I’ve been writing a series of blog posts called This Overlanding Life about the practical side of long-term overland travel. The first two posts were on how to afford a life of travel, and health and safety abroad, two topics that apply to all types of travel. From here on out, the scope of this mini-series will be narrower – we’re going to focus only on overland travel.
So what is overland travel, anyway?
Well, if you’re a regular follower of Wandering Footsteps, you’ve probably seen this word come up a lot in the last year. I defined overland travel here and I even have a blog topic tag on overlanding.
Over the years, I’ve met all sorts of overlanders – families completing a short around-the-world trip in a camping car, couples cycling across Africa or Europe over the course of several months, guys on cross-continental motorbike trips. What makes all these people overlanders is that they travel independently, long-term (more than just a quick holiday), by road, and with their own set of mechanized transportation.
Bruno and I are overlanders, too. But we’re a special breed of overlanders who’ve made the trip a lifestyle, who have no other house but this home-on-wheels, and who travel really, really slowly. I guess you could call us turtle-style overlanders!
Traveling overland is a peculiar type of travel that raises a specific set of questions: namely, those around driving in foreign countries, crossing borders, and traveling across continents. That, then, is what this post will be dedicated to – answering the typical transportation questions (using motorized vehicles) we get based on our experiences.
Driving in Foreign Countries
Driving legally in foreign countries is fairly similar to driving in your home country. You need the following:
- A valid driver’s license. It’s a good idea to get an international driver’s license for extended travel, because some countries limit the validity of a regular driver’s license to a few weeks.
- Registration. Self-explanatory, I think.
- Insurance. Actually you don’t always legally require insurance, but we do recommend it. We learned this the hard way when we hit a security camera in Oman and didn’t have insurance coverage to pay for the repair. Since then, we’ve always purchased insurance at the land border crossing. It’s almost always possible to purchase insurance at a land entry point.
Certain countries also require a vignette, a sticker that allows you to use the country’s roads. In some countries, like Switzerland, you only need the vignette for its highways, but in other countries, like Bulgaria, you need it to drive, period. We never encountered vignettes in Africa or the Middle East, so it seems to be more of a European thing.
A lot of countries require your vehicle to contain a safety kit that includes things like neon vests, fire extinguishers and accident triangles. Some countries also require certain neon tape strips or striped plates on the front, back, and/or sides of the vehicle. It’s somewhat frustrating that these requirements are not standardized. For instance, in all of southern Africa you only needed one fire extinguisher, except in Zimbabwe, where you needed two. It was in Zimbabwe, too, that we were told we didn’t have a red stripe on the front of the vehicle, so Bruno had to cut out a part of the red stripe on the side of our vehicle and stick in on the front before driving on. The only country in all of Africa where you needed red and white striped plates behind the vehicle was Uganda. And we’re going to need to buy an extra triangle for our upcoming winter in Morocco.
Our advice is to check on requirements with customs officials as you enter the land border of each country, and make any necessary changes or purchases at the border town. In Europe, you can buy fancy Atlases that include this country-specific information, as well as any unique rules of the road (like regular speed limits, whether daytime running lights are required, etc.)
This brings me to my next point – rules of the road are fairly universal. The big change is, of course, whether you need to drive on the right or left, but this one is easy to figure out quickly (hint: if someone is driving straight at you in your lane, you’re probably on the wrong side).
What may not be the same is the driving culture of the country you’re in. In some countries, you might get a lot of crazy or aggressive drivers that pay no attention to rules of the road, use no blinkers, don’t stay in their lanes, pass on the right, or pass when oncoming traffic seems too-close-for-comfort. In other countries, you may have to share the road with flocks of sheep, tractors, or ox-drawn carts. You may need to deal with potholes the size of craters, mud tracks, or quick-sand that comes out of nowhere. It’s important to be a confident driver, comfortable with your vehicle, and use extra caution in a foreign country. A GPS doesn’t hurt when traveling across megalopolises like Nairobi, Dubai, or Mumbai.
While driving in a foreign country, you are sure to make a few mistakes, even if you do all your research beforehand and ask for more info at the border upon arrival. You may have to deal with police, and you may be asked for a bribe. This has happened to us more times that I can count. Yet, we’re happy to report that we’ve never had to pay out. We’ve been bribed for silly things like missing neon plates or stickers and infractions like speeding and illegal turns. In each instance, we remained calm and respectful, repeated that we were tourists, that we were sorry, and that we would rectify the situation immediately. Sometimes it took an hour, but the police always let us go. Yes, Bruno may have the chach, but we also think that foreigners are often too quick to offer bribes in order to get out of an uncomfortable situation. We strongly discourage you from accepting to pay a bribe – if you did something wrong, pay the official ticket (and be wary of fake “official” tickets). Saying no to bribes helps future overland travelers.
Crossing Land Borders
To cross a land border, you require all the same documents you need to drive (registration, license, possibly insurance). You may also need one additional, often-vital document: a carnet de passage en douane. The carnet is sort of like a vehicle passport in that it contains all the vital statistics of your vehicle. Its purpose is to temporarily import your vehicle into a foreign country and to guarantee to the customs officials that you will not sell the vehicle while in that country.
When you cross a land border with a vehicle, you will pass through immigration, as you would in an airport. You may have to park and walk to the immigration desk, or you may be able to drive up to the desk for your passport stamp.
