A brief history of cross-African overlanding

From early attempts to record-setting feats, the Cape to Cairo tour has seen its share of legendary crossings. We take a brief look at the history of overlanding across Africa.

Among overlanders and adventurers, Cape to Cairo is shorthand for a journey of epic proportions. The idea of crossing the African continent along this route was first popularised by colonialist Cecil John Rhodes in the late 1800s (though for him it involved rail travel). But since then, many intrepid explorers have stepped up to the challenge.

The race to cross the continent

Despite the trans-continental crossing being a British dream, the first to make their way across the length of Africa were the French. Although they didn’t follow the Cape to Cairo route, the Citroën Central Africa Expedition was the first to drive from north to south. With vehicles that were part-tank, part-Citroën B2, the expedition set off from Colomb-Béchar in Algeria on 28 October 1924. They arrived in the Cape some 20,000km and almost 8 months later on 26 June 1925.

The Citroen Central Africa Expedition, picture from a National Geographic Expeditions Atlas, featured on www.paulshaffner.com

A month before the French group departed, another party of adventurers set off from Cape Town. Travelling from south to north, they had their sights set on Cairo. Headed up by Major Chaplin Court Treatt, an RAF officer who had surveyed Africa from the air, the crew drove light six-wheeler pick-up trucks. But they were up against the summer rains and muddy tracks, and it took them four months to reach Victoria Falls. A year after setting off, they had still only got as far as Nairobi. Finally, on 24 January 1926, after covering 20,490km, they rolled into Cairo.

Choose your vehicle

Whereas these first crossings were made in heavy-duty vehicles, adventurers soon took up the challenge of completing the distance in a normal sedan. In 1928, Gerry Bouwer drove a Chrysler 72 from Cape Town to Cairo, the first to do it in a passenger vehicle. He reached his destination after 94 days, but even more impressively, he made the return trip in just 40 days. In the years since, all manner of vehicles have travelled the Cape to Cairo route: sports cars, vintage touring cars, small sedans, even a Vespa or two.

Motorcycles haven’t been left behind either. One of the most famous crossings must belong to Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman. In 2007, they rode their motorbikes from Scotland and across Africa, a three-month journey captured in the documentary Long Way Down. Doing it rather faster was South African motorcyclist Andrew Russell. After three attempts to beat the previous record of 13 days, he covered the distance between Cairo and Cape Town in eight days in 2018.

But for sheer pluck, you can’t beat grandmother Julia Albu. In 2017, the 80-year-old set off on the journey in her 20-year-old Toyota Conquest, arriving on the north coast of Africa five months later.

Julia Albu and her Toyota conquest on the Kazangulu Ferry. Picture from My African Conquest Facebook page.

Also read: Cape to Cairo – the ultimate African road trip

Finding the way

Today, the main route between Cape Town and Cairo is the Trans-African Highway 4, which runs via Gaborone, Lusaka, Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Khartoum. Of course, depending on your journey’s focus, various routes can be chosen. You could take a scenic meander from game park to game park, opt for a leisurely detour to the east coast of Africa, or put foot along the quickest route. Tracks4Africa navigation will help you either way, as our maps indicate not only the distance and travel time between towns but also protected areas and points of interest.

In fact, adventurer Mac Mackenney credits the accuracy of Tracks4Africa navigation in helping him complete his record-breaking African crossing. In 2010, his team drove from London to Cape Town in 11 days 14 hours and 11 minutes. The crew of three took turns driving, navigating and resting, though as Mac admits, they didn’t really need to bother with the navigating because the T4A GPS kept them on track.

Mac Mackenney and the team that crossed Africa in record time in 2010. Picture from africanbudgetsafaris.com

Watch Mac MacKenney reflect on how they completed their trip thanks to Tracks4Africa:

 

 

5 thoughts on “A brief history of cross-African overlanding”

  1. What a nice read in this lockdown time.
    I have on my bookshelf the record of Stella Court Treatt – ‘Cape to Cairo’ a trip undertaken in 1924. The story of how they dragged their vehicles -submerged – through the rivers and their many, many adventures is still, a 100 years later, a wonderful read. This then, a journey before Bouwer’s in 1928.

