Somewhere between a holiday and following in the footsteps of explorers is the road trip. It’s incredibly alluring. To have a chunk of time, a route to travel from start to finish and just a map to guide you – or sometimes not even that – is to taste the freedom of travelling.
Road trips come in all shapes and sizes, from week long walks to year long adventures, in cars, on bicycles, in a group or on your own. In Europe, it can be a case of making the most of the budget airlines and then sorting a train pass or renting a vehicle and making up your own route. London to Rome, Berlin to Moscow or Paris to Istanbul are all straightforward to arrange. Further afield, overland companies offer good-value and exciting truck and bus trips across Africa, Asia and the Americas. Simply take your pick for whatever suits you. To get you started, here are ten inspirational road trips, as told by travellers who’ve done them.
Central Asia – Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway
For Samuel Burri, the main attraction of the Pamir Highway was the challenge. “Not many travellers make it there and it’s not easy to get around because of bad roads, lack of transport and big bureaucracy,” he explained. This dirt-road route through the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan in Central Asia isn’t for the faint hearted. The route links up Khorog and Osh, passing through yurt and yak territory and dramatic mountain scenery that have only just been opened to travellers. Facilities for visitors are few, and like several destinations in Central Asia, getting there can be costly.
Samuel’s trip included a taste of the nomadic hospitality the region is famous for. “I had countless invitations for tea in people’s homes that were basic but people were remarkably generous.” Another reward was getting to places few other travellers have seen. “One night we spent a night in a village of about 20 houses with a beautiful mountain lake beside – I felt like I was on another planet.”
Undoubtedly the toughest of the ten road trips here, Samuel would recommend it in a second, saying: “It was the biggest adventure of my life.”
Best time to travel: May-June when the otherwise stark mountains and fields are covered with wildflowers.
USA – New England to San Francisco
The spiritual home of the road trip, even a casual glance at a map of the USA reveals thick lines snaking east-west through a series of evocative names steeped in American legend. And while east and west coasters dismissively refer to the interior states as ‘flyoverland’, to travel the open road across the States is to follow in the footsteps of freedom-seeking pioneers and pass through ever-evolving landscapes.
Fayette Fox, 27, took advantage of a long summer vacation to discover the top of the US: “We drove from New England to San Francisco, taking a northerly route through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and onward. We bought a real clunker of a secondhand car in Massachusetts before we set out and then sold the car on the other side.
“As for the route, we did a ‘cultural study of the deep south’ road trip a few years earlier, which made a big loop from San Francisco, down through the southwest and Texas, into Louisiana and Mississippi, up into the mid-west, around into the west, through Utah and back home again to San Francisco. So this time, it made sense to take a northerly route through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and onwards.
“We were keen to see the Badlands in South Dakota, which were amazing. For me though, the highlight was the open road, getting away from the crowds and the odd little places and landscapes in between: little back roads that pass through vast cornfields, spectacular mountains, deserts and wonderfully peculiar little towns that you’d simply miss on an organized tour.”
Best time to travel: June or September, when the weather’s good but without the crowds that the summer holidays bring.
South Africa – Garden Route
Not all classic road trips have to take weeks of tough travelling. Take the Garden Route, for example, in South Africa, a wonderful 730km stretch of road between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town in South Africa that can be explored either independently or as part of an organised tour. Paul Gogarty, 56, did the trip on his own in a hired car, allowing him the flexibility to explore and reach less well-known places, stop where he liked and get a real feel for the route.
“The highlights of the trip for me were the fabulous beach and lakes at Wilderness, the arts and crafts in Knysna, Belvedere where I stayed on the its coastline, and the half-day trip I took on the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe steam railway from Knysna to George.”
As Paul discovered, there are plenty of places to stay along the way, from tourist hotels to cute little guesthouses, and in the summer months of October to February you’ll see the best of giant yellowwood trees and wildflowers, as well as the commercial plantations of eucalyptus and pine.
If you take the trip, follow Paul’s example and pay a visit to the beautiful Knysna Forest. You never know, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the elusive elephants that still live among the tree there.
Best time to travel: Mid-October to mid-February is the South African summer, so the best time to visit – although be ready for the crowds.
