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STORY : A FORTY YEAR JOURNEY

The mud and miles that set a course for a life of overlanding expeditions

Story

CHARLIE HOPKINSON

Charlie Hopkinson of Dragoman recalls the early overlanding adventures that took him on the road less travelled.

40 years ago, I set off across Africa on an overlanding trip in a Dragoman truck, from Cairo to Cape Town. Ahead lay the vast expanse of the Nubian Desert, Sudan’s Sudd Swamp, where the White Nile meanders through floating papyrus fields and thousands of rivulets, and a six-week crossing of the jungles of central Africa and Zaire. It was a physical and mental challenge, as once we left Egypt, there were no roads until we reached Kenya; desert tracks, jungle mud and dirt roads were the best on offer.

Our vehicle was an ex-army Bedford truck converted into an overland vehicle to carry up to 18 travellers the length of Africa. The itinerary was suitably vague as was the duration of the journey; but for a young lad of 23, this was bliss. It was a ‘Boys Own’ adventure. Sand mats, compasses, campfires and star-studded night skies, this was real freedom. Anything was possible and nothing impossible. We drove through areas where outsiders were never seen; we crossed rivers on ferries made of tiny boats lashed together; we traversed vast areas of desert and we rebuilt bridges. We camped in villages where locals would welcome us with open arms or in the wilds of this beautiful continent; no hotels, no campsites, no tourist trail; we were genuinely way off the beaten track.

Early overlanding adventures
Charlie Hopkinson in the early Dragoman days
The local ferry
Overlanding with Dragoman

Arriving in a small clearing in the jungles of Zaire late in the afternoon, we pulled up and asked the head man of the village if we could stay for the night; it was a Saturday. That evening we sat with the locals sharing Primus lager around the campfire and arranged for the following day to head off into the forest in search of dik-dik, a small antelope that the villagers hunted. Waking the next morning, we heard the beautiful tones of African singing and chanting coming from a large mud building which was the church. It was Sunday morning, and it was special. We joined the villagers and this was the closest that I will get to God; it was mesmerizing. For the rest of the journey, whenever possible we would stay in a local village, especially on a Saturday night.

Often it was quicker to walk than to drive and we would trek down jungle tracks, dabbled in sunlight surrounded by the sounds of the forest and the multitude of butterflies or birds; the air was filled with the primeval smells of the forests. Walking, hiking and canoeing down rivers became the norm; a way of life and we learned to travel slowly, to really get under the skin of the places we visited. One evening in the wilds of the southern Sahara, near Lake Chad, the sand was so soft and so difficult, that we camped in the dunes and walked the last twenty minutes into an oasis village, just to get a cup of tea. It was a special cup of tea though; it had been transported on a journey from India and its last leg to here was by a camel caravan that had traversed the Sahara. We sat sipping sweet chai, watching the sun go down through the red haze of dust as at least a hundred camels slackened their thirst from the artesian waters in the tiny town of Rig Rig. The sight, the smells and the sounds are as vivid today as that evening in 1983.

This travel was raw, it was basic, it was vital and above all, it was sustainable and responsible and this was back in the day before these terms became buzzwords.

The itinerary was suitably vague as was the duration of the journey; but for a young lad of 23, this was bliss.

Dragoman in Bolivia
Overlanding in the Himalayas
African bush campfire
Dragoman Overlanding adventures

Forty years on and Dragoman are still going strong and it has been my life’s work to organise trips across Africa, Asia and Latin America for folk like myself who want a different, more authentic, travel experience. Today, we have 27 Mercedes trucks around the world and we journey at grassroots level to amazing places. We give thousands of travellers once in a lifetime opportunities to make their travel dreams a reality. We encounter amazing wildlife, stay with diverse people, discovering some of the world’s remotest corners, because we will go where others won’t or can’t go. We will push the boundaries and perceptions, even if that does mean temporarily taking folk out of their comfort zones. What we won’t do, is stick to the tourist trail.

This is travel that ignores the bucket list and has no need of bragging rights on social media because it is, in itself, genuinely fulfilling. The Dragoman experience today is based around 40 years of learning from our heritage and experiences. There are four vital things that we have learned; Get Genuinely Off The Beaten Track; Get Into The Local Communities; Be Active; Travel Slow. These are the things that we try not to compromise and they form the basis of our modus operandi; they are what make a Dragoman Overland trip different, authentic and special. They are also the bedrock of the responsible and sustainable nature of our trips.

Dragoman overlanding on the narrow mountain path

In July 2019, we embarked on a new project to quantify our “Responsible and Sustainable” credentials, to make them transparent and robust under scrutiny; however, Covid has derailed the project. We will use 2021 to work on this; so that once we are able to run our trips again we will do so using our four Ms of Sustainable Travel.

  • Minimise, Manage, Measure our carbon footprint
  • Minimise, Manage, Measure our environmental impact
  • Minimise, Manage, Measure overtourism
  • Maximise our benefits to local community and biodiversity

It’s a massive challenge, but it is doable and it stems right from the very first trips that we ever ran and the learnings of forty years of journeying to such amazing places, courtesy of the local people who have been our foundation throughout those years. Without them, without our fantastic crew, without our loyal travellers and without our dedicated team back in the UK, none of this would have been possible. But despite COVID, the Dragoman brand is as strong as ever and once we are able to travel again, we will be back on the road in our orange and white trucks camping in the wilds of Mongolia, Patagonia, Congo or the Amazon; it is just a matter of time.

This travel was raw, it was basic, it was vital and above all, it was sustainable and responsible… back in the day before those terms became buzzwords.

Charlie Hopkinson of Dragoman

CONTRIBUTOR

Charlie Hopkinson

At the age of 23, I first overlanded as a passenger on an Eastern Trans Africa from Cairo to Johannesburg, via Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana and South Africa. I returned north along the same route to London as a co-driver. From then to late 1987 I led trips in Africa, Central Asia and India. Firstly Sales and Marketing Director of Dragoman, followed by Product and Marketing Director and finally Managing Director. During this time I have travelled many of the routes that we have on offer. In 2011 Dragoman bought Imaginative Traveller and its Tailor Made trips are one of the most exciting parts of the business. In April 2015 I hit Bhutan for some trekking and R&R in the mountains.

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