Exploring East Africa by overland bus is a low budget option for more and more


The softening demand for holidays in Eastern Africa from the main ‘producer countries’ in Europe, suffering from economic woes and downturns, has brought focus back on a group of travelers often overlooked, often ignored and often belittled by the mainstream tourism fraternity. Yet, these adventurers are very much part of the tourism scene across the region as those in closer contact with the reality from the ground up can confirm.

Overland truck tours bring in significant numbers of those ready to rough it and in particular local communities benefit directly from cash spent to buy food or pay camping fees for the use of community camp grounds. Backpackers too, mostly young people though some older folks also appear to take to this kind of grass root travel experience, form an integral part of the bigger tourism picture and it is well remembered, that when Uganda emerged from the doldrums of civil war, after President Museveni’s NRA had driven the last of the dictators out of Kampala, the backpackers and overland trucks were the first to revive a fledgling tourism industry, since then of course gone mainstream as the country reaches the million arrival mark this year.

These intrepid adventurers often fly into the region using airlines offering the option of an open yaw ticket, in other words carriers flying to at least three, if not four or all of the EAC countries, allowing to arrive at one airport and leave from another after exploring the region.

Sadly no statistics are available from any of the regional tourist boards or national statistical offices how long such travelers spend in the region, but interaction with some of them suggests that many can spend an entire semester break, i.e. as long as 6 weeks, travelling across the region to explore the sights, cultures and wildlife attractions.

Others spend between 3 and 4 weeks according to feedback received on some recent survey trips, carry what they need in their back packs, most bringing along their iPads or Tablet devices but at the very least their smart phones. Money smart as these travelers are, these devices are powered by local telecom providers, at very affordable local tariffs which allow to stay in touch with family and friends by Skype, through FB uploads and via Twitter, where they describe their journey’s impressions in detail, pictures included of course.

Other than coming to and leaving from the region, trips by air are often prohibitively expensive to these young people travelling on a shoe string budget, as are the mainstream hotels and lodges and resorts at the coast, but it seems an entire industry has sprung up, making a living from providing affordable, if often not outright cheap options for those willing to forgo the butler and valet services, the concierges and silver service 4 course meals.

Backpackers and Red Chilli in Kampala are the two best known budget hangouts, offering anything between dorm style accommodation to self contained rooms, the quintessential bar and a simple menu in a restaurant which serves square meals filling a hungry stomach but never in the running for a Michelin star rating.

Red Chilli has a rest camp inside Murchisons Falls National Park, near the Paraa ferry crossing of the River Nile, where accommodation and meals are considerably cheaper than in the fancied 5 star lodges. Budget guest houses in not too far off Masindi too are serving as a base for back packers, who then team up, often putting their money together, to hire a driver and a minibus – though there are specialized ‘operators’ available offering regular budget trips – to do day excursions into the national park, see the water falls, perhaps take a boat trip, see the game and then return in the evening back to their out of park lodgings. At the opposite end of the country, Kisoro too is a good example where these types of travelers lodge in town and then take local transport to reach the gorilla tracking sites for a day in the woods with Uganda’s prized primates.

They travel across Uganda using public transport, busses carrying 60 – 80 passengers, locals mostly, but interesting enough many preferring the Post Bus it is understood for their time keeping and good safety record while those criss crossing the region have a number of options to reach or travel from Kampala to neighbouring countries.

Akamba successor EASY COACH appears to have a strong following, operating as many as three regular busses between Nairobi and Kampala, with in between destination options I will come back to later.

Others are BUSCAR, Gateway, Kampala Coach, Modern Coach and Queens Coach, among others with Jaguar specializing on the routes to Kigali, Bujumbura and Goma. Literally every major destination can be reached within 24 hours from Entebbe, be it Juba in South Sudan, Nairobi or Mombasa, Arusha or Dar es Salaam and from there some companies offer onward busses to as far as Lusaka in Zambia.

Back to EASY COACH though, on which I undertook a test trip to Nairobi recently to research close up and personal the pros and cons of travel by road.

