Traveling overland in Africa is tough for many reasons–it can be hot, crowded, dirty and long–very long. Nonetheless, I wanted the more local experience and the sense of place–and changing places–you get from being fully on the ground. When I tried to research it before my travels, however, I found little solid information online. Only one of the buses I ended up taking actually had a web site where I could go for information or booking. I tried emailing hostels and asking fellow travelers about their bus travels in Africa. That helped, but there were still parts of my journey no one seemed to know about (specifically, getting from Malawi to Kigali). If there are others going all or part of these routes in the future, I wanted to post this in case it helps you find your way. Safe travels!
Windhoek, Namibia to Otjiwarongo, Namibia: I did this with Intercape. It was easy, comfortable and left and arrived on time. My travels generally seemed to get more challenging as I went. Namibia was mostly smooth and organized. Travel time: 3.5 hours (this is the time for the bus ride itself).
Windhoek, Namibia to Maun, Botswana: I have heard at one point there was a bus going from Windhoek to Maun, but it no longer runs. I could not find any way to travel from Windhoek to Maun overland other than the Tenna Express shuttle, which would have cost more than the flight since they didn’t have any other passengers going when I was going. Alas, I ended up doing what most people do and booked a flight from Windhoek to Maun. The night before I left, however, I found a piece of paper pinned to a board at Chameleon Backpackers with some notes from a traveler who indeed found a bus route! I wanted to share it here for anyone who might need it. You might want to email Chameleon to confirm the information beforehand in case they have additional information. “Took AT&T Monnakgotla Bus (stops in front of a hotel in Windhoek [note: ask Chameleon which hotel]; the bus is not marked) heading to Gaborone and told driver we would transfer at Ghanzi (300 NAD). Then got off bus [wherever the driver let them off] and took taxi to Ghanzi (10 pula). Then waited 30 minutes in in Ghanzi for a bus to Maun. Easy.”
From Maun to Livingstone, Zambia: I traveled with a safari company, so I do not have bus notes, but that piece seemed not so difficult to figure out online. If you cannot find information online, my suggestion would be to email Old Bridge Backpackers in Maun or Jolly Boys Backpackers in Livingstone. I think either one could tell you the best route and when the buses go.
Livingstone to Lusaka: I took Mazhandu Family Bus Services, which was recommended to me in Livingstone as the best one. We left on time and arrived pretty much on time. The seats were assigned and fairly comfortable, and the bus was not packed, so overall it was an easy trip. I bought the ticket the day before, and I think this is generally the best way to go so you can be sure you have the ticket and can pick your seat. Travel time: 8.5 hours (time from arrival at the bus station to arrival in Lusaka; I got to the bus station about an hour early).
Lusaka to Lilongwe, Malawi: I had planned to take something I found online called the Blue Bus, but when I got to Lusaka, I was told the Blue Bus had apparently run into some trouble with the law and was no longer running. That means Kobs is the only bus service between Lusaka and Lilongwe (as far as I know), and I believe they go on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (confirm this when you get there). It was a so-called “luxury” bus that was a long, hot journey I honestly couldn’t wait to be done with, but it got me there. I had to arrive at the bus station at 4 a.m. to get a ticket and a seat, and at that point the bus was almost totally full–both with people and huge packages, including a mattress I was surprised to see someone pull off the bus later that day. I’m still not sure how they fit that in there. Travel time: 13 hours (from my arrival at 4 a.m. at the Lusaka bus station to the arrival in Lilongwe).
Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay, Malawi: I was told at a backpackers place to take the Axa bus to Mzuzu and then get a shared taxi to Nkhata Bay. My taxi driver to the bus station, though, wasn’t quite sure where to get that bus and instead took me to an Axa bus that was going straight to Nkhata Bay. I asked about the other bus but was told it wouldn’t be going until much later in the day. I’m not sure that was really correct, but I liked the people who were helping me and just decided it would be easier for me to go straight to Nkhata Bay on the public bus. Boy, was I wrong. This was the long way up the coast and would have taken longer than the other route even if we hadn’t ended up in a ditch on the side of the road which then led to me hitching a ride in the cab of a tractor trailer to get to Nkhata Bay. As my grandfather would have said, sheesh. Suffice it so say, do your best to get the bus straight to Mzuzu and then get a shared taxi to Nkhata Bay. That said, I did enjoy the ride up the coast until the last 2-3 hours when I was just so tired I wanted it to end immediately. It was great to go through the small towns/villages, and I enjoyed a lot of the people I met and getting to see Malawi along the way. The bus also had a nice breeze coming through the open windows and I was able to stand up periodically, so it worked well for me…for a while. Travel time: 12 hours (this includes the time from my arrival at the Lilongwe bus station (after which I waited about 2-2.5 hours for the bus to be full enough to leave) to my arrival in Nkhata Bay).