After immigration, you will head to customs (again, either by walking or driving, depending on the setup of the border – you’ll usually have to walk in poorer countries and/or countries that don’t have very open borders with one another). Here, you will present your vehicle documents and the carnet if it is required. When you enter the country, the officer will stamp the top third of a new page, keep the bottom third of the page for him (containing your vehicle’s vital stats) and let you proceed. Sometimes they might check the chassis number on the vehicle, and they may look inside. Then you’re free to go.
When you leave the country, you will have to show the same page of the carnet, and the officer will place an exit stamp on the top part of the page, and then take the middle third for himself. You will now have only a stub of a page left, but it will have an entry and an exit stamp, proving that your vehicle has left the country.
The reason the carnet de passage en douane works as a guarantee against resale is that you need to pay a fairly large deposit in order to obtain the document. You must contact your country’s Automobile Club in order to get the exact quotient for your country, as they vary (I know, for instance, that the UK’s quotient is very high). The quotient is always a certain percentage of the value of your vehicle, so keep this in mind when choosing whether you want to buy a new vehicle or a used one. Our vehicle, because it’s older than ten years, is said to have the minimum value of $2,500. France’s Automobile Club asks for a quotient of 100% of the value of the vehicle, so our quotient is $2,500. Now that our route no longer requires the carnet, we’ve mailed it to our Automobile Club and were returned our quotient.
Carnets are generally valid a year and have a certain number of pages in them, so keep that in mind when planning your route. One country* equals one page. Depending on your Automobile Club, it can be difficult to obtain a new carnet while on the road. Each carnet has a fixed, non-refundable cost.
*Almost all countries in Africa require the carnet de passage en douane. Most countries in the Middle East don’t require it, but we were asked for it when importing our vehicle into Saudia Arabia and shipping it into Iran, and we’ve heard stories of other people needing it in Oman and the U.A.E. Neither Europe nor the Americas require the carnet, and Asia is a mixed-bag.
Crossing Sea Borders
As overlanders, we don’t just hop on a plane when we want to go from Africa to South America or from Asia to the US. When roads can’t take us there, we use boats. It seems simple, but it’s probably the most complicated part of overland travel.
Overlanders can choose between container ships and ferries. We’ve done both, though the three container ships our vehicle has been on were before I was around. I’ll do my best to describe the experience of shipping a vehicle by container from what I’ve gleaned from Bruno:
Bruno hates shipping in a container. It’s expensive, requires a lot of complicated and lengthy paperwork, and leaves him homeless for weeks. He tries to avoid it, and purposely chooses a route that eliminates as many container ships as possible. If there’s a road route, that’s what he chooses, even if it means a long detour. The journey is the destination in overland travel, anyway.
When his journey has required a shipping (from South Korea to Los Angeles, across the Panama Canal, and from Uruguay to South Africa), he’s always contacted a shipping agent. The agent is responsible for overseeing the paperwork, which can obviously be challenging in a foreign country. With the agent’s guidance, Bruno spent days running around to various offices with various documents and obtaining various signatures and stamps. The agent also organizes the departure, and provides a reputable contact for the arrival procedure. We highly recommend using an agent, even if you speak the local language.
Our vehicle fits into a high cube container (in fact, Bruno designed the vehicle with this sole purpose in mind), which means we can share a container with another vehicle. Though in each case it took Bruno a little bit of time to find someone to ship with, it cut the container costs in half and he made lifelong friends – like Phil and Angie – a out of the experience (I guess there’s something about loading your home onto a boat that bonds people together!) With each shipping, Bruno paid less than $2,000, including agent fees and port taxes. From what we’ve heard from other overlanders, this is a pretty great feat!
Ferries are a lot simpler, and generally don’t require the help of an agent. We’ve traveled on loads of tiny ferries (like to visit Uganda’s Ssesse Islands and to hop from Anatolia to the Galipoli Peninsula in Turkey) but the ferries that I’m going to talk about are long crossings that span borders. These are often called RORO, or roll-on-roll-off ferries.
This year, we’ve taken a ferry from Sudan to Saudi Arabia, and another from the Emirates to Iran. Both times, we traveled with the vehicle, though in the first ferry we needed to purchase cabin tickets for sleeping, while in the second case, Bruno was able to sleep inside the vehicle. We asked around for a ferry agent (locals are better sources of info that Google, I swear!), went to their local office, enquired as to their dates and prices, and purchased tickets several days before the date of travel. In most cases, the larger the vehicle, the higher the cost – but it’s still nothing like a container ship (between $400-800 for us and the vehicle).
On the day of departure, we arrive several hours before scheduled departure, because you have to do your immigration and customs exit procedures before you board. It is significantly more confusing than a land crossing, and it was only with the pity of a local officer that we were able to get our paperwork done. Sometimes you are able to stay with the vehicle and load it yourself, but on other ferries you have to park the vehicle at the dock, give your keys, and board the boat.
Upon arrival in the new country, we follow the crowd of passengers to the immigration desk, but we always have to wait several hours to claim our vehicle and complete the customs forms because offloading the vehicle is lengthy. Again, it was only with the help of local officials that we were able to get all the customs paperwork complete. I’m not sure why it’s so much more confusing to go through customs at a port than at a land crossing, but it’s certainly an argument for minimizing sea travel.
It may seem complicated to travel overland. But just think: you don’t need to book flights, look at train routes, or sit on bumpy busses for endless hours. Once you get your vehicle into a new country, the possibilities are endless. And there’s a massive online overlanders community to help you with any particular questions along the way.