How to start travelling Africa

So, you read about all these wonderful places in Africa and you want to go but you don’t know where to start?  You are not an experienced camper and you don’t own a 4WD. Don’t despair; there are many beautiful places that you can reach in your 2 wheel drive sedan vehicle and there are plenty of campsites or lodges with excellent facilities.

Kitting out a 4WD vehicle with all the modern ‘bells and whistles’ is very expensive! If you shop carefully it will cost you roughly R150 000 to prepare the vehicle for totally self-sufficient, comfortable camping in remote areas. That amount includes water tanks, extra fuel tank, adequate shock absorbers and suspension, dual battery system, solar panel,  fridge/freezer, rooftop and/or ground tent, awning, all terrain tyres, canopy with a built in kitchen unit and drawer system, table, chairs, a water pump with fittings, snorkel, roof racks and recovery equipment.

Overland landy
A Landrover kitted out for travelling into rough and remote areas. (Photo: Langebaan-Sunset blog)

Very few people have the required knowledge, time or that kind of money available upfront therefore it is best to kit out your vehicle over time and grow into the camping thing. For instance you don’t need a fridge/freezer for a short trip; you can make do with a cooler box and with that you don’t need an expensive dual battery system along with a solar panel and smart dual battery charger.  If you don’t plan to travel into rugged and remote areas you don’t need an extra fuel tank or to upgrade the suspension of your 4WD to carry all the extra weight.

As you have never ventured into Africa it would be wise for you to join a group of friends who are experienced overlanders, or even a guided tour, for your first trip. You can learn a lot about the equipment you need, off-road driving techniques and camping in general by observing experienced travellers.

Once you start acquiring your own camping equipment buy the best that you can afford and plan to have a few camping weekends close to home before you venture on a long outing into Africa. It might be a good idea to rent or borrow camping equipment for your first few trips. You will then be able to test the equipment and see what you NEED, not WANT.

All experienced overlanders will advise you to travel as light as possible. Newbie campers often fall into the retail trap and buy gadgets and things which they get rid of after the very first trip.

Where to start with a sedan

If you are a visitor from abroad you would be wise to start exploring the southern part of Africa by touring South Africa which has better infrastructure than most areas to the north. You will be able to travel to most places of interest in South Africa with a sedan vehicle. (You might encounter potholes in some places, but that is not the norm of the South African roads.)

Namibia has been dubbed ‘Africa Light’ and is the ideal self-drive country. It has a good infrastructure and the people are friendly and welcoming. The excellent road network enables self-drive tourists to reach most of the attractions the country has to offer with a sedan vehicle, as long as you take adequate care driving on unsurfaced roads.

Sossusvlei (6) (Copy)
You can reach Sossusvlei, one of Namibia’s biggest tourist attractions, without a 4WD. (Photo: Karin Theron)

Most of the country roads in Namibia are composed of good gravel, but a vehicle with a high ground clearance and larger wheels is preferable to a normal sedan when encountering those occasional loose, rough patches or sandy river crossings.

With your sedan you should stick to Namibia’s B and C routes, as indicated on the Tracks4africa Maps and make sure you don’t travel a remote D route unless you are absolutely certain that it is in good condition. Before you leave your camp in the morning, speak to the lodge/camp owner to get the latest update on road conditions and learn to gauge the vehicle and driving experience of your advisor against your own.

Obviously a capable 4WD is the best vehicle for touring the national parks in Namibia and if you venture into remote areas like Kaokoland, you must have a 4WD.

Don’t go without T4A’s Self-Drive Guide for Namibia. It has loads of information on how to prepare for an overland trip, information on travel regions, facilities available in towns as well as information on places to camp or lodge. T4A also has a paper map of Namibia which is the largest scale map available (1:1,000,000 scale), offering you the perfect trip planning tool for your next Namibian holiday.

You won’t be able to access the national parks of Botswana in a normal sedan as you will encounter plenty of thick sand and water crossings.  But there are still many destinations that are accessible to people touring in a normal sedan or a 4×2 vehicle.  Places like Maun offer aeroplane trips into and over the famed Okavango delta as well as mokoro (a type of canoe made by hollowing out a tree trunk) trips that can easily be organised from there.  Kasane offers fantastic daily boat cruises for game and bird viewing in the Chobe National Park and there are numerous lodges and hotels that offer decent accommodation in all these places.

Fly over the Okavango Delta. (Photo: Lindy Lourens)
Fly over the Okavango Delta. (Photo: Lindy Lourens)
Go on a Mokoro trip on the Okavango Delta. (Photo: Francois Malan)
Go on a Mokoro trip on the Okavango Delta. (Photo: Francois Malan)

You will find all this and much more valuable information in T4A’s Self-Drive Guide for Botswana. On T4A’s paper map of Botswana you will see travel time information for the entire road network, be it on tar, gravel or sand!

Some of the roads in Zambia are badly potholed and you definitely need a 4WD to explore the national parks which are the true gems of the country. However, it is possible to visit beautiful places like Livingstone and the Victoria Falls in a sedan vehicle.

Victoria Falls. (Photo: Janine Reyneke)
Victoria Falls. (Photo: Janine Reyneke)

For exploring Malawi and Mozambique a 4WD is most definitely advisable as the roads aren’t always in the best condition and you won’t be able to explore far off the beaten track without one. However, there are some exquisite places that you will still be able to reach with a sedan.

Mkuzi Beach is one of the idyllic destinations of Malawi which you can reach in a sedan vehicle.
Mkuzi Beach is one of the idyllic destinations of Malawi which you can reach in a sedan vehicle. (Photo: Karin Theron)

There are many beautiful destinations in Zimbabwe to reach with your street car. One of these is Kariba, from where you can take a houseboat and cruise along the shores for days and view game grazing nearby on the banks of the lake. Most people will feel they need a 4WD to explore Mana Pools, one of the most beautiful and special places in Southern Africa. However, I have seen even a Mini Golf get into Mana!

The beauty of Mana Pools is unsurpassed. (Photo: Karin Theron)
The beauty of Mana Pools is unsurpassed. (Photo: Karin Theron)

A final thought on vehicles: I’ve heard it said by several people that driving a 4WD for the first time and discovering its potential to pass through rough and sandy terrain is extremely liberating. Suddenly planning an overland trip is not governed by road or climatic conditions at all. If you see a track on the map you are free to consider exploring it – always with caution however!

The bottomline is to just get out there and start travelling. Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, said: ‘All you’ve got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over!’

3 thoughts on “How to start travelling Africa”

  1. Jovan, the T4A Self-Drive Guide for Botswana covers many places that you can reach with a SUV, like for instance the Kasane area which will offer you a wonderful wilderness experience if you go for a boat cruise on the Chobe River.
    Also, depending on your budget, you can drive to Maun and from there reach one of the many fly-in camps in the Okavango Delta. The guide book covers all of these.

    1. Karin, thank you for the informative reply! I’ll make sure to check out Exclusive Books or CNA here in Gaborone to find a copy of the guide, if they have one. Thanks again.

  2. Does the “T4A Self-Drive Guide for Botswana” book also cover places one can get to in a 4×2 SUV or is it aimed more at self-drivers with “no-limits” serious 4×4’s?

    I have a Toyota RAV4 (with All-Wheel Drive) and while I’ve been with it to a few places around Botswana (Mokolodi Nature Reserve, Stevensford Game Reserve, Khama Rhino Sanctuary), I’d like to know of other places that would be accessible with my SUV and whether the “Self-Drive Guide for Botswana” will be worth getting for that reason?

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