David (Dave the Hat) Oades started Overlanding West Africa in 2010. Between 2012-13, OWA were the first overland company to run tours through Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Liberia.
After years of travelling and guiding tours, Dave found a home and a job in West Africa.
How did you get started in this business?
After graduating from University I got a temporary job working night shifts with a number of guys from Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria, and I remember being totally fascinated by their pictures and the stories they’d tell me. Combined with watching Michael Palin’s ‘Sahara’ series I knew I had to go and visit some of the countries in West Africa.
I therefore booked myself onto an overland trip from the UK to Cameroon, and had such a good time I applied to become an overland expedition leader with Dragoman Overland, after which I founded Overlanding West Africa.
Over the past 12 years I’ve been fortunate enough and privileged to have worked/travelled in over 80 countries all over Africa, South America, the Middle East and Asia.
What is an overland trip?
Essentially a journey from point A to point B – though all trips vary in terms of duration, places visited, countries visited, the challenging terrain and the amount of adventure along the way!
Why West Africa?
West Africa is one of the few regions in the world where tourism, for the most part, is still in its infancy. Apart from the package holidays that have become relatively popular in SeneGambia, the region cannot compare with East and Southern Africa, South and Central America, or Southeast Asia for visitor numbers.
For me that makes the region so much more exciting!
It’s a well-worn cliché that it’s the people that make a country what it is – but I firmly believe that to be the case. With fewer tourists visiting the countries in West Africa, you can be sure to experience the kind of genuine hospitality and warmth that the region is so famous for. You’ll get to witness a way of life – and the traditions and customs that go with it – as they really are, and not feel like it’s being put on for the benefit of the numerous tourist groups that pass through each day.
In addition, you’ll find some truly dramatic and beautiful landscapes, unspoilt & deserted beaches, incredible music & nightlife, superb hiking opportunities, an unrivalled arts & crafts scene, and some of the most colourful & hectic markets anywhere in the world.
How do you handle dangerous situations? Do you have any special medical/emergency training?
Our crew don’t have any ‘specialist’ medical training short of passing a travel-industry standard first aid course.
We carry a professionally compiled first aid kit on the truck which has all of the essentials, as well as a number of prescription medicines should they be needed.
What are some problems you face in places with little or no tourism infrastructure?
Finding a place to stay for the night is usually the biggest challenge – hence we camp most of the time.
In addition, shopping for food can be a bit hit and miss, so we usually stock up on supplies in the markets in the larger towns to see us through to the next.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the roads – which in places can be dreadful!
Fording river, Guinea
Weather. Bureaucracy. Do you have a support network in place or do you seek out local fixers on the fly?
We have a number of local contacts in each country that we can contact for information if necessary, including officials at land borders, managers of hotels/campsites, restaurant owners, embassy/consular staff, local ground transportation providers, etc.
These aren’t the usual spoon-fed tours. Who is the ideal OWA traveler?
I’m not sure there is one, as we attract such a wide variety of people in terms of age, nationality, profession, travel experience etc.
The key is that travellers are up for a more ‘adventurous’ trip where things won’t always go according to plan. A flexible approach to travel is absolutely essential, so if you’re somebody who expects everything to be laid on for you, the proposed itinerary to be followed to the letter and to have your hand held throughout then overlanding through West Africa is most certainly not for you!
A common misconception about West Africa is:
That the entire region is dangerous, insecure and politically unstable. It’s fair to say that some countries in West Africa have suffered in the past from warfare, poverty and disease – but any more so than countries in the rest of Africa? Yes, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone (for example) have gone through some troubled times in recent decades, but so have Rwanda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. West Africa is a region moving on from a troubled past.
Parts of the tours include some long hauls. Is ‘99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ banned on the bus?
Yes! – far better to put some Toumani Diabaté or Sona Tata Condé on the stereo!
Tell us about Aminah.
I built Aminah our overland truck with Jimmy just after we founded OWA in 2010. She is a Mercedes truck with a purpose built overland body on the back, and strong enough to cope with the rutted and corrugated roads we encounter along the way!
She has 20 seats in the back for the passengers, with a fridge, a library, charging points and storage lockers for the camping and cooking equipment.
Your job is to help people realise their dream holiday experience. What’s yours?
Discovering new places – especially in the less visited parts of West Africa that don’t appear in the few guide books that do exist!