Posted by: Tommy | December 22, 2010

Umm, what’s worse than the thing that’s worse than the 20 hour busride?

So to recap our travel mishaps so far:

After being delayed in Dallas for 4 hours, we missed our flight to Moscow by about 2 minutes and were rerouted through Germany.  Which caused us to miss the train from the Moscow airport to the city, which ended up costing us an extra $80 for a taxi to take us the whole way.

Our flight from Russia to Latvia to Tel Aviv was fine, other than being stopped at the Israeli border for “further questioning”.

We took the 20 hour busride from Dahab to Luxor – which has definitely/sadly been the best transportation experience since.  We followed that with a miserable 11 hour train ride from Luxor to Cairo.  Only to be topped by our Cairo flight being delayed by fog for 2 hours, but not until we boarded the place so we had to sit on the tarmac for the entire time….at 2:30 am.  The delay caused us to miss our flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Johannesburg – on the day where my friend Johnson had planned and prepared a duck-based Thanksgiving feast for us and invited people over.  On the ensuing flight the following day from Addis Ababa, I came down with a violent, flu-like illness just after takeoff and was ill for the entire 6 hour flight, plus was stopped by the fever sensor at the airport and quarantined for half an hour until I could be screened for malaria.

And then there was Monday, Dec. 13.  It was not a disaster on the scale of the Ethiopian flight, but I would put it up there with the Luxor train.  It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was extremely exhausting and nerve wracking.  We had booked a bus to Nelspruit (the South African city closest to Kruger National Park) for the morning of the 13th.  I called Thrifty car rental on the 12th to see if they could pick up the car in the morning or if we needed to bring it out to the airport on the 12th.  They assured me that they could pick it up, for a fee of 200 Rand ($26).  We scheduled them to pick it up at 7:30, as our bus left at 8.  (We read that the Johannesburg bus station is not a place you want to hang around in, if you can help it, so we were aiming for a short window).  They had told us that the return process was very straightforward, even with the damage from the “Cowsitting”.

And it would have been, if businesses in South Africa worked like businesses in the US.  Despite calling 3 separate times on Sunday to confirm the pickup, I did not receive the promised confirmation call at 7 am on Monday morning.  At 7:10, I got worried and called them.  We were nearly to the bus station, when I was told that the dispatch office had no idea who I was or what I was talking about.  Yikes.  I was transferred to the office, who told me that yes, there was a note in my file about the pickup, but they had forgotten to make arrangements.  But they’ll work on it.

At 7:45, the office calls back and says they are sending someone.  It shouldn’t be more than 10 minutes.  Great – because my bus leaves in 15 and I don’t know where from.  And then they recommend that we just park the car, leave the keys with a security gaurd, and catch our bus.  It’ll be fine.  What?  Seriously?  In the carjacking capital of the world, the car rental company is advocating handing the keys to a stranger and asking them to work it out?  That would NEVER happen in the States and I’m pretty sure you’d be fired for suggesting it to a customer.

But what the hell.  They told us to, so we found a guy dressed in a security uniform, pulled over on the side of the road and explained what we wanted to do.  I guess this is a common practice, because he asked for the cell number of the guy picking it up, took the keys and accepted a tip of 10 rand.  And we sprinted off, hoping the bus was late, as it was 5 after 8 at this point.

The bus was not late.  We found the gate at 10 after and were told that the bus had gone.  They offered to book us on the bus for the following day – but we’d already booked a car in Nelspruit, a campsite at Kruger and an early morning game drive the following morning with the Park Service.  We’d be out about $200, plus a day of safari, to wait a day.  Anna went and stood in line for the Greyhound bus, leaving at 8:45, while I traded in our Nelspruit tickets for another bus ride that we’re taking in January back to Jo’burg.

And, as we feared, the Greyhound bus was full.  We were offered a standby spot, but were told not to be hopeful.  There was one more bus that day – offered by a company called Translux – but it was booked as well.  Things were not looking good.  I was cursing the Thrifty management for getting us in this mess, when I realized that they could get us out of the mess as well.  I called and asked for the manager.  I explained our predicament and that if I didn’t get to Nelspruit I was going to hold them responsible for missing all of our bookings and that she could fix it by letting me take the car to Nelspruit instead of the bus, at no additional cost.  She reasonably agreed and Anna and I set off, sprinting back through the station the way we’d come.

The car was still there, and so was the Thrifty driver, just getting ready to leave.  We explained the situation to him (he was annoyed, as his ride had left him already, but that wasn’t our problem) and started putting our things back.  It was pretty comical – the security guard we had given the keys to had coopted about 5 different African guys to keep an eye on the car.  And when we came rushing back with all of our stuff asking him for the keys, they all sprung into action.  One guy stopped traffic, one opened the hatch and helped load our bags, another kept pedestrians from getting in the way while Anna backed out.  We thanked them all and headed, thankfully, away from the bus station.

Since we were able to exchange (after a 25% penalty) our bus tickets, the gas plus tolls ended up costing about the same to get to Nelspruit, although the hour-long delay at the station had cost us some time.  We finally arrived at the Promenade Hotel, where we were to pick up our next car.  After some demanding, Thrifty’s Nelspruit office had agreed to come get the car there instead of making us take it to the airport (nice of them, since they were the entire reason for our delays).  One problem though – when we arrived at the Promenade, there was no car and no desk for the rental service we had booked.

The Promenade is a nice hotel and they had their own (less awesome) version of Ruslan Kim.  Amanda, a very efficient worker, got on the phone with First Car Rental of Nelspruit and, armed with our reservation number, attacked the first person she got on the phone.  In no time, we learned that First Car Rental no longer allows customers to pick up cars anywhere but the airport.   And that yes, they do agree that their website should reflect this policy and not allow you to book a car pickup in downtown Nelspruit. But no, they are not going to bring us a car.  If we’d like to cancel our reservation, she was generously willing to waive the cancellation fee.  Thanks!  (after this phone call, Amanda told us that she is moving to Miami next week and is excited to get out of South Africa, because this kind of thing happens all the time)

So, for the 1000th time that day, I called Charlene, manager of the Johannesburg Thrifty.  Now, instead of picking up the car, I wanted them to send someone to pick up just the GPS unit (it was $10/day and useless inside the park).  I was going to keep the car for another 10 days (even though it was an extra 50 rand per day over the First Car Rental car, we didn’t have time to go to the airport, get the other car and then make it to Kruger before the gates closed) and then would return it in Nelspruit on the 23rd.   She agreed, thankfully, and we set off for our great African safari – in a tiny, dented Nissan Micra.


Sorry, this post got lost in our offline editor, so it’s being published late.


  1. I’m exhausted after reading this and am going to bed!!
    ] Your “adventure” continues. I’m adding you to my prayer list-you really need prayers!

  2. Makes me never want to travel to anywhere in Africa. Russia is another story.

  3. Hi, Tommy and Anna. I love reading about your tour and seeing really great pictures! How close were you to that Leopard? It’s rare to see one out in the open like that. Have fun and be careful.
    Marian (Candy)

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