Posted by: Tommy | December 29, 2010

Sadly, the gold standard travel experience so far

Having read that buses sell out during the holidays in South Africa, we used our South African cell phone to call and buy bus tickets several days before we traveled to Maputo (the capital of Mozambique, about 3 hours from the South African border).  The bus company took our credit card over the phone and advised us to be at the bus station at least 30 minutes before the bus was scheduled to depart.

There wasn’t much to do in Nelspruit, so we arrived 2.5 hours early, at 10 o’clock for a 12:30 departure.  The woman checks our IDs and makes an imprint of our credit card.  No problem.  Then she says, in passing, “and you have your Mozambique visas, right?”  Umm, no.  We’d read that the visa is easily obtainable at the border and costs about half what it costs to actually go to an embassy in South Africa.  (Countries have 2 kinds of visa policies, as far as we can tell.  Some (Russia, India, the US) want to prevent you from working or staying illegally.  The others want to get as many tourist dollars as possible and want to make sure the government is getting their share.  Mozambique falls into this second category.  Their visa takes no time at all to acquire, because there is no background check attached to it.  It’s simply a matter of paying $82 ($160 at the embassy) and letting them stamp your passport.

Anyway, the bus office was insistent that we could not board the bus without a visa.  “Shouldn’t someone have told us that on the phone?”  we argued.  The woman tells us that, for a small re-booking charge of 25%, she can put us on the bus the following day.  Of course, we’re in Nelspruit (not somewhere you want to waste a day, as there’s nothing to do) with no car and no room.  No way.

Ok, she says, she can sell us a ticket to Komatipoort, the South African town on the border.  We can ride the bus there with no visa, then arrange our own transportation after walking across.  Of course, we’ll have to pay for the tickets to Komatipoort – another $52 – since our current tickets are to Maputo.  Never mind that it’s the same bus, going to the same place, and just getting off sooner.  We would actually have to pay them extra for them to take us a shorter distance than originally intended.

After arguing for about 30 minutes, we finally agree that we’ll get on the bus to Maputo with our ticket and no visa.  We sign a paper saying that if we get to the border and don’t get issued a visa in time, the bus can leave without us and we’ll find our own way to Maputo.  Basically, the same thing as buying a ticket to Komatipoort, but without paying for another bus ticket.  Several bus company employees express concern that we’ll start trouble when the bus tries to leave us and warn us against this.

The bus arrives, over an hour late, and we board.  A few people get out of the full bus at Nelspruit, so Anna and I manage to find two seats together in the upper-deck of the double-decker bus.  The driver finds us (the white people, 2 of the 5 on this bus)
and again goes over the fact that he’s leaving when everyone (else) is back on the bus from the border and will not be waiting for us.  No problem…at least we get to the border, with the chance of transport all the way.

We are about 10 minutes into the scheduled 4 hours of this busride when we realize that the A/C is not just taking a while to get started.  No air is coming from the air vents situated above each seat.  No air is moving at all; we start to sweat.  It’s at least a 100 outside and muggier, by far, than Houston.  It’s like being in the Amazon rainforest again.  It’s not even worth wiping the sweat out of your face, it just reforms instantly.  Anna can’t read on buses – she gets carsick pretty easily, so she had it worse than I did.  I engrossed myself in my book and tried not to think about the heat.  She just looked out the window, miserable.

About an hour outside of Nelspruit, we find out why the bus is an hour late already.  The driver announces a 20 minute stop in Melelane, one of the 6 stops the bus will make.  The bus pulls up to a gas pump as the bus empties; the convenience store we are stopped at has a variety of lukewarm drinks for purchase.  The only cold option is a South African-brand version of Powerade.  We buy a grapefruit-flavored bottle and head back toward the bus, 18 minutes after we had arrived.  We climb the stairs and realize there is no one else on the bus.  There are a lot of people waiting inside the store, watching the bus to see if it’s filling up, knowing they can run out of the air-conditioned store and climb aboard “the oven” in plenty of time.  The problem is, the entire bus has the same plan.  The driver and his helper are chatting contentedly to the store employees, clearly willing to wait for the patrons to decide when it’s time to go.  Anna and I wise up and head inside ourselves.

It’s another 20 minutes before we get moving; now we’re 80 minutes behind schedule.  We’re annoyingly late, but feeling good about our chances of being able to get a visa before this crowd manages to leave us behind at the border.  The heat has sapped what little motivation anyone (else) may have had.

We arrive at the border, anxiously watching the signs, trying to make sure we know where to go.  We make a plan that Anna will go in search of the visa station while I get all of our stuff off the bus in case it leaves us.  The plan gets abandoned almost immediately, as the bus drives away before letting me unload our backpacks.  Damn.
We see the bus stop on the other side of the border, but a couple of South African guards keep me from following it, directing me to the building Anna is headed towards to get my South African exit stamp.

Usually, we don’t like to make a scene.  We hang back, waiting appropriately in lines to ask questions, not getting frustrated with waiting in several incorrect lines before finding the correct one.  But not this time, especially with our backpacks on a bus in another country.  We had to get the visa in time.  Our strategy became “ask any older person who looks official to direct you to the next step”.  If you don’t understand, ask them again.  We weren’t rude, we just made it very plain that we were in a hurry.  And it worked.  We made it reasonably quickly through the South African exit line, then found someone to direct us to the exit so we could walk to Mozambique.  Every time we saw an official looking person, we asked for the visa office.  They kept pointing us along the road until we reached it.

Inside, we asked the first official-looking person we saw to tell us which line to stand in for the visa.  He whipped out a form and told us to fill it out and bring it back to him.  Somehow, we lucked out and bypassed the entire visa line.  He took our money and our forms and shuffled off, returning a moment later with a promise they’d be ready in 5 minutes.  Wow – that’s the first time all trip that a travel experience, especially one with tight timeframes, had worked out at all.

One of the bus employees popped into the visa office and demanded to know how long we would be.  Any minute, we said.  He seemed to think that, since we’d already paid, we’d make it in time.  2 minutes later, we had visas and were on our way back to the bus.  The bus had moved even further, now at least a half mile into Mozambique, parked on the side of the road.  The distance didn’t matter – we weren’t losing our backpacks; we weren’t going to have to flag a taxi to take us the rest of the way (3 hours) to Maputo!

To top it all off, the driver came up to the upper deck and opened the emergency exit hatch in the roof, creating serious air flow when we got up to speed on the highway.  It was still hot, but no longer broiling.

And so that has become the gold-standard travel experience for this trip.  Sure, it was an 8 hour busride with no air-conditioning, which required a half hour of arguing to even get started.  But after some of the other experiences we’d had so far, it was a breeze.



  1. Wow – what a story! What a blessing to get through that with all your bags.

  2. I cannot imagine how scary it was to leave your backpacks on the bus without much hope of getting them — so glad it worked out. But the heat — yikes.

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