Traveling Africa: Private Car vs. Public Transportation

When we talk about our next trip—not the upcoming birthday trip to Hawaii or the beach vacation with my family, but our next big trip—we talk about Africa. We talk about Ethiopa, about the Masai Mara, the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, about Rwanda, and about Zambia beyond Victoria Falls. We talk about exploring the parts of East Africa that we were unable to squeeze into our three months in Africa. And we imagine ourselves doing it in a 4WD, the open road unfurling in front of us, our plans unhindered by bus schedules or tour operators.

During the weeks we spent traveling through South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana, we had our own car—an orange Kia that was decidedly not 4WD or fancy but that managed to get us everywhere we wanted to go.

Thanks to the car, we were able to go on do-it-yourself safaris in Kruger and Etosha and smaller parks in-between, where our encounters with lions and cheetahs were enabled by good fortune and sharp eyes rather than radio calls that have every safari truck in range surrounding one animal. We were able to detour to Tsodilo Hills and take the ferry to the Okavango Polers Trust for an affordable mokoro safari, places that would have been difficult to reach via public transportation. Thanks to the fact that we had our own car, we were able to stop on the side of the road along the Caprivi Strip and browse carved animal figurines while chatting with kids from a traditional village, people who would have been only passing images from the window of a bus. Having a car opened roads, destinations, and experiences up to us. It presented us with possibilities and gave us the freedom to change our mind at any moment. It allowed us to choose our own music instead of being forced to listen to the same song on repeat for four hours. It gave us the freedom to depart the second we chose rather than being forced to sit in a bus that was going “now” but not “now now” for long mindless stretches. These are the things I think of when I picture us in our own 4WD.

But then I think of our travels through Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania, when we took buses and minibuses and trains and pick-up trucks and even a motorcycle or two.

There were some long days, where we did nothing but sit on buses, waiting for them to leave, enduring endless stops and starts, waiting out flat tries or overheated transmissions, bracing ourselves through pothole after pothole. We took buses that were so full we had to stand for the entire ride. We took minivans that held double or triple their intended number. We were often hot. We were usually uncomfortable. Yet somehow we still had fun. We met many people who wanted to talk to us, who were amazed to have us sitting right next to them in an overcrowded matutu. We met people who wanted to touch my blonde hair, people who asked us to hold their babies while they dug for their fares, people who shared their bags of fruits or nuts with us. When our buses or trains broke down, we stood on the side of the road with everyone else and traded sighs and stories. We learned Swahili from kids who would emerge from the village where we broke down, and we’d share a plastic table at the roadside restaurant selling chicken and fries. From our seats aboard Africa’s public transportation, we not only saw Africa but we also experienced it in the same way that most Africans do. Taking public transportation gave us perspective on what it is like to live in Africa, not just visit it. It allowed us to get intimately acquainted with people we would not have met otherwise. By paying the same fare and sharing the same small space, we became more approachable and less “the other.”

So when I settle in to my fantasies about my return visit to Africa, I find myself conflicted. Would I want to have my own means of transportation or would that only keep  me sealed off, viewing a sterile Africa through my own narrow windshield? Or would I want to opt for public transportation and open myself up to Africa but perhaps close myself off to destinations too far off the matutu route? I think the answer lies somewhere in between, in a combination of a 4WD on an open road and a matutu stuck in a traffic jam. Because as I see it, that is Africa, a place of opposites and extremes that combine in the most mesmerizing way.

4 thoughts on “Traveling Africa: Private Car vs. Public Transportation”

  1. We have yet to visit Africa, but I’m already conflicted on this issue of how to travel through certain areas. Everywhere else that we’ve traveled, the public transportation has been part of the whole experience. It can wear you down, but it’s usually full of funny stories and adventures!

    However, I remember from your South Africa posts about how you loved the freedom that renting a car afforded you to go off public transport routes to explore different areas. Seems like a combination of the two modes of transport is the way to go.

  2. Nice and thoughtful post! I think it all also strongly depends on the part of Africa you are going to. E.g. we also traveled through Namibia and South Africa in a rented car. In Namibia there is almost no public transport, and in South Africa it would be extremely dangerous to use it… But in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania there is plenty of public transport options, and obviously it is much more fun to use it that traveling in your rented car.

  3. Agreed. Grab an option somewhere in-between. Where you can, get your own vehicle. Sometimes riding public transport in Africa is a safari in itself! But, I suppose that’s something that you need to do as well, to say that you’ve experienced Africa in full.
    Blessings with your visit to our continent!

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