Discovering Mzanzi by bus

By A.B. Gondwe

The common denominator among people with a zest for life and new experiences, is travel. How people travel, is not always commonly shared. But there is one mode of travel that caters for every kind of traveller…the good old-fashioned bus.

Whether you are young or old, can afford high-end luxury, or are looking for basic low-budget options, whether you just want to get from point A to B, or whether you want to explore the fabulous sites and places of lovely Mzanzi, there’s a bus just waiting for you.

In South Africa there are bus services that cater for every kind of travel need. From luxury tourist bus charter services, to inter-city bus services that range from luxury travel to the more basic; from local site-seeing services to inner-city rapid transport systems; from hop-on-hop-off bus services, to everything in-between. For those who are considerably braver and don’t mind a bit of overcrowded discomfort, there’s even the option of hopping onto one of the thousands of minibus taxis that fill our streets and roads.

Bus travel for tourists and local commuters alike has a long and proud history in South Africa, dating back to the days when people had basically three options: expensive and limited air travel, leisurely travel by train that was often not on time, or taking “the luxury bus”. The latter bus service was offered by the old South African Railways, today called Transnet, from around the 1940s to the about the late 1970s, with a luxurious, for those days, motor coach that travelled between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and from Cape Town via the coastal N2 route to Durban and a few other destinations such as the Kruger National Park.

En route there were three daily stops at charming country hotels: one for morning tea, one for lunch and one for afternoon tea, with an overnight hotel stop for those travelling further. Those were the days when time was still something not to be rushed. Today you can still view one of these “luxury buses” in the transport museum in George on the Garden Route.

But those days are over, replaced today by nationwide bus operators who offer anything from top-end, high-tech luxury to more basic but still comfortable travel. Even some of the cheapest bus rides these days outclass the old “luxury buses” when it comes to luxury, comfort and safety.

High-end luxury charters & guided tours

At the top of the scale these days, you’ll find Springbok Atlas Charter, one of the largest, luxury transport companies in South Africa and Namibia. Actually, Springbok Atlas Charter’s history also goes all the way back to the days of the old Railways “luxury bus”. The company started off in 1946 with one vehicle transporting groups from Johannesburg to the Kruger National Park, making it the oldest bus touring company in South Africa.

Today, Springbok Atlas Charter has a fleet of more than 90 vehicles and is owned by Cullinan Holdings Ltd. The company operates throughout South Africa with branches in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban as well as Namibia. The have highly experienced, professional drivers and tour guides with plenty of local knowledge.

Its varied client base includes tour operators, corporate companies, incentive experts, government departments, conference organizers, event managers, sports bodies and educational institutions. The company points to its long history in service of travellers, saying it understands what the customer needs are: Safety, reliability, hygiene and comfort. They offer day tour charters, overland charters, transfers across South Africa and Namibia and describe themselves as endeavouring to be a caring and a responsible role player in the South African Tourism Industry.

The company operates a range of different-sized vehicles in its fleet, from 7-seater vehicles to 60-seater luxury coaches and various options in-between. On board facilities on the smaller buses include individual, high back leather seats with seat belts, air-conditioning, radio/CD system, and a PA system, with overhead parcel racks and fridges on the slightly larger buses. The larger buses – ranging from 36 to 60 seaters – offer the same plus things like on-board toilets, underfloor luggage space, TV and DVD facilities and on-board fridges.

Tour operators and tour groups can typically charter these luxurious buses for trips to the Kruger National Park or other national and private parks and reserves; up along the timeless West Coast; exploring the Western Cape Winelands; touring through the desert country and wildlife offerings of Namibia; along the Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth; discovering the fabulous Route 62; Big Five tours; trips to Limpopo’s awesome Panorama Route centred around the Blyde River Canyon and God’s Window; or to any of the other multiple fascinating destinations in South Africa and Namibia. Professional tour operators also arrange wonderful package tours, using these buses.

The fleet is carefully and accurately maintained – from engines to on-board facilities, from technology to tyres – and kept in immaculate condition. Every vehicle undergoes comprehensive pre-departure, overland and safety inspection checks and the company carries extensive comprehensive passenger liability insurance cover on all vehicles. All Springbok Atlas Luxury Charter coaches and vehicles also carry the necessary safety and operating permits required under South African and Namibian Laws.

Another company operating in the top-end luxury range is Hylton Ross, also owned by Cullinan Holdings, and which offers both guided and chartered tours on their fleet of almost 300 vehicles. These also range from 7-seat minibuses to 52-seat luxury coaches. In addition they have 10-seat open safari game-viewing vehicles in Hazyview, Malalane, Hluhluwe and St Lucia.