    1. The Treatt trip was done in a Crossley motorcar, built in Manchester.
      Another intrepid explorer crossed Africa from East to West in 1907 – 1909, the almost-forgotten oberleutenant Paul Graetz. He anticipated a 6-week trip, but ended in Swakop after 21 months. He travelled in a Gaggenau, a 4 cylinder, 50 hp German car.. This trip was beyond epic and involved adventure, death and remarkable creativity. The journey is described by Lawrence Green in ‘The Great North Road’, published in 1961

  2. In 1981, after living and working in Lesotho for 3 years as American Peace Corps Volunteers, my wife and I set out to drive our converted African taxi, a 1970 VW Kombi, from CapeTown to Cairo. Many adventures later; losing the steering link on the road right outside a busy ZANU demobilization camp in rural Zimbabwe, meeting many incredible friendly people, visiting game parks when you could just wild camp anywhere, loaning the border post commander between Zaire and Uganda our car jack and thereby earning a cursory look at our passports with their expired visas, experiencing the withdrawal of Tanzanian troops from Uganda while fighting a bout of malaria, we finally pulled into Southern Sudan a year later, cash poor but rich in experience. Travel by road between Juba and Khartoum was impossible and due to the extreme isolation of Southern Sudan during that time any thing that rolled was selling for a premium price. We pocketed US $8,000 in crisp $100 bills, said a tearful goodbye to the sort-of- trusty Kombi and headed north through Sudan, Egypt and the middle east where more adventures awaited.
    We brought our college aged daughter back to southern Africa in 2014, bought a used fully kitted out Toyota Highlux and spent 4 months reliving some of our southern Africa adventures. Going back to Lesotho all these years and discovering that you could drive all across the country, including many areas where in the past it took us 4 days on horseback, was a real sign things have changed. Our once fluent Sesotho was a bit rusty, but came back surprisingly quickly. The pervasive use of cell phones meant that we were no longer the subject of shouted greetings echoing through the hills by the herd boys. With things calmed down now we could finally visit Mozambique, the great game parks in Zimbabwe, drive the Caprivi Strip, go north of Etosha Pan NP.
    All in all things are much better for the African people (shopping malls!) but I must admit a bit of nostalgia for the “old days” of unknown road conditions, the greetings and information exchanges between the few overlanders coming south (we met maybe 10 groups all year the most impressive a young French who had crossed the Sarah in a Citroen Deux Chevaux); where can you get petrol, where is the best place to change money and what is the going black market rate?

  3. Leaving Plymouth UK in November 2010 my wife and I travelled overland to Johannesburg in 5 months covering 25,000 km. Our route was Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkino Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Cabinda, DRC, Angola, Namibia and South Africa.We travelled in a Land Rover 110 with a 300 Tdi engine, no breakdowns, not even a puncture. We did break a brake pipe in the desert driving to Timbuctoo but easily got it fixed there. All the way from Morocco we navigated by Tracks 4 Africa.

    It was a lovely route buts sadly some of the best parts like Mali are too dangerous from terrorism and kidnapping today.

  4. Hello. In December 1991, as far as I know, 7 of us were the first SA citizens to overland from SA as far as Burundi after the start of the border wars in the 70s.The dream was to reach Cairo, but we only had funds to reach Bujumbura. At that time we enquired in SA and was also confirmed by a border official on Zambia/ Tanganjika lake border.

    All 7 of us went in my modified 1976 VW Microbus. On the lake, word spread that there were South Africans on board the ancient ferry. We were told to go and see the captain. As he inspected my passport in his sleeping cabin, his eyes widened and he exclaimed:” But we are enemies!”. It took quite a few minutes of talking about soccer and African music before he let us go. About an hour later I again encountered him in the bar. He was all smiles as we shared a beer.

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