In January 2013 we set off from Reykjavik. We wanted to be the first ever overland trip to make it driving all the way from Iceland to South Africa. We had a 35-year-old ex-British army truck with big mud tires and strong 4x4, converted to carry 15 people. We were the first to try 66° North to 33° South driving via west Africa, cooking on camp fires and camping in the bush.
Our group was made up of roughly equal Icelanders and Internationals with a 50/50 mix of guys and girls, aged from 20 to 40. Almost everyone was single when they joined the trip and most shared their tents, with 2 people in each tent. This often made life easier, as we didn't always have energy to set up a solo tent after a long day. That's when your tent partner could help out, but if anyone felt like sleeping alone, a solo tent was always an option.
Many companies do overland tours in Africa, but this was a more basic type of company reminiscent of the '60s and '70s overland expeditions: no aircon, no fridge, no cook and with everyone working together as a team to make it happen. We were. . .Vikings across Africa.
We started off the tour in Iceland, spending a few days on the south coast while visiting the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon a spectacular setting to see icebergs floating toward the sea. The heaters in the back of the truck were very small and basic, so in the end most of us decided that the January Arctic weather was a little much, and we sat in the truck in our sleeping bags.
It took us four days to cross Iceland visiting different waterfalls and crossing Europe's largest desert, mile after mile of black barren landscape with volcanic features. This was the first of many desert crossings. We managed to stay overnight in small rural villages, often hosted by friends of some of the people on the trip.
In the east we drove to the port at Seyðisfjörður from where we boarded a ferry for the 15-hour trip to Tórshavn, Faroe Islands. Formerly part of Norway, the Faroe Islands have been autonomous territory within the realm of Denmark since 1948. Situated between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic about 320 kilometers northwest of Scotland, the stark, rugged beauty of these remote islands places them on many a must-see list. But we were anxious to get to mainland Denmark, so it was onto another ferry and a 40-hour voyage to Hirtshals Denmark. The winter seas were quite rough and some of our intrepid group endured a bit of seasickness, barely worth mentioning for Viking adventurers.
We might have been less in a hurry to get to the mainland had we known we'd be facing unwelcoming weather and a cold, wet week of driving from Denmark through Germany and France. Staying overnight in old medieval towns added some local interest, but what we really wanted to see was some sunshine, which finally and thankfully appeared when we reached Spain. After warming up and picking up a few emergency food supplies we were ready for our journey through Africa. Our truck held cooking fuel and water to last a month and enough backup pasta and ketchup to last even longer. Gourmet meals – not for us.
So much for Europe. Africa here we come. From Spain we sailed past the rock of Gibraltar over to Morocco where we stayed the first few nights in the mountain town of Chefchaouen. This small place gave us an ideal cultural introduction to the continent we would be traveling for the next six months. It had the narrow streets of an old middle eastern medina but was not so large that we got lost. It was good preparation for the massive market cities of Marrakech and Fez with their endless mazes of streets. Around every corner we came across a strange market and an explosion of new and different smells, sounds, ancient buildings or mosques. In a word, fascinating, to say the least, but at the same time we quickly learned to keep an eye on the pet monkeys that have been trained to pick pockets.
Next, we headed south to the Sahara. With temperatures rising daily and without windows on the truck we drove with its sides open. Feeling the wind in our faces and tasting the sand in the air, we began to feel part of the environment. As luck would have it we came across a Bedouin camp and got to stay in an old nomad's tent with its woven walls and carpeted floor – to an Icelander you can't get much more exotic than that, except maybe the time we spent in an ex-French Foreign Legion fort in the middle of the desert. These were just the first of many memorable encounters we would have in Africa
We stayed there for a few nights exploring, but lured by what fascinating scenario might lay ahead, we continued south across the vast deserts and sand dunes of Mauritania. Now, we were in the real third world. Here we first found donkeys used as the main form of transport and goats on every street.
The neighboring country was having a little instability, so for security we made a detour to the jungles of Senegal and a major change of scenery from dry and arid to the lush tropical flora and fauna of the Niokolo-Koba National Park. Taking a break from driving, we got an up-close but perfectly safe encounter with crocodiles during a cruise on the Gambia River. Naturally, there was an abundance of monkeys, only these were wild and more interested in stealing our food than our wallets.
Our detour took us through Guinea, one of the least visited places in Africa, but it also turned out to be our most friendly. Many times we would camp right in a village or on the school playing field, and even though the roads were very rough and left our skin coated in the red dust, most of us found this to be our favorite place. Maybe it was the lack of electricity or Internet that made it more real to us, or maybe it was the very cheap beer.
In the Ivory Coast we camped almost every night in the jungle enjoying the sounds of nature. On the down side, the closest we came to a shower for a couple of weeks was a bucket of water or a wash in any river that looked clean and free of lethal inhabitants. In the evenings we sat around the campfire listening to villagers close by singing in the night.
