The Magic Bus
To keep the trip flexible we’d decided to avoid booking all of our transport in advance and just see what happened along the way. This approach, in all honesty, had been quite painful for me as I could be incredibly anal about planning. For months before a trip’s departure I would research places of interest; writing down locations next to dates before scribbling them out again until finally coming up with what I believed to be an exciting, feasible and affordable trip.
One of the reasons I’d begun this painstaking ritual was because I got bored at work very easily. I didn’t exactly have a challenging job, so rather than eating myself into a fat mess I’d use the time when I wasn’t busy to create in-depth itineraries.
The other reason I was so meticulous in planning was because being well organised is an excellent way of saving money. The earlier most flights are booked nowadays the cheaper they are, providing you stick to your pre booked dates that is. And we were soon to learn that this rule applied to South African buses also.
Originally I’d planned for us to travel by bus up the west coast of Southern Africa into Namibia. Namibia sounded a fascinating and extremely beautiful country. The giant sand dunes of Sossuslvei were high on my list of things to see. Their burnt orange slopes contrasting against the post-apocalyptic looking dead trees at their base would have been incredible to visit. Sadly though, it wasn’t meant to be.
When I first checked ticket prices back in England the Intercape Mainliner bus service between Cape Town and the Namibian capital of Windhoek seemed very affordable. When we checked a week or so before our intended departure, however, the price had risen to almost four times the original cost.
This dramatic increase, coupled with the fact that Namibia wasn’t a particularly cheap country to visit, made us realise that we needed to revise our plans somewhat.
I was a bit annoyed we hadn’t booked the tickets when first suggested. I was upset that we weren’t going to have a chance to visit Namibia and looked for someone to blame. I hadn’t pressed the issue of pre-booking at the time though, and had agreed with the others that it might be better to wait, so it was as much my fault as anybody’s.
The rise in cost wasn’t so extreme that it couldn’t have been paid for there and then. Yet the knock on effect of such an unbudgeted outlay could have been disastrous. None of us wanted to go home early due to insufficient funds. One important factor you learn with budget travel is that you simply can’t see and do everything. You must live to your means and prioritise what is most important. Although high, Namibia wasn’t at the top of our list. Making it to Zambia and beyond was.
Flights to the Zambian city of Livingstone were looking like our best option out of South Africa, even though we would have much preferred travelling overland the entire way. For both cost and time reasons we just couldn’t afford to do it by land. Or should I say, that was the case until Danny played an absolute blinder.
For years tourism in Africa has been incredibly popular. Unlike Asia and other parts of the third world, Africa can be both expensive and difficult to travel. Lack of infrastructure and political instability hinder the free exploration of these vast lands. Yet where there’s demand, there is always somebody willing to supply. And for many a young adventurer wanting to explore the colourful and sometimes volatile countries of Africa, the safest and easiest way to do so is by travelling within an overland tourist truck.
These huge vehicles, run by many different tour operators, usually operate between Nairobi and Cape Town, stopping at a myriad of interesting locations along the way. For the lone traveller keen on seeing this huge and uncompromising continent these trucks are an ideal solution. The down side, however, is that they cost an absolute fortune.
While Dean and I had either been inebriated somewhere or unconscious in bed, Danny had been talking to a Kenyan gentleman named Bob who worked for one of these particular tour operators. Bob and his colleague Vito had just finished a long, ninety day Nairobi to Cape Town trip the evening before and were chilling for a day before driving the truck back to Nairobi.
Having listened to our plight, Bob proceeded to inform Danny that if we slipped him a few Rand – the equivalent of about £80 – he would take us all the way to Livingstone, four days drive away.
The control freak in me was incredibly dubious when Danny told us of Bob’s suggestion. I couldn’t help my scepticism, doubting as to whether the guy would actually come through with his offer. If Bob changed his mind or was full of shit then it would mean the flights we’d seen would most likely increase in price, or we’d waste more money and time hanging around in Cape Town waiting for a better offer.
As it happens, my concerns were unnecessary. On the day of our planned departure a big yellow truck was parked up outside the hostel raring to go. When Bob had finished snogging the face off a Kiwi girl he had pulled from the previous trip, we loaded our bags and made ourselves comfortable in the truck’s spacious seating area.
