To plan or not to plan…

In the previous issue we covered the aspects that make life easier leading up to the first border post. This month George van Deventer from Trans Africa Self Drive Adventures and Tours gives a few more vital tips to help you make the most of your overland experience.

Overlanding is getting ever more popular by the day, in large part influenced by technology and some innovative gear that now makes it more accessible for everyone. It is now quite common for groups of friends to organise overlanding trips themselves or to join a professional tour operator on an epic adventure into remote areas.

Driving for days

There is a misconception that a lot of overlanding is spent driving, driving, and driving some more! I personally think that if this is your idea of overlanding you are missing the point. It’s never about the kilometres, and far more about what happens between point A and B.

In Africa, kilometres count for nothing because 40km on a map can sometimes take you two days to drive. Let’s take the Kazungula to Sesheke road in Zambia for example. In normal conditions this 130km stretch of road would take you just over an hour. But this is not a normal road. About 60km is so badly corrugated and washed away that just this section takes about seven hours to complete – that’s if you don’t break anything on your vehicle. Add another three hours for the remaining 70km, and you have a full days’ driving.

A good rule of thumb is to plan your route to include no more than about 300km of driving per day. That gives you enough time to pack up camp, have breakfast and leave at a decent hour (around 09:00). We try to reach our destination at no later than 15:00 on most days, giving enough time to explore places, tuck into local cuisine, and view attractions along the way. Travel is all about relaxing, having fun and experiencing new things and cultures. I cannot understand the logic of dark-to-dark driving: leaving a spot before dawn and only arriving at the next destination after dark. There is much more to overlanding than chasing kilometres…

Top tip: Be sure to arrive at your campsite in daylight to set up camp and familiarise yourself with the new surroundings.

To plan or not to plan

At Trans Africa Self Drive Adventures and Tours, we have a saying that goes “Nothing can go wrong because nothing was planned”. As much fun as it sounds, you still need to do some degree of planning. However, it is not about how much you plan, and more about what you plan.

Part of the planning process includes the “when” question. Let me explain. It is crucial to know beforehand what the weather conditions will be for the area you intend on driving through, as this impacts when you can visit. Let’s take north-western Zambia. Certain roads and camps in this part close seasonally from November to June/July due to rain and river flooding, which cuts off the access roads. As such, you need to plan accordingly if you intend to visit. The same goes for the Kaokoland’s rainy season from December to February. A great deal of driving in this remote location occurs on what are usually dry riverbeds. Not only is it dangerous to drive or sleep in them due to the possibility of flash floods, its sometimes the only access road to a certain point.

Should I plan my route and book in advance? Now this is a very tricky question because it has a yes and a no answer depending on who you ask. For some places that are in high demand – like Mabuasehube, Moremi and a few others – it’s crucial to book, often up to a year in advance.

For many other destinations, it will be fine to wing it (especially if you are wild camping). The positive spin to not booking is that you might find places that steal your heart, and instead of staying a day or two, you stay for longer without jeopardising the rest of your bookings. This, of course, is time sensitive. If you only have a set number of days for your adventure, booking in advance might be the better option than it would be for someone without a time constraint doing a day-to-day travel itinerary. Another crucial aspect of planning is to be sure of your fuel and shopping stops, especially in countries north of Botswana and Namibia. Fuel is not always available even though the maps and GPS show filling stations. When planning your trip, you can tap into the various groups on social media platforms and other online forums to ask questions. It’s a good way to see if someone with a little more experience, or updated local knowledge, can help you out with advice. If you are a novice and afraid to take the big step beyond our borders, it is a good idea to book your adventure with a reputable tour operator or self-drive safari guide.

Top tip: Fill up whenever fuel is available and also fill a few jerry cans for a worst-case scenario.

Local is lekker

The most common questions on the cross-border social media pages, groups and forums are along the lines of, “What’s the latest on taking meat, fruit and veg into Bots?” or “Can we take fresh meat across the border and if so what quantity?” My first thought is always, “Why would you want to take everything across when you can buy it across the border with no risk of having it confiscated and/or spreading disease or pests?”

Most countries have a list of what you may or may not take across the border. This can easily be obtained from their government website. Botswana currently has an import ban on all types of meat (beef, lamb, chicken, pork, game) as well as eggs and dairy products. That’s because South Africa has had various outbreaks of Foot and Mouth disease, Swine and Avian Flu in the Gauteng, Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga regions. At some of the border posts you might even find they confiscate fruit and vegetables.

