8 tips for travelling on public transport in Africa

Posted by Kati Auld on 4 February 2013

Last year, I travelled from Zanzibar to the south of Malawi on my own, using only public transport. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The journey was only 2 000 kilometres long, but it allowed for beautiful experiences and friendships beyond any of my expectations. In addition to the good times, though, there were also plenty of trials and tribulations. I’ve collected the most important lessons and skills that helped me throughout the journey, so that you don’t have to learn the hard way.


1. Travel light

Keeping track of three different bags is almost impossible when you’re on your own. My backpack was small enough to fit on my lap, which gave me an excellent place to rest my head for six hours. Also, this means that you don’t have to wrestle through a jostling crowd while the porters fiddle with luggage from the belly of the bus.

2. Have a book

Consider yourself lucky if you don’t read it. However, nobody can amuse themselves forever by counting the baobabs, and busses do break down (especially in Malawi, where there was a fuel crisis during my stay.) If there aren’t any fellow passengers that you’d like to chat with, or if you’re having a bad day, books are both absorbing and anti-social. Just find one with large font so that it’s still legible when you’re bumping along a gravel road.

3. Make friends

Travelling via public transport means that you’re in daily contact with the country’s most valuable asset: its people. If you’re alone, people are more likely to approach you, and the conversations you have during the course of a minibus taxi ride can give you a whole new perspective on the culture of a country. Be brave, and make contact. You’ll be surprised by how much you have in common.

4. Snacks

I’m always surprised by how hungry I can get simply by not moving. (Maybe my brain has to work harder to fill the empty hours?) Whatever the reason, snacks are crucial for bus trips, and pretty fun too. When you pull into a big town in Malawi or Tanzania, people rush to the bus selling food on poles: charred mielies, hard-boiled eggs, bananas and slap chips. Once you’ve thrown down your money, your purchase is hoisted up to the high bus window. It’s also lovely to have something to share: swapping food with your neighbours and munching away happily renders a common language unnecessary.

5. Carry wet wipes and hand-sanitiser

There will be many different kinds of substances on your hands by the end of the day. Safe-guard against germs, dust and stickiness by always having a cleansing solution to hand.

Lake Malawi

Sometimes, meaningless wandering brings you to a place like Nkhata Bay, Malawi


6. Get off the bus, and walk purposefully in a random direction

When you arrive after dusk in a new town, the relief of getting off the bus can be trumped by the anxiety of working out your next move. As you disembark, especially in big towns, there is usually a crowd of people at the door who are desperate to help you, and quite persistent about it: elbowing each other out the way, grabbing your backpack, swearing at each other. Tourism is a fiercely competitive industry that promises good rewards, but there are obviously other ways to benefit from naïve tourists. In the melee of a bus-stop, there is no method to tell the genuine tour guides from the crooks. It helps if you’ve learnt to say, “No thanks” in the local language. And firmly. Once you’ve made your escape, approach someone yourself – a woman, or family – and ask for advice. They’re much less likely to have an agenda.

7. Patience

In general, this is the most important quality to have when travelling. On African public transport however, you need it in bucket-loads.  If you are the sort of person whose blood-pressure rises at the mere thought of waiting 20 minutes for a coffee, you’re in for a tough time. Mostly, there really is no alternative to just waiting it out. The good news is that once you’ve waited at a train-station for hours with a stomach bug, bank queues seem like light entertainment.

8. Trust your gut

I am not a particularly spiritual person. But when you are in a situation where a blind leap of faith is necessary (Do I trust this person? Which hostel shall I stay in? Right or left?) I’ve found that my gut has never steered me wrong. It might be that selling a ticket when I had a “bad feeling” about the bus was a waste, or that hanging around in the market for an extra hour meant that I missed out on other opportunities. That’s possible. But when you’re fresh out of any other way to make decisions, intuition is king.

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