The truck itself was fantastic. Between the three of us we had thirty two seats to spread out on, complete with fridge, ipod docking station and most importantly for me, a bookshelf full of half decent reads. It couldn’t have been any more ideal.
After Dean feigned disappointment and asked Bob where the plasma screen TV was – receiving a ‘get fucked’ for his efforts – we set off in a north easterly direction into the heart of South Africa.
Except for Danny’s wee jaunt to Chintsa, and when I nearly pooped myself in Mossel Bay, the three of us had been in one another’s company on a constant since leaving the UK. I’m quite a solitary person on the whole, both at home and whilst travelling. I find a lot of peace and contentment in my own thoughts, and am not one of these people who need the presence of others around them all the time or they feel lonely. I’m quite the opposite in fact. It’s strange, but I almost feel lonely in many peoples company as I’m not a very outspoken person. So, having enough space on the truck to keep to myself felt like a luxury. And that’s exactly what I did for the majority of the four day journey to Livingstone.
Danny and Dean occupied the front eight seats of the bus where the ipod station and radio lived. I holed up on the eight seats at the back beside the bookshelf. Granted, I also had the slightly stinking bin to contend with, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The time left to be alone with my thoughts was well worth the sour pong.
In comparison to a normal bus journey this was absolute heaven. It felt like we had our own tour bus. To be able to lounge around, feet on whichever chair you so wished was fantastic. It certainly wasn’t what I was used to with regards overland travel.
The back of the truck was quite a bit bumpier than the front seats. A few times I was thrown about a foot in the air after hitting a particularly nasty pot hole. You certainly couldn’t sleep for any prolonged period without being woken up with a hefty jolt, yet on the whole it was a pleasant ride.
After a long first day of driving we spent the night parked up in a large truck stop. Filling up on dirty burgers, we all then made ourselves as cosy as possible on camping mats wedged between the seats.
An internet trawling Vito had joined us in the back of the truck for the night. Driver’s privileges allowed Bob the liberty to create his own little wank nest in the front cab – a place in which he claimed many a bout of fornication had taken place with horny western backpackers. Considering he looked like Predator’s dumpier younger brother I doubted this highly. Although the New Zealand lassie he had been exchanging saliva with earlier had certainly shown willing, so maybe he was the top shagger he professed to be after all.
The back of the truck was not a great place to sleep at night. Each and every movement a person made banged and creaked like a fat lass walking blindfolded through a haunted house. For fear of mosquitoes and murdering thieves we’d rolled down the plastic game viewing windows, transforming the truck into a mobile greenhouse. Add the hot, farting bodies of four men and the airless compartment soon made for an unpleasant environment to say the least.
Day two on the road wasn’t quite as enjoyable as the first. Bob had awoken at around 4:00am and decided to get an early start, bumping us all awake in the process. He was a man on a mission that day, barely stopping until we hit our destination of Johannesburg twelve hours later.
I was happy enough reading an Ernest Hemmingway book I’d found in the back. It was basically two hundred pages of him trying to blast the life out of Africa’s most beautiful animals with a high calibre rifle. Although not exactly my cup of tea, it was a good read all the same.
Despite Ernest and his mates slaughtering local fauna, the day did tend to drag a touch. A few five minute breaks at service stations to wee and fill up our fattening bodies with more burgers from Steers – a South African fast food chain – broke the tedium slightly. And we were all relieved people when the truck eventually pulled into the nice suburb of Johannesburg where Bob planned for us to spend the evening.
Our driver had hoped that us three lads would be able to sleep in the hostel we were parked outside. Sadly it was already full, and we were subjected to a second night sleeping in the back of the sweaty truck with Vito.
Bob talked the hostel staff into allowing us use of the shower facilities. So after a welcome wash in which Dean and I nicked Danny’s towel and clothing, we decided to make sleeping in the truck more tolerable by getting plastered first.
We’d agreed on a bit of a booze ban of late, thinking it would be easy to steer clear of alcohol due to the lack of birds on the bus. This grand idea had gone right out of the window no sooner had we seen a few tidy young women wandering in and out of the hostel grounds. Ignoring the pleas from our bodies to give them a break, Dean and I bought a crate of beer from a nearby off license. Danny, on the other hand, managed to stick to the plan, spending his money on a nice meal instead.
