Story by Kim Wildman
"So where you heading to?" the clerk behind the reception desk asks as I hand back my room key. "Coffee Bay," I reply excitedly. "How are you getting there?" she enquires. I've not long arrived in South Africa and am about to go on my first bus trip up the east coast, so I would love her to tell me what to expect. "Bus," I answer. "Oh well, good luck with that," she smiles wryly.
The bus I am taking is the Baz Bus, a hop-on, hop-off, door-to-door bus service that covers more than 40 towns and cities around South Africa. Overnight stops, which can be booked en route, are in some 180 of the country's best hostels and lodges and the passengers are largely young, foreign backpackers.
As a result, Baz Bus has acquired a reputation as a bit of a party bus, especially as its main route up the east coast passes through a string of South Africa's most famous beach resorts. Almost everyone I spoke to about the trip made it sound like it was one long, raucous pub crawl. Just shy of my 36th birthday, I was beginning to doubt my choice of transport.
I'm signed up for the route from Cape Town to Durban, via Port Elizabeth, though I am exiting earlier at Umtata so I can make my way by shuttle to Coffee Bay, one of South Africa's greatest treasures tucked away on a remote section of the Wild Coast.
Boarding the bus at 8am in Cape Town, my fellow passengers are about as lively as you'd expect at this time of the morning. Our driver, nevertheless, is already excited about the trip ahead. Introducing himself he beams widely, "My name is Barry and I'm happy as Larry!"
The morning passes by uneventfully. We all introduce ourselves and chat a little, without much zeal. Out of Cape Town, after a brief stop in Stellenbosch, we hug the N2, stopping in George to meet up with the Oudtshoorn shuttle bus before continuing along the scenic Garden Route. With the heat proving a little stifling, my fellow passengers and myself fall quiet. Some begin to read, others seize the opportunity to have a light snooze, while the rest of us settle back and watch a movie on the onboard video player.
It's not long, however, before we are back on the coast and, as the temperature drops, our spirits begin to rise. The cards soon come out and, with the ice now broken, the games begin. By now we've already lost several passengers who started in Cape Town but, as we draw out of Jeffery's Bay we gain some new recruits who are eager to join in the fun.
The day's end finds us in Port Elizabeth set on the shores of the beautiful Algoa Bay. That night, over a few beers at the hostel's bar, I learn more about some of my fellow travellers, Matt, a Kiwi who's backpacking around the world; Annie and Jeff, a young British couple coming to the end of their time in South Africa; and Leo, Marcus and Andre, a group of soccer fanatics from Argentina. But, as my new Argentinean friends burst into song for the fourth time in less than an hour, I decide that it is time to call it a night and wander off to bed.
The next day we clamber back on board the bus and head out of Port Elizabeth towards the coastal town of East London. After a quick break for lunch we're off again, slowly snaking our way into the heart of the forbidding old Ciskei, one of South Africa's 10 former homelands.
A couple of hours later, after a highly animated game of Gin Rummy, we cross the Great Kei River and enter Transkei, best known as the home of the former President Nelson Mandela. Here we stop to take in the view and click off a few snaps. Not long after, we pull in to the Ultra City and I realise with some regret that we have arrived at Umtata.
In my short time on the bus, I've made new friends and had loads of fun. But that's the Baz Bus philosophy and the drivers will happily help you find the fun you are looking for: be that taking the ultimate leap of faith and bungee jumping off the Bloukrans River Bridge, riding an ostrich in the Klein Karoo, or spying the big five on a game drive.
At the beginning of the trip, one of my fellow travellers commented: "Baz Bus is what it is." It's not for hardened world-weary travellers, nor for anyone who takes themselves seriously. It is simply a safe, convenient bus service following a very well-trodden route. But for lone travellers keen to find their feet or anyone wanting to share their experiences, this is the ride you are looking for. After all, as the saying goes: "It's not the destination that counts but how you get there that matters!"
Details: For further information on the Baz Bus visit: www.bazbus.com