Southern Africa by Bus

I’m jolted awake. It’s sufferingly hot but I instinctually wrap my blanket tighter around myself to attempt to shield any bare skin from the malaria infested mosquitos that buzz around us. I can hear men talking nearby, but when I try to peer outside it’s completely dark. The bus sputters and shuts off. It sits still for two hours, and it’s only as we start to move again in the dawn light that we realize where we are. It’s the Zambia border. We’ve completed the first 48 hours of our bus trip.

Two weeks, five border crossings and 96 hours on a bus — that was our venture north into the surrounding southern African countries.

Plus a few adventures we found along the way.

Nick and I had spend two months traveling throughout South Africa and were in Cape Town when two free weeks opened up in our last month on the continent. We wanted to see more of the surrounding countries, stand at the edge of the world famous Victoria Falls, raft the raging Zambezi river and run down the renown dunes of the Namibian desert. Plane tickets to these destinations from Cape Town were out of our price range.BusRouteMap
Renting a car and taking it across borders would add extra fees, and the typical tourist move of hoping on a guided tour throughout the region would cost more than we budgeted for our entire 3-month stay in South Africa. That’s when we found the Intercape bus. With routes to most major cities in Southern Africa, we mapped out a circle that would take us from Cape Town across South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia and finally back to Cape Town.

We bought our tickets online and headed out with basically zero research.

Well, we learned a few things along the way, so I thought I would share some info to make it easier for someone who might want follow the same route.

Each segment of our bus trip ranged from 24 to 48 hour stretches between the cities we were staying in. We spent for four days in Livingstone, Zambia to explore the Victoria Falls and the Zambezi and five days in Windhoek, Namibia where we rented a car and to explore the surrounding areas. Between running out of money in Zambia (we spent all our cash on visas at the borders and couldn’t withdraw more because we didn’t have pins for our credit cards) to blowing out a tire in the middle of the Namibian desert with 200 kilometers of gravel roads left ahead of us, the trip wasn’t without challenges. But, it also wasn’t without rewards. We saw crocodiles and hippos on the upper Zambzi and whirlpools and house-sized waves in the Batoka Gorge below the falls. We got drenched by the spray of Victoria Falls and partied with the locals in Livingstone. We explored the Namibian beach town of Swakopmond and watched the sun rise over the largest dunes in the world.

 

Considering the trip? Here are some pros and cons to keep in mind before making the journey:

Why by bus? Upsides!

  • Price: The Intercape bus is cheap in comparison to a flight, organized tour or renting a car.
  • Setting: Riding the bus is an adventure of its own, even without the stops along the way. It also provides much needed downtime for the continuous traveler, giving you a chance to catch up on reading, journaling and napping.
  • Tour of the countryside: In comparison to opting for a flight, you actually get to see the countries you are traveling through and get to know locals you are riding with.
  • Free accommodation included: Riding the bus for 24 or 48 hour stretches at a time means one or two nights you don’t have to pay for accommodation elsewhere. When possible book on a Sleepliner coach rather than a Mainliner for added comfort on the overnight hauls.

And some of the reasons you might not want to go by bus…

  • Lack of flexibility: While your view of the country is vast, your interaction is limited. Refreshment stops are made three times a day at a gas station and if your lucky a Wimpys (fast food joint) is near by so you can grab a light meal instead of just gas station snacks. Breaks are strictly confined to 15 minutes and often occur at odd hours.
  • In route entertainment: A tape of Christian entertainment programming (Or “Inter”tainment as the Intercape bus calls it) is played on the bus, and after a certain number hours on board begins to repeat the same movies, music videos and prayers. On most buses volume is not adjustable. Thanks to this, I have seen the “God is Not Dead” music video at least 15 times and Paul Blart Mall Cop 2 more than five. Don’t ask how that movie qualifies as Christian entertainment.

Tips for the best bus experience:

  • Bring snacks and/or prepared meals for the bus so you don’t have to eat at the gas stations stops at 10 o’clock at night or consume Wimpy burgers made in shipping containers.
  • Bring your own toilet paper as most bathrooms at stops along the way won’t have it.
  • Book your tickets in advanced as buses do fill up occasionally.
  • Before traveling research whether you will be required to obtain a visa at the border crossings and bring the needed cash in the correct currency. For US citizens visas are needed to enter Zimbabwe ($30) and Zambia ($50). Namibia and South Africa don’t require visas or charge entrance fees for US citizens.
  • Bring cash to convert to Zambian Kwacha in Zambia or be prepared to withdraw Kwacha from an ATM. Most establishments don’t take credit cards. (Make sure you have a pin for your credit card before leaving the U.S.)
  • Be sure to spend or exchange all of your Zambian Kwacha before leaving Zambia as it is not exchangeable for any other currencies once you leave the country. Literally, their currency is worthless once you leave. We learned this the hard way and after being turned down by several banks ended up having to find a traveler who was on their way to Zambia to buy the money off of us.

Cost of two week trip for two (in USD): 

Bus tickets:

  •  Cape Town, South Africa to Livingston, Zambia (via Zimbabwe) — $170
  • Livingston, Zambia to Windhoek, Namibia — $60
  • Windhoek, Namibia to Cape Town, South Africa — $80

Border Crossings: $160

  • Zambia — $50 each
  • Zimbabwe — $30 each

Rental car for exploring Namibia (three days): $90

Accommodation (camping for two weeks for two): $180

Prices of excursions along the way vary.

A note about the costs: Keep in mind, due to currencies and exchange rates this trip will be much more expensive than sticking to budget traveling in South Africa. Zimbabwe uses USD, and the exchange rate of the Zambian Kwacha is K11 to $1USD rather than R15 to $1USD in South Africa. Namibia uses the Namibian dollar which is the equivalent of the SA Rand, however most costs are still higher in Namibia than in South Africa. For example, renting the cheapest car in Johannesburg (the capital city of SA) costs $10 per day, while renting the cheapest car available in Windhoek (capital city of Namibia) costs $30 per day.

 

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