x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Kenyan couple's seven-day, 2,900km ride to the World Cup

Carolynn Mudhai and her husband are travelling the equivalent of Abu Dhabi to Istanbul to see the tournament.

The bus trip along a popular tourist route is meant to give fans a chance to experience more of Africa.
The bus trip along a popular tourist route is meant to give fans a chance to experience more of Africa.

NAIROBI // When Carolynn Mudhai heard that the World Cup was going to be on African soil, she knew that she had to find a way to get to South Africa. Four years ago, Ms Mudhai, a Kenyan lawyer, and her husband made plans to fly from Nairobi to Johannesburg for the opening of the football tournament that begins next week. But her husband, a businessman, recently had a scheduling conflict and had to cancel the trip.

"This is something we have been planning for four years," said Ms Mudhai, 33. "I didn't want to fly alone, so I had to find some other way." Her solution? A bus. Yes, a bus. A Kenyan transportation company yesterday sent a convoy of 30 coaches on a seven-day, 2,900km odyssey across Africa to shuttle fans to the World Cup. The equivalent of driving from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul just to watch a football match may seem over the top, but fans and adventurers have flocked to get onboard.

The bus trip is one of the many examples of Africans getting excited about and capitalising on the biggest sporting event ever to come to the continent. Akamba Public Road Services is launching its Nairobi to Johannesburg service in time for the World Cup, said Fredrick Kithinji, the company's marketing manager. "We got excited when South Africa got the World Cup," he said. "We could see the opportunity."

The journey will take passengers through Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana before arriving in South Africa on June 10 in time for the opening ceremonies. The first round of buses will return to Nairobi a week later with two other groups of buses scheduled to depart Nairobi on June 19 and June 25 to take fans to the round of 16 and the final rounds. It may not be the quickest way to travel between Kenya and South Africa, but it is the most exciting, Mr Kithinji said. The route takes passengers across the animal-rich Serengeti plains of Tanzania and the Okavango Delta in Botswana. A whole day will be spent at Victoria Falls in Zambia.

"When you fly, there is very little you see," Mr Kithinji said. "This gives you the opportunity to see the diversity of Africa." The trip is not cheap either. A football fan will have to shell out between US$2,000 (Dh7,350) and $2,500, which includes accommodation and meals en route, but does not include match tickets. Still, about 500 people have signed up for the trip, Mr Kithinji said. The company is also giving away free trips to 40 customers as part of a promotion.

After the World Cup, the company plans to continue the Nairobi to Johannesburg route, Mr Kithinji said. Overland adventure travel companies have long plied this route in giant modified lorries, but this would be the first time a bus company has offered regularly scheduled public transport halfway across Africa. The buses will have seating for 30 passengers and power outlets to plug in laptops and cell phones. There will be entertainment and restrooms onboard.

About 60 per cent of the passengers on the inaugural trip are Europeans looking for an exciting way to get to the World Cup. The other 40 per cent are Kenyans. The high cost of the trip and of attending the matches has kept many Kenyans away. Fifa, the World Cup organiser, has expressed disappointment at the number of tickets sold to fans from African countries. Only 40,000 of the nearly three million tickets have been sold in countries on the continent outside of South Africa.

The football body has faced criticism for not making tickets accessible to Africans, as most tickets were being sold via the internet. Jerome Valcke, a senior Fifa official who has previously said the event would be a "real African World Cup", said that African sales were "poor". "It's really not a lot of tickets when you think that we have so many African countries playing in the World Cup," he said at a press conference in South Africa. "The system that we put in place was not perfect for South Africa and for Africa."

Six African squads have qualified for the tournament: Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. While tickets in South Africa were offered at a lower price, fans in other African countries had to pay the standard amount with the cheapest costing $80. South Africans have bought more than a million tickets. Ms Mudhai will be attending three matches and will be rooting for Ghana. However, she realises that the Black Stars are a long shot, and Argentina is her backup team.

"I'd love to see Ghana win, but I know that's not realistic," she said. "Miracles do happen, though." mbrown@thenational.ae