The Art of Overlanding 02 - Five Routes Across the World
It's the idyll which many folks think of first when the subject turns to overlanding. The line on the map, audaciously bounding across deserts and mountains, from one side of a continent to another. And quite rightly so too, because overlanding is all about the big trips; the journeys which you can lose yourself in as they become the sum total of your existence.
But which line on the map to choose? It's an important question for those eager to embark on their own overland adventure, and in many ways its up there alongside the choice of vehicle and companions in the effect it has on the resulting experience. Luckily for those making the decision for the first time, while the world is a pretty big place, the number of potential routes across it is limited by geography, borders and the quality of the roads which link places - particularly if you shun the butch 4x4 for something more quirky.
To introduce you to your potential options in overland routes, we've put together a list of five of the big ticks, which like all the best overlanding odysseys, link together two iconic points on the earth's surface, which are naturally located as far apart as possible. So, read, enjoy, and be inspired...
Route One - The Classic One
For many Europeans - particularly us Brits - the overland route to rule them all is the 10,000 mile Trans-African route from Cairo to Cape Town. This is the one which ticks all the boxes. Sandy deserts, steaming jungles, wild animals and rutted tracks. And as dramatic backdrops to bookend your trip go, you can't get any more iconic than starting at the Egyptian Pyramids, and finishing in the shadow of Table Mountain, having driven their via Kilimanjaro and the Equator, naturally.
When we drove this route in a Porsche 944 back in 2008, it was a rather different proposition to today. While in some ways it is easier now - thanks to road-building projects in the Nubian Desert and Northern Kenya, on others the drive has became more challenging - particularly if you're starting from Europe. Back in 2008 we were able to drive to Cairo from the UK via The Middle East, but the war in Syria has since made that particular route impassable, and taking the ferry from Italy to Tunisia, then heading to Cairo via Libya has became considerably more risky over the past decade, too. However, it is certainly possibly to ship your car to the starting point in Egypt to begin your adventure, and you certainly won'd be disappointed if you decide to.
Route Two - The First One
It was made famous by the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition in 1955, but the 14,000 mile drive between the UK and Singapore had been attracting vehicle-wielding adventurers for considerably longer. For instance, in 1929 the route attracted the delightfully-named Marcus Canagasabey, in his Morris-Cowley, and he almost certainly wasn't the first.
The road to Singapore is one which has changed greatly over the years. In Mr Canagasabey's day, both China and Berma were off-limits, and the only way to make the drive involved a ferry from India to Malaysia. After the second world war, the route through Burma briefly became passable, but was quickly reclaimed by the jungle, and during the '60s, heading west via Iran and Afghanistan was a perfectly sensible thing to do. We completed the drive from the UK to Singapore in a Corvette in 2013, and back then there were two options - Either heading through Central Asia before passing through China down to South East Asia, or driving out to India via Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, then getting to Asia via either the still-running boat to Malaysia, or looping past Burma via Tibet. Our Choice took us through China, which was convenient, but had the downside of requiring us to pay several thousand pounds to the Chinese government; a situation which still stands today.
But some things have changed today. Burma is now open to overlanders, but Thailand has increased its red tape. Passing through Iran is doable, but requires a Carnet du Passage (a customs document which we'll be meeting in a later article). In short, there's no completely straightforward option for the drive to Singapore, but nor is there any reason why your chosen route shouldn't become a reality if you're motivated. And if you're really motivated? Well, from Singapore, it isn't that much further to Sydney...
Route Three - The Long One
For those of us in Europe, it's natural to gravitate towards the wilds of Africa and Asia for our overland kicks; however if you live in The Americas, then there's only one road in town. And, this being the Americas, it's the longest one of them all - The Pan-American Highway. All 19,000 miles of it, from the top of Alaska to Ushuaia, near South America's southernmost tip.
Despite its length, in many ways the Pan-American is the least daunting route on the list. It's road conditions are generally pretty good, being tarmac almost all the way. Red tape is minimal, and only the need to ship your vehicle around the Darien Gap presents any unforeseen obstacles. And the variety of landscapes is immense. From the snow arctic to equatorial jungles, via sun bleached deserts, it has it all. Yes, while the Pan-American may be tricky for us in Europe to get to, it's certainly worth the effort. And if you're in the US and you fancy a big trip, look no further.
Route Four - The Muddy One
If the route down through East Africa is the respectable face of African overlanding, the West Coast is its unpredictable cousin. Here, the jungle is thicker, the mud deeper, the borders more indecipherable and the regimes less stable. It's Africa turned up to eleven, and as a result, you'll either love it or you'll hate it.
Just like the East Coast route, the ultimate goal is Cape Town, but the countries you pass through are rather different. Since the Arab Spring, the historic route down through the deserts of Algeria, Mali and Niger has been off limits, an inconvenience which has forced the route further to the west. Travelling from Europe? Then you'll be heading down through Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal, before swinging left and heading to Nigeria. And then it's down, through the likes of The Congo and Angola, before picking up the road to journey's end beneath Table Mountain. If you want to jump into this whole overlanding malarkey both feet first, then this is the drive for you. Don't be too intimidated though; after all, it has been done in a Nissan Leaf.
Route Five - The New One
Back in 1989, when the Berlin wall fell, a whole new world opened up to the overlanders of the West. The previously off-limits expanses of Siberia floated over the horizon, calling bike and 4x4 equipped adventurers to action. A call which continues to this very day.
There are two main routes across Siberia, and conveniently, they're both actually the same until their last thirds. So, once you've drive the thousands of miles east from European Russia, passed the stirring towns of Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk, dipped your feet in the mighty Lake Baikal and had your photo taken with the bust of Lenin in Ulan Ude, you arrive at a junction where you have a choice. Left, to the Road of Bones and onwards to Magadan, or onwards down the Amur Highway, to Vladivostock. The first choice will take you along one of hardcore overlanding's greatest hits, a road built with the lives of those sent to the gulags, which these days takes no prisoners and is in a constant battle with nature for its existence. Opt for the second option, and you'll find that the Amur highway is smoother and more trafficked, but still no less of an adventure. So, the left road or the right road; it's your choice.
So, that's the five most popular routes for a big overland adventure, and hopefully they've left you feeling inspired. Next week, we'll be sharing five shorter and more achievable journeys with you, for a more attainable hit of driving goodness, so until then, stay tuned...