Coach travel in the age of the automobile


I’ve certainly seen my share of coaches during my adult life. I can’t remember the first but I seem to recall it being a cross-country excursion with two mates from high school to the holiday town of Kariba in my native Zimbabwe, but it must have been unremarkable because I have no real recollection of it.

My university career got off to a promising start after the folks dangled a return air ticket before my gaping mouth. I can’t quite remember why I was deemed deserving of such a luxury, perhaps as a belated congratulations for my decent A-Level results. My father had promised to take me out for a meal but as was quite often the case had failed to follow through on this.

What I can say though is that a return airfare to Port Elizabeth via Johannesburg didn’t come cheaply back then. It was to be a one-off. Besides the fact that I was literally sh*t-scared of flying at the time, I didn’t exactly impress my mother by using the return fare to ‘pop’ back during term time due to a bout of homesickness. Not being particularly sympathetic to my condition she had fairly promptly put me on a Greyhound bus bound for South Africa the following week. This was my first experience of long-distance bus travel. Whoopee!

Actually, back then the coach pulled in at the Rotunda which lay slightly apart from the Metro terminus. It was an unsalubrious part of town and not somewhere you wanted to linger very long. Subsequently there were extensive improvements made to the main Park Station and all the coach offices, arrivals and departures were relocated there. Even so I recall on the one occasion having to wait several hours between connections and being accosted by a variety of vendors all trying to sell me the same gold chain. It didn’t make any sense! Was I missing something?

I was at Park Station again earlier today and I must say that after further improvements prior to the 2010 Fifa World Cup it is almost as inviting as an airport terminus, but not quite. For one it is open at both ends and there is a constant flow of humanity from one side to the other, a minority embarking on coach journeys or descending to the lower concourse from where the trains depart. Most, however, are simply in transit to the ranks of minibuses which await their clientele at an extensive taxi rank built for the purpose on the one side of the building. Others loiter in the many fast food shops or cafés within the domed expanse of the station.

Surprisingly, there are TV monitors which display local news highlights and weather bulletins. One can also see the occasional policeman or woman ambling along, usually in convivial conversation with a colleague. I don’t mean to be disparaging but South African police-women especially tend to be on the chunkier end of the scale and I wouldn’t have much faith in them being able to apprehend a half-starved thief or junkie making off with someone’s personal belongings. I haven’t been party to anything of the sort but always try to be vigilant.


A recent view of the overhauled Park Station terminus.

I noticed down the years that the Greyhound coaches I took within South Africa were of a substantially better quality than the ones on the route between Harare and Johannesburg. Yes, the Zimbabweans were being treated as less discerning customers. Whether or not this is true is hard to say. I distinctly recall that during my early bus days we were all given the option of listening to the on-board DVD/VHS movies via earphones which one could purchase onboard. At some point in the last ten-fifteen years the film audio became mass-broadcast over the PA systems. Whether this was because they couldn’t be bothered to supply earphones any longer or if it was a technical failure I couldn’t determine. The use of the PA would probably be deemed as an unacceptable invasion of privacy on a National Express coach in the UK, but here in Africa it’s met only with indifference at best.

I think it is cultural phenomena. African cultures are without doubt louder and more boisterous than their Western counterparts, at least in the public spaces we inhabit (anyone who has lived in England will know the effect a few pints of lager can have on the populace). My point is that Africans seem fairly inured to noise. Or perhaps they are just more tolerant of auditory intrusion? I am often quite surprised at how quiet the inhabitants of a minibus taxi are, even if the driver isn’t blaring his tunes at full blast, which is actually quite often. Certainly my recent experiences of a Zambian coach between the town of Livingstone near the Victoria Falls and the capital Lusaka made me realise that coach travel in Zimbabwe and South Africa is quite sedate by comparison. I think the following audio clip will speak for itself. (And yes, that’s an evangelical pastor onboard).