This company has captured significant back packer traffic, as it stops enroute, both directions, in Jinja, aka the Adventure Capital of East Africa. Rafting, boating, bungee jumping, quad biking, cross country cycling and horse riding are just a few of the activities which await these folks, when they get off the bus, met by boda boda ‘riders’ willing to ferry them on their 125 cc motor bikes to the 10 kilometre distant Bujagali Falls where a number of hostels and back packer overnight options exist, some right on the river and others set back a little further, costing even less. A further stop in Kisumu allows others to get off exploring the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria and pay a visit to President Obama’s paternal homestead just a few kilometers outside the city at Kogelo, before continuing via Kericho, Kenya’s tea growing heartland to Narok. There backpackers get off to explore the Masai Mara, again often staying outside the reserve and doing daytrips, crammed into minibuses but seeing the wildlife just the same as those able to spend thousands of dollars and having a 4×4 just for themselves.

A group of 6 Scandinavians travelling with me from Jinja and getting off in Narok, going by the names of Nils, Kjell, Leif, Britta, Inga and Freja, confirmed they had arrived on Ethiopian Airlines in Entebbe and were planning to leave from Arusha, after exploring first Uganda, then Kenya and finally Tanzania, using public transport and staying in affordable accommodation outside the parks, eating in local restaurants with the locals and yet, perhaps, coming closer to the people than a regular tourist will ever be able to do.

Another quick stop at the turn off from Narok to the ‘old’ Naivasha road allows once again back packers to get off to explore the Rift Valley lakes of Naivasha, Elementaita, Nakuru, Bogoria and Baringo using public transport of course, able to tick off Kenya’s latest additions to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and seeing the flamingos, the hot springs and the magnificent landscapes of the Great African Rift Valley.

And finally the EASY COACH arrives in Nairobi, near the main railway station, from where dozens of taxis or boda boda’s are available to take the travel weary long distance passengers to their hotel, hostel or home.

While many of these busses travel at night, for those wishing to see the landscapes not ideal, it nevertheless allows ‘business travelers’ from the various countries to reach their destination the next morning, doing their business in trade or else, and take the evening bus back home, spending a mere 50 US Dollars in return bus fare between Kampala and Nairobi, and similar amounts to get from Kampala to Kigali, Juba, or a bit less from Nairobi to Mombasa or Arusha and a bit more to Dar es Salaam. That compares to a regular airfare of about 250 US Dollars return between Entebbe and Nairobi, economy class that is and with limited availability of seats for these fares, but that of course is for an hour’s flight. Add to this the time needed to get to the airport in time in Entebbe for check in two hours before the flight and then get to the city centre in Nairobi at the other end, combined say 6 hours from Kampala to Nairobi. That compares, depending on which bus company one uses and whether the border crossing is in Busia or Malaba, to between 13 and 15 hours, a largely sleepless night, a distinct lack of ‘flair’ but at a fifth of the cost of an airticket and that is important when money matters.

Agreed, my usual way to travel is by air, seat 1A preferred if available, and to stay in my favourite hotels in Nairobi, Mombasa, Arusha or Kigali, experience the parks in a 4×4 or see it from a hot air balloon and spend the nights in the fancied 5 star lodges and tented camps as my many articles on travel across East Africa to our fabulous parks and beaches well attest to. Why then bother to explore this most unlikely mode of travel one might think.

Well, I got inspired by a friend who a few months ago undertook the journey from Nairobi to Uganda by bus to spend some time at the River Nile and a bit more at the Mabira Forest, after an earlier planned trip to Rwanda’s Nyungwe, aka The Enchanted Forest bounced due to my illness at the time. THAT effort, instead of flying into the much more distant Entebbe, brought me face to face with the other way how to travel across our region, known to me of course, acquainted with the Red Chilli’s and Backpackers’ hostels in Kampala, but admittedly more in a dormant way than fully cognitive, until now that was. It got me thinking about the lower cost options and how little there is found about it in the mainstream media, though guide books like Richard Trillo’s Rough Guide to Kenya gives really a step by step explanation of how to explore that country and similar publications of course also paying attention of how to get the furthest and the most with the shoestring budgets many young people travel on, aimed to explore the world with the resources they have. It also refreshed memories of my student days, when I travelled the entire Pan American Highway from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego and then made my way across the Balkans through Turkey into what was then Imperial Iran.

