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Posted by Tim on Feb 15, 2011
Public Transportation in South Africa

When we started traveling internationally together just under six years ago, we didn't particularly have any idea of what we were doing. Over time, though, we gradually developed our own "traveling style," an approach to backpacking that really works for us. Part of it is more philosophical – always trusting our instincts, for example, or the promise we made to ourselves that we'd never ever do something (or not do something) just because we were afraid of being embarrassed. Other things are of a more practical nature, like our approach to how much to pack, or our aversion to ever booking ahead.

'Those hedgehogs just love their public transportation!Falling into this second category is Hedgehog Rule #3, which states: "Always get around by using public transportation." We far prefer hopping onto a local bus rather than hiring a private taxi, but most of all we never ever rent a car when we travel. In part this is to avoid the stresses that can accompany renting: getting ripped off by the rental agency, remembering to drive on the other side of the road, getting targeted by traffic cops, getting into accidents, that sort of thing. In part, it's a financial decision – you'd be amazed what a difference it makes when you don't have to spend anything on renting a car, on insurance, or on gas. Mostly, though, it's about the little conversations and friendships that can form with your seatmates, and about never isolating ourselves away inside our own car.

All of which is to say, South Africa seemed to pose a problem for us.


The challenge of public transportation in South Africa

In the months leading up to our travels in South Africa, our research was getting a little discouraging on the transport front. It seemed that everybody, absolutely everybody, was insisting that we really really needed to rent a car in South Africa. From family and friends who had been there, to blogs written by backpackers, to posts on travel forums... everyone seemed to be speaking with one voice. "You can't take public transportation in South Africa," we were told. "For one thing, there just isn't any. It doesn't go anywhere. And you'll die if you take it."

'South Africa's minibus taxis – the most common form of public transportation, with the worst reputationIn the end, we found ourselves with one encouraging South African friend (and the webpage of one South African eco-lodge) on one side, telling us there was nothing to fear from public transport in South Africa. And opposing the two of them was, well, absolutely everybody else in the world. It seemed like it should be an easy decision. We needed to rent a car.

But, of course, we didn't.

In the end, we decided to give public transportation a shot. We've done well in our travels by always trusting our instincts, and so we trusted them enough to know that we'd never put ourselves in a position where we didn't feel safe. And if when we finally had our feet on the ground there, it really did feel like there weren't any options, or that the options that were there weren't safe... well, then we could always just give up and rent a car after all. But you never know unless you try, right?


We promise, you don

Seldom in our travels have we made any decision that we were so quickly and thoroughly thankful for. We loved taking public transportation in South Africa, absolutely adored it. We traveled by local bus, by overnight bus, by train, by minibus taxi, and even in the back of a pickup truck. And it was just wonderful. Everyone was friendly, the drives were generally incredibly comfortable, and we never felt like we were in danger. In fact, it was completely the opposite. We have never, anywhere else in the world, felt as looked after and taken care of as we did in South Africa. And I'm not just talking about the family members of mine that we were visiting there – I'm talking about complete strangers.

Let me give you an example.


The kindness of strangers

'Picturesque Soweto: in the distance are the colorful cooling towers of the defunct Orlando Power StationWhen we were in Johannesburg we wanted to visit the storied township of Soweto, to see both the Hector Pieterson Memorial and famous Vilakazi Street – the only street in the world to have been home to two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize (Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu). When tourists visit Soweto, the generally do so as part of large tour groups, whisked first to the one sight and then to the other, and then safely away again. But that isn't how we prefer to see a place.

'The route to Vilakazi Street, Soweto, using the Rea Vaya bus lineAfter weeks and weeks of pre-trip research (the public transport options that South Africa does offer tend to be frustratingly absent from the web), we had sorted out how we planned to get there. A sparkly new bus line called the Rea Vaya had just been built for the World Cup a few months prior, and with its double length buses and private lanes it reminded us tremendously of similar buses we'd enjoyed in Bogata and Mexico City. (Indeed, it was actually modeled after them.) And close inspection of their confusing maps had revealed a route that would drop us off right in front of Nelson Mandela's old house on Vilakazi Street.

