Overlanding is self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal. Typically, but not exclusively, it is accomplished with mechanized off-road capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping, often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and spanning international boundaries.
Overlanding in its most modern form with the use of mechanized transport began in the middle of the last century with the advent of commercially available four-wheel-drive trucks (Jeeps and Land Rovers). In 1949, with the Land Rover brand less than a year old, Colonel Leblanc drove his brand new 80-inch Series I Land Rover from the United Kingdom to Abyssinia.
There followed many more private journeys, and with the colonization of the African interior, groups would set out from Europe for remote African destinations. To aid in these endeavors the Automobile Association of South Africa published a guide titled Trans-African Highways, A Route Book of the Main Trunk Roads in Africa. The first edition appeared in 1949 and included sections on choice of vehicle, choice of starting time, petrol supplies, water, provisions, equipment, rules of the road, government officials and rest houses. The serious tone of this book gives some clue as to the magnitude of such a trip, and it was from these beginnings that overlanding developed in Europe and Africa.
Historically, "overlanding" is an Australian term to denote the driving of livestock over very long distances to open up new country or to take livestock to market far from grazing grounds. Between 1906 and 1910 Alfred Canning opened up the Canning Stock Route. In Australia overlanding was inspired to a large degree by Len Beadell who, in the 1940s and 1950s, constructed many of the roads that opened up the Australian Outback. Those roads are still used today by Australian overlanders and still hold the names Len gave them; the Gunbarrel Highway, the Connie Sue Highway (named after his daughter), and the Anne Beadell Highway (named after his wife).
One of the most well documented overland journeys was by Horatio Nelson Jackson in 1903. In 1954, Helen and Frank Schreider drove and sailed the length of the Americas from Circle, Alaska on the Arctic Circle to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego in a sea-going ex-army jeep.
Overlanding has increased in the past couple of decades, and is getting ever more popular in large part influenced by the Camel Trophy event run from 1980 to 2000 with routes crossing some intensely difficult terrain. It is now quite common for groups of overlanders to organize meetings, and an annual meeting is held every Christmas at Ushuaia. Through the use of the Internet it is much easier to find the information required for extended overland trips in foreign lands and there are several internet forums where travelers can exchange information and tips as well as coordinate planning. While some commercially built overland capable vehicles are produced, many overlanders consider the preparation of their vehicle a paramount part of the experience. Both South Africa and Australia have significant industries based on making accessories for overland travel.
The late 1960s saw the advent of commercial overland travel. Companies started offering overland tours to groups in large, specially equipped trucks. Mostly in Africa, these journeys could last for months, and relied heavily on the participation of the paying passengers for food preparation, food purchasing and setting up camp. The ultimate of these adventures was always the 'trans', or the complete journey from Europe to Cape Town in South Africa. Commercial overlanding has since expanded to all the continents of the world save Antarctica.
Modes of overland travel
At 9,288 km (5,771 miles), the Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the longest overland journeys in existence today, taking seven days to reach Vladivostok from Moscow, and providing an alternative to air travel for journeys between Europe and Asia.
The Indian Pacific railway, completed in 1970, links Sydney and Perth in Australia. Covering 4,343 km (2,699 miles) over four days, the railway includes the longest stretch of straight railway line in the world.
The introduction of Japan's high speed railway Tōkaidō Shinkansen in 1964 changed the face of rail travel. The railway has carried more than 4 billion passengers and its new N700 series trains are capable of 300 km/h (190 mph). France's TGV holds the record for the fastest train, with a top speed of more than 500 km/h (310 mph), making it faster than air travel for many journeys within the country.
The Silk Route or Silk Road historically connects the Mediterranean with Persia and China. Today the route refers to overland journeys between Europe and China, taking either the northern route - through Russia and Kazakhstan - or the southern route - through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and North India - to Urumqi or Xian in China. These routes are still popular today, with companies offering tours on the southern route.
Some of the longest and more traditional overland routes are in Africa. The Cairo to Cape Town and v.v. route covers more than 10,000 km (6,200 miles) and currently usually follows the Nile River through Egypt and Sudan, continuing to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia along the way. In 1959 the pioneering American trailer manufacturer Wally Byam and a caravan of trailers travelled the route from Cape Town to Cairo, via Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda and north from Kenya.
From the mid-1980s, the non-operation of the Aswan to Wadi Halfa ferry between Egypt and Sudan as well instability in Sudan, northern Uganda and Ethiopia, made the journey impossible. In recent years however, the Cape to Cairo and Cairo to Cape Town route has again become possible and increasingly popular both with commercial overland trucks carrying groups of 20 or so paying passengers as well as independent travellers on motorcycles or with four-wheel-drive vehicles.
The traditional Trans Africa route is from London to Nairobi, Kenya and Cape Town, South Africa. The route started in the 1970s and became very popular with small companies using old Bedford four wheel drive trucks carrying about 24 people each, plus lots of independents, normally run by groups of friends in 4x4 Land Rovers heading out of London from November to March every year. The usual route was from Morocco to Algeria with a Sahara desert crossing into Niger in West Africa, continuing to Nigeria. This was followed by a month long journey likened to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” through the forests of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), surfacing into the relatively modern world in Kenya via Uganda. From Kenya the last leg was south through Tanzania to either Zimbabwe or South Africa.
This route has changed dramatically due to border closures and political instability creating no-go zones. The route has reversed itself somewhat over the last few years, with trucks now crossing from the north to the south of Africa, closely following the west coast all the way from Morocco to Cape Town with the biggest change in the route being made possible by the opening of Angola to tourism. The journey then continues through Southern and East Africa from Cape Town to Nairobi and on to Cairo.
In Africa, commercial overland travel began with the Trans Africa and Cape to Cairo described above. From the mid-1980s East and Southern Africa became more sought after by tourists and Nairobi to Cape Town is now the most travelled overland route in Africa. As more tourists look for adventure trips that fit into their annual holiday, shorter sections of overland routes have become available such as two- to three-week round trip from Nairobi taking in Kenya and Uganda.
Istanbul to Cairo, via Syria and Jordan, is a classic overland route. It is a route that has been travelled for centuries, particularly during the Ottoman empire. Historically it overlapped with the Hajj, with many people covering all or part of the route as part of their pilgrimage to Mecca. Backpackers discovered it in the 1970s and 1980s, with hippies searching for spiritual peace who departed to Jerusalem from Istanbul instead of going to India via Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, onward travel from Jerusalem to Cairo became a possibility. It is now well travelled by backpackers and overland companies alike although the amount of travellers journeying the route can be affected by any unrest in neighbouring countries.
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