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A2A Expedition: Staying Safe on your International Overland Journey

For most people the greatest obstacle to achieving their dreams is not lack of wealth or health or a set of nice strong teeth. It is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of leaving the comfort zone, fear of the future. The only way to overcome that fear is to try something new and to do it with the correct mental attitude. A positive attitude makes everything better and easier. When we travel we do not look down at people from behind tinted windows. We do not treat poor, hard working people with disrespect or contempt. We try to be patient when faced with a trying situation and we do not let ourselves be provoked.

When travelling overland you can expect corrupt police and military checkpoints and locals who are sick of “rich” tourists. You will inevitably come across many drunken people, particularly in the late week evenings and over weekends. When faced with an aggressive or hostile person you need to stay calm and approach the situation with resolution in mind. Do not assume that every policeman or soldier is corrupt and no, you don’t pay bribes, ever. Here are some tips based on our experience travelling the Americas and Africa:Over reacting to a bad situation only makes it worse. You are outnumbered in a foreign land or town. As long as you behave respectfully and confidently without being arrogant, you should be able to walk or drive away from almost any situation.


Drive carefully and defensively with the anticipation that every other road user is half drunk, totally stoned or fast asleep. Watch out for pedestrians, cyclists, un-tethered livestock and small children carrying buckets of water. Buses and trucks are the kings of the road due to their sheer size and drive accordingly. When driving through towns and cities obey all the road signs and rules without fault and do not drive like the locals. Always come to a full stop at stop streets and yield when necessary. You do not want to give the police an excuse to stop you.


When stopped at a police checkpoint or pulled over by a policeman and it is obvious that they are angling for a bribe go through the following procedure.

  • Smile and stay calm.
  • Hand over your drivers licence when asked, paperwork is replaceable.
  • Pretend that you do not speak the local language, unless you don’t then you’re good,
  • If the policeman is fat you are in for a bit of bother. The bigger the policeman the more bother. He is hungry and you are a rich tourist. He is planning to have something special for dinner and he expects you to pay for it.
  • He will hold onto your drivers license or passport and inform you of an infraction. You pretend that you do not understand.
  • He will tell you that the fine is huge, you will not understand.
  • If he insists that you pay a fine say ok and indicate with hand signals that he must write you a ticket.
  • If he writes a ticket take it, say thank you, retrieve your documentation, drive away and use the ticket to start the campfire that night. There is no traffic department in any country that we have toured which is linked to customs and immigration. They will not know that you have outstanding fines when you leave or re enter the country.
  • If he does not issue a ticket but insists that you pay then and there, pretend not to understand. Remember, you have all the time in the world, even if you do not.
  • Do not give in to anger. Your patience and humility ensures your safety. Shouting at a policeman elevates a traffic infringement into misconduct.
  • At this stage you are heading for check mate. Get out of the vehicle and stand in front of the vehicle, cross your arms, look unhappy. Other motorists will see that you are being harassed and the policeman will probably lose his nerve. He will return your documents and tell you to bugger off. Thank him and drive away.

The police who had followed and harrased us for money pose for a photo. We never gave them a cent.

This policeman followed and harassed us but we didn’t give him a cent. He did pose for a photo, though.


Establish your priorities. What is more important to you, your possessions or your life? In the event of an armed robbery you need to assess the threat, if he is a little man with a dull knife, on his own, proceed to break his nose and crack his skull if you are very good at violence, bearing in mind that violence should be an absolute last resort . Then drive away. If he is a little man with a big gun, hand over whatever he wants as soon as the kids or wife or friend or pet is out of the vehicle, if he wants the vehicle. Take charge of the situation by being calm. Keep your hands in sight at all times.


Truly international. The space station French Guyana.


Truly International. The space station in French Guyana.


Do emergency drills with your companions before leaving home. You should be prepared with appropriate reactions for worst case scenarios such as armed robbery, stone or rock throwing, dealing with an angry crowd and a hijacking of your vehicle.


Just before the closed border bridge connecting to Brazil.

Just before the closed border-bridge connecting into Brazil.


Always keep a large denomination note in a pocket away from your wallet for emergency situations.


Exchanging currency on the black market is sometimes rewarding.

Exchanging money on the black market is sometimes rewarding.


Stay in camp at night. Unless you are in a place where you feel safe or are with people you trust avoid driving at night and going to nightclubs. The bad guys come out at night because they enjoy the cover of darkness. Rather hang out around the campfire, have a beer and tan some meat.


Good times in a camp bar.

Good times at the in-camp bar.


Don’t do drugs. Too many travellers die because they want to party.


A friendly park ranger.

A friendly park ranger.


Do not overload your vehicle. OK, we all know you will overload it, just do not overload it too much.


The Colombia Venezuela border, by far the worst we have ever encountered.

The Colombia-Venezuala border was by far the worst we encountered.



Chances are you will never encounter any hostility at all but there is no harm in being mentally or physically prepared.


The above is an excerpt from our upcoming Overlanding book titled, Travel the Planet Overland.



To learn more about Graeme, the Bell family, and their amazing journey as it unfolds, visit their website by clicking on the banner below:

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Graeme Bell is an author and explorer who has dedicated his life to traveling the planet by land, seeking adventure and unique experiences. Together with his wife and two children, Graeme has spent the last decade living permanently on the road in a self-built Land Rover based camper. They have explored 27 African countries (including West Africa), circumnavigated South America, and driven from Argentina to Alaska, which was followed by an exploration of Europe and Western Asia before returning to explore the Americas. Graeme is the Senior Editor 4WD for Expedition Portal, a member of the Explorers Club, the author of six books, and an Overland Journal contributor since 2015. You can follow Graeme's adventures across the globe on Instagram at graeme.r.bell