South Africa's lack of reliable public transport, especially off the beaten track, has been a major obstacle for legions of young budget backpackers.
But many South African and foreign travellers are discovering a useful new hop-on hop-off transport concept that takes them door-to-door cheaply, quickly and comfortably.
Instead of wasting time hanging around for unreliable public transport, backpackers can now book comfy seats in air-conditioned comfort.
It's called Baz Bus, and The Good Weekend boarded one of these swish 20-seater Mercedes-Benz Sprinters to discover what attracts today's backpackers.
Retired backpacker Barry Zeidel, 31, is behind the operation, which started in November 1995. Its fleet of two Nissans has grown to eight Mercedes
buses and it has offices in Cape Town and Durban and 19 staff. "It took a year to setup and we're still growing" says Zeidel, a Capetonian. Why Baz? Apparently, this is what Antipodeans nickname people called Barry and the name stuck after he travelled with Aussies.
Zeidel's advertising pamphlets boast a picture of a smiling President Mandela beside a bus, surrounded by admiring backpackers. How did he score that coup? Zeidel laughs as he realls the day in 1996 when they slowed down outside the president's Transkei home.
"We sometimes show passengers where he lives. This time, the president was actually standing there. Nobody could believe it at first. They waved to him, he waved back, and so everyone approached. His guards refused at first to let us through, but then he came over and greeted us. He saw the passengers were all young foreigners and he said warmly, 'Welcome to South Africa', and chatted for a while and everyone took pictures. It was a memorable day for everyone."
Six kilometres north of Umtata, at a busy service station, stood a motley group of 20-somthings. It was 2pm and the garage forecourt echoed with the accents of bright-eyed young Europeans, north Americans and a clean-cut Japanese couple.
We had travelled from the Wild Coast's Port St John's and Coffee Bay, and were waiting to be delivered to one of the towns and cities on the route stretching from Pretoria through Swaziland in one direction and northern Drakensberg in the other down the KwaZulu Natal coast and along the Garden Route to Cape Town. Baz Bus picks up or drops passengers at about 140 backpacker hostels in South Africa, or anywhere on the route. Dormitory beds at the hostels cost about R35. They have communal facilities and are usually situated at scenic or interesting tourist spots, gateway cities and busy transport hubs.
- To book Baz Bus call (021) 439-2323 between 8am and 8pm.