Patience needed with public transport in Africa!

Manzini bus station Eswatini

Patience and public transport in Africa will never go together, well not in my lifetime anyway. It is not possible. If there hadn’t been a time limit I may have been semi-chilled out, however I didn’t want to miss my boat transfer to Machangulo Beach Lodge. This was my escape to paradise.

Making a Plan with Public Transport in Mind

I was travelling from Mlilwane, in Eswatini, to Maputo Marina. Ordinarily this was about a 3 hour journey, but with prior knowledge of African transport and the lackadaisical approach everyone seems to have about it, I doubled my time estimation. So that left me six hours to play with. I then added an extra hour for the added faff factor such as border control mishaps, breakdowns and general laissez-faire. That meant I had to leave Mlilwane at eight o’clock in the morning. So that really left me 7 1/2 hours as the boat transfer left Maputo Marina at 3.30 p.m. If everything went according to plan I should be in Maputo at around midday. Just in time to order fresh calamari and watch the boats arriving in the marina. Surely that was enough forward planning? Surely?!

I ordered my taxi for 8 o’clock, was ready at five to 8, and waited. And waited, and waited. At 8.15 I called the taxi driver to find out that he had cancelled my collection for some unfathomable reason. He apologised and said he was on his way. I eventually left Mlilwane at nine o’clock having used up my hour of faff before even leaving my start point. I wasn’t worried, it was expected and I still had six hours to get there.

Manzini Bus Station

Manzini bus station is an absolute nightmare – there are combis (small minibuses) crammed into every available space, with drivers yelling “Lomahasha, Lomahasha, Lomahasha,” or wherever they were going to. It is bedlam. I negotiated around reversing combis, groups of women with large buckets of water on their heads and taxis hooting at feral dogs. Eventually I found the Mozambique start point only to be told that a bus had just left. I was the fourth person on the next bus, it took 22 people and it wouldn’t leave until it was full. My patience with public transport in Africa was going to be tested.


The take-up for Mozambique was painfully slow, passengers dawdled in a steady flow which was exceptionally slow and I began to get nervous tic of looking questioningly at the woman in the little shack who was taking people’s names and passports. There was a flurry of activity with sign ups followed by an enormous lull.

The bus arrived and it was certainly not what I was expecting. I thought we would get a modern bus as this is what I had travelled on before, instead a piece of junk arrived that looked as if it’d been patched together with sticky back plastic and chewing gum. The whole vehicle (if that is the terminology you could use) spluttered and battled and coughed and juddered. Looking at it I imagined that we could all put our feet through floor, pick it up and run with it Flintstone style. But it was a vehicle, it did go and it may just get me to Maputo in time for my boat transfer.

We only had two more people to get and then we could go. It was 11.00.  At 11.15 an elderly gentleman arrived and at 11.30 I caved in and I bought the remaining last seat so we could go.

It then took a further 15 min to load the trailer up, attach it onto the back of the bus and get everybody on board. We had lost half the passengers as they were buying meat, avocados and potatoes from the neighbouring market.

Finally the driver closed the doors. The engine failed to start the first time, so the driver opened up the engine from inside the bus, fiddled with a few knobs, tugged a few leads and the engine begrudgingly spluttered into action on the third attempt. Not promising really. Eventually we were off.

Public Transport in Africa – to Mozambique

Public transport in Africa is a lottery. Going up hill out of the bus station would have been quicker walking in this particular bus. A cyclist and then a laden cart powered by a donkey overtook us. It was 12.00, I was cutting it fine.

However, the bus made up for being so slow on the uphill by hurtling downhill at death-defying speeds which made up time for the slower parts of the journey. Luckily Maputo was at sea level so I thankfully calculated that there was more downhill than up. It was a close call but at this rate I may well make it.

I had stupidly not taken the border crossing into account. The Eswatini side was fine, we were all processed pretty quickly and then we walked through no man’s land into Mozambique leaving our dilapidated vehicle to get its transit visa. Mozambique immigration was a different kettle of fish. There was a rush on, as in my bus going one way and another bus going the other way. Two vehicles, a rush. But only one person to process visas, and he was on his lunch break. The frustration of it all was nearly too much for me.

At 2 o’clock we were all on our way again after the normal rigmarole of pulling, pushing, tugging and hitting specific parts of the engine to get the whole thing going. As we wound our way down the hillside towards the sea I resigned myself to being late and not being able to dine out on calamari. My main focus was actually making sure the boat didn’t leave without me so I made a few calls. The boat could wait for a little bit longer but not too long because it was dependent on the tides. There were expecting me though.

I had some biscuits and crisps with me and I happily shared this with the passengers next to me. There were two older ladies opposite me who smiled in appreciation for the biscuits, 3 small children who were very happy with lemon twirls and a melee of adults who all were delighted with some food. Only one person spoke English on the bus and he was very sympathetic to my situation, having heard my frantic calls.

“If it helps, I will have a taxi waiting for me at the bus station, you can share a taxi and we can go straight to the marina.”

Making a Plan in Africa

And that’s what it is like in Africa, there is always a plan to be made, people to help out where needed, someone to share experiences despite the laid back attitude. I was enormously thankful. It is amazing what a biscuit can bring!

At 3 o’clock we arrived in a murky Maputo, chocca with vehicles but there was still time for me to catch the transfer.

My patience was tested again when my new-found friends taxi driver exhibited more quirks of public transport in Africa. He was nowhere to be found. When he did materialise, 10 minutes later, he didn’t know where the Marina was. I sarcastically suggested by the sea as a good starting point. Showing the address and with lots of gesticulating and explaining in English to siSwati to Mozambican and then to Portuguese he eventually understood where I wanted to go.

The Marina was not what I was expecting and I wondered whether there was another one. It was a rundown couple of shacks, reminiscent of the bus shelter construction in Manzini. There were a few boats moored in a dank and dark enclosure and not a soul in sight. I always thought marinas were quite large and wondered whether there was another marina somewhere else. Was this really the right one? Was it the only one in Maputo? Surely not.

“You must be Jenny”, exclaimed a man from one of the boats as he emerged into the daylight. “Isaac, from Machangulo Beach Lodge. Great timing.”

The relief across my face must have said it all. It had been a traumatic journey and my patience had been tested. I vowed never again would I use public transport as I climbed onto the boat…until next time, perhaps.

Jenny Bowen

Author: Jenny Bowen

I live for travel, whether it is at home or abroad. It is a joy to explore new places, meet new people and to have an adventure. There are so many wonderful places to visit and such fascinating wildlife to see, you never know what is around the corner! Live life to the full and restore your soul.