Overlanding in southern Africa is an incredibly unique experience, and one that will give you the kind of perspective on the region that only comes from being on the road. After 3 weeks of driving through Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, all I can say is be prepared to fall in love with these stunning countries and the beautiful people who live there, but also be prepared for the trip itself (by reading this guide).
I’ve attempted to outline below just a few of the more important things that you will need to do in preparation for your trip, including buying travel insurance, applying for visas, sorting out medications & vaccines, stocking up on all the right cash, and choosing what credit card to bring. This is obviously not an exhaustive list (and it’s pretty opinion-heavy, even for me), but hopefully it will at least provide a few useful recommendations as you ready yourself for the trip of a lifetime.
This post is Part II in a 3-part series on Overlanding in Southern Africa. Read the other posts here:
Buying travel insurance
I’ve actually never bought travel insurance in my life, but I understand that a lot of people find me ridiculous and would absolutely never travel without it. As it were, all overlanding companies require you to have travel insurance for liability reasons, but I managed to get around that by just using the free travel insurance provided by my credit card. It has a high excess, meaning I would probably need to break my leg and be heli-lifted out of a canyon before I got any money back from insurance (whereas other companies might cover doctor visits for a head cold), but it’s a risk I’ve been willing to accept. If you are happy to use your free credit card insurance, make sure you print out all the fine print of the cover and ring up/email to get an official policy number for the trip.
If you would feel better having a policy that covers even small incidents, expect to pay quite a bit more up front. I do know plenty of people who have gotten money back for damage to their camera or for emergency hospital treatment, so there are good policies out there. The flip side, of course, is that I also know people who have had their backpacks stolen with their passports and thousands of dollars in cash, and they didn’t get a cent back, even after spending hundreds on the insurance in the first place.
It is extremely important that, if you choose to buy insurance, you understand what is covered— it is a very common requirement that you must file an official police report and provide evidence of this if you are claiming money for stolen items, for instance. Besides safety, the other principle concern in Africa is illness: Malaria, Yellow Fever, Rabies, Typhoid, and Hepatitis, just to name a few. Most policies will only cover treatment for these if you’ve taken reasonable steps to prevent them (i.e. if you haven’t taken anti-malarials for any reason and then you get malaria, don’t expect to be covered by even the best policy). Many base policies also exclude “risky activities” in the fine print, so make sure you are covered for everything you’ll be doing and, if not, upgrade accordingly. There would be literally nothing worse than buying insurance and still being out of pocket if something went wrong.
As blanket advice for choosing your level of cover, you should carefully consider:
- what you are doing on your holiday (are you downhill skiing for the first time? are you riding motorbikes?)
- what you are bringing with you ($10,000 worth of camera gear?)
- your financial safety net (if you had to buy an emergency $3,000 flight home, how would you pay for it?)
- how much risk you are willing to accept (after paying $200 insurance, you’d be reimbursed for a stolen phone [maybe]; if you didn’t pay anything for insurance and still lost your phone, you’d be buying yourself a new one; BUT you might not lose your phone at all, in which case you’d have saved $200.).
In the context of Africa and overlanding specifically, it’s a relatively low-risk travel situation since your belongings are locked in the truck, you’re travelling as a group, and you generally aren’t doing anything too extreme (like snowboarding or downhill mountain biking), so I wouldn’t say it’s essential to have comprehensive insurance if you really are aware and willing to accept the risks. You just never know what might happen while travelling in a foreign country, though, so it’s always smarter to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
In summary: do your own research and make an informed decision on travel insurance, free or otherwise.
Applying for visas
I originally didn’t want to include a section on travel visas just because the rules are constantly changing and are incredibly varied by country, so please just check into the current requirements online. It is entirely your own responsibility to sort out visas even when you’re on an overlanding tour, don’t expect anyone to organise it for you or even remind you, so best to do research early. Australians can find information here and Americans here; I would generally only trust official government websites, just because the stakes are quite high if you get incorrect or outdated information (i.e. you are not let into the country and your trip comes to an abrupt end). Just for reference, though, neither Australian nor American citizens required any pre-arranged visas for travel through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, or South Africa as of early 2018 (although we did pay for a visa on arrival for Zim/Zam— $50USD for AUS/US and $80USD for UK citizens, payable in cash at the airport).
