I asked Google Maps to plan a car journey from Tel Aviv to Istanbul, a distance of 1,826 kilometers, or 1,134 miles. The estimated travel time was 21 hours and 55 minutes, but Google Maps obviously didn't take into account a few minor details: heavy traffic on Route 2, the impossibility of crossing the border into Lebanon, traveling through war-torn Syria and passing through Turkish customs.
People used to do it in the past, but today long-distance traveling only seems possible by plane, if at all. Yet at least 10 companies worldwide currently offer exciting overland road trips for people for whom time is not of the essence: One such journey, from Amsterdam to Tokyo for example, takes two months.
When flying coach in a packed aircraft doesn’t seem the most enticing idea and with the airline industry trying to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, now could be the perfect time to seek long-haul travel and off-road experiences.
The concept of overland travel has been gaining momentum for a few years now. The idea is amazingly simple: you start out at one point and drive, and everything you need comes along for the ride. The vehicle has been adapted to serve as your home, complete with kitchen, bathroom, living room and study. Travelers don’t usually sleep in the vehicle, but that is also possible. In most cases, you pitch a tent next to it.
The road itself is the main thing; the journey is the goal. A trip across continents in many cases goes on for several weeks or even months. It’s usually one-way – you drive one way and return by plane or ship. The routes are many and varied: along the Silk Road from London to Beijing; down the African continent from Cairo to Cape Town; along the Americas from Canada to Argentina; or coast to coast, crisscrossing the United States.
From cattle drives to overland travel
The idea of overland travel was born in the early 20th century in Australia, and first served cattle drivers. The first pioneer outside of Australia was a South African called John Weston. When he lived in Great Britain in the 1920s, Weston crossed Europe with his whole family in a truck they had fitted out as a traveling home. They reached Greece and even drove their truck back to London. In 1934, the Weston family took their truck from England to South Africa, and a few years later traversed the African continent to Cairo, and from there to Britain. In 1948, after several more trips, an association of car owners in South Africa published a guide for crossing the continent from south to north.
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How is this different than a motor home or camping trip? The style. Overland travel often requires navigating difficult, unpaved roads with the right kind of vehicle. The journey is, as noted, the main thing. On a camping trip, you stop frequently, sometimes for a few days or weeks. In overland travel, you drive all day, almost without stopping.
In the 1960s, an interesting turnaround took place: companies started offering cross-continental trips for organized groups. While many aficionados still insist on planning and equipping their vehicles themselves, commercial concerns offer well-equipped off-road vehicles that reduce the logistical difficulties from such journeys, or even remove them completely.
There are about 10 companies operating in the field. Among them are Acacia Africa and Dragoman Overland Travel, which offers trips worldwide in vehicles especially suited for rough roads. Dragoman’s trips range from nine to 235 days. The longest and most challenging trips are from Anchorage, Alaska, to the southern tip of South America. Or between Istanbul and Beijing (the Silk Road) or from Cape Town to Cairo (crossing Africa). Most nights are spent camping out next to the truck.
Another company, Overland Adventure, offers a long trek on the Silk Road from Germany to China. This year (before the coronavirus outbreak), the firm offered a Silk Road trip across 12 countries – from Germany to Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Russia. Next year, they promise, they’ll go on to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and China.
A nonprofit was even founded in 2015 to help people who want to travel across continents independently. Its website contains a great deal of information about buying a suitable vehicle, routes, roads, gas stations, places to stock up on water and supplies, and lots of information about entry visas, transit documentation and passports, among other things.
From Amsterdam to the Tokyo Olympics
In 2012, Kevin Kooijman founded his company, Overland Travel, in the Netherlands. His colleague, Tjeerd van den Brink, explains to Haaretz that the company appeals to two kinds of clients: those who already have a suitable vehicle and want Overland Travel to organize their journey; and those who want to rent or buy a vehicle to cross a continent. The vehicles Overland Travel provides are fully equipped, while the units on the back of the trucks are being manufactured by Bliss mobil.
The firm has even had a few clients who sold their homes and purchased such a vehicle and lived in it before the trip, even continuing to do so afterward. There’s something about a vehicle like this that gives people a powerful sense of freedom, van den Brink says. Their home accompanies them everywhere, with all the conveniences, and they can do whatever they feel like, he adds.