The last Greyhound coach(es) I took were over this Easter weekend, firstly down to Vryheid to see a cousin and then between Richard’s Bay and Durban. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if these were the same coaches that were operating at the time I was at university in the Eastern Cape. They are beginning to look their age: tarnished plastic mouldings, grubby upholstery and frayed curtains. I wasn’t very impressed but at least they got me to my respective destinations without incident.

The one and only time I experienced a breakdown was on a Greyhound coach en route to Durban when, quite fortuitously, we broke down near the Montrose service station outside Harrismith. It was actually quite hilarious because we instructed to sit tight whilst they assessed the problem on the side of the busy N3 highway. After half an hour it became apparent that we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry and first one passenger then another had made a wild dash across the motorway for the bright lights and promise of hot food and beverages afforded by the service station on the other side.

They had to send a replacement bus run by a third-party operator which arrived many hours hence by which time the allure of Montrose had most certainly worn off. In the interim I’d become acquainted with a few of my fellow passengers, many Durbanites of Asian extraction, at first through the mutual commiseration that comes through collective misfortune, and later through boredom once the usual avenues of conversation had been exhausted. A one Mr Reddy had ushered me aside in a clandestine manner, a knowing smirk on his face. He brandished his phone close to his chest and showed me a grainy pornographic video clip. It really wasn’t very exciting but he seemed quite pleased with himself.

It’s only now, on reflection, that I realise how many anecdotes and recollections I have of coach travel in various locations, which is what inspired me to write this post in the first place. I guess I should round off my recollections of regional coach travel by revisiting the Jo’burg-Zimbabwe route which passes through the notorious Beit Bridge border post. I can’t remember when exactly it became synonymous with long queues, surly border officials, bribery and filth but once upon a time I actually looked on it quite fondly. I remember a place called Pete’s Motel on the Zim side where there was a swimming pool, restaurant and a general good vibe. After dark the folks took my brothers and I down to the bridge over the river Kipling described as the ‘great grey-green, greasy Limpopo’. I felt a sense of anticipation and excitement as a warm breeze buffeted my face.

The romance of the place had certainly worn off by the time I was making my bi-annual sojourn to university south of the border. After an absence of several years I revisited the place last year en route to the city of Bulawayo. It didn’t disappoint. We arrived at dawn after departing Jozi at 2000 hrs the previous evening, joining the ranks of buses waiting to transit the dreaded juncture.

I should point out that I was on the Intercape coach this time around, not much different to Greyhound, except that I’ve never had a ‘breakdown’ experience. Oh, and Intercape is unapologetically a ‘Christian-oriented’ service. They inform you of this during the booking process. Consequently one is assuaged by ‘family friendly’ films, interviews with pastors, and a medley of Christian tunes encompassing rock, gospel and even hip-hop. To be honest I don’t really mind what they present as on-board entertainment so long as it’s not unreasonably loud. They are usually quite considerate. After all Jesus would be of he was on board, wouldn’t he?

Once upon a time these so-called luxury buses (as opposed to the ‘chicken buses’ that ply these same routes laden with bags, poultry and even goats bound at the ankles) got preferential treatment. Not so any more. It’s now on a first come, first serve basis. I am led to believe that the ‘facilitation fees’ became unreasonable and the operators stopped paying them. We had to wait several hours before we could even get to customs and immigration and several more after that. If you are fortunate you might be able to sleep a bit longer but the temperatures rise rapidly after dawn (Beit Bridge is, after all, not much above sea level).

However tolerant one is of the weather, there is no avoiding the noise of passengers moving about and the almost certain intrusion of a blind old beggar, man or woman, inevitably accompanied by a small child bearing a styrofoam cup or bowl for charitable donations. The old beggar will sing a sad lament and clap his or her hands in time as they walk up and down the length of the isle. Although it’s really quite sad it’s hard not to feel pity. In a way I admire the bus driver for permitting this brief intrusion into an otherwise mind-numbing wait. I can’t imagine it being sanctioned by HQ back in Johannesburg, but it reminds me that Africans too have a sense of charity even if the continent often seems so Darwinian in its antics.

