Traveling in regions like Africa and the Middle East provide many challenges. They are great for budget travelers, but getting around can be uncomfortable, hot, exhausting, and frustrating. The Middle East seems to have it together moreso than Africa, and obviously with the size of each region, it’s going to vary drastically.
Overland Travel In Africa
Getting around in Africa is, shall we say, interesting. The variety of service and comfort you receive runs the gamut from really nice to absolutely terrible, and the options available are pretty wide. There are the normal options of buses and trains, but it’s not uncommon to use shared taxis, drive yourself, hitchhike in the back of trucks, or go by boat. If traveling around Africa for any length of time, chances are you will use a combination of all these methods, and chances are even better that you’ll come home with quite a few African transportation stories to tell.
Train travel is a great way to see Africa where it’s available, but unfortunately the rail is not very extensive throughout the continent. If you do get a chance to travel by train, especially if it’s a long, overnight journey, it’s probably wise to buck up and go for 1st or 2nd class. 3rd class will get you a very authentic experience, and if the journey’s short, give it a shot, but overcrowding, dirt and grime, and heat are the norms.
Traveling by bus is the most common way of getting around Africa for tourists. If you’re traveling in more wealthy African countries, you may find some pretty decent buses. Air con, bathrooms, reclining seats, and good roads can be found in many areas, which all make for comfortable journeys. But in the more developing areas of Africa, of which there are many, bus travel is similar to chicken buses in Central America and minibuses in Southeast Asia, which is to say not good. Packing as many people in as possible is normal practice, and the roads make for a bumpy, dusty, and long ride.
Hitchhiking is never really recommended, but it’s not an uncommon way of getting around. Some areas of Africa are so vast that this is your only option. But it’s not the same as hitching in the way most westerners think of it. Travelers are expected to pay for hitchhiking, so don’t expect to be able to get around for free. Working out a deal with your driver before hopping in is a good idea to avoid any confrontations down the road.
Sharing a taxi or a driver of some sort is also a typical way of getting around and may not cost any more than a bus or train. The travel is faster, but don’t expect it to be any more comfortable. As with minibuses and 3rd class trains, cramming as many people as can fit in shared taxis is common.
Driving yourself is another option when traveling in Africa, but be prepared to spend some coin to do so. With the exception of South Africa, renting a car is pretty pricey. Buying one upon arrival is another option, but the red tape one has to go through, like obtaining a carnet de passage (basically a vehicle passport necessary for driving your own vehicle in Africa) can be maddening and costly. Having the freedom to explore at your leisure is a great perk, but think long and hard before deciding to drive in a place like Africa.
Joining tour groups may not be the most economical way of getting around, and backpackers and typical RTW travelers usually turn their noses up at packaged tours, but it is a good option for getting around. Safaris are common activities in Africa, and in many places you must join up with a tour. Even if you are not a tour person, after traveling on the cheap for a while, you may want to go the tour route for some comfort and relative normalcy.
Overland Travel In The Middle East
Like overland travel in South America, you may be surprised at just how good the options are in the Middle East. Overall, traveling overland in the Middle East is pretty good, with some great and extremely comfortable journeys and some that are not as great (which is probably an understatement).
Bus travel is the most popular way of getting around the Middle East, and comfort levels and prices are both pretty good. There are exceptions, as always, but more times than not you will be pleased with the quality of bus travel throughout the region. There are complaints, like the noise level (bus drivers tend to love blasting videos, which doesn’t seem to bother the locals) and border crossing frustrations, but by and large, traveling by bus in the Middle East is a perfectly acceptable way of traveling.
Other forms of travel, like trains and boats, can be a good experience at the same cost as traveling by bus. However, the networks aren’t nearly as extensive, and options are limited. Bucking up for a higher class seat in either is advisable, and expect a bit of a slower journey.
Hitchhiking works much the same way as in Africa, and it’s rather common to see local people getting around this way. Westerners don’t tend to do this as much, but it’s certainly possible. Remember that drivers of hitchhikers expect to get paid, so work something out before getting in. Keep your wits about you if choosing to go with this method of travel, and make sure you exercise caution. Hitching is never a completely safe way to get around, no matter how common it is for local people to do it.
Getting around on your own is going to provide the same challenges as Africa, so you may just want to forgo this option. Driving in the Middle East is most likely much different than anything you’re used to, even if you’ve lived and driven in Manhattan or London or any other massive city around the world. If you’ve never driven in another country before, the Middle East is probably not the best place to start. Hiring your own driver sometimes costs the same as renting a car anyway, so check around once there.
Don’t forget to check out the FAQ’s on the same subject, which asks all the right questions and offers tons of great information for getting around the world on the ground (or in some cases, over water).
For specific information on overland travel in each region of the world, be sure to check out the following guides, with resources and sample pricing for various overland journeys:
Overland Travel In The Americas
Overland Travel In Europe
Overland Travel In Russia And Central Asia
Overland Travel In India
Overland Travel In China And Southeast Asia
Overland Travel In Australia And New Zealand