A strange light lit the early evening sky of Johannesburg as we returned from our alcohol run. Divided by a straight vertical line, one side of the sky was light blue and the other half a much darker grey. It baffled us how the skies appeared to be dissected so cleanly into two different shades. Although we didn’t have time to mull over the phenomena for long. Thick, brooding clouds rapidly replaced the fragmented skyline, before evolving into a powerful thunder storm.
Making it back just as the rain began to fall, Dean and I sat with Bob in the back of the truck. Ploughing through our chilling stash of beer, we mused over how soaked Danny would be when he finally returned from the Italian restaurant he’d decided to eat in. ‘Dripping’ was unanimous verdict judging by the horrendous downpour outside.
Conversation between the three of us soon drifted onto one of our more favoured subjects.
“So what are you boys into,” asked Bob, “Big girls with booty or little mosquitoes?”
“Yeah, mosquitoes. You know, skinny chicks with no ass.”
“Ah. What do we like better, fat girls or skinny girls? I would have to say skinny. Deano?”
“Skinny, definitely.” confirmed Dean.
“What?” replied Bob incredulously, “Skinny girls aint got nothing to grab hold of.”
“Some do. But I’m not all that bothered either way really. As long as they are pretty and a decent person, I’m happy.”
“But what about a big ass?” quizzed bob again, “Big girls, with big thighs and a big ass is what you want.”
“A big arse can be jolly nice, yes. Providing the rest of her isn’t just as big. I’m just not all that attracted to fat girls. They look like they would smell a bit.”
“You guys are deluded. Crazy white boys, you don’t know what’s good for you.”
Danny returned soon after our fat girl debate looking like a drowned rat. He wasn’t best pleased about his clothes being soaked as he’d just had them washed and was in no mood to accompany us three into the hostel bar.
Danny had made the right choice by going to bed early. The hostel’s on-sight watering hole was absolutely dire. There was not one semi tidy woman to be seen in there. God knows where all the beauties from earlier were lingering, but it most certainly wasn’t where we wanted them to be. After two dismal drinks I left Bob and Dean chatting to a trio of rough German birds before heading to the truck to read my book by torchlight.
Dean, having told the annoying barmaid she had a dodgy eyebrow and a gimpy hand, soon followed me to the truck feeling terrible. It transpired that the barmaid’s ailments were due to a stroke she’d had as a teenager and she was quick to let him know such following his quip.
Unwittingly offending a semi cripple in a bar full of oddballs was not an ideal way to spend his final night in South Africa. Danny was also fed up about his now musty clothes, and I was frustrated at the lack of fun had on the lady front. Needless to say, we all went to our sweaty beds feeling a touch jaded that night.
The following day’s travel wasn’t quite the early start the previous one had been. Having enjoyed a gigantic breakfast at a nearby café, we then spent a good hour wandering around a huge shopping mall while Vito dashed from shop to shop in search of an elusive pair of trainers he’d agreed to buy for a friend.
It was Danny’s birthday today and as a loving gesture Dean and I purchased him a tube of Back to Black hair dye to cover his salt and pepper speckled locks. He was hardly greying, a few stray hairs near the temple perhaps, we just wanted to give him a gift that would wind him up a little. We also bought Danny some nice wine and a card to go with his dubious looking afro dye, so we weren’t complete arseholes to the birthday boy.
From Johannesburg we drove north westwards, arriving at the border crossing with Botswana late in the afternoon. A bitch of a customs official reluctantly stamped my passport as we filed through the frontier having accused me of driving an unregistered vehicle. When she realised she’d made a mistake I got even more attitude, so I called her an offensive term for the female reproductive organ under my breath before jumping back onto the truck.
We didn’t press too much further into Botswana that evening. It had begun to get dark shortly after crossing the border so Bob opted to spend the night in a truck stop close by.
The sun had completely set by the time we found a parking spot at the primitive roadside services. Changing our remaining South African Rand into Pula – the currency of Botswana – we then went and spent the majority of it on food.
