Cairo to Cape Town: World's most incredible bus trip(s)
On a minibus speeding through the dark Malawian night, with more than 30 people squeezed on and between its 15 seats and a door held together with a coat hanger, the middle-aged stranger whose lap I'm sitting on asks where I'm from.
“I’m Australian,” I say.
“Can you fit this many people onto a bus in Australia?” the human seat asks.
“No, we most certainly cannot,” I reply. I decide against a lecture on road safety, seatbelts and the legalities of overcrowded vehicles.
“When you go back to Australia, maybe you can teach them,” he says helpfully, shaking his head ruefully at the inefficiencies of Western road travel.
Buses best of a bad choice
I hadn't intended to travel from Cairo to Cape Town by bus.
But when my best friend, Molly Redmond, and I arrived in the Egyptian capital with a limited budget, zero driving licenses and a desire to traverse the continent from north to south, it was clear our transportation options would be limited.
This was not a trip that was planned in any great detail.
We just wanted to somehow get from Cairo and end up in Cape Town and see some interesting things on the way.
We took two short flights to avoid conflict zones in Sudan and on the Kenya/Ethiopia border, but other than that, buses proved to be the best bet on a continent where a lack of infrastructure and maintenance over many decades has made train travel almost nonexistent.
From the time we arrived in Ethiopia we were already au fait with the various standards of buses available in Africa, which range from super-expensive coaches to third-class “chicken buses,” so named because they almost always have at least half a dozen fowl among their passengers and sometimes a goat tied to the roof.
There's very little structure to bus travel in Ethiopia. Tickets are rarely available in advance and a typical timetable only lists days of departure and the length of journey in days (e.g., Axum to Lalibella buses leave on Monday and Thursday and take two days).
Who lists their travel time in days? What does two days even mean? There's a big difference between 25 and 48 hours when you're sitting on a bus. Or a person.
We soon stopped asking such silly questions.
Humor trumps complaint
If you're not laughing as your teeth chatter and you hang on, white-knuckled for 10 hours of relentlessly bad road from Gondar, home of the 17th-century castles that housed the Ethiopian royal family, to Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant is reportedly in storage, having been brought to historical Abyssinia by the bastard son of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba -- it can be a pretty miserable experience.
After the thrill of a Kenyan safari in the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru, where we get up close with prides of lion, parades of elephant, dazzles of zebra, journeys of giraffe, rafts of hippopotamus and even a crash of rhino (we missed out on spotting a coalition of cheetah, but you can’t have everything), we board the overnight coach to the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
Many people ask about the relative safety of two 20-something girls tripping around African public transportation, and my answer is always: “If we get hurt on our African trip, it will not be a result of violent crime. It will almost certainly be a road accident or uncovered manhole that will prove our undoing.”
I feel vindicated when, just after 8 a.m. as we pass Uganda’s adventure sports capital of Jinja, our coach rams head-on into a minibus used by locals as a shared taxi.
No one is hurt and the hassle is minimal (the drivers of the shared taxi jump out and run away before police arrive, making it hard for anyone to be questioned, or bribed) and before long we are on our way again.
Reveling in Rwanda
Uganda and Rwanda are worthy of far more tourist attention from the West than they get. Both are home to the last mountain gorillas left in the wild and there are few things more exciting than sharing a patch of forest with these gentle giants.
Rwanda today is phenomenal, considering just 18 years ago the country was subjected to a horrendous genocide. Its capital, Kigali, is a cosmopolitan city heavy on cappuccinos and Wi-Fi, and home to the moving Genocide Memorial Center.
Beyond the capital and those mountain gorillas -- the extent of many people’s foray to Rwanda -- is a stunning countryside of rolling hills, tea plantations, lakes and some of the friendliest people in Africa.
Because of the nation’s tiny size, bus travel is a breeze, with no journey taking longer than two or three hours from the capital.
It's a nice change compared with the bus routes of Rwanda’s giant East African neighbors, Kenya and Tanzania.
Good days are great
Our record for number of buses taken in a day is four (plus two taxis) which is what it takes to get from Vilankulo, on Mozambique’s central coast, to Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, en route to Victoria Falls.
After rising pre-dawn to catch our first bus at 4 a.m., we pull into Harare 18 hours later, high-fiving our own bad-ass bus traveling skills.
It's one of those days when everything goes right.
Mozambique’s sunning coastline is undoubtedly one of the highlights of southern Africa, but the transportation situation if you can’t hire a car or afford internal flights is atrocious.
In 19 days in the country, we spend 11 of them on a bus or chapa, otherwise known as the back of a flat-bed truck, a common form of public transport in Mozambique.
The situation is even worse in Namibia, where buses don’t exist at all and public transport consists of a network of semi-formalized hitchhiking, where people pay for a ride in a car or truck for a token amount of money.
The stunning sand dunes of the Namib Desert, however, make it all worthwhile.
It's a relief to finally arrive in South Africa and take a state-of-the-art “seven-star” coach to Cape Town where our mission is accomplished and we settle in for a week unwinding with South Africa’s finest wines.
It takes Molly and me more than four months in total, a result of a lack of money and driving licenses but a surplus of time, patience and a sense of humor.
If you can muster that trifecta, a great African bus journey awaits.
Buses in Africa explained
In many cases, catching a bus in countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, Malawi and Mozambique is a leave-when-full affair, which means tickets are not available for pre-sale and your best bet is to turn up at the bus depot and get on a bus heading in the right direction.
On our journey we used the following coach companies for long distance travel and were able to book tickets in advance for these trips. They do not necessarily provide a sterling service, but we did always arrive alive.
Kampala Coach (Nakuru, Kenya to Kampala, Uganda). Also travels various other long-distance East Africa routes
Jaguar Executive Coach (Kampala, Uganda to Kigali, Rwanda); +256 0 414 251 855
Pathfinder (Zimbabwean routes); Considerably pricier than other options, but possible to book in advance. pathfinderlx.com
Intercape (Wingdoek, Namibia to Cape Town, South Africa); www.intercape.co.za