Sorting out medications & vaccines
General health considerations
As much as I like to self-diagnose and hand out unsolicited medical advice just because I have a degree in Medical Science, I’m actually not a medical doctor, so let me try to present this information as impartially as possible. Firstly, you should do a bit of research on one of the government travel websites to see if you’ll be in any areas at risk for communicable diseases such as Malaria or Yellow Fever, then make an appointment to see a doctor and describe where you are going and what you are doing so they can make recommendations on any vaccines and medications you might need. For southern Africa, it is usually recommended to be inoculated against Rabies, Typhoid, Hepatitis B, and Yellow Fever, although none of these are officially required by Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, or South Africa (unless you are coming directly from another country with a high-risk of yellow fever— refer to a government travel website for details).
The next, and probably most significant, consideration is Malaria. Much of southern Africa is considered to be at risk for malaria, particularly in national parks, like Kruger and Chobe, and near large bodies of water, like Victoria Falls and the Okavango Delta. Most doctors will recommend taking a prophylaxis like the broad-spectrum antibiotic Doxycycline to limit the risk of malaria, but it’s interesting to understand how this actually works. Doxy and other brand-name antimalarials don’t actually prevent infection, but rather treat the infection and suppress symptoms once the parasite is already in your system. The doctor will recommend, therefore, that you start taking the pills daily for some time before entering the malaria area (this seems to differ significantly between doctors, since some people on the trip were told only a few days and others were told several weeks) and for a number of weeks after returning home, since you might be infected and not yet symptomatic. Doxy is probably the most common medication dispensed for this purpose, and it’s usually believed to be quite efficacious, but a number of other options are available, such as Malarone and Mefloquine. Your doctor will make a call on which is best for you.
There are actually reasons you might not decide to take antimalarials at all, though. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a crazy anti-vaccine nut or something, but antibiotic resistant infections are actually a global crisis, contributing to the spread of essentially untreatable diseases all over the world, as well as something that could affect you personally— if infected by resistant bacteria or parasites, normal antibiotics will no longer be effective as a treatment. Basically, it’s a serious consideration, and 12 weeks on antibiotics is a very long time. Absolutely, discuss this with your doctor (my doctor told me that it is, in his opinion, it is the only valid reason for not taking antimalarials), but also do some reading online for yourself: stick to peer-reviewed research in scientific journals or reliable public health sites like World Health Organisation and Centre for Disease Control. As much as I want to put complete faith in doctors, they are often guilty of over-prescribing antibiotics as a catch-all solution, so it never hurts to be informed and then have a conversation with your doctor rather than just going in blind.
The other reason you might decide to skip antimalarials: side effects. Although not usually life-threatening, many people find that Doxycycline interrupts their normal sleeping pattern, causes extreme skin sensitivity (i.e. getting bad rashes) and photosensitivity (i.e. constantly getting sunburnt, and causes some pretty unpleasant GI issues (i.e. diarrhoea). Without going into my entire medical history, I do suffer from some rather severe stomach problems already, so this was something I weighed up considerably before making a decision— the possibility of malaria vs. the near-guarantee of stomach issues. In the end, as I’m sure you can tell, I decided not to take any prophylaxis, but I would never tell someone else that they should or shouldn’t, that’s entirely your own decision and depends on your own medical history, your exact itinerary, and the risks you’re willing to take.
Considering pros & cons of antimalarials
Rather than convincing you to do exactly as I’ve done or criticising anyone for having a different opinion, I just wanted to present my own reasons for not taking the medication. Here are several compelling arguments both for and against malarial prophylaxis, hopefully they will provide a more objective basis on which to form your own opinion:
- Compared to malaria, the side-effects of taking preventatives are actually rather insignificant. Although malaria can usually be treated quite quickly in a hospital, what if you don’t notice the signs and symptoms until you’re incredibly ill? What if you are in a remote location with no access to a doctor? What if the standard of care in the hospital is extremely low and your condition worsens/other conditions develop? You’d probably find insomnia and sunburn to be a desirable alternative.
- Some antimalarial drugs are all but useless in specific regions of Africa due to resistant strains of the disease. Another reason you should speak to your doctor about where you’re going before making a decision on which drug to take.
