be brought in US cash (usually unless specified different by your operator). US cash is the easiest to exchange in Africa and is probably the most useful foreign currency. However, outside of exchangers not many people will except it. Local currency was all most businesses wanted. In addition to the local payment extra US cash should be brought. Our company recommend to bring $15-20 per day per person, we ended up bringing around $2000 for both of us and we felt that was too much. We would have rather brought $1000 (for a 43-day trip) and taken out more local money from ATMs.
Are there ATMs on an overland trip in Africa? – YES
However, don’t count on them to take your card, or to even have money. Many will work just fine, we only encountered one that didn’t dispense funds to us, but just be prepared.
We had access to an ATM every few days and it was never a problem getting access to local money. I would still bring some US cash in case of problems with ATMS. Also, certain things were a better value in US, but for the most part you got terrible exchange rates when using US, or Euro, or Pound. Aussie dollar was not widely accepted or exchanged. Many Australians on our trip had trouble with the prepaid debit cards they brought from home. The Australian Post debit cards did not work at a majority of ATMs and caused issues for many people. Avoid bring cards of this type. Visa brand cards were the most accepted debit cards we found in Africa. It’s best to have a backup or second card in case of issues or your bank stops the card.
Area specific Details
You are going to eat a lot of Chapati, a local dense bread/pita served with just about every meal. The food is not going to be anything to write home about. The roads will be rough, and there will be a speed bump on the road every minute or at least it will seem like it. Overall conditions are rougher here than in the south in just about every aspect. However, this is where we had our best wildlife experiences.
This is the poorest country you will likely travel to on your safari. The people are very warm and friendly, but very poor. They also make some very intricate wood carvings, and you can barter with items in your pack for them. For whatever reason, the thing that everyone in Malawi wanted/needed were socks, if going through Malawi bring a pack of socks and you will be a the most popular person in Malawi. You can also dive in Lake Malawi (fresh water) with some exotic fresh water fish and a sunken VW army jeep. I dove on our last trip to Candy beach and it was an interesting dive for only $45 for one tank, $80 for two.
It’s going to be dusty, very dusty. No matter what time of the year. It doesn’t matter if all the windows and doors are shut while you are driving the dust will still get in. In winter it gets cold at night getting close to zero degrees C.
Now that you know what to expect on an African safari you have no reason not to go. If you are looking at taking a safari on your own, we cannot recommend Acacia Africa enough.