Overlanding West Africa: The Ultimate Guide for Adventure Seekers

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The Ultimate Guide for Traveling Africa on an Overland Truck.

I remember the first time I considered traveling through West Africa; it was an area far off the beaten track which seemed like it would be incredibly difficult. Especially for a single woman.

Then I found out about overlanding! Navigating West Africa is not just possible but relatively easy if you choose the overlanding option.

This guide will help you navigate the challenges and benefits of journeying through Africa on a truck.

The guidance provided here draws from my extensive travels and the expertise of reputable travel companies, ensuring you're well-prepared for the adventure of a lifetime.


What Is Overlanding?

Overlanding is the term used to describe trips that use land based transportation to cross one or more countries. These overland trips are usually done with trucks that have been converted to carry passengers, luggage, food and camping equipment.

On rare occasions mostly when overlanding trucks are travelling in only one country there might be an option to stay in rooms, however for the most part overlanding is usually camping.

As you travel on the truck you will do your fare share of bush camping, which is what some hikers would call stealth camping. Bush camping is when you camp in an area with no facilities.

Overland truck in Rabat Morocco
Overland truck in Rabat Morocco

Choosing Your Overlanding African Adventure

Choosing the right overland journey in Africa involves balancing the the route that you would like to travel with the cost of the trip you choose. It's important to select a travel company that covers the countries and places you're most interested in, and which also offers a style of overland adventure travel that suits your preferences.

Determining the Best Route for Your Journey

When planning a West African adventure, the best route is one that aligns with your interests and travel goals. During my time planning my Overland trip in Africa I discovered very early that there will be miles and miles of nothing while you are in West Africa.

While there are things to see and do a lot of the countries you visit don't have as established systems and services as you are used to. Because of this there are often a lack of national parks or tourism locations. It is really cool to visit places that many of your friends and family have never heard of, but you have to balance that with days and days of just driving.

If these travel only days are not for you, I wouldn't consider a West African overlanding trip. I would stick to South Africa and the east coast where there is way more to see and do.

The Different Styles of Overland Tours Available

There's a diverse array of overland tours in Africa, each offering a different perspective on this vast and varied continent. From the rugged overland truck expeditions that traverse remote areas to more leisurely overlanding trips, there's something for every type of traveller. The key is to find a balance between comfort, adventure, and the ability to travel overland through landscapes that few get to see.


Selecting the Right Overland Trip for Your Travel Preferences

It's essential to choose an overland trip that resonates with your travel style. Whether you're drawn to the off-the-beaten-track or yearn for quieter countries and places, there's an itinerary out there that will meet your expectations and provide the adventure you seek.

You also want to ensure you have the amount of time needed to do the trip you choose making sure that you aren't going to be needed to get home asap after the finish date. Overlanding is a travel style that can be easily delayed, so an expected finish day is just that – an expected date. You need to have at least a week and possibly 2 up your sleeve at the end of the trip in case the truck doesn't get to the finishing point when estimated.

You also want to consider the cost of the trip, the time frame and the company that is running the trip. The easiest comparison I can make is hiking a well known multi day trail. If you do it on your own you are responsible for everything but its cheap. If you would like more done for you, you would go on a tour. Hiking tours where you don't have to think about anything are amazing BUT they come at a price.

Overlanding is the same. Cheaper tours will be camping and likely include almost no extras. A higher level of luxury will usually mean that you do less, need to take less and more activities will be included in the trip.

A van full of people Mali
Typical scenery from north west Africa.

Essential Preparations for Overlanding in West Africa

Preparation is key when venturing into the remote areas of West Africa. It's crucial to equip yourself with the right knowledge, gear, and mindset to handle the unpredictability of overland travel. From securing visas to packing spare emergency items, every detail matters when you're miles from the nearest town.

Setting and Planning Your Travel Budget

My travels have taught me the importance of a well-planned budget. West Africa can be surprisingly affordable, but also unpredictable. Just because you are on a truck doesn't mean you won't spend any money.

I've travelled with other overlanders who have a decent budget, but I've also travelled with people who's budget is just WAY too tight.

While your breakfast and dinner is almost always eaten off the truck there are many times that the food isn't great (due to limited availability for the most part), or you are in town so expected to feed yourself. Not having the budget to cater to these times is a gross miscalculation.

I've travelled with people who will sneakily stash leftovers from dinner for their lunch the next day so they don't have to buy it. That's a great way to annoy your other overlanders! I've actually seen people stash food in plastic containers and hide it when others haven't yet had enough to eat.