All we had to do was catch the bus from the stop in front of City Hall, and make sure we were taking it towards a place called Thokoza Park. Then, after about ten stops, we'd get off at a place called Boomtown and change to a different bus line. A few stops after that, we'd be right in the heart of Vilakazi Street. Scouting the area with our good friend Google Street View revealed a pleasant-looking walk from there to the Hector Pieterson Memorial.

'The sparkling new Rea Vaya platform just opposite Johannesburg's City HallAnd so, on October 27, 2010, that's just what we set out to do. We'd already used the lovely Rea Vaya buses to get us to Johannesburg's fantastic Apartheid Museum the day before, so we felt pretty comfortable as we boarded just outside City Hall. Just to be sure we were on the right one, though (a few different lines board there), I made my way to the front of the packed bus to confirm with the driver that he was indeed headed to Thokoza Park, and he cheerfully confirmed that he was.

After spending about twenty minutes trundling through Johannesburg and then another twenty minutes sailing along our private highway to Soweto, the bus pulled up to the Boomtown platform, where Jessica and I were the only people to depart. Behind us the bus doors closed, and the bus almost headed off again. But then it didn't, lurching forward mere inches before stopping again.

We had just noticed its conspicuous lack of departure and were looking back quizzically at it when the doors slid open again and a young man emerged. He trotted over to us, looking concerned. We were feeling a little concerned ourselves at this point – what on earth was happening? Just as he caught up to us, we noticed a similarly concerned-looking bus station employee striding over to us from the other side of the platform.

What had we done? Had we accidentally done something wrong, perhaps something illegal? Was it a mistake to have tried to make our way to Soweto by public transportation?

"Please," blurted the man who had emerged from the bus, "this is not Thokoza Park."

We blinked at him.

'Soweto's Boomtown platform, where we were at first a cause for concernThe station employee was at our side as well now, and it quickly became clear he wanted to make sure we weren't being harassed. "Hello," he said to us all politely, "is everything okay here?"

The other man gestured back to the bus. "They told the driver that they are going to Thokoza Park. They have gotten off at the wrong stop."

With a dawning realization, I looked over at the bus driver. He was turned in his seat, looking over at us with fatherly concern. Suddenly I realized that everyone on the bus was watching us curiously.

"Ah," said the bus station employee. "Yes, yes, this is not Thokoza Park, this is Boomtown. You will want to re-board this bus and take it for three more stops. Then you will arrive at Thokoza Park."

Touched by everyone's concern, we explained that we were actually just trying to make our way to Vilakazi. Suddenly, both the bus station employee and the other man were smiling broadly.

"Ah, so you are not going to Thokoza Park then?" confirmed the man from the bus. We nodded, grinning and thanking him for his help. With relieved look, he made his way back to the bus, calling our plans to the driver, who also looked tremendously relieved to see that we were in fact okay. As the bus pulled away, everyone aboard it seemed to be smiling at us with amusement.

Our next bus didn't arrive for about twenty minutes. The bus station employee chatted with us for a bit and proudly gave us a little tour of the platform, before refusing to let us pay for our tickets and wishing us a pleasant afternoon.


The friends you make along the way

And it was just like that, over and over, throughout South Africa. Everywhere we went, people we'd never met would go out of their way to make sure we got to our destination safely. We have never, in any of our travels anywhere, felt so well looked-after.

And if we'd rented a car, we would have missed all of that.

'We really can't wait to tell you about the minibus taxisIn future posts, I'll try to give some more specifics on how to get around South Africa – and specifically how to get around Joburg – relying only on public transportation. And I'll also discuss the most ubiquitous form of mass transit in the rainbow nation: the dreaded minibus taxi. (Spoiler alert: we loved minibus taxis.)

For now though, let me reassure anyone reading this who is going through what we went through before our trip: trust me, you really can get around South Africa by public transportation. Really. And frankly, we wouldn't have done it any other way.

