‘Our overland truck is stuck in Ethiopia with a £100k parking fine’ – Dragoman founder Charlie Hopkinson

Truck watch: Dragoman adventure vehicle in Ethiopia (Dragoman)
Truck watch: Dragoman adventure vehicle in Ethiopia (Dragoman)

“When Covid hit in March 2020 we had 27 trucks in the fleet and they were everywhere in the world.”

Charlie Hopkinson, founder of the renowned overland company, Dragoman, was recalling the desperate days at the start of the pandemic when frontiers across the world were clattering shut.

The unprecedented global closedown was tough for every international travel firm. But for overland companies whose trips visit multiple countries, Covid was the worst nightmare.

“I was actually on [a Dragoman overland truck] in India at the time,” Mr Hopkinson told The Independent daily travel podcast.

“One evening we were just in Mysore doing our thing. The next day our local guide said: ‘Sorry guys, you have to leave the country’.”

“So we turned the truck around, back to Bangalore airport and left the truck in a truck compound. That was the last we saw of that truck for two years.”

The Dragoman fleet was scattered across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Pan-American Adventure: a Dragoman trip in Patagonia (Dragoman)
Pan-American Adventure: a Dragoman trip in Patagonia (Dragoman)

“It was just basically: get them to somewhere safe, somewhere where we knew they were going to be looked after.

“There’s certain countries that we knew we were really good places to have them. There are certain countries we knew were really bad places – like Ethiopia for instance.

“We’ve got one truck – our best truck – which we are still trying to rescue [from Ethiopia] as we speak.

“It is sitting in a hotel car park somewhere in Gondar and it’s got £100,000 worth of parking fees on it. Or that’s what we were told. We’ve now negotiated that down to £20,000.”

The trucks – the fundamental assets of any overland company – are custom-fitted for adventure travel. Each represents a investment of tens of thousands of pounds, quite apart from the parking fees.

“There’s probably six or seven still out there that we need to rescue,” the Dragoman founder said.

The pandemic lasted longer for the overland business than any other part of the travel industry.

Mr Hopkinson said: “Unlike most travel companies, who basically were able to go, ‘We’ll retrench, we’ll use the furlough and as soon as the world opens we can go back out,’ we had trucks everywhere.

“We had to rescue those trucks and we had to cross borders. If you’re trying to go from Georgia to Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan tp Uzbekistan and one of those in the middle is shut, you can’t run your tour.”

The future of the company founded in 1981, with a first trip through the Middle East and North Africa, looked uncertain.

In October 2022, Dragoman took the decision to “hibernate” the business: refunding every customer who had a future trip booked, and eventually seeking a buyer.

The founder now reports: “We’ve sold the brand and the business to Madventure, a small overland company and they’re buying it to run Dragoman exactly as we always used to – which is great.

“The reason that it’s a really good fit with Madventure: rather than them being the big boys buying, it’s the small boys buying.

“The Dragoman style is all about making it really inclusive and at grassroots level – but absolutely everything included and, and making sure that the local people are really involved. That ethos is what Dragoman’s about.”

Mr Hopkinson has now bought a camper van and is looking forward to exploring independently. But he aims to go on a “founder’s tour” with Dragoman at least once a year.