I wanted to write a story about what it was like to ride a bus cross-country in Africa. I have two such stories that took place in Botswana, each interesting for different reasons. This is the first. If some of it sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote briefly about this ride in my Thoughts on Botswana post.
South Africa was a good introduction to the continent for us. While still very different from what we were used to in South America, it wasn’t so strange that we had trouble getting around. We traveled around there for a month before moving on.
On our last few days in Pretoria, Oksana met a couple Canadian college students in the shared kitchen of our hostel. They were volunteering in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, and had come down for the weekend to check out South Africa. Oksana mentioned Botswana was next on our list and before we knew it, we had invitations to stay with them. They departed ahead of us, but a few days later we hopped on a bus and joined them in Gabs.
The South African bus company we selected to get us there was both professional and efficient. We made the 7-hour trip in surprising comfort. It wasn’t until we traveled inside Botswana that we found the African busses I expected…and feared.
We spent just a couple days in the capital; our real plans for Botswana involved the Okavango Delta, further to the north. Our new friends worked during the day, so we spent our time sightseeing and seeking out a prescription for anti-malarial medication. In the evenings, we reconvened for dinner back at the dormitory house.
On our last day in Gaborone, we followed directions to the bus rank, to see about getting tickets to Maun. Even after an explanation of what to expect, we were not prepared for what we found.
Our taxi driver dropped us off in a parking lot full of taxis. He actually tried to weasel a few extra pula out of us by offering to drive us to the bus rank, but we’d been forewarned and knew it was just across a pedestrian bridge. He smiled when we told him, “That’s okay, we know where it is.”
The pedestrian bridge was two stories tall and the hot Kalahari wind whipped dust into our eyes as we crossed it. Still, we could see controlled chaos of the bus rank below us. Dozens of buses were parked bumper-to-bumper in 15 parallel lanes, each about as long as football field. Hundreds of people were milling around and vendors selling bags of dried caterpillars clustered at the bottom of the bridge.
We walked the perimeter of the bus rank, confident we would find an office, ticket salesmen, or at least a schedule written on a sign. After searching three of the four sides, we gave up. Oksana asked a fruit vendor how to find the bus to Maun. She simply pointed to the buses and said, “Go ask.”
We walked into the lanes and asked a bored teenager, the first person that made eye contact with us. As soon as we mentioned Maun, he shook his head. “Come back in the morning. No more buses to Maun.”
“5:30,” he shrugged. “Maybe 7:00.”
On the walk to the taxi lot, we decided to come back at 5:30am. If there was only one bus to Maun each day, arriving early would be better than missing it again.
The next morning, we were up and moving before sunrise. Sleepy hugs and goodbyes with our new friends made us slightly late; we didn’t leave the house until 5:30am, but the taxi driver took us straight to the bus rank. He pulled up to the end of one of the ranks and asked a boy which was the bus to Maun. I didn’t understand the exchange, but as soon as he said “Maun,” the boy shouted and started running. Other boys joined him and the taxi accelerated behind them.
We arrived at the front of the rank just as the bus started to pull out. Our taxi had outrun the kids and braked hard directly in front of the bus. The bus driver leaned on his horn and began revving his engine. I was digging out money to pay our fare when the shouting kids caught up and swarmed around us. Oksana raced to the trunk and hauled out our packs.
It was pandemonium. I’m sure we would have missed the bus if not for that taxi driver. He ignored the bus driver completely – wouldn’t even look at him – while I helped Oksana shoulder her pack and hefted mine. I approached the door and asked the driver if his bus was going to Maun. The kids around me laughed, “Yes! Yes, this is your bus! Get on!”
The bus driver was ignoring me anyway, so I climbed aboard to see if there were any seats available. There were, but I didn’t know what to do with our large backpacks. They normally go in a luggage compartment under the bus, but there was no help to be had in that respect. I spied two seats near the rear of the bus. It looked like there might be enough room in the overhead bins for our packs… The driver was still leaning on his horn and everyone on the bus was staring at me. Screw It, I thought. I’m sitting down.
I started to walk down the aisle when I heard a strangled cry from the doorway. “Arlo!” Oksana yelled. “I can’t get on!”
The first step onto the bus was a good three feet off the ground and, with her main pack on her back and a day bag on her front, she was carrying an extra 60 pounds and couldn’t lift herself up that far with just one leg. Then engine revved again; there was panic in her eyes.
