“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”
Don Williams, Jr. (American Novelist and Poet, b.1968)
Becoming acquainted with the public transport system in Africa requires certain personality traits from the average person accustomed to scheduled timetables, reserved seating and legitimate ticket buying. Forget getting a bit narked about a bit of shoving on the tube or a wayward armpit in your face on the London Underground. African public transport necessitates a whole other level of patience and acceptance from the independent traveller.
Bumpy, overcrowded and a law unto itself, an African adventure wouldn’t be complete without a few life-fearing moments, begging forgiveness from your eardrums or turning a blind nostril to the unknown source of some stench. But there are huge pluses too and the below is not intended to put anybody off, merely to enhance their journey. Africa is one of those last great frontiers where it feels like you can still go off the beaten tourist track. Completing an overland journey across the dark continent really feels like a hard-won achievement, packed with unforgettable anecdotes that only happen when you are thrown into such random, unusual circumstances.
One journey in particular during the many miles from Tanzania to Zambia will remain etched on my mind forever for the sheer time it took to get from A to B, the number of humans squished into the tiniest of spaces, the spectacles I saw en route and the variety of transport used. Here are my Top Tips for fellow travellers who may be about to embark on a similar African overland venture.
1. Believe your guide book.
Don’t dismiss their estimated journey timings and recalculate optimistically…no matter how close it looks on the map. You will only be disappointed. If anything, add on a couple of extra hours…
2. Make friends
Many Westerners opt for the organised overland tours that leave from destinations all over Africa and indeed the world. However, should you choose to do it independently and choose the public transport option there are but a handful of other tourists onboard. The ones we met however, became great travelling companions, who fuelled our confidence and shared their knowledge and our adventure for the weeks to come.
3. Be patient
On our travels, a local Malawi man joked that ‘the quickest thing to happen in Africa is the sunset’. Everywhere we went, if we asked about timings, our questions would be met with a smile and the response “hey mama, relax, TIA – This Is Africa”. Relish the opportunity to live life at a slower pace. The locals don’t worry about rushing anywhere so neither should you.
4. Don’t underestimate vehicle capacity
If you happen to be the first passengers onboard, don’t count your chickens too early (literally). With the inherent community spirit that we witnessed in Malawi, if someone needs a lift, then by golly, a full-to-bursting car/van/bus/motorbike won’t stand in the way!
One our cars, an 8-seater Espace loaded 17 passengers: 16 adults, 2 backpacks, a baby, a massive sack of potatoes and a bicycle to be precise.
But that is nothing compared to our bus trip. Regulations state buses can carry a maximum of 65 seated people, 25 standing. It’s safe to say our 6-hour bus journey far exceeded this. When the sole bus headed for our destination – Monkey Bay, Malawi -arrived, it was bursting with bodies, people pouring out the doorwell, limbs pressed against the window, travellers sweating in the heat. There was not one ounce of room for us…or so we thought. Despite the intense squishmentation, by some miracle, at least another 20 people managed to wedge their way on.
5. Copy the locals
Even if it seems utterly implausible. Squeeze, push and merge your way on if that’s what everyone else is doing. You might need to summon your inner contortionist, but if that’s the only bus leaving that day, you don’t have much choice.
6. Try not to think too much
If you find yourself rammed like kippers in a cramped minivan, 40 degrees on the mercury, ripe aromas wafting ferociously around an airless van, hurtling round hilly bends as the driver cuts the engine to save on fuel (thereby reducing control of the vehicle), try not to imagine the worst.
7. Chill out
In the UK, unsavoury travelling conditions would be met with the upmost angst and hatred towards fellow commuters and many a scalding letter to a person in charge. Did I see one passenger complaining, fussing or arguing during any of our journeys? One cramped child -(notably without tablet in hand) moaning “are we nearly there yet”? No I did not. Quite the opposite. In fact locals were truly hospitable, smiling in greeting, offering us their seats, making sure we knew when to get off.
8. Be prepared to be uncomfortable
On one bus ride I spent an entire hour balancing on one foot as there was not enough room to put the other down. Two random crotches rubbed against me (unintentionally), the head of a baby twin strapped to her mother’s back bumped against my stomach – her sibling slung over her mother’s front. I also had some foul-smelling liquid running down my arm from a leaking bag… It was far from pleasant, but if a lady carrying two babies can do it, so can I, I thought.
9. Enjoy the quirkiness
The discovery of the bizarre and unconventional can perk up any journey. A chicken hidden under a seat and silent for several hours, suddenly announcing his presence through the medium of squawk, for example. A babe in arms, gawping, pointing it’s tiny fingers in disbelief at the funny white people squashed in with everybody else. Having to duck when police officers come into view, so the minibus does not appear as full as it really is. You can be sure it probably wouldn’t happen in England, so revel in the weirdness!
10. Learn to love that distorted beat or make sure you take headphones.
A few bars of a track or the mere sniff of sultry spice can summon memories and transport you back to a memorable moment in time. A large proportion of music in Africa is appreciated at the higher end of the volume control, no matter how much the speakers protest. It can lend the journey a party vibe…or drive you slowly insane. There’s not a lot of room for distraction by reading and it takes a long time to get anywhere in Africa so I suggest wearing headphones to help block out hours of dodgy driving and stationary limb-moving situations you may find yourself in. I’ll even go one further and recommend the music: Paul Simon’s Graceland – magically fitting for the landscape of Africa.
11. Don’t believe what it says on the tin
The tagline of Malawi’s AXA bus company, boldly printed on the side of its buses is Punctual, Reliable, Friendly. Wellllllll. Where do I begin. Our bus had most certainly seen better days. One missing window patched up with parcel tape, the door of the luggage hold holding on for dear life with a tiny piece of string. A puncture – for some reason changed as we were embarking, but only after fixing the wheel on an empty bus bound nowhere, whilst the people inside ours stewed like boiled prawns.
12. Go window shopping
If you don’t have a chance to buy supplies for your journey, fear not! You can purchase a whole host of goods through the window on most of Africa’s public transport! Hard boiled eggs with salt, tiny bags of water, a whole baked fish, bananas, mangoes, tomatoes or even your very own voodoo hat fashioned from the skin of a meer cat, its tail captured for eternity pointing straight up in the air…Ew.
13. Appreciate the little things
Like a free snackbox of chicken nuggets and half a piece of toast smothered in ketchup presented in a polystyrene box…the height of luxury and one of the best bus rides we ever had.
14. Beware of scammers
Little shops set up with posters of buses advertising tickets at extortionate prices, could easily fool the unsuspecting traveller. As could dodgy, often red-eyed men loitering around the bus station with promises of travel tickets. Make sure you can see the vehicle that’s about to depart or if you need to buy in advance, check the ticket prices with your hostel.