How has technology changed overland travel?

When Oasis Overland began operating nearly twenty years ago, the world was a very different place. E-mail was in its infancy, websites were text-heavy and not laden with flash graphics and video clips, and the concept of a ‘smartphone’ was still little more than an idea being bandied about the offices of Apple in California.

To design and run overland trips in Africa and then South America, Chris and Steve (who ran the company in the early days) had to do weird things like write letters, look at paper maps and speak to people on the phone, all from the first Oasis ‘HQ’ – a bedsit in Hounslow, West London. Today, the world, and overlanding, are very different. Instant communications means that at any given moment here at Oasis HQ (which is now a spacious if incongruous office in rural Somerset) we can be reading e-mails from travellers in Cameroon, talking to operators in Turkmenistan on Skype and receiving phone calls from tour leaders and drivers in the Amazon jungle. There’s no doubt that in a lot of ways things have become easier for us and our travellers, but sometimes we do wonder if we’ve lost something: a lot of the unpredictability that makes overland expeditions what they are has gone, as has the sense of ‘disappearing’ – that lovely thought of flying to Africa or South America and then returning a few months later with your friends and family not entirely sure where you’d been or what you’d been doing all that time. Overall, it is of course a good thing that overlanding is now easier, but as an operator we still try, where possible, to retain some of those things that make our adventure travel expeditions so unique.

Here is my quick summary of how technology has changed the overland industry, and what we do differently to stay true to our modest roots of that bedsit in Hounslow.

  • Instant Communication Between the Office and On the Road

We still do bushcamps where we can It’s never been more simple to talk to someone anywhere in the world, about anything. From the Oasis HQ we can get up-to-the-second updates from our crew on the road and keep on top of any changing or unexpected events that demand a change in plan. When, rather frustratingly spoiling the plans of our group heading that way to climb it, we were told about it by our Tour Leader Rachel before it was reported on the BBC World News. By the time we were getting panicked updates on travel in Chile from the Foreign Office, Rachel had already made a new plan and her group were able to climb a different volcano which, fortunately, wasn’t erupting. Also, when travellers about to embark on their trip ask us for information, we can get it within seconds by sending off an e-mail to a contact somewhere in the world and have an answer straight away. If you want to know if the banks in Uzbekistan are open on a Monday, we can ask our contact in Tashkent who’ll be able to tell us. The rapid spread of mobile phones also means we can find out straight away what’s happening.

When our 2014/2015 Trans Africa expedition was trying to find its way through an officially closed border between Nigeria and Cameroon, it was a series of text messages from driver Steve Newsway that told us, step-by-step, minute-by-minute, exactly what was happening (for the record, we managed it and successfully ran two trucks through West Africa this year). In the past, all of this was impossible, so it was harder for us to support our crew on the ground, and for them to help us out with the latest information from the road.

  • Talking With Friends and Family While You Are Away

Ah, Facebook. That constant stream of photos of bespoke hamburgers and babies. Well, not just that. Our travellers are now able to update their friends and family back home through social media with posts and photos on exactly where they are and what they’ve been up to. Also, the phenomenon of blogging has of course found its way in to overland trips, as our travellers have kept both their friends and the rest of us updated and entertained with tales from the road (check out Rob’s fantastic blogs from his Trans Africa trip, still ongoing). No longer the lengthy task of having mail held by the Poste Restante service and wondering if it’ll still be there when you arrive, or buying a new diary for your trip to keep a daily journal of your trip, ready to give everyone a blow-by-blow account of your adventure once you returned. 

  • Sat Navs and Global Positioning Systems (GPS)

When I first did an overland trip in 2006, on a 15-week Kingdoms and Carnivals from Rio to Quito I remember being sat riding shotgun on one of the long drives from Buenos Aires all the way down to Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego. At one point, as I stared vacantly at the impressive nothingness that is eastern Patagonia, the driver, Andy, started yelling at me enthusiastically over the roar of the engine, asking me to grab his atlas. He passed me a pen, and said “write down where we are, there’s a great spot for a bush camp there!” as he pointed excitedly out of the window. Using my best GCSE geography skills, I worked out, more or less, where we are on the map, jotted down an ‘X’ in black biro and wrote in my barely legible handwriting ‘BUSH CAMP’. After I’d done that, I asked Andy what on earth that was all about; it was midday, we didn’t need to find a camping spot. He explained that when other crew take over the truck they can check the maps and it helps if there are things like camping spots, petrol stations and fresh water supplies marked on it. I thought that was pretty cool, it played on my childhood dream of being some sort of explorer. Skip forward seven years to my first Africa trip as an Oasis Tour Leader, and myself and Mick were trying to find our way through the madness of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. We had one atlas in the cab, but it had barely been used. We didn’t need it. Mick had his GPS on display, with co-ordinates of our campsite for the evening plumbed in. It told us how far was to go, which turning to take at the next roundabout, and even gave us an approximate arrival time (always hopelessly optimistic given Dar’s interesting take on ‘urban planning’ and heavy traffic). Whereas in the past we relied on scrawled notes on maps, discussions about routes and roads over a beer when crew crossed paths, today the combination of GPS and mobile communications means our crew can jot down the exact location of a good bushcamp, text it to other drivers, and then they can find their way to the exact spot. On their recent Nile Trans trip, the crew, Kim and Gareth, buried their beer in the desert south of Sudan (where alcohol is illegal), noted the co-ordinates and on their return trip dug it up again and popped it in the coolbox.  You can’t do that on a road atlas (I suppose you could try). More broadly, this is a positive thing – we don’t get lost as often, we can plot drives and roughly how long they will take long before we attempt them and, all in, it makes for a smoother run. 

  • What are we missing?

So on balance, technology has made overlanding easier, from the perspective of the office team, our crew on the road and our travellers on board. But in many ways, it has taken a little away, too. There is less of a sense of adventure sometimes, through the internet we still get bogged down in the ‘real world’ as news from home becomes impossible to escape from, and as WiFi starts to invade more and more places, we find people are more drawn to their smarthpones or iPads in favour of sitting around the campfire and enjoying being in the middle of nowhere.

Rachel and Cary's truck, Spongebob, is designated 'WiFi-Free Zone'

As an operator, we appreciate people want and often need to stay connected, for both personal and work reasons. We need the internet and mobile phones, too. But we still try to stay true to our roots and keep the characteristics that make overland travel what it is. We do this by still doing bushcamps where we can – camping out miles from civilisation, be it in the deserts of Sudan or at 4000m in the Peruvian altiplano. We won’t put WiFi routers on the back of our trucks – our thinking is, why would you want to stare at your computer when you’ve got the mountains of Kyrgyzstan to look at out of the window? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are still always looking to try new routes and destinations, or going about established destinations in a new way. Our main thought when we look to try new things isn’t ‘will there be WiFi’? – The questions we ask are ‘can we do it?’ and ‘will it be an adventure?’. If the answers are, respectively, ‘probably’ and ‘hopefully’, we’ll give it a go. If you’re on board, it’s all part of the fun.