- If you don’t take preventatives and end up with malaria anyway, your healthcare expenses usually won’t be covered by even the best travel insurance policy. It can be extremely expensive to have emergency medical treatment, particularly if that involves you being transferred between facilities, and it would be horrible to essentially void your policy by not taking necessary health precautions.
- Antimalarials can be very expensive. Some of the newer, brand-name drugs with fewer side effects will be cost prohibitive to a budget traveller, particularly if you are on holiday for months at a time.
- If you get malaria, your whole trip will be ruined. If you are unlucky enough to contract malaria, it’s unlikely you’ll be enjoying safari drives or skydiving with the rest of the group. If not for the sake of your health, is it at least worth taking the drugs for the sake of your trip?
- Wearing mosquito repellant with DEET and using other personal protective strategies (netting, clothing with full coverage of skin) are often sufficient in lower-risk malaria areas. Preventing bites is never 100% effective, but it may be a reasonable solution for short-term travel in low- to medium-risk malaria areas.
Other tips for preventing malaria
All things considered, the decision to take antimalarials is still entirely at your own discretion. I hope this information has at least given you something to think about and discuss with your doctor. If you decide not to take these drugs after careful deliberation, do make sure that you take every precaution to prevent bites. I am happy to report that both Cal and I remained malaria-free and almost entirely bite-free using these strategies:
- Mosquitos are most active at night in these areas, so coat up in tropical strength mosquito repellant with DEET (> 40%) first thing in the morning and as soon as it starts to get dark. Cover your entire body with the spray, even though it’s super gross and usually ends up in your mouth.
- If you’re going to be in any high-risk areas or near water, keep a constant coating of DEET on you throughout the day.
- Use alternative repellants in combinations with DEET (sprays with permethrin or bracelets with eucalyptus/lemongrass/citronella) to really cover all your bases.
- Wear long-sleeves and pants whenever possible, but especially at night.
- Absolutely do not sleep with your tent unzipped or your door/window open in malaria areas, and make sure you have mosquito-netting in place. Even though it’s boiling hot, try not to sleep naked or out of the blankets, it’s just exposing more skin for potential bites.
Stocking up on all the right cash
You’ll need to bring plenty of US cash for use in Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia. These need to be clean, post-2006 notes (they are very strict on this, I had a $100 bill from 2001 that literally no one would accept), so go to a bank or currency exchange before you even leave home and stock up. As much as I hate travelling with large amounts of cash, it’s fairly unavoidable in this situation.
It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much you’ll need, but many of the activities on an overlanding trip can only be paid for in USD, so it’s best to err on the side of caution. Your tour dossier should give you an idea of optional activity costs, and then build in extra money for drinks or food at the camp bar and incidentals. You’ll also need USD to pay for the visa into Zambia/Zimbabwe and an anticipated tourism levy in Botswana. Annoyingly, I grossly underestimated the cash that we would need on our own recent holiday, so we were stuck pulling local currency out of an ATM at a shocking rate. In short: it certainly won’t ruin your trip, but it will end up costing you more and being a real nuisance, so just budget liberally.
Choosing what credit card to bring
If you don’t already have a good credit card (with reward points and no international fees), I would definitely suggest getting one for this trip. Even though you’ll be using cash at any curio/craft market, you’ll be able to use you credit card at restaurants, bigger supermarkets, and for pricier activities, not to mention take advantage of all the perks that come with booking your flights and paying for the overlanding trip with the card (aka an absolutely enormous amount of points, free travel insurance, car hire collision damage waiver, etc). Where cards are accepted, VISA appeared to be largely preferred, so I wouldn’t bring a MC or AMEX unless you have a back-up VISA as well (of course, it goes without saying that you should always travel with multiple cards anyway in case one is stolen/has to be cancelled due to fraudulent activity). This is, in my opinion, the absolute best travel card out there in every possible regard— I even paid for my flights using reward points that were redeemable at 125% value on Chase’s own travel website.
I wrote this guide in the hopes that it would help you get everything sorted and ready to go as your overlanding trip approaches, but also to provide information (as objectively as I know how) on a number of important considerations. In reading this, bear in mind that you are absolutely entitled to your own opinions and I would never profess to be in possession of all the right answers. At the end of the day, just do whatever will allow you to enjoy this incredible journey to the fullest!
Any questions or comments on this post? Let me know below!