Before we started to plan our trip through East and Southern Africa, I always thought there were only two realistic ways to do it. The first was to go on an organised tour in a wonderfully kitted out overland truck. The second would be to drive yourself.
Having now travelled over 30,000 km and visited 12 countries from Ethiopia to South Africa, all by land and all on public transport, I now know it’s 100% possible and more than that, a really fun experience!
We mostly took the bus, hundreds of buses, the odd train ride and a handful of boats. The buses ranged from minibuses to coaches in varying states of repair, the boats from dug out canoes to public ferries and the trains from brand new Chinese carriages to old colonial relics. Journeys beyond the realm of public transport were supplemented with motorbike taxis, tuk tuks, paid hitch hiking and two car-hire trips (once in Uganda and once in South Africa).
We really enjoyed travelling on public transport so I want to share some of our experiences to inspire and encourage others to do the same. Firstly, it’s the most affordable way to travel. Secondly, we got to see a lot of everyday life, to travel how the locals do and to make friends along the way. People were very kind to us, and really helpful. There was a definite interest and huge entertainment value in the Mzungus on the bus!
While having your own wheels would give you more flexibility and allow you to get around more quickly, we found we were able to get to pretty much everywhere we wanted. Buses left often and it was always easy to arrange. There are also a few things to bear in mind if you’re thinking of driving: you’ll need to find somewhere secure to park every night, you’ll need to be prepared for break-downs and potentially waiting in a small village for parts, and you’ll miss out on those wonderfully random memories that come from travelling as the locals do.
Having set our expectations at the lower end of comfort and ease, we found the roads in better condition than we’d thought and were often pleasantly surprised by an easier than anticipated journey. That’s not to say the buses weren’t long, hot and very crowded – they were definitely all of the above. But watching the world go by out the window is so much fun, and the people watching opportunities were really special.
The countries we visited all call the buses different names but really everything works in a similar way – you turn up at the chaotic station, shout where you want to go, then someone appears and either points you in the right direction or pulls you towards the bus and off it goes when it’s full! It can seem a little overwhelming, and the noise levels of the bus stations vary as you go, but block out some of the shouting and it generally works pretty well!
While most of how the buses work made sense, there were a few eccentricities that we never quite got to the bottom of. One of which was why we would wait for the bus to fill up inside the bus station then pick up another load of passengers just outside the gates? Picking up and dropping off people at their door and making two stops for neighbours was also something we just learned to be patient about!
We found people to be honest and we were always given change to the nearest cent. Not once did we find ourselves on a bus going to the wrong way although we did always double check the destination with someone else on board (maps.me is also very useful for seeing how your journey is going).
A highlight of travelling on the bus is the bus station food and drink. The bus stations in the morning would be filled with tea stalls and fresh bread and all sorts of food was thrust through the windows whenever the bus stopped. The delicious crunchy barley snack in Ethiopia, the chunks of watermelon and boiled eggs with salsa in Kenya, and samosas in Tanzania were all winners and welcomed every time. The grilled maize on skewers we’d usually give a miss! In Ethiopia, the coffee stops were wonderful.
Occasionally the bus would make a shopping stop or detour, for example to the town selling oranges. The driver may have regretted that one after seeing the carpet of orange peel and pips flying through the bus!
Travelling by bus is certainly not for everyone and you need time, a lot of patience and a sense of humour if you want to avoid becoming frustrated. Having time is key and we were fortunate to have many months to cover this journey.
Another worry of travelling by bus is that it can be dangerous. It’s by far the biggest risk when travelling in this part of Africa. There’s always space for one more, be it a person or a goat, so the vehicle is almost always overcrowded. They’re also driven far too quickly for the condition they’re in with Kenyan matatus and Tanzanian coaches being two of the worst offenders.
Furthermore, the roads can be unpredictable and often have lots of animals on them so any lapse in concentration is especially dangerous. Night buses are fantastic to save time and money on accommodation, but we made a decision to not take any until we reached South Africa. We only took a night bus once where there was no other option to travel to Djibouti. Kenya and Tanzania have both restricted night time public transport as a result of safety concerns.
This journey to Djibouti also makes it in to the hall of fame for other reasons as explained below …
Craziest ride – The overnight bus from Ethiopia to Djibouti
There was no information available about this bus and it took us a little while to find the bus station/ rubbish tip/ large parking space when we got to Dire Dawa. Scheduled to leave at 7, we left around 11 and stopped at numerous check points where everyone had to get out whilst the bus was searched (nothing was ever found even though the ladies were clearly smuggling khat under their dresses). The bus also unexpectedly stopped at the side of the road at one point during the evening and that’s where we slept before taking off again just before sunrise! We hear the train is now running, although I’m not sure we’d have it any other way.