Istanbul to Cairo
Sometimes you don’t actually decide to take a road trip, the road just sort of reaches out and takes you along for the ride. So it was with Will Gourlay. “I originally planned to visit Istanbul and a few Turkish beaches then to fly to Cairo. But I began delving into the Anatolian interior and loved it, and kind of got pulled further and further east, eventually going through Syria and Jordan then crossing the Sinai to Cairo.”
It’s not hard to see why. Istanbul isn’t so much a destination in itself, more a gateway to the Middle East. And the journey south and east to Cairo has proved an irresistible road for travellers for centuries.
“I loved exploring Cappadocia and meeting Kurdish shepherds on the foothills of Nemrut Dagi, a mountain covered with ancient stone heads of a long-lost King of the region.” The enormous souq at Aleppo in Syria was another high point.
The strongest recommendation for this trip is that Will felt it opened his eyes to another part of the world and created “an enduring interest in the Middle East and a fascination with its culture and history”. Will explored mosques, drank tea with hospitable strangers and was invited to a wedding in a Turkish border town.
Helen Hewitt also explored the Middle East, heading to Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. Travelling with On The Go Tours the trip was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream to see the ancient sites of Egypt. However, she was surprised at what it was that took her breath away. “The quiet corners of Egypt turned out to be more amazing than the pyramids” she reminisces; “the Temple of Philae being my favourite”
Best time to travel: May, June and July.
Africa – Top to Toe
John McAlpine’s African adventure started with an overland expedition from Cape Town to Nairobi with Dragoman Overland. “For three months we travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya. My reason for taking the overland truck was the comfort of getting used to an unfamiliar country and being taken to all the must-see sights without knowing the route.“
Upon finishing that trip, which he describes as “fantastic and unforgettable”, John hadn’t managed to scratch his Africa itch, so decided to continue on to Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, using a combination of minivans, bicycles, ferry boats and mainly buses, and taking the chance to meet as many local people as possible along the way.
John’s highlights are many, from diving with Great White Sharks in South Africa to swimming in an eddy pool at the top of the Victoria Falls to the amazement of onlookers, protected from the raging Zambezi torrents by a thin line of rock, to sundown at Lalibela, Ethiopia, looking over the town’s astonishing rock-hewn churches. What really comes to mind for John though, after visiting 50 countries worldwide, is the hospitality of Africans he met along the way. “I met the kindest people and I felt safe everyday. I would recommend this trip in a heartbeat.”
Best time to travel: On a trip of some 7500 miles, you’re going to hit some bad weather somewhere.
New Zealand – West Coast, South Island
One of the most popular road trips is down the west coast the South Island of New Zealand, linked by winding, dramatic mountain and coastal roads, taking in two breathtaking glaciers (Franz Josef and Fox) and trekking on one of the accessible and well-maintained walking tracks along the way.
Pat (66) and Stuart (67) Prebble took their chance for a six-week road trip around the South Island after retiring. “We’d always planned to do it, but we wanted to take as much time as we needed and go wherever we chose, so hiring a car and planning our own route was ideal. We also found that by hiring a car out there, once we went over 30 days the cost dropped to barely £15 a day.”
Pat and Stuart chose their stop-offs points as they went along, making full use of the excellent i-Sites (information centres) that could be found in most towns. “The motels they recommended were brilliant, the roads were clear and the local people were great,” recalled Stuart. “We visited during their summer, so the climate was magic, and there were any number of highlights. Going up to the observatory on Mount John was fantastic. It was a clear day and we could see right across to Mount Cook in one direction and to the Southern Plains in the other. Milford Sounds was another highlight, as was taking the cablecar in Christchurch and seeing the albatrosses on the Otago peninsula in Dunedin.” In fact, Pat and Stuart enjoyed their NZ road trip so much that they’re planning to return next year to explore the North Island.
Best time: October and November, but expect the odd downpour whenever you travel.
Australia – Great Ocean Road
Richard Wallace and his girlfriend Josie Stewart hired a car and decided to travel the Great Ocean Road while visiting Australia. Josie had previously driven along the road only two years before during the summer and had recommended that it is a must see when visiting South Australia.
“Some people may question why you would want to complete such a drive during Australia’s winter months and I can only respond by indicating that the power of the ocean is much more spectacular during the winter months,” explained Richard.