I dropped my pack in the aisle and went to her. “Turn around, give me your pack.” Once free of that, she was able to haul herself up onto the bus. As soon as she cleared the ground, the taxi drove off and presently our bus was in motion. Oksana took both day bags back to the empty seats and I shuttled the bigger packs down the aisle after her.
While I was lifting my pack overhead, a candy vendor helped Oksana with hers. It was a clever ploy. He smiled and showed her his candy basket afterwards. It was too early in the morning for sweets, but she gave him the change in her pocket – 3 pula – for his help.
Finally we collapsed into our seats. We hadn’t paid yet – didn’t even know how much it was going to cost us to get to Maun – but we didn’t care. We were on our way.
The original bus seats had been ripped out and replaced with straight-backed, metal chairs that were welded to the floor. Three on one side of the aisle, two on the other. Even the leg room had been shortened to fit in as many rows as possible on the bus. At least we had three seats to ourselves. We placed our day packs between us and tried to get comfortable.
The bus picked up speed as we left the city and the temperature inside plummeted as the pre-dawn air streamed in through the cracks between the windows. It was still a good hour before sunrise, another two or three before it would really start to warm up. I ended up putting on four layers – under shirt, long sleeve, down vest, and windbreaker – just to stop shivering. I pulled the hood of my windbreaker over my head and leaned against the window. In minutes, I was asleep.
I woke with the sunrise as a young conductor slowly moved up the aisle. He was taking money and issuing handwritten ticket stubs. I motioned toward Oksana, still asleep with her arm wrapped around our daypacks, and said, “Maun.” He said, “300 pula.” It was the price we’d been expecting, so I handed over the money without complaint.
Now that it was light enough to see, I stretched and looked around the bus. The curtains were drawn across every window, keeping the early morning sun from shining in our eyes. Besides an Asian man – who looked just as confused as I felt – there were no other tourists on the bus. It was quiet; everyone was trying to sleep and no one paid us the slightest attention. I shed a layer and tried to catch a little more shuteye myself.
The ride to Maun took 10 hours. There wasn’t a bathroom on the bus, but we stopped on average every one or two hours, usually at a bus rank like the one in Gaborone, only smaller. While they loaded and unloaded passengers, there was more than enough time to hop off the bus, find the restroom, and pick up a drink or a snack from one of the vendors.
Twice, we stopped at cattle gates that doubled as security checkpoints. Each time, we were ushered from the bus by men in military fatigues with assault rifles slung over their shoulder. They checked our IDs and waved us across a cattle grid laid across the road. We all stood around on the dusty shoulder until the bus joined us on the other side. Each inspection only took five or ten minutes.
Between bigger towns, the bus filled up and Oksana and I gave up the seat holding our day packs. It grew hot as the sun climbed higher in the sky, but the locals protested when we lowered the windows. The blessedly cool breeze was a hundred times better than the stale, body-odor heavy air inside the bus. I couldn’t understand why they preferred it that way. Perhaps the road dust was even worse. At any rate, we shed every layer until we were in shorts and t-shirts, but sweat still pooled on our laps, underneath those heavy day packs.
With the sun beating down, it made sense to close the curtains too. I regretfully turned my attention from the arid Botswana countryside to my iPhone. I listened to a few podcasts and read a few chapters in my book to pass the time.
We arrived in Maun, sweated and tired, in the mid-afternoon. Yet another bus rank greeted us and combi (minivan) drivers leaned out their windows in an attempt to coax us over. We didn’t understand the system yet – and besides, we didn’t even know where we were staying yet – so we started looking for a pay phone. We set off toward a grocery store on the edge of the bus rank called “Choppies.”
After buying a much-needed cold drink, Oksana and I gathered in the shade of a big tree and put our heads together. We looked over the map we had of Maun and tried to find the hotel choices we’d researched ahead of time. Turned out most of them were far outside the city limits, along the shores of the Okavango River. We trudged back to the bus rank and found a taxi willing to take us to our first choice, the Okavango River Lodge.
It was well outside the town, 12 or 13 kilometers at least, but fortunately, the lodge had rooms available. We piled our stuff into our little “chalet” room, went back out long enough to grab something to eat, and were in our mosquito net-draped bed by 7:30pm.