At the moment, the mostly-nonflying Dutchman says, his company is organizing a summer 2021 trip from Amsterdam to Tokyo. There will be 21 vehicles, some belonging to the company and some to individuals. The plan is to travel in one long caravan for 60 days and reach the Japanese capital in time for the Olympic Games (currently scheduled to start on July 23 next year).
Travelers enjoy full logistical support, van den Brink explains, from visa expenses to wood supply for a campfire. Company representatives, including mechanics, are part of the journey; all people have to do is drive and enjoy themselves, and Overland Travel will also get your vehicle back to your home on a cargo ship.
Van den Brink says his clients – ranging in age from 30 to 80 – have had their fill of hotels and big cities, and want his company to show them something else. For many, it’s the trip of a lifetime. Some of his travelers are Dutch, but there are also some from other Western European countries. The price for the trip to Tokyo (excluding vehicles) is 9,500 euros ($10,750) per person.
Opening Mideast borders
Yiftach Fefferman is the owner of Overland Israel. He says he first heard of the concept five years ago, on a trip to Africa. Of course, it’s hard to take long trips in Israel. Most of the trips he offers are between one to three days; the longest is two weeks.
But the principle is the same: Travelers try to visit as many sites as possible, and the traveling itself is an important part of the experience, as is closeness to nature. Overnights are spent camping, at khans or in hotels.
“It’s the journey, not the destination,” Fefferman says, adding that the group experience is also important. His truck, which he has outfitted for trips, is a kind of home. There’s a fridge, multimedia, seating areas; it’s what he describes as a “community on wheels.” From October to June, Overland Israel travels in the Judean Desert and Machtesh Ramon. Between June and September, it’s Mount Carmel and Mount Gilboa. The Silk Road in the Negev is still a dream, Fefferman says.
A few days after we talked, he sends me an image of a poster from the 1930s, showing an overland mail route across the desert from Haifa to Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. “The poster gave me the chills,” he admits.
Gal Mor, in charge of strategic development at the Abraham Hostels group, is promoting a new initiative. The time has come, he says, to open the Quneitra border crossing in the Golan Heights to foreign tourists, who can cross the border and visit Syria. He also wants to develop the Rosh Hanikra crossing for tourists arriving from Lebanon. At this point, the idea doesn’t apply to Israelis or residents of neighboring countries. But of course it’s just the first phase on the road to a new Middle East.
“The coronavirus crisis has created the opportunity for a breakthrough in areas that were historically closed due to religious and political conflicts,” Mor says. “Because of the Israeli-Arab conflict, many tourists have not been able to enjoy the freedom and ease of overland travel – free and easy passage and driving, between Israel and its neighbors,” he adds.
It’s not that these conflicts have been resolved. But perhaps given the drastic drop in air travel and the dire blow to tourism and the economy, some countries may be eager to embrace other modes of tourism.
Opportunity for change
“There’s a wonderful opportunity for change coming out of the crisis,” Mor says. “We hope the economic crisis will make possible a change of priorities for the politicians in the region. We believe that a possibility is being created here for cooperation that didn’t exist before. We are aware that the feasibility of this for Israelis is still low, but why not open the crossings to foreign tourists? This is a small chance that can turn the Middle East into a very attractive destination for international tourism.”
Besides opening the crossings to Syria and Lebanon, Mor also wants to make passage between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and between Israel and Jordan (via the Allenby Bridge) and to Egypt (via Taba) possible for tourists.
“It’s clear to us there won’t be motivation for air travel in the near future,” he says. “Trips of this kind allow people to travel with people they know, in a secure and continuous group. We are opening a door to a different kind of trip – slower, more involved in the surroundings, deeper, with the possibility to touch, to smell.”
Years ago, we left the house in the morning and arrived at Petra in the evening: It was a strange feeling; we took our familiar family car and got to Jordan.
Another time we drove (with my father, in his car) to Cairo. We left Petah Tikva in the morning, in the afternoon we crossed the Suez Canal by ferry, and by evening we were eating fish on the banks of the Nile. Millions of cars were honking all around us. It’s possible.
These were not overland tours but regular outings – but that’s just the beginning. When we come with our truck, it will be even more fun.