The on-board facilities and amenities are similar to those of Springbok Atlas, while the same type of guided or chartered tours can be enjoyed.  Among the guided tours, you can choose from the Cape Town City, Noon Gun & Table Mountain Half Day Tour; the Cape Point Day Tour; a Winelands Day Tour; the Combo Cape Point & Winelands Tour; the Cultural Tour & Robben Island Tour; the Whales & Wine Tour; a Township Tour; the Garden Route 4-day Tour; a Johannesburg City Tour; Soweto Tour; Sun City & Pilanesberg National Park Tour; Journey to Freedom Tour; History of Humankind and Lesedi Cultural Village Tour; Pretoria & Cullinan Diamond Tour; Durban City and Durban Highlights Tour; uShaka Marine World Tour; Drakensberg World Heritage Tour; Shakaland Tour; Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Tour; Sani Pass & Lesotho Tour; or you can create your own itinerary.

Hylton Ross Tours was established in 1980 by the legendary Cape Town personality by the same name, and his wife Janis, later being sold to Claus Towreck and David Munton, who now operate the topless red double-decker sightseeing buses. They in turn sold the company to Cullinan Holdings in 2006. The company has been operating for 38 years as one of South Africa’s best tour-bus brands and has 7 offices around South Africa in close proximity to major tourist attractions.

Other bus companies

There are a large number of other bus companies servicing the tourism sector in South Africa along similar lines and standards as Springbok Atlas and Hylton Ross, among them companies such as Mega Coach, Protours and Eldo Coaches.

Eldo Coaches was established in 1956 and provides intercity, inner-city and hire services. The intercity services use Pretoria as their base and provides bus services to Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, East London, Harrismith, King Williamstown, Pietermaritzburg and Queenstown. It operates a flexible service based on specific requirements of its customers. In April 2018 Eldo introduced their new fleet of buses built to their specifications and fitted with new luxuries.

Another well-established, respected and well-known coach charter operator providing a wide range of services is Protours, which prides itself on excellence and efficiency of service in both the local and international overland public travel markets. Protours delivers a high quality, flexible and personalised service to its clients with a standardised vehicle fleet and has established strong relationships with major international tourism leaders and role players.

And then there is also Mega Coach, the luxury coach charter division of Unitrans Passenger. It is rated among the leading coach companies in Southern Africa and has a fleet in excess of 80 vehicles.

Intercity bus services

While tour bus operators like Springbok Atlas and Hylton Ross have been around for a long time, there was a time until just a few decades ago that the only regular daily fixed-route transport services between the major cities were airlines and trains. In recent decades that has changed in leaps and bounds, and today such inter-city bus services are a familiar site and very popular with local commuters and tourists alike. They allow for much more flexible travel than airlines in that you can get off at any point along the route and again re-join a bus at a later stage.

These intercity bus services connect all the major cities on a daily basis. Some serve on-board refreshments, ranging in quality and style. Most also have on-board entertainment such as movies. The levels of luxury differ between companies, as do their safety records. Typically these buses stop in every town along their routes to pick up new passengers and allow enough time for passengers to stretch their legs and buy refreshments from convenience stores at the large petrol stations where they stop.

At the luxury end of the range, is Greyhound, a familiar brand in many parts of the world, and a company with an excellent safety record in South Africa. The super streamlined blue and white double-deckers buses of Greyhound have become a familiar site in South Africa where Greyhound has built a brand that is known as the most awarded intercity coach liner that offers safe, affordable and reliable travel options across Southern Africa including Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique.

Its Premium service introduced the Greyhound Dreamliner – an ultra-luxury coach that has brought new levels of comfort and technological excellence to the southern African intercity coach market. The Greyhound Dreamliner coach is the first of its kind in Africa and offers unprecedented levels of comfort and space that are akin to business-class airline compartments.

The Dreamliner has a distinctive streamlined exterior and a modern interior comprised of a luxury class (upstairs) and premium class (downstairs). The Dreamliner’s ‘memory foamed’ executive sleeper seats recline through 150° and offer more legroom than any other luxury coach on the market. Each seat on the Dreamliner has individual LED night lights, air vents, arm rests, charging ports and tray tables, plus bathroom facilities onboard. Furthermore, you can keep entertained on your journey with Movies-on-demand Wi-Fi, with over 100 movies to choose from.

Another company providing intercity bus travel is Intercape. Since its inception in 1979, Intercape has developed an extensive route network across seven Southern African countries with its Sleepliner and Mainliner buses. In its ongoing effort to improve its service, and as part of its fleet replacement policy, Intercape recently acquired brand-new coaches, both single and double-deckers.

These new coaches feature USB charging points, on-board entertainment, improved toilet facilities and improved seat comfortability to only name a few. They also feature new and improved safety features. Intercape also caters to tour and charter requirements.

Yet another inter-city transport company is Autopax Passenger Services, that is wholly owned by state-owned Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and operates under the name of Translux Passengers. It can probably be regarded as the successor to the old “luxury bus” service that used to be operated by the erstwhile South African Railways. Translux offers a relatively basic but cheap service.