Eventually we arrived at our halfway point in Ghana where we found an amazing unspoiled beach and camped there for a week, going skinny dipping in the evenings and making a BBQ of a whole local goat to celebrate getting this far. Over the next few weeks we traversed the countries of Togo, and Benin, stopping in the main cities to sort out visas and take advantage of the last few luxuries available before heading into the more difficult parts of our journey. But before this we had time to visit some local fetish markets and participate in a voodoo ceremony complete with chickens and local spirits.
We entered Nigeria, a large country with good roads but a bad reputation for corruption and security, so we drove across fast and instead of our normal routine of camping in the bush or on the beach, we only stayed in places that had secure compounds and guards. We often stayed in 5-star hotels with big pools, fancy bars, and a clientele of rich oil barons and other VIPs. Surprisingly, they let us camp in the back for free, even though we were a motley crew covered in the dirt of camping. Even stranger, from the European point of view, we were invited to stay for three nights inside the compound of a brewery – the hosts kindly piling on plenty of food and beer. So, despite our fears and suspicions, our Nigerian experience proved nothing like anyone had expected. Yes, there were lots of roadblocks and sometimes some pretty aggressive people, but also much hospitality.
After the stress of Nigeria, we stayed a while on a few different beaches in Cameroon, taking time to go visit a gorilla rehabilitation center and a Baka pygmy village where the locals introduced us to their traditional instruments and dances. Then, we moved on to the national parks of Gabon and our first thrilling glimpse of wild elephants.
Our most difficult roads came next in the Congo and Angola. At this point we were happy to be driving a 4×4 ex-army truck; no other vehicle would be able to cross such bad roads and difficult terrain. We heard that other tour companies had to cancel their tours, but we just kept driving through. Thankfully, we had, by this point in the trip, learned to work well as a team, and being in extremely remote areas did not worry us at all as we were well equipped with everything to be self sufficient in case anything went wrong.
These parts were definitely the most abandoned and remote places we had visited. One official border post had a sign from over 100 years ago to declare you had arrived in Belgian Congo. This country has had two other official names since this post was erected, but no one ever put up a new sign, and, likely, no one has done any road maintenance in the last 100 years either. Some of the roads were so rough that the travelers just sat clinging to the floor of the truck as best they could; otherwise they would bounce half a meter off their seats into the air. After many days on this road of hell we eventually found the ferry that would take us across the great Congo River. Standing on the boat, we could not help but feel a sense of achievement to have reached this far.
Soon we would be in Angola, which would be our first nation of southern Africa. We were expecting the roads to get a little easier; well, we were wrong. They were almost as bad as in central Africa but with the added problem that we could not normally bush camp as there were many land mines in the countryside, leftovers from the civil wars (1975-1989).
Fortunately, we were welcomed to camp in the grounds of local Catholic missions or in the backyards of bars. One time we were even invited to stay the night in an army camp. These days these brave soldiers are employed in removing the land mines, and we civilians felt lucky to have this chance to inspect their equipment and discuss their dangerous activities.
One added difficulty for us was the "piss stop." Normally, after driving for a couple of hours, we would halt and everyone would disappear into the bush to do their business, but out here we had to be a lot more careful about stepping off the main road. Every few kilometers we came across trees spray-painted red or sticks stuck in the sand with string or plastic tied to the top, meaning it was not safe, so we had to solve this problem by staying on the road: girls going to the left of the truck and guys going to the right. Fortunately it was a pretty big truck so it provided lots of cover.
Finally, after so many rough roads we came to Namibia, a very developed country and our first taste of a more "westernized" culture after months of roughing it. While the more adventurous times made the most memorable moments, I have to admit that everyone in our group smiled happily to be greeted by a shopping mall and the ability to go instantly online. It's the little things you miss, but quickly you start to yearn for the "real" Africa.
We visited Etosha National Park, surely one of the best in the world. We saw every animal possible – elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, and most fascinating of all was to see a rhino chasing lions away from a waterhole. At night we could hear the lions roaring while we went to sleep knowing we were securely fenced in and they were fenced out.
The countryside had changed again, no longer the jungles of the Congo or the bush of Angola, now we drove across the Namib Desert, the last desert of our trip. One day we stopped awhile to explore the remains of an old mining ghost town where we saw a powerful display of nature at work. Half of the houses were already filled with wind-blown sand as the desert steadily reclaimed this abandoned and nearly forgotten place.
Nearing the end of our journey over 20,000 kilometers and 20 countries, we traveled along the Atlantic coastline and crossed into South Africa. The last few evenings we gathered together around the barbecue to watch the sunset and think back on the last six months of shared good times and rough times. In Cape Town we said our sad goodbyes certain we'd had a whole lot of fun with friends for life. . .
Sound like your idea of travel? We're organizing another trip Reykjavik to Cape Town, leaving Iceland in January 2016. Visit Vikings Across Africa.