The journey itself begins with the dramatic archway and thought-provoking memorial to those who worked to complete the road along magnificent scenery. “The tight turns and steep drops close to the sea will always be a highlight to me, with awe inspiring view of the 12 apostles towards the end of the journey. There are stretches of the road that are just inland routes and it is easy to forget the beauty of such areas compared to the coastal scenery.
“If you want to really enjoy this route you should spend time watching the ocean as it crashes against the rock formations and I would recommend setting aside time to just sit and relax and take in the full majesty of the spectacle.”
Best time: anytime is a great time to visit Australia.
Alaska to Patagonia
“It was the longest continuous straight line that had a start and a finish.” As reasons to cycle from the Arctic tip of Alaska to Cape Horn, at the southern end of Tierra del Fuego, this one worked for Chris Field from Hampshire. He and a friend undertook this epic over a year, raising money for Medecins Sans Frontieres who ran projects in most of the countries they passed through.
The facts and figures of a trip like this are mind-boggling: 13 countries passed through and countless enormous ascents – including a crossing of the Andes and pedalling through some of the worst cycling weather imaginable. Chris loved celebrating his birthday in Alaska with 24 hours of sunshine and a four-pack of Guinness his friend had somehow smuggled into his pack, and partying on the beaches at Lake Titicaca. His other favourite moment was cycling across the Bolivian Altiplano. “With no maps or indeed roads to guide us we got ridiculously lost, ran out of food and water but finally ended up in a little village which turned out to be a couple of valleys across from where we thought we were. It may not sound great but it’s the spirit of adventure!”
Not all of us have a year for such an odyssey, but if you are thinking about heading to South or Central America it’s great cycling country. Travelling on two wheels is a superb way to get close to the towns and villages you pass through and the people who live there. All you need, says Chris, smiling at the memory of his trip, is “time and energy”.
Best time to go: The Arctic can only really be crossed in summer, so a May start is essential.
Morocco – Atlas Mountains
Lisa Holm took a three-and-a-half day road trip over the Atlas Mountains to Ouazazate and then back to Marrakesch with her boyfriend and his father. They rented a 4×4 through Hertz at Marrakech airport to get them safely through the ravines, rivers and narrow mountain roads that her boyfriend’s father knew from previous visits to the area.
“I was sitting in a road-side café in Azilal eating poulet au citron and asking the waiters how to get across the Atlas mountains, when it struck me: I had no idea where I was going, no reservation for the night and I couldn’t have cared less. We didn’t even have a guidebook. But as donkey carts and school children bustled about on the dusty side walk, I was overcome by a blissful feeling of freedom. If there is one thing you can learn from road trips, it’s that travelling is all about what you find, not what you’re looking for.
“When asking for directions, we ended up with an invitation to tea from two local women, Iza and Suhait. After three hours’ arduous driving on a donkey track in the Ait Bouli valley, we arrived in Rugelt, a village of ancient stone houses just below the snow line. We fetched water from a waterfall, cooked couscous on a gas bottle and listened to Arab pop on a battered cassette player. In the end we did an unplanned round trip via Ilmichil, Ouarzazate and Ait Ben Haddou. Dinner in Rugelt was just one of many experiences we would have missed, had we been part of an organised tour.”
Best time: Anytime between March and May is good.
India – Delhi to Kathmandu
India is one of those countries that just begs to be explored by a road trip, either independently organised or through a tour operator. Sylvia Dockeray, 61, booked a Delhi to Kathmandu road trip through Intrepid Travel’s London outlet in order to meet up with her globe-trotting son for a 15-day journey taking in Delhi, Agra, Gwailor, Orcha, the Ganges, Varanasi, Bhairawa, Chitwan National Park and Kathmadu.
“I’d travelled with Intrepid before and like the small groups and local guides they use. Having a local guide, Ganesh, allowed us to experience and understand the local people and customs more-so than if we had travelled independently. With this trip we travelled by a combination of train, local bus, tuk-tuk, rickshaw and canoe. The result was that we were able to visit local villages outside of the main cities, with Ganesh on hand to make it all more accessible and make sure we didn’t make any cultural mistakes, such as taking photos of the funeral pyres at Varanasi.
“Some of the driving was a little hair-raising, such as bus ride up to Nepal, but it also gave us the chance to see the breath-taking scenery and meet local people.”
Best time to go: late September onwards – when the heat and rain have relented.