Longest bus – The almost two-day journey from Malawi to South Africa
It took us 38 hours to travel from Malawi to South Africa, via Mozambique and Zimbabwe, with seven hours of that spent at the Beit Bridge border crossing into South Africa. In addition to being the longest, this was also probably one of the nicest buses we took – an Inter-cape coach with movies, a toilet on board and reclining seats.
Most uncomfortable journey – 14 hours sitting in the back row from Dire Dawa to Harar in Ethiopia
Thankfully the bus had a high ceiling so we didn’t hit our head every time we were thrown out of our seats!
Most frustrating – Sitting in Lilongwe bus station, Malawi
We waited for over three hours for the bus to fill up only to be told later that they pay people to occupy seats so the bus looks fuller than it is!
Most pleasant bus rides – every ride in Rwanda, hands down
Everyone has a seat, they leave on time whether full or not, the driver diligently sticks to the speed limit and the music is played at a lovely volume!
Scariest ride (and potentially hour of the trip!) – A boda-boda (motorbike taxi) ride through Kampala at rush hour with our backpacks
We were flying through rush hour traffic from one end of the city across town to our hostel, up on pavements and riding on the wrong side of the road with very narrow misses from oncoming trucks and buses (it was a very welcome beer at the hostel when we arrived in one piece!). The drivers are very skilled, but there’s a pretty fine line between brave and stupid.
All in all, travelling by public transport is a fun, affordable and memorable way to explore Africa. The interactions with people are just wonderful and it always brings a smile when you see kids do a double take as they notice you squished up against the window.
Finally, here are a few tips – travel with patience and a sense of humour, travel light if possible, always leave early, try sit as far forward as possible and if you’re not happy with the driving – get out! (I also always watch the bags until the bus leaves although that may be slightly overboard – up to you).
Also don’t forget your backpack cover to take the scrapes and rips, a book or podcasts (I can’t read on buses so podcasts were a game changer and a great way to keep up to date with sport and the news), a travel pillow (Catherine is amazingly able to sleep on any bus regardless of the condition of the road) and that sense of humour!
(Please note that we travelled from Ethiopia to South Africa from October 2017 to July 2018 so the prices below may already be outdated)
There are three types of buses: Larger Level 1 and 2 buses and 14-seater Level 3 mini-buses. The bus stations were incredibly chaotic with people shouting at you from every direction but just say where you’re looking to go and someone will point you in the right direction.
The larger buses are for longer distances and leave sharply at 6. Where possible, it’s best to buy tickets the night before and be there by 5.30. If it’s not possible to buy tickets in advance, it’s best to be there at 5 to secure a seat. This is by far the most sensible time to leave, as distances are big in Ethiopia and it means you’ll still arrive at your destination in daylight. Minibuses can be picked up from anywhere.
All buses are crammed and leave when full. For the bigger buses, we found it worked out at just under 1 birr for 2 km while for the mini-buses, it was just over 1 birr for 2 km. Large bags are 10 birr extra each, no more!
Long distance buses generally stop for breakfast and lunch and looking back now, these buses were probably the most efficient.
There is a slight curiosity in Ethiopia in that people are genuinely scared of the wind. This means it doesn’t matter how hot it is on the bus, or how many people feel travel sick, the windows remain firmly shut! By all means try and open them…at your peril!
The most common mode of transport is the 14-seater mini-bus, which is called a matatu. Bus stations have destination signs though there are often multiple companies going to the same place so pick the matatu that has the most people in it as they leave when full. Don’t climb into the first one you’re shown!
We found it was roughly 4 shilling per km while coaches are expensive – upwards of $15. We took two for the longer trips; to Mombasa and west to Busia on the Ugandan border, and they were very comfortable.
Train runs to/from Mombasa for 700 shilling. It’s worth getting a SIM card and Mpesa so that you can book on your phone around 14 days in advance. We were up at 6 am to secure tickets and the train was an absolute treat. It had AC, comfy chairs (1 per person) & it left and arrived on time. It was also significantly quicker than the bus that got stuck in port traffic.
Confusingly, the 14-seater minibus is called a taxi here. Aside from big coaches that travel to and from Kampala, it’s all minibuses here so it’s slow going when you’re traveling a long distance.
