Electronics

Why?

It may seem a bit of a contradiction to be taking hi-tech electronic equipment to places where there is next to no technology at all, but the simple fact is that a few well chosen additions to your packing list can help you get the most from your expedition.

With digital cameras rapidly becoming the standard tool for photographers at all levels, you are almost bound to be taking at least one high tech piece of equipment with you.

Add a GPS and a phone or satellite phone as two essential survival tools in case of an emergency, and your list of electronic gadgetry grows.

Storage

Whatever you decide to take, remember that electronics don’t like heat, dust, humidity and vibration – commodities which you’ll have plenty of on the average London to Cape Town run.

This means carefully packing away you electronics when not in use – the cases you need should be dust and preferably water proof, and must be well padded.

Pelican boxes are expensive, but offer excellent protection, especially when combined with silicon crystals which will keep the contents safe from humidity.

If you need something cheaper look for a robust case with a well padded lining. Avoid zips as these will allow more dust to enter than fold-over flaps. The simplest solution for a laptop is a large padded envelope – as long as the flap can fold over you will have a well padded and dust proof enclosure for a fraction of the price of a manufactured case.

Contingency Planning

It goes without saying that electronics can fail – if and when this happens you should be prepared to cope without your electronic aid – if it’s your GPS then make sure you have paper maps and a compass to get you by. Important route information and contact details should be printed out in case your laptop or phone are stolen, lost, or break. assess each piece of equipment in turn, and ask yourself what would happen if it failed at the worst possible moment, and more importantly what you would do to get by without it.

GPS

Probably the most obvious contender for any overlanders kit list. At it’s most basic a Geosatellite Positioning System (GPS) will tell you where you are. The irony is of course, you know exactly where you are because you are already there, so this is meaningless information unless you can combine it with a map, preferably an electronic one. Paper maps, and particularly the Michelin African series sheets, can be notoriously inaccurate, with the Michelin maps showing an error of as much as 40km in North and Central Africa.

Fortunately most modern GPSs have electronic maps available for most areas of the world, while PC based GPS systems using software such as Fugawi offer high detail maps of even remote areas. Apart from allowing you to locate yourself on the map, GPSs can also allow you to follow routes, or navigate to points which would otherwise be difficult to find. Chris Scott’s Sahara Overland contains many of the Saharan routes, for example, and a quick search of the internet will reveal a wealth of GPS-related sites offering routes, points of interest, and more.

Technology is advancing at a fantastic pace, and your options now range from Laptop-based systems through to Palm OS and Pocket PC systems down to dedicated units from names like Garmin.

Satellite Phone

Once an expensive luxury that were beyond the budget of all but the most affluent overlanders, satellite phones are now far more affordable. There a number of satellite providers, but are two main contenders are:

Iridium

The Iridium Satellite System is the only provider of global, mobile satellite voice and data solutions with complete coverage of the Earth (including oceans, airways and Polar regions). Through a constellation of 66 low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites operated by Boeing, Iridium delivers essential communications services to and from remote areas where terrestrial communications are not available.

Thuraya

The Thuraya handheld satellite telephone made by Hughes provides voice, fax, internet access, short messaging and remote location determination services (GPS) in 99 countries spanning a large region of Northern, Central and Western Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. All of this is provided by a single geosynchronous satellite, but when satellite coverage is not necessary, the handset can also access the GSM cellular network.

Prices are dropping rapidly; for an idea of what is available, and how much it costs, visit Outfitter Satellite Phones.

GSM Phone

It’s expensive to use a GSM phone abroad, both for making and receiving calls, but text messages are an easy and cheap way of staying in touch. Most countries now have a GSM compatible network at least in major cities, but roaming agreements are not always in place. At present it cannot be used in the following African countries:

  • Mali
  • Burkina Faso
  • Niger
  • Chad
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Angola

If you already own a phone it’s certainly worth taking along.

Laptop

With many expeditions now setting up dedicated web sites to keep others informed of their progress, a Laptop is less extravagant that it may seem. Most cyber cafés along the way allow you to plug in to upload pages and photos. Other uses include:

  • Using PC-based GPS packages.
  • Uploading and view photos from your digital camera.
  • Backup digital photos to CD (assuming you have a CD Burner).
  • Loading digital music onto your MP3 player.
  • If you have a DVD player you can amaze the locals with impromptu film viewings.

Security is an issue as this is a very attractive item for would-be thieves, and insurance for longer trips is almost impossible to find. A car safe is essential, and it must be large enough to take the laptop in a well padded bag which is also dust proof. Remember to carry a European style two-pin adapter.

Digital Camera

Africa is still one place where your digital cameras may be the first the locals have ever seen – there is a real benefit in being able to show locals the photographs you have taken, and it is also a good way of coaxing the reluctant into letting you take their photo. You will ideally ensure that you can charge your batteries using 12 volts, and if you’re planning on wilderness hiking then you’ll probably want to take along spare batteries, as well as extra memory storage.

Short Wave or Digital Radio

It’s useful to be able to get news from home – it can help in route planning if areas you are heading towards are potentially unstable. Be sure to know what the broadcasting and Frequency schedules are – the BBC World Service is a travellers’ favourite.

The World Service is also available on WorldSpace via satellite. These are small portable or in-car radios. Annual subscription is required (£76 at present), but you benefit from better coverage, easier tuning, and a far better signal.

In-Car Music

Some people want to travel to get away from technology, but unless you’re a purist you’ll bow to the wisdom of experienced travellers who say that music on the road is extremely important. A journey of more than a few months means that you will very quickly get tired of your CD or tape collection. Look at either connecting up a Hard Disk MP3 player, or investing in something like the Pioneer DEH P7400MP car Radio/CD player which will also play MP3s that have been burnt on to CDs.