They say you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy local, and that to me is like buying happiness for someone else. In addition to helping build the local economy, there are various intangible benefits that come from supporting businesses in the area you visit. Compared to the bigger chain stores, locally owned businesses re-invest a much larger share of their revenue back into the local economy, enriching the whole community. We usually buy veggies and fruit from roadside vendors, thus giving back directly where it matters. The same goes for restaurants. We are well-known for always finding local restaurants with traditional food guaranteed to surprise and delight our guests. Not only is this much cheaper, but there is a lekker vibe and you get to rub shoulders with locals, make friends and gain knowledge about the country you are visiting. A winwin situation for all parties.

Top tip: In a world where you have the choice to buy anywhere, choose to buy local – this way you support local communities and tourism.

Leave only footprints

We should always try our utmost to avoid damage to the land and natural areas we travel through. The goal of travel in the great outdoors is to have minimal impact as we move through these areas.

Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled and compacted beyond recovery. The resulting barren area leads to soil erosion and the development of undesirable trails. Selecting an appropriate campsite is perhaps the most important aspect of overlanding and wild camping way off the beaten track. Three elements to consider include:

Campfire: The best place to build a fire is within an existing fire ring or where a previous fire was made. Keep the fire small and burning only for the time you are using it. Allow wood to burn completely to ash if possible. Don’t bring firewood from home – rather buy it from a local source. Be extremely careful not to cause a veld fire and make sure your fire is completely out before leaving.

Toilet: The business of ‘doing your business’ in the bush is one of the most natural things to do, but there is a right and a wrong way of doing it. The location of your hole should ideally be well away from campsites or walking tracks and at least 100m from the nearest watercourse. Also, despite the convenience of good friable soil or sand, avoid all watercourses, even dry ones, because when the inevitable torrent does come downstream it can unearth everything that you so tidily hid and thus contaminate the water. The hole needs to be deep enough that scavengers won’t be able to dig it up. Please don’t leave toilet paper – not even from a ‘number one’. Leave the ‘scene’ as you found it. Keep in mind that you might want to visit the same spot again in the future, and that other people will also most probably visit the same site. This is where integrity and decency come into play.

Trash: Managing your rubbish when overlanding can be a challenge at first thought, but once a bit of consideration has been given to the matter, it will become a simple habit of awareness. Litter affects not only the visible beauty of nature areas but has a negative effect on plant life, wildlife and the environment as a whole. Properly disposing of one’s waste products is a very important aspect of sustainable travel. Take your rubbish with you.

Top tip: Use biodegradable, reusable or otherwise recyclable bags to carry your rubbish until you can find a proper place for disposal.

What’s that funny sound?

We all know that sinking feeling when your vehicle starts making a funny noise or sound that’s not supposed to be there. Know how to perform basic repairs on your vehicle and have the proper repair and recovery equipment on board when it’s time to be MacGyver. When you’re out and about in the bush and out of reach of the AA, you’re going to want to know how to do a few things. There are enough videos on YouTube to view regarding bush mechanics 101.

Along with a good compact tool kit, it always pays to carry a variety of spare parts for your rig. The length and nature of your trip has an impact on which spare parts you should take, but a few essentials include a mix of nuts and bolts, spark plugs, a fan belt, air and oil filters, radiator hose and tensioner pulleys. If you’re heading on a longer or more serious rock-climbing 4WD trip, it also pays to take some larger spare parts such as spare CV joints, just in case.

Apart from spares and tools you need to have a good tyre repair kit and compressor. Make sure you know how to put in a “snot plug” and how to take a tyre casing off a rim. This is not as easy as it sounds, trust me. The compressor comes in handy whenever you have had to deflate tyres to cope with thick sand and mud. At some point you need to put back the air for higher speeds when you leave the dirt roads. A good quality tyre pressure gauge is worth every rand you spend on it and will be used when inflating and deflating tyres. An important thing to note is never to attempt a repair on a tyre with signs of structural damage – either internal or external – including sidewall bulging, ply separation or cracks. This might blow out at high speed, causing the vehicle to become unstable and in the worst-case scenario to roll.

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