As a traveller, Elio Bailo (65) has particular requirements. A retired economist from Tus- cany, he is backpacking around South Africa for four-and-a-half months and plans to write a book about his impressions when he returns to Italy. When it comes to transportation, he needs a flexible, reliable, convenient service that suits his scaled-down budget. This is where Baz Bus steps in.
Started in December 1995 by Barry Zeidel after he returned from a backpacking trip around England, this bus company offers a door-to-door service for backpackers, picking them up at over 115 hostels around the country and delivering them to others along its routes.
"This is transport with a difference. It's a fun way to meet other travellers," Zeidel said.
Backpackers are so named because of their distinguishing luggage item of choice - the backpack - which allows for ease of movement to places often off the beaten track. They are generally associated with low-budget travel although, as studies have shown, this does not mean they don't spend a substantial amount of money when travelling in a country.
Zeidel started Baz Bus after travelling around England with a similar company called Slow Coach. When he retumed to South Africa, he travelled around his own country and saw a gap in the market. The business was started with two buses. It is now operating with four large and two small buses, other routes have recently been added to include Swaziland and Zululand.
The way ticketing works is simple, and aimed at maximum flexibility. The "Hop on, Hop off' ticket allows you to travel the whole route for a flat rate, getting on and off where you like and for as long as you like. A ticket can also be bought for part of the route or the whole direct route, which means you stop overnight where the bus does and travel directly to your destination.
"We're flexible to a limit," Zeidel said. "You can get off where you like, but detours are limited because of the schedules we have to stick to."
The route travelled is Cape Town - Durban - Johannesburg - Pretoria in both directions. Stops at hostels along the way are pre-arranged by telephonic booking and include places like Knysna and Port Shepstone. Local hostel Sunduzi Backpackers in Berg Street is a regular stop on the route.
"All our arrival and departure points are backpacker hostels, so it's very convenient for them," Zeidel said.
'... we're going to see an increase in the number of backpackers visiting the country. It's definitely a growth market ...'
Where a hostel is too far off the beaten track, Baz Bus makes a plan. Bailo said that when he travelled to a hostel in Winterton, a meeting on the highway was arranged by cell- phone with the owner of the hostel and the bus driver. Baz Bus is also not fazed by items of luggage like surfboards and bicycles - they go in the trailer.
Another feature of its service is supplying general tourist information to passengers.
"Apart from being experienced at handling long distances, it is also a requirement that our drivers are extremely friendly. They talk to passengers and give them information about places to go. We also have information files on the buses for travellers, with suggested day trips in different areas and things that can be done, such as hiring bicycles and cycling to certain landmarks," Zeidel said.
This tailor-made service is an important feature of an industry which is relatively new in this country, but growing rapidly.
Brian Dos Santos of Sunduzi Backpackers, which has been operating for nine months and averages "at least six or seven people a night", said that part of his service includes looking out for his guests' safety in town and elsewhere.
"I take the girls to town when the want to go out at night and introduce them to bouncers. lf a backpacker wants to take a minibus to Durban or the Berg, I know all the drivers, and make sure they get away safely."
The backpacker service industry in South Africa is still at a fledgling stage, but seems set to boom. James Seymour of Satour said that his organisation has estimated that backpackers account for nine percent, or 100000, of the total number of tourists visiting the country annually. This figure is based on a 1996 winter survey of airline arrivals from overseas and the rest of Africa.
"This is not really a market we've paid much attention to," Seymour said. "South Africa's traditional tourist market was wealthy and middle-aged, mainly because of airline ticket prices. But, with more charters arriving and cheaper flights, we're going to see an increase in backpackers visiting the country. lt's definitely a growth market and we need to start marketing aggressively towards it.
"In Australia, the backpacker market is a key market, worth almost a billion dollars annually. The value of these tourists is that, although they spend less on a daily basis, they stay longer.
"The private sector should be encouraged to provide facilities for this sector, with the government even providing developmental aid where needed."
Baz Bus has a regional office in Durban. For information on schedules and fares, telephone (031) 306-6585.