Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Travel En Masse*

The new Dragoman brochure is out!

Long-time readers know that I've been on a few Dragoman overland trucks.

Now, I realize that it 1) drives me crazy to be pent up in a group and 2) is more expensive to go with a group and 3) sounds wimpy compared to hefting a backpack and catching a bus alone, but I actually recommend some truck travel for some people.

Sometimes, even to myself.

Overland trucks, from Dragoman, Exodus, Guerba, and a host of other companies, are movable worlds. They are modified trucks, either Bedford or Mercedes, that carry passenger seats (about 23 of them), small refrigerators, card tables, luggage lockers, safes, camping gear, kitchen equipment, and spare parts. Two driver/mechanic/organizers travel with the group, and in Africa there are also cooks along for the ride.

These trucks are not needed in many parts of the world where there are hostels and great transportation. Indonesia, for example, would be a pointless destination for an overland truck. Southeast Asia, which is super-easy to get around, would also be a silly place to take a truck. When you can get a hotel room for $6 and a meal for $1.25, why camp out in the sticks?

I took an overland truck from Kathmandu to Damascus in 1998. This was a great way to get around that part of the world. I'd have had a hard time getting an Iranian visa on my own, and I could never have reached rural Pakistan without help. The group was small--about 8 passengers--and this was part of Dragoman's attempt at hotel trips (small, local hotels), so we were able to stay in cities instead of in rural areas.

Another overland trip that made a lot of sense for my itinerary was the Ethiopia one described in Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik. Ethiopia itself is no problem to get around by public bus, but the trip from northern Kenya to the Ethiopian border is tricky. Paul Theroux solved it by hitching a ride with... an overland truck. Peter Moore spent days on top of a cattle truck (I think--I don't remember now and I loaned Roberta my copy of his Swahili for the Broken-Hearted book so I can't check).

When it comes to East and Southern Africa, I can't claim to support overland trucks. There's too damn many of them. It's not the rare experience it is in Pakistan. You don't need the safety of the tourism bubble like in, perhaps, Nigeria. There are plenty of transportation alternatives.

But then in other parts of Africa, such as Ethiopia, being on a truck is as close as you'll get to your own wheels. And you find yourself camped in the shadow of remote mountains, just off the side of the road, with ten local people staring at you. Taking the local bus only takes you to towns, and you won't get out into the countryside without your own wheels.

I checked out the new Dragoman brochure online. The technology was annoying, so I clicked off and ordered a paper copy. But I looked long enough to see that the West Africa Dragoman dates don't coincide with my proposed West Africa dates. Pity. I could use the backup of the occasional tourist bubble.

*Nice truck art by Steve Buccellato

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