On my first trip to East Africa, I took it slow—very slow. I flew into Kampala, Uganda and spent a few days getting settled. I met with teachers at a coffee shop, and I explored the bustling markets. I visited the world's largest taxi stand, where literally hundreds of taxis waited to ferry passengers all over the region. But after I was ready to move on, I didn't leave Kampala by taxi. Instead, I showed up at a dusty bus station.
The day before, I had purchased a one-way ticket to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. To get there, I'd be joining a group of African travellers, crossing the Kenyan border twice and making countless other stops along the way. I had heard mixed reviews on the ride itself, but one report was consistent: "It will take longer than you think," everyone said. With an initial estimate of 28 hours, this report was sobering.
The trip started off with a typically African travel experience. Right after departure, we were given cold towels, a free can of soda and even ice cream. How nice! Unfortunately, these refreshments, all provided during the first hour, were the only ones for the rest of the day. It's a good thing I boarded the bus at the first stop, since every passenger who joined at the numerous stops after the first hour received nothing.
We rode through the afternoon and into the African twilight, arriving at the first border stop just as the sun was setting. I waved off the onslaught of money-changers without much resistance, and proceeded to the immigration stalls. The officials were bureaucratic ("Please fill out this form... and this one... no, not that one") but otherwise polite. Back on the bus about an hour later, I steeled myself for the long nighttime journey to Nairobi.
What a journey it was. We bumped along through the dark, hitting every pothole in east Africa, on unlit roads with a crammed vehicle of passengers and overloaded cargo. Somewhere after midnight, the bus broke down. It was pitch black outside, and I worried about the guys trying to make repairs. I also began to worry about how long we'd be on the bus. Ninety minutes later, the ride continued, finally stopping in Nairobi somewhere around 3am. Passengers disembarked and others climbed aboard for the next part of the journey: a few more hours to the Tanzanian border.
I slept sitting up, napping for 20 minutes at a time before attempting to shift my position. Across the second border in Arusha, the bus broke down again—this time, for several hours. I bought peanuts and ate a snack bar I had brought with me from Switzerland, my only food for a day. Children came by to say hi and laugh at me, the sole non-African traveller. (Laughing back is usually the best response.)
When the time came to resume the journey, we had a problem: a new passenger had been assigned the same seat as an existing passenger. Obviously, something had gone awry, and a great debate broke out over who should move. The animated conversation shifted between Swahili and English, but I caught the parts where they were referring to me—the passenger seated directly behind the seat that had been double-booked. Both sides wanted me to argue for their position, and I tried to remain neutral.
It was finally sorted out and we hit the road, and another eight hours somehow rolled by. When we finally pulled into the bustling station at Dar es Salaam a full 36 hours after leaving Kampala, I was beyond exhausted. I hired a taxi and asked him to take me to a hotel - anywhere would do, as I had few preferences by then. I got the last room at the Al Urubu Hotel for $15 (Dh55). The place was basic, but after a day and a half on the bus, it felt like the Burj Al Arab. I took a shower, then took another one, watching the red dirt circle down the drain, and then I collapsed on the bed for some much-needed sleep.
The next day I had an enormous breakfast and drank several cups of coffee. Looking back, I felt a sense of achievement: had I really finished a 36-hour bus ride? It wasn't about bragging - at that point, I was only travelling for myself, and only a few friends at home would hear the story. Instead, I felt proud for myself. A few weeks ago I wasn't sure I could handle such a ride, yet here I was: exhausted but glad.
After Tanzania, I made a resolution: no more multi-day bus rides for me. In fact, I'd prefer my bus travel to be no longer than four to six hours at a time. But within that limit, I'm happy to hop aboard. I would later travel by bus throughout the Balkans, and several times throughout other parts of Africa.
The funny thing was that each ride was fairly long and involved overland border crossings, but after Tanzania, they felt short. Stepping off the bus I had boarded in Maputo, Mozambique and into the small downtown of Mbabane, Swaziland, I thought, "Was that it? Only five hours, and we didn't have a breakdown?" So easy.
You can fly from Uganda to Tanzania in about three hours. But the next time you venture into the world, consider the bus. In Europe, check out eurolines.com for routes throughout the continent. Elsewhere, search for "bus lines" and the specific country or region in Google. Just be sure to bring your own snacks.
Practical Traveller is written by Chris Guillebeau, 33, who is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world. He is currently on number 164. Next week: an eye-opening visit to Macedonia.