Boarding an aircraft and flying halfway around the world feels unremarkable in our modern world. Air travel has become as ubiquitous and uncomfortable as a ride in a lift, reducing distant destinations and divergent cultures to different floors in a planet-sized department store.
Overland travel is different. It can still be uncomfortable, but, to venture into cliche, it’s as much about the journey as the destination.
Just after Christmas, I drove from the northeast of England to Bamako in Mali, covering over 5,000 miles in an elderly 4x4 which had formerly been owned by the British Transport Police. In case you’re thinking of doing the same, here are some notable stopping places on the journey down West Africa.
Leaving Europe on the ferry from Algeciras, it’s a relatively short 100km drive from Spain’s African enclave of Ceuta to the beautiful Rif mountain town of Chefchaouen. There’s no train or plane connection to Chaouen but if you’re driving, it’s a natural waypoint when heading south, providing a first dose of African “otherness” and an antidote to hours spent on European motorways.
At over 550m, the Rif mountain air is cool, the sunlight bright and the town relaxed. Compared to Marrakech’s tiresome money-grabbing mill of commercialisation, the alleyways of Chaouen’s blue-painted medina invite tranquil and contemplative wanderings – an ideal place to relax and plan the next leg of the journey.
Place to stay: Hotel Rif (00212 5399 86982; firstname.lastname@example.org). Basic accommodation with parking. Doubles from £16.
Dakhla, Western Sahara
For a country that doesn’t officially exist, Western Sahara can seem endless. Days driving parallel to the Atlantic are often only accompanied by the incongruous soundtrack of Spanish radio stations drifting across from the Canaries some 60 miles offshore. After perspective-warping straight desert roads, punctuated only by police checkpoints and post-apocalyptic fuel stations, Dakhla is a wonderland.
“Capital” of the disputed territory’s Moroccan-controlled region, the town languidly combines influences from Morocco, Spain, France and Mauritania in a surprisingly rich mix. At the tip of a sandy peninsula, each year a migratory population of kite surfers descends and constructs an ad hoc campervan village overlooking an expansive windswept lagoon outside town. But more authentic people-watching can be found over mint tea at the town centre’s Café Al Ahram.
Place to stay: Hotel Sahara (00212 5288 97773) offers basic accommodation right in the centre of town. 20 dirham for parking. Doubles from £8.
Whether you’ve blasted down the tarmac from Nouadhibou, venting understandable frustration after the interminable Mauritanian border crossing, or picked your way through the dune fields of Parc National Banc D’Aguin, arriving in Nouakchott requires drivers to embrace the ebullient spirit of African city traffic – there is no other option. Taken as a whole, the city is busy, dusty and charmless. Most overlanders end up staying a few days, if only to bag visa stamps for onward travel.
If you do stop, the simple charm of Nouakchott’s individual neighbourhoods emerges. The sandy streets close by the landmark Patisserie Les Princes (excellent for baguettes, croissants and pains au chocolat) are an example. Here, grocery shops, cafes, restaurants and schools manifest the rhythms of daily life. In the end, you could be sorry to leave.
Place to stay: Auberge Menata (00222 4643 2730; email@example.com). A long time overlander halt, offering camping and secure parking. Doubles from £20.
It sounds unlikely, but even after three weeks on the road, arriving in Mali is a surprise. Baobab trees and colourful birds such as hornbills and lilac-breasted rollers, along with chattering monkeys, greet you. The country is immense and there are several routes south to the lakeside town of Manantali, including a straightforward five-hour drive on the okay-ish road from Kayes – “Africa’s hottest town” – or three days and over 300km from Kayes on bruising, spirit-sapping, unmade “pistes” through remote areas of Mali.
Having chosen the latter, as light faded and the final kilometres of dirt relaxed into something approximating road, arriving in Manantali mixed a heady cocktail of disbelief, cumulative fatigue and relief. The town is dominated by the hydroelectric project that interrupted the Bafing river and created Lake Manantali. There’s one bar, one restaurant (Madame Saffi’s), an ATM and a supermarket that time forgot – it’s a delight.
Place to stay: Cool Camp (00223 7244 3708; coolcampmali.com). Enjoy the deep shade of mango trees and bougainvillea and take a dip in the cool, clear Bafin river, keeping a look out for hippos. Doubles from £22, B&B.
If you’re intrigued by the prospect of independent overland travel in West Africa, Julian Nowill’s Dakar Challenge website outlines several enterprises where cars are auctioned on arrival to support worthy charitable causes.
Alternatively, if you prefer someone else to do the driving, Undiscovered Destinations offers commercial overland tours from Morocco to Guinea-Bissau and vice versa.