You also want to make sure that you have the budget to splurge on some accommodation if and when you need it. Our first few days in Rabat Morocco were in pouring rain and we were bush camping outside the city. So every morning we would have to pack up soaking wet tents, get on the truck and head to the consulate we were trying to get visa's from.

That wasn't too much of a challenge, however being in the city you had to spend money on food to access toilet facilities. Public toilets aren't really a thing in that area of Rabat and one of the other travellers almost got arrested squatting next to the truck because they were too limited in budget to buy lunch and use the loo. In Morocco where lunch was around $6!

That's just silly. There were also times where people were aggressively negotiating with locals about $20 out of a $250 safari. That's just rude. $20 to these people is a decent amount of money so making sure you have the funds to spend is essential to not just having a good time and seeing everything that is available but not to offend the residents as well.

With my headscarf in the Mdina in Fes
Shopping for a headscarf in the Mdina in Fes

Preparing Necessary Paperwork for Your Trip

Dealing with paperwork is hardly the most exciting part of travel, but it's crucial. Visas, permits, and vaccination documentation are just the tip of the iceberg. I've learned that having all my papers in order before hitting the road will make it easier for everyone on the truck.

Usually the organisers will tell you how many pages you need free in your passport, minimum expiry dates and any other challenges you might have.

Its super important to ensure you meet these requirements. I've known people that have had to leave the truck early because they haven't got enough pages left for visas. We also had an occurrence in South America where someone got denied entry into a country because they didn't have a yellow fever vaccination certificate.

Whatever the organisers tell you to do or have – DO IT! I renewed my passport before heading to Africa because I didn't have enough room in my existing passport. Also make sure you have digital and physical copies of everything before you leave home. More copies than you think you will need.

Getting Visas From Your Home Country

There are occasions where you can only get a visa from inside your own country. Usually that will mean that sending your passport home to the consulate will be enough, however there are times where you have to actually present yourself in person.

This isn't a rare occurrence and usually the company will have an agent they use for this service. That means that everyone with an Australian passport will put their passports in the same pouch and its gets sent to the consulate of Angola (for example) in Sydney. They process your visa's add them to your passport and send them back as a group.

If you are the only one with a particular passport I highly recommend getting an agent to do your visa. We've had people had to get off the truck and wait for weeks because they sent their passport home and didn't get it back in time for the truck to move on.

Alternatively send it to a reliable family member or friend who can get your visa done and send your passport back.

The truck won't wait for your passport to be returned to move on, however – if yours is one of 7 with the same agent getting processed they aren't going to leave without half the guests!

With the tropic of cancer sign in Mauritania
With the tropic of cancer sign in Mauritania

Ensuring You Have the Correct Gear and Equipment

Having the correct gear and equipment can make or break an overland trip. I've found that investing in quality camping gear, a good sleeping setup and clothes that can handle multiple days wear is essential.

A few of the overland trucks have their own tents which they instruct you in setup and breakdown. A lot these days ask you to bring your own tent. This allows people to not have to share which is ideal. I took my own tent on every overland trip I've ever done mostly because I'm a rubbish sleeper and the thought of keeping someone else awake is stressful to me.

You need to remember that you are going to be using this gear for weeks or months so you need it to be quality and service all weather conditions. You wouldn't believe how cold it can get in north Africa and how wet it can be in that central belt.

TIP for your Sleeping Setup

If you are doing a longer trip you need a sleeping kit that works for very cold and very hot. A tent that has a noseeum mesh inner with an independent fly is essential. You need the mesh for insects and summer conditions when you need to keep the fly off but you need the protection of a separate fly to avoid condensation in the cold climates and of course for heavy rain.

I would suggest you take a sleeping bag that is rated for at least 0 degrees C. You can always sleep with a leg out, or have it open when its not as cold but you can't get warm if your bag isn't rated for the temps you are using it in.

A quality sleeping pad is also essential. I almost took my hiking pad but at the last minute purchased a new one that was much thicker. I was so glad I had done that. I took this Thermarest one but it is expensive. The Sea 2 Summit Camp Plus Insulated one is more affordable and I've always loved Sea 2 Summit gear.

I figured that I was going to be sleeping on it for 9-10 months so I wanted it to be quality and comfortable.

Jens Tiny tent among those others in the Seregenti
My tiny tent among those others in the Seregenti

What to Expect on an Overland Tour in West Africa

Expect the unexpected on an overland tour in West Africa. From bustling marketplaces to serene natural landscapes, every day brings new sights, sounds, and experiences. Embrace the journey with an open mind, and you'll find that the unpredictability is part of the allure.