I remember seeing a Zimbabwean customs official standing, arms crossed, for at least 45 minutes, before he deigned to inspect our belongings. Being a self-appointed investigative journalist I took it upon myself to photograph various aspects of the border crossing. I got a good one of my fellow passengers queued outside the bus with our bags at the ready waiting for our lethargic border official to spring into action.

An illustration of one of the delights that awaits the hapless traveller at the Beit Bridge border post: queueing outside the bus at dawn with all ones belongings on display.

At least the cockroaches were largely absent this time. I recalled how at one stage they would scuttle amongst the buses over the interlocking paving-blocks seeking shelter beneath bags and boxes. It was testament to the amount of filth and rubbish discarded in the vicinity of the border post. Even once a cursory inspection of the bags had been made we still had to await official authorization before we could proceed. I recall standing on the far side of the customs offices with a fellow passenger, a young guy returning to see his parents near Bulawayo.

I discreetly photographed some of the other passengers seated along the perimeter of the paving. Well, I thought I was being discreet, except that another young-ish fellow had sauntered over to us with a half-smile on his face. He stopped short of me and flourished some sort of identity card which proclaimed him to be an agent of the much-maligned CIO. The smile disappeared simultaneously. His jaw jutting out aggressively he asked me what I thought I was doing.

“No photographs here. Don’t you know this is a security zone? Heh? Are you Al Qaeda? Tell me, are you?”

Perhaps this was a tongue-in-cheek jibe directed at my bearded countenance. I was only slightly alarmed and replied that I was very sorry being an ignorant tourist who just wanted to show everyone back home the lovely country I was passing through. He sniggered at this most obvious of lies and with a final caution he turned his back on us. My friend from the bus was not very impressed. “You have to be careful man, these guys don’t mess around.” I’m not so sure they don’t.

The photograph that almost got me in serious trouble. Passengers bask in the sun waiting for their coaches to clear customs and immigration.

On the other side of the world in Europe coach travel tends to be far less eventful. The English for one do not like travel to be eventful. It is mostly about punctuality and lack of incident. There are no on-board movies, animated evangelicals, hop-on, hop-off beggars or the like. If one feels the need to use a mobile phone, one is asked to be respectfully quiet. One is not prevented from eating but fast food is a definite no-no in direct contrast to the African coaches where a distinct aroma of fried chicken pervades the interior cabin after a lunch break. Seat belts are to be work at all times.

Probably the best coach I’ve been on was in Poland where each seat was provisioned with a console, much like most modern aircraft. There was a selection of movies, TV programs and music to choose from. Over in Turkey coach travel is remarkably efficient between the various far-flung towns and cities. Although the country has a surprisingly well-developed domestic air industry coaches remain the most affordable means of travel. In some cases they come with seatback consoles but the material was inevitably in Turkish. The real bonus is the coffee and soft drinks that are served during the journey by the stewards.

I’ve met many interesting people on coaches, your average Joes and others who would be more difficult to categorise. I didn’t expect to meet an observant Muslim man who was also an avid collector of British first day covers on one of the Turkish routes for instance; nor a young lady of African descent who took quite a shine to me on a trip up from Durban. We later met up for a drink and we even held hands walking through central Johannesburg, a proposition that made me feel wonderfully rebellious. That would have been outright illegal 25 years ago and would still have raised eyebrows a long while after. My peripatetic lifestyle precluded any further development to the relationship.

So in the age of the automobile, rail and burgeoning air travel I hope I can make a case for the humble coach. We occasionally read of an unfortunate accident such as the one that claimed the lives of a dozen students in Spain recently, but considering how many journeys must be made every day, it’s quite admirable that there aren’t many more. Statistically it probably isn’t as safe as air travel but I’ll no doubt rely on them for a few more adventures before my travelling days are done.

Waiting to purchase my ticket at Park Station behind the four wise men…