They leave when full and if you’re only going a short distance, a boda- boda motorbike taxi may be your best bet. They are absolutely everywhere and you’re allowed two on the back.
Around Fort Portal, we discovered that any car doubles as a taxi and it works like paid hitching. To go say 30 mins, is 5,000 (just over $1).
These were hands down the calmest bus stations we saw. Buses are strictly one person per seat and many have charge points. Minibuses will try squeeze a few more in and it almost feels wrong if they don’t try!
We thoroughly enjoyed taking the public ferry down Lake Kivu. Again it’s very Rwandan, with life-jackets for all, lovely music videos on the televisions, one person per seat and it’s punctual! It cost 2300 RwF to travel down the lake.
For the buses in Kigali you need to buy a prepaid card and load it at a station. Most trips cost 200/300 francs. There were also lots of motorbikes around town and these are strictly 1 person on the back (these are obviously more expensive being a taxi – 3000-4000 francs to go 15-20 mins).
There’s a minibus from Kigali to the Tanzanian border.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The bus stations are very aggressive and big coach-type buses cover the long distances. They work out at roughly $1/hour: we paid 35,000 shilling (TSH) ($17) to travel for 16 hours from Mwanza to Moshi and 40,000 TSH to travel for 18 hours from Arusha to Mbeya.
We quickly learnt that buses don’t stop for long, so have your toilet money ready and make a dash for it when it briefly stops. Sometimes they’ll stop at the side of the road for everyone to pee!
Minibuses cover inter – regional trips (for example from Mbeya to Lake Ngozi was 2,000TSH for 1 hour) and these can be incredibly slow going as they stop wherever and whenever someone wants to get off or on.
Minibuses in town are cheap plus there’s tuk tuks, though being taxis these are more expensive. As an example – from the Nene Nene bus station in Mbeya to a hostel in the centre roughly 10 km away was 8000 TSH ($3.50)
The train to Zambia was scheduled to take just over a day but be prepared for delays. It cost 58000 TSH/person in 1st class and if you want to share with the opposite sex you’ll need do take all 4 beds and find friends. There’s a bar on board selling reasonably priced cold beers and a little restaurant making rice and beans.
We called the office in Dar Es Salaam to reserve a cabin and collected the tickets in Mbeya. It was really comfortable and an enjoyable trip. The border guards come on to the train and stamp your passport in your cabin – hands down the easiest border crossing I’ve ever been through!
We only took a few buses and they were the (relatively expensive) big coach-type buses. It cost us Zkw 240 (roughly $25) to travel all day from Lusaka to the town closest to the South Luangwa National Park. The bus to Zimbabwe was $20.
Minibuses around Harare were very cheap – $0.5. A 1st class overnight train from Harare to Bulawayo was $12. These trains are really old-school – each cabin has a defunct wash basin in them, the trains say ‘RR’ everywhere (which I presume means Rhodesian Railways – the name changed to Zimbabwe in 1981!) and they feel as if they were last serviced 30 years ago.
It’s very slow going on the bus in Malawi so you really can’t be in a hurry. Here are some indicative costs (the rate was US$ 1 = 725 MkW when we were there)
- Minibus between Blantyre (Limbe) and Chitakale – 1,500 MkW/person
- Minibus between Phalombe and Chitakale – 1,500 MkW/person
- Motorbike taxi from Fort Lister to Phalombe -2,000 MkW/person
- Motorbike taxi from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear – MkW 1,500
- Bus from Lilongwe to Mzuzu (6 hours) – 7,000MkW/person
- Bus from Nkotha Nkotha to Salima (3 hours) – 2,000MkW/person
We enjoyed travelling by boat on Lake Malawi though the schedule can be hard to find – best to ask your hostel for the most up-to-date information.
Being from South Africa I was fortunate enough to have a car so I’ve grown up driving to most places. This time we were determined to travel in South Africa like we had through the rest of Africa and it is possible (though it is harder and slower going). We caught the minibuses in both Johannesburg and Durban and found them by asking people on the street.
There are a few coach companies that cover the longer inter-city routes and it’s worth reading reviews so you chose the most reputable. We travelled with InterCape and found them to be excellent and very comfortable (though not cheap – it’s around say $30 to travel overnight between Durban and PE, for example – all prices can be found on their website). The main roads in South Africa are in excellent condition and we felt safe traveling at night.
If you’re travelling in Cape Town, there is a brilliant bus service with all information to be found here.