Life on the Road: Accommodation and Living Conditions

Overlanding in West Africa means saying goodbye to the luxuries of hotels and public transport. Instead, you'll find yourself setting up camp in remote locations, sharing stories with locals, and falling asleep under a blanket of stars. It's a raw and rewarding way to travel that has enriched my life in countless ways.

A typical day overlanding West Africa

You are usually up early and packed up and eating breakfast by 6am. Some trucks might have a later start to the day but typically its an early rise.

I am an early riser anyway so I would get up, get a coffee and breakfast early and then pack up my tent and sleep gear while everyone else was eating breakfast. Not to be gross but this would allow my stomach to kick in and then I would be able to “do no 2's” before we left camp. If I ate just before we left I would have to use the bathroom while on the truck and that is wildly unpredictable as to the possibility.

A lot of your days are driving days so there isn't too much to see or do. This is just a part of overlanding in area's that are not flooded with tourism things to do.

Late in the afternoon your driver would start looking for a good camp spot for the night which was usually something off the main road and a little hidden from passers by. During my first few months in Africa we

  • camped next to amazing sand dunes,
  • had visits from nomadic bedouins,
  • had soldiers join us for dinner,
  • slept next to rushing streams (which is a hell of a nice way to go to sleep)
  • camped in car parks of restaurants (Dakar) and a self storage unit (Conakry)
  • woke up to find we were surrounded by Baobab Trees and one one occassion in particular had local school kids join us for breakfast.

Dinner is done before it gets too dark if possible and then you are off to bed!

Sunset over the baobab trees in Mali West Africa
Sunset over the baobab trees in Mali West Africa

Cooking and food on the truck

Everyone is allocated to cook groups which means you are responsible for cooking meals for at least one day per week. The frequency of your cooking duties will depend on the amount of people on the truck so while it will usually be just once per week, as people come and go from the truck it will change.

I've had trucks where you start with breakfast and are responsible for that full day, however I've also had trucks where you start your cook group at lunch time and do lunch, dinner and breakfast the next day. It will vary according to how the company and driver run it.

Cooking on more expensive trips

I did South Africa on a different overland truck for a month and we did nothing. I could only get the accommodated option so I didn't even have to set up a tent. Lorraine the guide cooked for us every night and it was just bliss. This would be very hard to find on a longer overland trip. Check out this Nomad trip that I did in South Africa. It was excellent and also visited Eswatini and Lesotho.

Dry goods are carried on the truck. This usually consist of canned vegetables, rolled oats, coffee, seasonings etc. Meals are based on what can be found locally so you tend to eat stews and casseroles most nights. I personally HATE stew or casseroles so I joined in with the vegetarian member and ate veggies for most of the trip.

The meat you can get isn't great quality so you can only stew it for the most part. Vegies are always available but it does vary what you can get. Some places they have more potatoes than Ireland, and others are laden with tomatoes. Whatever you can get it what you cook with.

Bread is readily available for most of Africa (that's the French influence) so lunch is often bread rolls or baguettes with coleslaw. I loved lunch and often ate lunch and not much dinner.

Breakfast is routinely oatmeal or porridge to us Australians.

Bread baguettes at a local market day in Dabola Guinea
Bread baguettes for sale at a local market day in Dabola Guinea

Hygiene and Bathing on an overland trip

Showers can be weeks apart especially in West Africa. The east coast and southern corridor are better setup for overlanders but west Africa has nothing. Actually that's not true – Morocco has some amazing Hammams (bath houses) but after you leave Morocco unless you are in a camp ground or hotel, baby wipe baths are common.

If you have a great driver (STEVE I LOVE YOU!), they will try and find bush camps close to creeks or rivers and trust me when I say you get used to washing your undies while in your undies! Some of the guys stripped down to nothing to wash but I just could never get that brave. I would just get in with my underwear on, wash myself and my smalls at the same time.

Adapting to the overlanding lifestyle means embracing simplicity and unpredictability. Learning to find comfort in the basic accommodations and joy in the simple routines of life on the road, like gathering around a fire when it's cold at night, are all part of the journey. These experiences often lead to personal growth and an enhanced appreciation for the world around us.

Jen from Charge The Globe at Cap Blanc in Mauritania
A day at Cap Blanc in Mauritania which was pretty cool after weeks of driving.

The Rich Cultural Tapestry of West Africa

Traveling overland through West Africa reveals an intricate mosaic of cultures, languages, and traditions. Each country I've navigated is steeped in its unique heritage, from the griots of Mali, who convey history through song, to the vibrant wax fabrics that drape the markets of Senegal.

