Preparing for a road trip in Africa

I did a road trip through 7 African countries by 4×4, with two travel buddies.

It was an epic adventure – after more than five weeks on the road, we’d camped in lion territory, fixed flat tyres and run out of fuel, forded rushing rivers, and drove over sand dunes.

And it required a lot of planning. Here’s how we prepared.

Finding inspiration

We were inspired after watching Long Way Down, a travel documentary by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. 

They embarked on an epic motorcycle journey from the northernmost tip of Scotland, south through the UK, France and Italy, crossing into Tunisia by ferry. From Tunisia, they continued riding south through the entirety of Africa, ending in Cape Town after three months on the road.

It looked like the perfect adventure, and we wanted to emulate exactly that!

We chose a route starting in South Africa, heading up through Namibia, Botswana, crossing into Zambia at Victoria Falls, and over to Tanzania. After a short stay on Zanzibar, we turned back again, moving south through Malawi, Mozambique, and ending up back in Cape Town.

It also made us buy motorbikes. It's a very influential show...
Ewan McGregor also made us get our licences and buy motorbikes. It’s a very influential show…

Choosing the style of travel

With a route in mind, and the seed of adventure planted, we began to fantasise about what we wanted to see.

We wanted to discover this mysterious, exotic and misunderstood place by meeting it’s people, getting lost in it’s wilderness, and we wanted to do it the hard way, with every flat tyre, engine problem, and navigational challenge along the way.

The focus was not on seeing major sights and ticking off must-see items.

Instead, it was about feeling in touch with the land we were traversing, and exploring the countries by road.

We were excited to travel. But we weren’t very prepared.

Arranging transportation

Then along came my uncle Jan.

A Cape Town resident, Jan was boisterous, amicable and cheeky, a 4×4 enthusiast, and he had a proposal for us.

And this is where we got extremely lucky.

He had a 4×4 that he wanted us to use it for our road trip, despite that fact that he couldn’t actually come along personally. 

Wow! Our own car, what better way to travel! 

The only condition was that we go have it serviced in the Ford garage on Dar Es Salaam. Sounds like a good deal to me!

Sketch of three people with their car on an african road trip
Posing with our car on the highway

We were also introduced to Wessel, our cousin (and the same age as us), who ran an art gallery in Cape Town. He was also going to be coming along with us on the trip. We got along well together, and it would certainly be advantageous having an Afrikaans speaker along for the ride.

Supplies and documents


Jeff and I arrived in Africa feeling a little underprepared. But Jan knew the continent well. In between midday beer breaks and kudu steak dinners, we drove all over Cape Town for the supplies and documents we would need for 5 weeks on the road.

Paperwork and car stickers

We packed some of the obvious paperwork items, plus some I hadn’t even considered:

  • Jan had organised the carnet de passages, a customs document guaranteeing payment of customs should we fail to re-export our vehicle from a country (in other words, a promise that the car we drive in to a new country will be driven back out again)
  • Passports and certified copies from the local police station.
  • Driver’s licences, and International Driving permits (IDPs)
  • Vaccination information, especially the yellow fever card, which is compulsory just to enter certain countries.

All of these documents we stashed in a hidden zipper pocket behind one of the rear seats, which was a perfect hiding place. On the bumpers, Jan had stuck a kaleidoscope of legal stickers:

  • A black ZA in a white circle (compulsory for South African vehicles to cross other African borders)
  • A blue and yellow warning triangle for Mozambique (required for towing a trailer, but we had one anyway)
  • Red and white reflectors to satisfy Tanzanian road rules.

Camping equipment

We stocked up on cooking and camping equipment from a local camping store. We packed:

  • 2x tents (1 single tent and 1 double tent)
  • Sleeping bags and pillows
  • Inflatable mattresses and a pump
  • Plates, cutlery and barbeque (braai) equipment
  • Camp chairs and a folding table

In addition, we packed big bottles of water, and food; cereal and long life milk, cans of beans and spices and snacks.

Communication and emergencies

Wessel was bringing his iPhone; we planned to buy a new SIM card in every country to stay in contact with Jan. To try and cater for potential problems, we also included:

  • 2 Jerry cans on the roof, to be filled with diesel along the way
  • 2 spare tyres, one on the rear and one on the roof
  • A high-lift jack to change tyres
  • A well-stocked first aid kit (including bandages, sunscreen and doxycycline tablets)
  • A toolbox
  • Tyre puncture repair kit,
  • A mini-fridge which was connected to the car, (and was used mainly for beers).
  • The car also had a GPS (although several countries would prove to be unmapped), and an extremely detailed road map which would prove to be invaluable.

Time to leave!

That night, we packed everything away in the car, ready for our departure. We hung a South African flag on the dashboard, and brought a toy rubber snake. We practiced unfolding our tent, a fast-setup flexible circular frame, until we were happy with it. Jeff took Jan’s BMW motorbike for a ride (so very reminiscent of Long Way Down!).

That night, Jan took us to a restaurant in the city in his other car, an Audi A4 turbo, which made short work of the Cape Town highways. Over an ostrich steak, we discussed our planned route, what to expect and our feelings about the adventure.

It was regrettable that Jan couldn’t accompany us the whole way, but we were going to meet him in a few weeks in Zanzibar, 6000 kilometres away. We went to bed early that night, because tomorrow we had our first drive. An enormous distance all the way to Namibia

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