The Overlanding Cookbook

Day 11 of the attempt to write a blog post a day throughout May. Time for some more overlanding.

The overland kitchen in full flow. In the middle of a road on a mountain in Togo

THERE were many remarkable moments during 10 months on an overland journey around Africa.

You could predict many of them – we pretty much knew Cape Town was stunning and that we would have some extraordinary encounters with wildlife given the itinerary took us to where they hang out.

But there were those things nobody could have predicted – being knocked over by a gorilla, a cheetah eating my flip flop, spending a morning digging a lorry out of a water-filled hole in the Congo.

And anyone relying on my cooking abilities to lead the creation of a day’s meals for around 20 people. Over an open fire with limited facilities.

Cooking is one of the key elements of many overland adventures, each company approaching it in slightly different ways in terms of organising the menu, the rota and how much the crew are involved – some wash their hands of it completely, some take control, some do it for their pampered passengers.

But chances are, you will find yourself involved in creating at least one meal for you and your travelling companions.

“It has to be edible and there has to be enough”

Trans-Africa Cooking Rule

Nobody’s expecting gourmet food, but they will be gathering around the fire in need of something to eat every evening. And there’s a good chance cooking duties will involve breakfast and lunch the next day as well – often largely prepared while conjuring up the evening meal.

Cook Group

How many of you cook and how often depends on the size of your group, but chances are it will be about three people in a group about once a week.

In Africa, it was usually a group of three – once we had the luxury of four, while one lengthy spell saw a two-man Anglo-Japanese team with very little shared language, further complicated by the locals talking a third language in the markets we shopped. And one of the cooks (by far the better one of the group) occasionally wearing little more than a hankie.

Not sure at times either of us knew what the other was cooking until it appeared on the plate. Sometimes not even then.

We bought our food and created three meals a day, wedged in between our days on fire and cleaning duties before making the most of days without a job.

My other experience of overland cooking had two different approaches to cooking from the drivers after the bus had been stocked in two large shops en route across the US – the first left it all up to the cooks, the second took control. Which was nice.

Different trips pick their groups differently, most common would be the leader simply drawing up a rota which changes every so often which is interesting to start with as they have absolutely no idea who can cook and who can’t. Which is why we had a group of three confirmed non-cooks.

A group should also not include tent mates so one can be putting it up or down while the other cooks.

Some might be allowed to pick their own groups while we eventually resorted to picking names out of a hat. Which is how what one of my travelling companions christened Team Opinion was formed.

Chances are, within each larger group there will be a couple of really good cooks, a few who have a reasonable idea, some who are willing helpers and some who… well, one of our truck learned how to fry an egg.

Even looking at that last meal, can still feel my arteries furring up.

Shopping

Which is best? Supermarket or market?

Supermarkets may make life easier and be far more familiar, but chances are the budget – a share of the kitty money we all paid into at the start of the trip and which can work out around $1 per person for three meals – will not stretch as far.

My Japanese cooking companion was kept away from the kitty after spending pretty much all of it at a Ghanaian supermarket on a giant cabbage.

Planning what to cook was basically decided in one of two ways – decide a plan and then hunt out what you needed or see what was on offer and work it out from there. The choice depended on how organised the best cook in your group was (which was bad news for the group where that was me).

Helping the planning was the stock of non-perishable food kept on the truck to supplement the shopping or for moments when it was the only option .

The middle of a storm on a clifftop in Angola under a giant statue of Christ was the perfect place for tinned ravioli (useful as our group had no coherent plan) while emergency tinned burgers were kept until the very last bush camp. Not the ideal send-off.

The tins of Spam filled the group with delight and dread in equal measure – before and after they were opened.

The choice of what to cook was complicated by how long beforehand you shopped – it could have to live on the truck for two or three days.

And that is before you took the vegetarians into account.

Cooking

Whatever your cooking abilities, there will be a job for you – avowed non-cooks turned themselves into expert choppers and washer uppers, others became experts at where things were stored around the truck.

We became a well-drilled unit setting up the truck and the kitchen in the middle of nowhere, getting the fire going and helping out where needed with that night’s cook group – treading the fine line between lending a hand and getting in the way (or putting your oar in), being helpful and cashing in on having the night off duties.

One of the advantages of being in cook group is you control the music on the truck’s external speaker – very handy when you are the only one in your group with an iPod.

Not sure which people preferred, my music or my food.

Not cooked at a bush camp

Meals

The selection may have got a bit repetitive at times, but this was a rarity for me at the time – cutting out the snacks by not keeping them stashed away on the truck, eating breakfast every day and, God forbid, eating vegetables. Managed to eat a lot and lose weight.

If we had time, breakfast could be quite inventive but was largely pretty simple, if for not other reason it saved on the budget for the other meals.

We had cereals on the truck, toast was a very popular option and porridge was a regular – if not universally well received – choice.

And French toast somehow united people from a variety of nationalities. Spent half of Christmas Day eating it.

Lunch, grabbed when we simply pulled over at the side of the road and set up the kitchen, was cold and revolved largely around salads (think potato, pasta and rice, a lot) cooked up the night before.

Or it was a sandwich production line with whatever we had managed to find in the markets or cook up – a lot of eggs – with the evening meal. Served with a lot of mayonnaise. An awful lot in the case of some people.

Evening meals were based around a few staples – stir fries, something masquerading as curry, spag bol of sorts – and a few more inventive options. The addition of meat (even Spam for those of us in favour) brought a touch of excitement.

And if you could use chicken for a meal and then boil it up for a soup, all the better. Especially in a sweltering rainforest clearing we had had to clear to have room to cook with the tents crammed in and some very interesting noises from the undergrowth.

One of my cook groups became Team Potato, having mastered converting the cooking pots into mini ovens in the embers to create a tasty bake (need to remember that one) and at one point managing spuds for all three meals – mash for the evening meal, fried-up potato cakes for breakfast (we made loads of mash) and potato salad for lunch.

But we were outdone by the cook group who spent their idea budget on 159 eggs.

Emergency Rations

So what happens if you really cannot face what is being cooked?

As tour operators Oasis Overland say, they try to cater for dietary needs and choices, but you can’t cater for fussy eaters (once got asked, in my former life working for an overland company, if they had KFC in Beijing because the passenger did not like Chinese – yes, they do. A lot of them).

And at some point there will be a meal which does not work for you, which is why most of us kept supplies of emergency noodle packets stashed around the truck which could be hastily cooked up using the water in the kettles which were always the first things on the fire.

There are things you will miss – we pretty much all went cheese crazy on arrival in Namibia. And you could pretty much count on finding a queue of us at the hot pie they seem to specialise in at West African supermarkets.

And stumbling across street food could cause a stampede.

But across 10 months, can only remember two meals which really went wrong – one courtesy of being way too spicy for anyone to handle and one because the peanut sauce basically gummed up my entire mouth (that was more of a personal grumble).

And if that is all you’ve got to complain about among all the amazing places living like this gives you access to, think it is a price worth paying.

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