These incredible experiences are a testimony to the region's diversity, offering a profound insight into the resilience and ingenuity of its people.

I remember crossing into Senegal from Mali and we arrived on a Sunday market day. It was amazing. It took us maybe an hour and a half to get 2 or 3 kms through town. Every single person was out. After miles and miles of red dirt it was really cool and this particular day sticks in my memory.

A group of girls all dressed in the same fabric, Senegal
A group of the locals girls all dressed in the same fabric and enjoying the market day in town.

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.


Navigating Challenges and Embracing the Unexpected

Embracing the unexpected becomes second nature when traveling overland in West Africa. From the labyrinthine border crossings to the days when the only meal is what you've cooked with local ingredients, every challenge is an opportunity for growth. The unpredictability is part of the allure, as it compels you to engage deeply with west African countries, their people, and fellow experienced travellers, often leading to the most rewarding experiences of solo travel.

Getting Along With Your Fellow Overlanders

This can be tough. You are never going to get along with everyone (that's life) but you do need to be able to smile and nod and not start a rivalry with anyone while on the truck.

Typically everyone is on their best behaviour for the first few weeks so my top tip is to be nice, be friendly but don't align yourself with anyone in particular for at least 10-14 days.

Everyone is also usually pretty competitive those first few days with where they've been and how much of a traveller they are. Don't buy into it. Its just people settling into life on the truck. Be nice, be friendly but take care who you really spend time with until you know who everyone REALLY IS!

Even if you don't like someone that's fine, just smile nod and say no thank you if they want to do something with you or share something with you. No is a perfectly good answer and doing the trip your way is essential to making it the best it can be.

Solo Overlanding in West Africa

Solo overlanding in West Africa can be an incredibly enriching experience, offering unparalleled freedom and personal growth. It's an opportunity to make decisions that only apply to you. Overlanding is also sometimes the only way you could get to experience these places and cultures as a single person. With the right preparation and a spirit of adventure, solo travel in this part of the world can be both safe and rewarding.

Usually your driver or guide will have contacts that enable you to make the most of anything on offer in the countries you travel through. The other great thing is that it is super rare that you would be the only one that wants to take part in any particular activity. This means you don't have to pay solo prices and you aren't alone – unless you want to be.

The truck full of guests when we left Spain
The truck full of guests when we left Spain

Individual Experiences and Testimonials

Each traveller's testimonial is a personal narrative that weaves together the joys and trials of overlanding. Their accounts will range from tales of self-discovery in the solitude of the Sahara to the kinship found in bustling marketplaces.

They will also very much embrace the challenges that were faced on that particular trip. We had one guest who travelled the entire African continent on the truck and who got on and off regularly along the way. He spent time in south Morocco for a few days of football, he didn't do Zimbabwe because he already had and rejoined the truck again after we left and he got off in Kenya to spend time with family.

Our drivers accommodated him along the way, we dropped him and picked him up at various random locations and I felt he could not have be catered to better. He was always a little challenging, however after I got home I found out that he was suing the company because he didn't get the “experience he paid for” on the truck.

That was total bollocks but people can be very difficult. If you are reading reviews please take into account that they are written by real people. People who get angry because you can't swim in the ocean in Dakar because there are so may sea urchins. Or people that didn't like the food in the middle of Mauritania. Take into account that overlanding is tough on your psyche, your diet and your level of privacy.

Evaluating the Quality of Different Tour Operators

When selecting a tour operator for your West African overland adventure, it's important to consider factors such as the experience of the guides, the quality of the vehicles, and the sustainability of the travel practices. Reviews and testimonials can be insightful, but so is engaging with the operator directly to understand their philosophy and approach to travel in this dynamic region.

I found 2 that I had narrowed it down to, but the one I chose responded way better to questions I had.

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A fully grown elephant with a week old calf

Conclusion: Overlanding Through West Africa

The year I spent in Africa was incredible. I came home so very thankful for having won the life lottery of being born in Australia and will be grateful for the opportunities presented to me on a daily basis.

Its hard to be arrogant in Africa. The scenery is stunning, the animal life is mind blowing but most of all the people are amazing. For people who have not much at all and for the most part, never get to leave their region they enforced to me that you don't need “stuff” to be happy.

Overlanding exposed me to places I would never have seen otherwise and I will be eternally grateful forever.

A pride of 5 lionesses and 14 cubs in the Serengeti National Park
A pride of 5 lionesses and 14 cubs in the Serengeti National Park