There’s nothing quite impressive like getting on an African self-drive adventure holiday, driving through some of the remotest routes in a 4×4 land cruiser, children yelling at you along some roadside parts “Mzungu” (white person) and the open road ahead. Although road trips are never quite like the movies – nope, pay more attention to swearwords as you argue over the map – they remain a classic mode of travel.
However things can easily go wrong once you hit the road, so to ensure you, the vehicle and your passengers come back in one piece (and don’t end up being cavity searched in African jail), check out these five expert tips for planning an African road trip.
- Plan your itinerary like a pro
The single most vital thing that can make or break rather an exciting East Africa self drive trip is your itinerary. In my experience, passengers don’t take kindly to realising they’re going to be sat in the car for eight hours each day with nothing but a toilet stop to break up the monotony. Stave off the inevitable chorus of “are we there yet?” every ten minutes by chopping your trip into short, bite-sized pieces that focus on getting you to a beautiful place and somewhere to stay each night.
When planning, consider the seasons too: a road trip along country roads in Uganda or the Rwandan Highlands isn’t quite as much fun during rainy seasons and neither is realising you’ve ended up by not booking accommodation on a summer road trip.
- Technology is your best friend
It’s hardly a surprise that technology is your problem when it comes to hitting the road, especially in this 21st century. No one wants to find themselves taking a wrong turn in the jungle and ending up being welcomed into the arms of a not-so-friendly policeman over the border heading into another country – as a friend of mine recently discovered – so a good map is essential. If you’re worried you’re stupid enough to follow your satnav directly into a river then blunder on the side of caution and opt for Maps.me. This free app lets you download maps and access them offline, wherever you are in the world.
No human would want to lose battery when they’re swearing their way around Kampala or Kigali’s complicated one-way system, so an in-car phone charger or a battery pack are other road trip must haves. Finally, an AUX cable for playing some music is the difference between maintaining your sanity and having it disturbed out of you by local music radio on street.
- Check all the right boxes before booking
Before a vehicle reservation for your road trip, there are a handful of things to check. One of the stonkers is whether you need an international driving licence – for some countries, your home licence doesn’t suffice and without one, you may be stuck on foot. While others accept your local valid driving licence
Another is checking whether your travel insurance actually covers you for driving a vehicle – you’d be astonished by how many policies contain a clause that specifically says you’re not, unless you ring up and pay more cash. While this might seem annoying, crashing and being lumped with a huge bill is probably more so.
And don’t forget to check your license is in date – or don’t, as I found to my delight. Turns out that an expired licence can be an excellent way of getting taxied around a country by new travel friends.
- Make sure you’re not signing your soul away
Hiring a vehicle abroad can give you headache, particularly when you’re trying to rent in a foreign language. It’s always recommendable to go through someone or company that share a common tongue so that you can know you’re not signing a pact with the devil. Be conscious of the following:
Is the mileage unlimited or do you need to pay if you go over? Extra miles can end up being super expensive, so clarify this before you sign.
How much are you expected to pay if you bang the car? In some instances, the excess can hit thousands of dollars. Instead, taking out a car hire excess insurance policy – costing a few quid – can stop you shelling out a mind-boggling amount in the event of an accident.
As I’ve learned the hard way, being clear what happens if you break down is also vital. Having our brakeless Land Rover towed in rural Patagonia by a local with Formula One aspirations still wakes me up in a cold sweat most nights.
- Choose your companions carefully
Even though road trips are certainly my favourite style of travel, they can actually be one of the most stressful. Why? Challenges happen in the most unlikely circumstances: try deciphering whether that road sign depicts someone cooking a pizza, or really relates to an important road, leaving you desperately trying to avoid sending your driver headlong into oncoming one-way traffic (sorry Dad).
Add into that a poorly-selected companion – i.e. someone who’ll leave you seriously considering abandoning them at the next petrol station – and it’s enough to make you wish you’d never rented that car in the first place.
From my experience of road trips around the globe, the best company can be someone who a) knows how to read a map, b) can change a tyre, c) has good taste in music and d) doesn’t display any backseat driver tendencies.
As a result you’ll stay sane, sure of your location, in a fog of excellent road trip tune age and not screaming at your passenger to shut the fuck up or you’ll leave them on the side of the road.