Nkhata Bay to Livingstonia, Malawi: The owner of the place I stayed in Nkhata Bay described this route as “easy,” and I guess it basically is, but there are a few legs. First, I took a shared taxi to Mzuzu. I then got a minibus to Chitimba. In Chitimba, I hired a porter to carry my bags while we hiked 10 km up a steep mountain to the Mushroom Farm. I paid 1,500 MWK for the porter to carry my bags and did my best to only subtly hint at, “Are we almost there?” since he was doing the same climb I was doing only with my bags in tow and wearing flip flops. You can also get a matola ride up the mountain for 1,200 MKW or, I believe, Mushroom Farm or Lukwe can arrange a taxi for you up the mountain for $50 USD. Check their web sites for more information. Travel time: 6.5-7 hours (this is from the time I got to the shared taxi in Nkhata Bay to my arrival at the Mushroom Farm).
Livingstonia to Mbeya, Tanzania: This was another multi-leg trip. I started off getting to the road in Livingstonia around 7:45 a.m. or so. I waited for a minibus for about 30-45 minutes. Two other women I met had waited for an hour and a half. I also met people who waited 2-1/2 hours for a ride when they were going up the mountain, so give yourself plenty of time. Although the ride down the mountain is only about 10 km, it is steep, rocky and necessarily slow, so it may have taken us 45 minutes to get to Chitimba. I was surprised at the end to see the woman squeezed in next to me pull a live chicken out from between her feet. At Chitimba, I got a minibus to the border of Tanzania for 2500 MKW (I had to switch to another minibus at Karonga, but the full fare was 2500 MKW that I paid the first minibus driver). After passing through the exit and entry formalities, I walked to the bus stand in Tanzania (a long walk in a very hot sun that left me drenched in sweat; you may want to take a taxi) and got a bus to Mbeya, arriving there about 6 p.m. There are various stops in Mbeya. I first got out at the “little stage” (this is what a fellow passenger called it and is where the smaller buses arrive) and took another minibus to the “big stage,” so I could buy my bus ticket to Dodoma for the next day. Travel time: 10.5 hours (this is from the time I left Lukwe to the time I arrived at the “big stage”).
Mbeya to Dodoma, Tanzania: I bought the ticket from Penuel Express the day before when I arrived in Mbeya. It was hard to know who to trust at the Mbeya bus station. To put it mildly, many people were vying for my attention, and I was beat from the day of travel. In the end, I just went with Penuel, and they were fine. I arrived at 5:15 a.m. and we left on time at 6 a.m., arriving in Dodoma around 3 p.m. Travel time: 9.5-10 hours (from arrival at the Mbeya station to arrival in Dodoma).
Dodoma to Kahama, Tanzania: I was not sure how to get to Kigali (my ultimate destination) from Dodoma. In Dodoma, I happened to go to a hotel where I heard from a clerk about a route to Kigali through Kahama. After much research, this was the first I had heard of this route. I had never even heard of Kahama and am still not quite sure where Kahama is. Still, I thank this hotel clerk profusely for giving me the information. I had thought I needed to go to Mwanza and then from Mwanza to Kigali. Not so. Going to Mwanza would have added many hours to my travel. I also had thought maybe I needed to go to Kigali via western Tanzania (i.e., not even going to Dodoma at all). I suspect that is another way to go, but I cannot say whether it would be shorter (I just don’t know). I heard from many sources that the roads in western Tanzania are rough and tumble at best, and I didn’t even know where to start with that route, so I went this other way. All of the roads I traveled on in Tanzania were smooth other than after a certain point on my way from Kahama to the border where things got bumpier and we started needing to dodge large potholes pretty often. I suspect if I had gone the western Tanzania route, that would have been a lot more of the experience. In any case, for this leg I arrived around 5:15 a.m. at the Dodoma bus station and the bus left on time at 6 a.m. for Kahama. The bus was called Isamilo Express. I had to switch buses in Tinde and took a minibus from there to Kahama, arriving around 4 p.m. The total fare was 30,000 TZS, and I paid it in full when I bought my ticket the day before from Isamilo. Some people, though, paid 25,000 for the bus to Tinde and then paid the minibus driver in Tinde 5,000 for the ride to Kahama. Tomato-tomahto.