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February 16, 2011 at 11:13am
Kudos to you guys for doing this. I have no idea how people manage to get around a foreign country using public transportation system that doesn't have a web presence.

Do you go to the terminal and ask around?

February 16, 2011 at 11:15am
Hey Jill! :)

Yeah, it can be a real pain to try to figure out public transit systems what aren't online. When that happens usually our next step is to search out any helpful blogs we can find. And not necessarily just travel blogs, either. One helpful one for us this time around was Urban Joburg (http://urbanjoburg.blogspot…) – a blog about Johannesburg in general, with some nice photos and descriptions (if not actual schedules) of the public transport options there.

We also learned some good stuff using Google Street View (http://maps.google.com/maps…), which helped us not only scope out the areas we were thinking of traveling around, but on occasion would also help us make out route numbers on bus stop signs! :)

In the end, though, you're exactly right: the main thing we did was just to show up at a terminal and ask questions. Or, in the case of minibus taxis, ask questions of our drivers and fellow passengers. Usually it all falls into place pretty quickly. :)

February 16, 2011 at 11:27am
Sounds like you had a good trip on public transit. I love how friendly and people are on the bus! We almost always travel by public transit, but we rented a car in S.Africa and don't regret it. We had a tent with us and were able to spend a lot of time in the national park. Good to know it's possible though, because you are right, everyone is cautioning against it. Thanks for sharing!
February 16, 2011 at 12:00pm
Hi Jillian!

Yeah, if we'd been planning on traveling to any game parks this time around it would have been a lot trickier to wrangle on public transit. :)

I love your blog, by the way! And wow, 56 countries? That's amazing! :)

February 16, 2011 at 12:02pm
We rented a car in SA and were happy that we did because we were able to go into the game reserves and self-drive. But, I'm glad to know that you had such a good experience with the public transport there!
February 16, 2011 at 12:31pm
Hi Akila! (And hi to Patrick, Chewy and Abby too!)

Oh, absolutely – don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that no one should rent a car in South Africa or anything. I'm just saying that it's possible not to. :)

I've been meaning to drop you guys a comment over at The Road Forks, by the way – your photos from Etosha are just gorgeous! I'm particularly partial to the eles, but then again that's probably not a total surprise. ;)

February 19, 2011 at 5:21am
We rented a car in South Africa, both because I love the freedom of road trips and because we did the self-drive Kruger thing. We found South Africa to be most like the United States out of any country we've visited, in the respect that there is lots of urban sprawl and suburbia that lends itself to driving. But, of course, not everyone can afford to own a car, so its cool you got to experience a part of South Africa that many tourists and probably a fair amount of South Africans don't get to see. I'm guessing the back of the pick-up truck involved hitchhiking? Hitching seems to be common in South Africa. Although we don't normally pick up strangers, we picked up one woman in a very rural part of Wild Coast (because she looked very non-threatening and it seems to be a common way for people to get around in rural areas).
February 19, 2011 at 5:54am
Hi Amy! :)

Nope, we didn't do any hitchhiking. (A helpful duo of Samaritan and police officer once gave us pointers on how to hitchhike to a particularly out of the way destination, but we wound up getting there on public transport instead.) The pickup truck we rode in the back of was actually a "bakkie taxi", a kind of minibus taxi.

One interesting thing about South Africa we noticed was a large percentage of the people we at first thought were hitchhiking were actually just waiting for minibus taxis. Depending on where you're going, sometimes the gesture you need to use to flag down a taxi could be easily interpreted (at least by the two of us) as someone trying to hitch. :)

That being said, there is of course a lot of actual hitching about too. Glad to hear everything worked out okay for you guys when you gave that woman a ride. :)

February 19, 2011 at 6:20am
This got me interested in the math… Wikipedia has a "List of countries by vehicles per capita", telling that in South Africa, there's only 14 vehicles per 100 people. This says that the majority of locals must use public transport. Tim & Jessica are locals, obviously :)
February 19, 2011 at 4:17pm
LOL! :)

Klaus, wait until we get a chance to write about the minibus taxis. You would love the minibus taxis in South Africa! :D

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