Reporter: Patsy HudsonMany South Africans are not, by nature, bus-users. Figures released last year showed that only 1.2 million Gautengers commuted by bus daily - with 1.3 million using trains and 2.6 million using minibus taxis.
The balance were, presumably, on foot, on horseback or on the roads - vying for pole position or that elusive parking space someone else always finds first. Or they're on holiday - probably having preferred to fly to their destinations, via the international or domestic departure doorways.
So it's not surprising that so few South Africans know about Baz Bus that plies South Africa's roads between Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, carrying camera-clutched foreigners between one backpacker lodge and another on specific routes.
The buses used to travel through the Karoo, too, with Kimberley being an obligatory overnight stay. But too many comments of "lose the Karoo!" and "nobody told us SA had more mountains than the one in Cape Town!" from overseas visitors - in the on-board comments book - resulted in Cape Town based Baz-Bus boss Barry Seidel coming up with the following plans: Alternative routes between Johannesburg and Durban More, and smaller, buses with trailers; and Different fares for those using the Baz-Bus only for the Durban-Pretoria route.
Most passengers buy their tickets overseas or on the internet for the foreign currency equivalent of R1 000. This entitles them to take as long as they like - and to hop-on, hop-off, as often as they want to - between Cape Town and Pretoria. They can, for example, even leave the country at any point, and return to their point-of-departure position at any time to continue the journey from there - as long as they don't backtrack.
This means that visitors don't lose out if there's an emergency at home - and ensures their return to SA.
The backpacker lodges are just as accommodating about cancelled bookings in an emergency, visitors have found.
The main advantage of using the Baz-Bus, of course, is that from the high vantage point of the Mercedes 16-seater buses both the would-have-been driver and the would-have-been map reader can drink in the scenery - without the stress of wondering what they're supposed to be swigging, when confronted with a road sign saying, simple "Swig!" (Only Hollanders realise it's Afrikaans for "Yield!")
The door-to-door service between backpacker lodges is another bonus, as most of the passengers book into a lodge. But some hop off at a lodge and hop straight into a taxi or hotel-combi for more upmarket accommodation. It's not a condition of Baz-Bus travel that you sleep in a backpackers lodge. Chances are, if you do, you won't get much sleep anyway, as there are nightly reunions taking place all over the country between friendly backpackers who catch up with each other en route.
The biggest decision bus-bunnies have to make upfront is whether to travel between Johannesburg from Durban via Drakensberg, where Winterton is the most popular hop-off point, or via Swaziland - where Manzini is a compulsory overnight stay. For South Africans, cost could be the deciding factor: the day-long trip between Pretoria or Johannesburg via the Berg is only R190, where as the longer, via-Swaziland route costs R440.
Accommodation at the lodges ranges between R45 a night in a dormitory and R125 for the right to snor alone. But the Swazi route, via Mpumalanga's N4, offers 11 stopover points, including the popular St. Lucia wetlands World Heritage sites in Northern Kwazulu-Natal. Returning on this route from Durban, the first stop is for an "eat-as-much-as-you-like-for- only-R20" breakfast at Ballito Backpackers. This lodge, which is right on the beach, gets rave reviews from young and old.
As does Manzini's Swazi Backpackers, offering ethnic food, possibly the biggest shaded outdoor "coffee table" in the kingdom, and night trips to the Cuddle Puddle hot springs at the nearby Royal Swazi Spa. Manzini seems, for many backpackers, to be a good place to "regroup amongst themselves" as Irishman John Grey put it. It's also a penultimate stop for many whose next port of call is Johannesburg International Airport.
The Swazi customs officers are not officious like those often encountered at the Beit Bridge border. The descendants of King Mswati seem interested only in whether you are bringing in any "substances" - and in a tone of voice that suggests that actually have enough of the stuff in the country already, thank you.
The cheaper fare via the Drakensberg is a bonus for hikers and mountaineers on the bus. Many of them have just completed Mission Impossible - summiting "Killer manjaro" in Tanzania - so for them, climbing any one of the peaks in the Dragon Mountain Range is a walk in the park.
But for South Africans who have cottoned on to the Baz-Bus, this route is major bonus.