The Worst Bus Journey Ever – Anywhere
It was in Windhoek, the small Germanic-flavoured capital of Namibia on a dusty sun-bleached day in early December that I made the reservation. I was attempting to make my way northwards into the Caprivi Strip, a thin slither of land which connects north-eastern Namibia with its four neighbouring African countries. From here I could plan my descent into Botswana, hitting it on its upper west side and avoiding the hostile expanses of the Kalahari Desert. With an air of expectancy, I booked a cheap bus ticket through a private company in Windhoek and hoped for the best. The journey was to take twelve hours and, as I was still dwelling comfortably on the memories of South Africa’s customer-orientated service industry, I dreamt hopefully of a large, spacious coach with soft, reclining seats, adjustable air-conditioning and a hostess called Romana topping me up with regular cappuccinos.
Fat chance! This, after all, is Africa.
A minibus the size of a VW camper van pulled abruptly into the curb at approximately 6 p.m. and I glanced around ironically at the fifteen other people who were waiting in Windhoek’s main bus stop. No one looked as if they were a contortionist – on the contrary, most of them appeared to be moving house, judging by their luggage. As we jostled for seats inside, under the auspices of our jovial driver, I gathered that most of the passengers were pleasantly surprised that the bus had turned up at all – and on time at that! – a remarkably rare occurrence, it seemed, in the rather downtrodden and disorganized corner of the world through which I was passing.
It looked like a pretty unsolvable equation from where I was standing, but somehow the driver, after a couple of major re-shuffles, managed to squeeze us all in. Before I had a chance to say the words “health and safety policy”, I found myself paid-up and wedged painfully between two Lennox Lewis-sized Zimbabweans in the back seat. At first I tried to make light of the situation by cracking a few lame jokes but, after we had motored sluggishly to the city’s suburbs and the driver deliberately and callously stopped again to let on a waiting family of five plus luggage (half a farm’s worth by the smell of it), the laughing had to stop.
“Excuse me…” I shouted loudly and quite uncharacteristically from the back seat as he re-arranged the seating plan into something even Houdini would have found unbearable, “But I think this is a new world record!”
After thirty excruciatingly uncomfortable minutes – as the sun set otherwise romantically over the dusty Namibian desert – the blood in my legs had ceased to flow. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t even move. Restlessly, I tried to imagine how captured war spies withstood similar tortures: sleep deprivation, chronic boredom, panic-inducing claustrophobia. I was struggling to hold myself together.
Regular police checkpoints along the route did little to ease my discomfort. The fact that I was the only European on board didn’t appear to act in my favour. I was asked to produce my ID on three separate occasions and hence became rather adept at slithering out of one of the side windows clasping my passport. The rest of the journey was an unsavoury mix of fitful dosing, suicidal three-point turns and inexplicable emergency stops. The sight of the driver wasn’t much comfort either, dazed and sleepy-eyed as he was after a good two days on the road.
“Keep talking to him,” whispered a traffic cop at one checkpoint, as he discreetly pocketed a bribe. “You don’t want him to fall asleep, do you?”
It’s customary to bribe policemen in most African countries. Corruption is appallingly rife. It’s one of the first things that hit you as a foreigner from a Western democracy – the notion that the law is not sacred, that the carrot of money can be used to persuade anyone to bend the rules; even when it comes to sacrificing your own safety. So I resolved to stay awake as long as the driver did, which wasn’t difficult from where I was sitting, what with two dead legs and the combined weight of a couple of heavyweight boxers resting on my shoulders.
Sometime early the following morning, in the shimmering half-light of an African dawn, we came to a halt at a deserted road junction in the middle of the bush. This, according to the map, was the settlement of Divundu ï¿½ a couple of petrol pumps, a bottle store and a collection of straw huts. But in the accompanying backdrop I saw Africa as I had always imagined it, an exotic dream-world that had been conjured up in my mind from watching epic movies and ecological TV documentaries. It stretched off into the distance – strange, alluring and undiscovered.
I disembarked alone where the road forked. The other twenty-two passengers were all bound for Zimbabwe another four hours down the road. I didn’t envy them in the slightest. There was a rest camp five miles along on the left-hand fork, the driver informed me, as he retrieved my rucksack from the roof, but I was pretty close to delirium by this point and couldn’t have given a hoot.
“Have a nice trip,” he said patronizingly, as I limped off on shaky legs in the direction he had indicated, “And watch out for the elephants.”
I looked around, startled as the full weight of those last words sank in, but he was already back in the bus by this point and revving up the engine. Watch out for the elephants…well yes…pretty sound advice, as it turned out.