Feeling completely drained of enthusiasm at this juncture I soon slipped into a trademark sulky mood. It seemed as if Danny was feeling similarly and the two of us brooded over our tender chicken in silence. With Dean stuck in the middle, Danny and I directed our angst at one another again. Nothing directly was said between us, there was just an uncomfortable sense of animosity brewing that wasn’t pleasant for anybody.
My half roast chicken was thrown down my neck with animalistic zeal; fists and fingers oozing with meat, skin and bones. Sitting back with my giant can of coke I waited sullenly whilst the other boys delicately picked at their chicken with cutlery. I’m not sure at what point in my life I became a graceless pig. I certainly wasn’t brought up in such a way. It now seemed as if I could only enjoy my food if consumed within eighteen seconds and it frustrated me that Danny and Dean were messing around with theirs.
The boys finally finished their poultry and we left Vito in the restaurant charming the knickers off a young lady handing out hot sauce. The shrill of cicadas filled the air as the three of us silently made our way back to the locked truck.
The services we had parked up at for the night was a hovel of a place. It teemed with mosquitoes – real ones, not skinny women – and mournful looking prostitutes. Large groups of local men were getting drunk in a windowless room near the truck where the only illumination came from the glowing ends of their cigarettes. You could literally feel the depravity in the air.
There was no way I was going to use the public toilets in this place. The pressing dump brought on by Vito’s friend’s hot sauce would have to wait until morning. A quick piss out of the truck’s open doorway was all I dared do before marinating myself in DEET and settling down into my creaky makeshift bed for the night.
At three in the morning I heard a stir at the front of the bus. Not knowing where I was or what was happening I sat upright and listened in mild panic.
“Pssst. Deano, are you up?” I heard Danny whisper before receiving a grunt from the man in question. “Come and have a look at this.”
“Fucking hell!” uttered Dean after a minute or so of fumbling his way to the front window.
Clamouring over Vito, I tip toed my way down the aisle to see what the boys were gawping at through the truck’s front window.
“What is it lads? Jesus Christ!”
A few metres in front of Bob’s cabin, in a place where we’d all stood a few hours before, a colossal hippopotamus – one of Africa’s most dangerous creatures – stood drinking out of a dirty puddle. These things can bite a crocodile in half apparently, and there it was, mincing around a garage forecourt where prostitutes and pissheads mingled happily night after night.
I had loved travelling Africa, although I hadn’t felt completely at ease in my surroundings all that often. This anxiety had mainly been due to dodgy looking people I admit, but on occasion it had been caused by the myriad of terrifying creatures knocking around. And a situation like this proved how right I was to be intimidated.
After having its fill of the fudge coloured water, the hippopotamus decided to rip out a steel girder with its teeth and contort it like it was tin foil. That girder could so easily have been any one of us. Scared to leave the relative safety of the truck, I let Danny and Dean chase after the fat, destructive bastard with their cameras on their own. I went back to bed instead, thanking my lucky stars we weren’t camping.
Skirting the eastern flank of the Kalahari Desert the truck pressed northwards early the next morning. By this stage in the journey we were all well and truly bored and just wanted it to end. Listening to the same songs time and time again was really beginning to grate. Those four days managed to put me off Chris Daughtry for life.
I was still hiding away at the back of the truck, sulking to myself at how cold and windy it was when Danny and Dean had the windows rolled up at the front. Not daring to have any kind of confrontation about the matter, I kept quiet and stewed in my own juices. For something so trivial it wasn’t worth any crossed words, especially when we were all exhausted from the past few nights of dreadful sleep.
The only respite from the windy chill came as we slowed upon entering the city of Francistown. All I could see of Botswana’s second largest town from my elevated viewpoint were fried chicken outlets. I’m sure there was far more to the place than that, but we didn’t have time to probe any further.
Sadly we’d only been in the country for around twenty four hours by the time we arrived in Kasane, the border town on the Botswanan side of the Chobe River. This wasn’t enough time to learn anything about Botswana, especially when the entire time was spent cooped up in the back of a speeding truck.
Had I not seen the giant hippo the day before I would’ve been very disappointed at not experiencing more whilst there. Like Namibia though, Botswana wasn’t going anywhere soon and would simply have to be visited more thoroughly on another trip.