As a broad generalisation, people seem to have the impression that Africa is a lazy continent. The belief is that, like the Spanish, the midday siesta is a common part of the African agenda, the only difference is the African “Lala” lasts all day. In our experience, like many generalisations, this one is not entirely correct.
In this regard, our experience is that our continent is actually an oxymoron. Africa is a large, vast and generally densely populated place. While it is true that many people, men particularly, can be seen day and night simply sitting under mango trees waiting for the fruit to fall, the opposite is also true.
It is also a place where people, again men in particular, frequently work far from their homes and families in order to earn a living to provide for those they love. It is often a tough place where, despite the generalisations, many people have to work and fight hard to survive. For most Africans, like most people in the third world, owning cars is a pipe dream.
The financial barriers to entry are simply too high. Like most places where this is true, organic solutions to the transportation conundrum have manifested into a chaotic-looking yet highly functional system. Due to the higher cost of bigger vehicles, they are far rarer than in wealthier countries and continents. Particularly in the rural areas, bicycles and motorbikes, called Piki Pikis, Bora Boras, Motos and any number of other names depending where you are, outnumber cars like ants to antelope.
People use them for absolutely everything from transporting their entire family to moving half their village banana plantation and charcoal supplies the 20 km to the main road to sell. I only realised how ridiculous this actually was when a local girl dropped the bike she was riding while trying to let us pass on the narrow, rutted back road we were driving on.
Seeing she was struggling to lift the bike, I stopped and jumped out of our little Suzuki, Badger, to help her lift it. It took every ounce of my strength to lift the bike and what turned out to be three GIANT bags of charcoal. The whole ensemble likely weighed about 60 kg! Having felt the weight of the bike, I have no idea how riding it was possible … and hers was far from the heaviest bike we saw.
After the smaller vehicles comes the three-wheel motos, which you don’t see often, but when you do, they are EVERYWHERE – horse carts, cars, minibuses and small trucks. Most of these vehicles, except the small trucks, are used for transporting people and they follow but one rule: fit as many people as possible before you go anywhere. Motos are also a very common local taxi and tourist vehicle. Other than in Rwanda where a hard maximum of two helmet wearing people is permitted per moto, as many people as possible with no helmet are usually jammed on board.
The last group is the one to be wary of. They work on the “dog-eat-dog,” principle that big trumps small, ALWAYS! They drive where they want, when they want, in spite of road conditions, speed signs or other commuters. If you want to survive the African Transportation system you better learn to move out of their way. QUICKLY!
They are the big fish in the African pond. They are the trucks and buses.
The ever-changing African road
Vehicles aside, there are many other things that characterise the unique nature of time on the African roads. For a start, there are the roads themselves which vary from sections of surprisingly decent tar to tracks which animals like cattle would struggle to move on. There are corrugations so deep and persistent that only aftermarket suspensions like Tough Dog can handle them. There are no street signs and speed limits that change according to the local policeman’s whim on the day.
Finally, an unmissable fact in Africa is that the roads and tracks that Africa uses for transportation are not just for vehicles. Far from it. Being the paths of least resistance in places where thorns as thick as fingers await shoeless feet and hooves, the roads are used by every manner of creature imaginable to move. People are often walking everywhere, weaving between traffic. Tiny children traipse to school playing with balls and often abruptly running into the roads. Domestic animals like pigs, chickens, goats, cows with horns like lances, dogs and cats play chicken with moving vehicles at every turn. Think that sounds crazy?
Well wait until you nearly plough into a herd of elephant, a hippo or a pack of wild dogs. Trust us all of these things are very possible. The roads of Africa are a busy place. They are capable of frazzling the toughest, inexperienced African explorer into being more nervous than a teenager on a first date as they drive slower than their grandmother.
Distance won’t tell you how long it will take
It is well worth understanding if aiming to overland in Africa that travel MUST be thought of in terms of time required to get from A to B and not distance. The varied, unpredictable conditions of the roads, vehicles and creatures who use them, mean that time and distance are often only partially linked. Therefore, unlike the West, travel time cannot be estimated in terms of distance to be travelled.
Aside from the specifics that categorise the African transportation system, there are overarching truths. First, it can be said “If it moves it grooves”, in other words “it does not matter what the condition of the vehicle is, if it can go it will be taking someone somewhere”. Second, and most importantly “only the strong survive”. If you want to get anywhere, you better grow a thicker skin quickly. Niceties mean nothing here other than that you are prey ready for the taking.
Like most systems, African transportation works by a set of rules. Like most things truly African, these rules have likely never been clearly defined and are unwritten, yet understood by all involved. So long as you learn these cardinal rules; big beats small, assume no other vehicle on the road has working brakes, make sure you look and act like you know who’s boss, and watch for the million things that are likely to run into the “road”, you’ll get through it just fine.
Enjoy the ride… its likely to the be the most exciting and chaotic one of your life.