Forty-three weeks traveling through 29 countries with a bunch of strangers on a large truck… who would want to do something like that? Well, there are enough people out there who have that just such a trip has earned a name: The Ultimate Trans.
The Trans is a well-earned merit badge on the traveler’s proverbial sash. And there’s a good reason for that. It’s one hell of a trip. Traveling in Africa — especially on a budget — is tricky at the easiest of times. Now, just imagine less-visited locales — stretches with no real roads, restaurants or hotels; national borders where immigration officials thrive on making life as difficult as possible for anyone who dares pass; or highways where your vehicle could break down hundreds of miles from the nearest civilization.
The Ultimate Trans is the most extreme version of a style of travel called overlanding. The ‘Trans’ traverses three continents in about 10 months. The journey begins in Gibraltar and heads south through 16 countries, stops half-way in Cape Town, South Africa, and continues up Africa’s East side, through the Middle East, and ends in either Cairo or Istanbul.
The Ultimate Trans and the experienced tour leaders and drivers that sit of the helm of each trip take the bulk of the cost, worry, and frustration out of the hands of the passengers so they can enjoy the sights, thrills, tastes, and wonders of this amazing journey. I should know. I was one of these leaders for four and a half years.
To be an Ultimate Trans-er puts you in an exclusive club of less than 100 people a year. Only two companies do the trip with departures twice a year in March and October. The trucks rarely carry more than 26 passengers and some people only do portions of the trip. The companies that offer this trip are African Trails Overland Safaris and Oasis Overland. The companies are not drastically different, though African Trails ends its trip in Istanbul after 43 weeks while Oasis finishes in Cairo after 40. Both Oasis and African Trails charge about $9000 for the 10-month expedition.
The journey requires its participants to be mentally and physically prepared. Accommodation ranges from luxurious campsites on the banks of the Chobe River to pulling into a roadside quarry in Burkina Faso, where you’ll dig your own toilet. While a tour leader is there to manage the travel and finances, passengers are generally in charge of shopping and cooking, and keeping the truck tidy.
This is not a trip with a lot of quiet or relaxing alone time. Overlanders may have to wait for weeks in the Congo for an Angolan visa. They may go 11 days without a proper shower while roving through West African jungles. Trucks may have mechanical problems or fall prey to one of Africa’s abominable roads.
Not many people have the opportunity to overnight in a remote Congolese village and teach the residents the YMCA. (Yes, that’s right; I introduced the village people to The Village People.) How many folks do you know that have bush camped in Wadi Rum, crossed Lake Nasser on the infamous Wadi Halfa / Aswan ferry, or been charged by a silverback gorilla? Most people can’t tell you where Mauritania is on a map, let alone say that they’ve shopped for dinner at the fish market in it’s capital, Nouakchott. I’m sure one passenger will never forget the gaggle of Angolan urchins that learned the words to “Happy Birthday” so that they could sing it to him.
There is no mold for an Ultimate Trans-er. Experienced globe-trotters and first-time travelers, singles, couples, groups, even families with teenagers, have done the Trans. It isn’t uncommon to find a trans group with passengers’ ages ranging from 18 to early 60s though the average age tends to be 25 – 35. Every trip creates an incredible and unusual convergence of people and personalities. Although the occasional personality clash is inevitable, the trip manifests into an extraordinary and unlikely group of friends. The only requirements are an open mind, a cooperative and positive spirit, and a willingness to accept the challenges of the road.