Those red topless grand dames among buses…

No article on seeing South Africa by bus would be complete without also referring to those topless, red double-deckers hop-on, hop-off buses filled with tourists that have become a familiar site along the best-known tourist routes and attractions in Cape Town and Johannesburg. These buses belong to City Sightseeing and the service is similar in concept to the red tourist buses found in major cities around the world.

Here in South Africa it was the brainchild of Claus Tworeck, the CEO of City Sightseeing, and David Munton, who together previously owned Hylton Ross. City Sightseeing is the first South African bus company to be awarded carbon neutral status.

In Cape Town these red buses take tourists – or any sightseers for that matter – on tours through the city, around the Atlantic Seaboard and the Peninsula, to Table Mountain, the V&A Waterfront, on township tours, on wine-tasting tours of the Winelands, and to Cape Point and the famous Boulders penguin colony.

In Johannesburg City Seeing buses complete routes that take in in Gandhi Square, the Carlton Centre, James Hall Transport Museum, Gold Reef City with its casino and old mining village, the Apartheid Museum, a Mining District Walk, Newtown, the Origins Centre at Wits University, Braamfontein and Constitution Hill, with Gautrain Park Station as the main starting point.

City Sightseeing Joburg has also partnered with SO WE TOO, a business started and operated by a young local entrepreneur from Soweto who offers taxi tours through the streets of this vibrant area, visiting a number of the top attractions in Soweto, among others such as the FNB Stadium (known as Soccer City during the 2010 FIFA World Cup), the biggest stadium in Africa; Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, built during the Second World War and the largest hospital in the world; Bara Taxi Rank, the largest taxi rank in Johannesburg; Orlando Towers, a colourful landmark popular for bungee and base jumping and abseiling; Hector Pietersen Memorial in Orlando West; and Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world in which two Nobel Prize winners have lived, namely Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The buzz about Baz Bus

For the more casual traveller such as backpackers and surfers, the viby Baz Bus service offers a unique hop-on hop-off, door-to-door alternative bus service between more than 200 accommodation establishments in 40 different cities and towns around South Africa.

The concept is flexible and convenient. You simply buy one hop-on hop-off ticket to your final destination and get on and off as many times as you want, wherever you want, in one direction, with no time limit. You get picked up and dropped off at the door of your accommodation, with over 200 establishments to choose from, ranging from backpacker hostels, to guest houses, lodges and hotels.

Alternatively you can buy a Travel Pass for the same, but within a specific time period. You can also buy an exciting Kruger National Park Wildlife Safari tour as well as other excellent value-for-money tours. The main route is between Cape Town and Johannesburg, with stops along the coast, operating in both directions. Buses come in 19-seater semi-luxury buses, all with TV and DVDs, USB port, air conditioning and trailers capable of carrying backpacks, surfboards and bicycles.

Kiff Kombi Tours

For those who don’t know, the word “kiff” is South African surfer slang for awesome, cool, or nice, while the VW Kombi is the traditional surfer’s mode of transport. Combine the two, and you have Kiff Kombi Tours. Launched in 2017, the aim was to create an alternative Cape Town tour for travellers that, according to the company, “wanted something bona fide”. It has hit the ground running by already being named in the Top 10 Tours in Cape Town. The company’s founders pride themselves on curating the freshest itineraries and experiences. The old-school VW Kombi named Veronica with which it was started, has since been replaced by a younger Toyota van.

The “final option”

Finally, if your budget has been depleted or you are really travelling in shoestring-budget fashion, there is always another option…but not always advised. Nonetheless, stand on any street or road anywhere in South Africa and wait until you see a usually overloaded minibus coming your way, usually ignoring most traffic rules and usually followed by several more in succession.

Simply put up your hand and one will screech to a halt. The “gaardjie”, local slang for guard or driver’s assistant, will be hanging out the window, shouting out their destination in lingo you won’t understand. After negotiating a fare of usually payable in coins, you hop on board, try to squeeze in between a large mama with groceries and two kids on her lap and a man clutching an oversized suitcase and puffing on a pipe. There will be anywhere from six to twenty other people on board a vehicle usually built for eight or ten. Then sit back and relax, immerse yourself in booming, deafening hip-hop music, and try not to look too nervous as your driver plays Russian roulette with the traffic at breakneck speed. Welcome to Mzanzi. Enjoy the ride.

Handy Contact Info

 

Springbok Atlas Tours – Email cptcharter@springbokatlas.co.za; Cape Town Tel 021 506 2595; Johannesburg Tel 011 396 1053; Durban Tel 031 700 2719; Namibia Tel +264 6121 5943.

Hylton Ross – Tel +27 21 506 2575; email info@hyltonross.co.za.

Greyhound – Tel 24 hours; +27 (0)11 611 8000 or 087 352 0352; Email and website www.greyhound.co.za/contact-us.

Intercape – Website at www.intercape.co.za; Tel  021 380 4400.

Baz Bus – Email info@bazbus.com; Tel +27 (0)21 422 5202.

Kiff Kombi Tours – Tel +27 (0)72 213 3888; email bookings@kiffkombitours.co.za.