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.
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.
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."
In 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?
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.
When 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.
After 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.
And 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.
The 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.
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.
In 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.