Interaction with backpackers is easy, often easier than with a fellow passenger in business or first class on a plane, as they were all keen to hear about places, especially the lesser known ones in East Africa. As a result a few may have taken busses from Nairobi to the highlands to explore the Aberdares or Mt. Kenya, or gone beyond to see the Thompson Falls in Nyahururu, or get off a bus to Mombasa at Voi and explore the Taita Taveta area.

Options are aplenty in Kenya with domestic transport on minibuses and larger coaches reaching all points of the country on a daily basis, as there are the same options in Uganda of course, in Tanzania, in Rwanda and Burundi.

From the respective capitals a network of bus routes takes budget travelers from Kigali to Gisenyi on Lake Kivu, or to Kibuye, to Butare or to Ruhengeri and from Nairobi it is a few hours by road to Arusha, aka East Africa’s Safari Capital from where public transport gets travelers to the slopes of Kilimanjaro in Moshi or to Mto Wa Mbuu from where to explore Lake Manyara National Park or to Karatu from where Ngorongoro is within reach.

Mobile communications, each country has several networks available, keep travelers in touch by smart phone, or through their iPads and Tablets as seen throughout the trip, with instant picture uploads and immediate chats answering the questions from parents, siblings and friends at home.

Admittedly, the safety record could be better overall but companies are now doing a lot more to train their drivers and give them sufficient rest time between trips. Travelers are spoiled for choice, some coaches air conditioned, some offering ‘in drive entertainment’ as in music or films by DVD, some offer snacks and water to entice passengers to book with them and others simply get you to where you want to go, no frills included. Locals are ready to share information on how safe THEY think certain bus companies are, and it is worth listening to them, as after all they are the most regular users of these services. The available printed guides, like The Eye in Uganda (www.theeye.co.ug) or their Kenyan and Rwandan equivalents, give a huge amount of information but as I was told by those I met and interacted with, the best source of information are the other travelers on the road and what can be sourced at for instance the Red Chilli or the Backpackers in Kampala, or similar places across the region. THERE the latest information on road conditions, locally available transport options to the parks or various attractions, and the prices, is at everyone’s fingertips, fresh and often spiced up by personal and very current experience, freely shared including phone, email, FB and Twitter contacts of others met on the road who could be of assistance. It is often these referrals which keep guest houses and their associated transport contacts in business and THAT is money which really percolates down to the grass root levels and provides an income to many families. As I saw in Narok in fact, backpackers were met as they had pre-arranged pick up through exactly such referrals, a sign that the grassroot, internet based social media networking actually works.

Budget tourism exists and is alive in East Africa and in Uganda, and while not exactly the focus of thesis’ and dissertations nor in the cross hairs of the mainstream tourism industry, it is a niche which is doing surprisingly well and seems to bring ever more young, and even older people into the country. And entire ‘industry’ has sprung up around it to cater for their pockets and budgets and when all is said and done, their experience of Africa is just as valid and intense as is the one of the 5 star travelers, flying from park to park and staying at the top of the pops en vogue boutique camps or lodges. It is called diversification, of products, of market niches and of how people travel, and there is not just a place for them all, they are all important in their own right. Hostels, guest houses, home stays, local restaurants and open air grill and beer joints and a transportation system the local people use day in and day out are readily available for those in search of the budget option, aided by a wide range of online blogs and the ever reliable Google facility, which almost in an instant brings information galore on the tablet screen, providing the latest information about even the remotest places across our region.

It was an experience and a half, the sleepless nights borne with greater ease as a regular insomniac but worth it any time, the very least to share my insight and perhaps encourage a few more to come to the Pearl of Africa and explore our attractions on a budget, and our neighbouring countries too of course.

East Africa is connected to the rest of the world with multiple daily flight options from Kenya Airways to Ethiopian Airlines, KLM/Air France, Brussels Airlines, Swiss and of course the Gulf giants like Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad, among others. Come visit, no matter the budget, there is no time like the present.

6 Responses

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