How to survive group overlanding

Some people prefer to overland as part of a group, either because they feel safer when travelling in remote areas or because they enjoy the company of others. It can be fun and very comforting to travel in a group but if it doesn’t work out it can become extremely unpleasant and ruin even long-standing friendships. There are many stories of people who started out a trip together but then split up along the way.

How do you prevent that from happening? Jan Joubert was a well-respected name in overlanding circles in South Africa and was a real pioneer in marking the 4×4 trails of Namibia. He was also one of the early contributors to Tracks4Africa. Sadly he was tragically killed in 2006 on one of his excursions into Kaokoland.

Jan had led many African overland trips and as a tour leader he had experience in group dynamics that he wanted to share , together with his other knowledge, in a book that would serve as a bible for overlanders.

He was working on the manuscript  at the time of his death and recently his family finished the book called Vinger in die Stof (Finger in the dust, published in Afrikaans) and made an online version available free of charge. Today some of the information is a bit outdated, but most of his experience is still applicable.

Jan Joubert at Rooidrom (Afrikaans for red drum), a road marker in Kaokoland.
Jan Joubert at Rooidrom (Afrikaans for red drum), a road marker in Kaokoland.
After his tragic death Rooidrom has become a well-known memorial to Jan Joubert. 
After his tragic death Rooidrom has become a well-known memorial to Jan Joubert.

What follows is an abstract of Jan’s experience about the causes of conflict in groups and ways to prevent this.

Causes of conflict

The biggest potential cause of problems is a difference in social class. That is more important than factors like academic background, language or religious differences. If peoples’ social levels differ greatly, they don’t have much to say to each other.

Another recipe for disaster is conflicting personalities. Moaning women and difficult men can be taxing on the group.

Sometimes people who work together or belong to the same organisation are forced to travel collectively. Some will enjoy it while others just tolerate the trip and they can create negative energy.

Bad organisation is a big cause of conflict. If there isn’t consensus about which route to take, where to sleep, what to eat and who will navigate, misunderstandings and eruptions can easily happen.

Somebody has to take the lead, even if you’re not going in an organised group with a tour leader. (In my experience the way in which the designated leader goes about his/her responsibility can also cause resentment in the group – Ed)

Different expectations within the group can cause huge problems. A typical example is when nature lovers travel with people who are more interested in a challenging 4×4 driving experience. (I was once extremely annoyed when I joined a group who used the sensitive Richtersveld environment as a 4×4 playground – Ed)

Physical challenges like difficult driving conditions, long hours on the road and vehicles that break down can cause huge stress within the group.

How to prevent conflict

  • Carefully choose your travel partners. Select people from your own age group, your level of education and your social background who share your interests. (Try a short trip with them prior to a long tour – Ed)
  • Children can be a cause of irritation, especially if they are hyperactive, whilst the adults want to relax after a long day. There must be ground rules established and everybody should adhere to them. A good idea is for the parents to take turns to keep the kids busy and controlled, aside from the adults.
  • Divide the various aspects of trip planning (e.g. the route, menu, buying food, making bookings, group communication) amongst the group and make sure everybody knows what is expected of them. Ideally, group members must not interfere with tasks that are not allocated to them, unless they are asked to help.
  • Everybody must help with routine tasks like collecting firewood, cooking, making salads and washing the dishes. It is strongly recommended that the group draws up a roster for these tasks as that is the best way to ensure that everybody pulls their weight.
  • During long travel days it is important to take coffee/tea and lunch breaks, especially for the drivers’ sake. Don’t drive too far off the beaten track per day and plan for possible delays.
  • Relax for a few minutes when you arrive in camp after a hectic day. Enjoying a cup of tea, a beer or a glass of wine may help everybody unwind.
  • Agree in advance what you are going to do if unforeseen problems like break-downs happen. Keep in mind that most people travel in groups because it makes them feel safer, therefore the group should not leave somebody with a problem behind.
  • For those of a more independent mindset, consider travelling in loose association with the other vehicles in the group, each party departing when ready each morning and meeting up again at the next camp that evening. Doing this means that no one has to wait for those who want to take their time prior to departure and each vehicle can stop along the way for photos etc. without the others having to wait – Ed.


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