Kahama to Kigali, Rwanda: I took Matunda Express. On the road, I noticed another minibus called Select Express that looked like it also did the Kahama-Kigali route, but you would have to confirm that. Matunda was a minibus. Who knew that 7:30 a.m. was the perfect time to start playing African rap music so loudly that you could feel it pulsing in your body? I put in my earplugs, which gave me enough of a buffer to tolerate it (and even enjoy one song in particular). Not the most comfortable but not the worst. The windows were slightly opened and didn’t have curtains, so there was light and a view. The bus left me at the Rwanda border after I ran into problems getting my visa, but another one came along not too long after and I rode with them the rest of the way to Kigali (along with a wonderful woman who very kindly waited with my bags while I got my visa). If possible, you may want to get your visa in advance. I was the only non-African person on the bus and all of the others were able to go through the border much more quickly. That said, a big part of my delay was that I did not have enough U.S. dollars (I had read on the U.S. State Department web site that I could pay with a credit card, but this was wrong), so if you make sure you have enough U.S. dollars, you will probably be ok. Travel time: 10-10.5 hours (from when I got to the Kahama bus station to my arrival in Kigali).
Kigali to Gisenyi, Rwanda: I took Virunga Express for 2900 RWF and did not buy this ticket in advance. The minibuses go to Gisenyi so frequently you can just show up at the bus station and buy your ticket. Travel time: 3.5 hours (for bus ride itself; the bus left within 20 minutes of when I arrived at the station).
- Break Up the Travel: Give yourself enough time to spread out the travel and have some rest days in between. For my trip from Livingstonia up to Kigali, I did it in four consecutive days, and it was rough. By the time I got to Kigali, I was close to losing it. Dodoma seemed like a nice place and would have been a good spot to stay for a bit longer to rest. Preferably, give yourself many breaks in travel so you can enjoy it more. I wanted to get to Kigali by a certain date because of plans I had, so my pace was on the fast side, but slow is often better.
- Check Into the Train: There is a train in parts of Zambia and Tanzania. If you buy a certain ticket, you can lie down! And either way, you can stand up! And walk around! More information is available on Man in Seat 61.
- Make Room for Delays: Almost all of the travel time estimates I got from the bus companies were off by at least one to two hours. You will be delayed more if the bus breaks down or you get into an accident. Leave early and don’t have a connection/event that you must make by a definite time that day.
- Food/Toilet Breaks: The buses I rode all made stops where you could buy food from vendors and use toilets (often for a small fee). Have some toilet paper with you in case there isn’t any available. Where possible, you may want to bring a sandwich, snacks and water to have with you (though you may want to drink less so you need the toilet less since the stops aren’t always frequent).
- Ear Plugs: When the non-stop music got too much, I put in ear plugs and it helped…a lot.
- Chat with Your Neighbors: I met some wonderful people on these rides, many of whom ended up taking their personal time to help me along the way. On each leg, there seemed to be someone who looked out for me, from the man who took me under his wing after the accident near Nkhata Bay to the woman who waited with my bags after the bus left at the Rwandan border. Thank you, all!
- Enjoy the Adventure: The morning I left for Dodoma I said to someone, “I’m not sure if I’m going in the right direction today. I’m kind of nervous, but it’s kind of exciting!” It was a great adventure to somewhat feel my way in the dark to get to Kigali. It could have gone either way, and thankfully it all worked out well for me, but I enjoyed “flying blind” to the extent that I did. Of course, I also knew that even if I was going in the wrong direction, the worst that could happen would be that my travel time would have been longer.