12/29/2012 08:24 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2013

How To Ride A Local Bus In Africa

While travelling 8,512 kilometers overland from Victoria Falls, Zambia to Lamu Island, Kenya does not quite make us experts in the field of transit, we did learn some very valuable lessons on the mysterious process of African overland travel.

Regardless of the name -- matatu in Kenya, dala dala in Tanzania, chapa in Mozambique -- the main form of transportation in east African countries is an extremely over-packed, yet incredibly cheap and surprisingly fun mini-van. If you're planning a trip to Africa and have an adventurous spirit, I highly recommend using this method of travel. Not only is it 10% of a flight fare, the immersion in local culture is priceless (if you can live to tell the tale).

Top 10 Matutu-Riding Tips:

  1. Choose your vehicle wisely. Many matatus have names that shed insight into the owner's driving style. Do your best to avoid vehicles with names like "Beat the Reaper," "White Lightning," or "Eat The Dust," these guys are the wild cards-the kind that pull a three-car-wide pass on a double yellow. (That said, "Little Angel" could pull a similar move. No guarantees.)
  2. Stretch before you get in. I am talking about deep stretching, as you will be often be contorted in ways a body shouldn't, with your legs and arms snaking around luggage, wheel wells and random metal bars that hold the minivan together.
  3. Pre-determine the going rate to your destination. Optimally find out from your hotel or a local before you get to the transport pick-up area but, at the very least, ask a fellow passenger heading your way. Last resort is to watch what the locals are paying, then pay that same amount when the driver asks for your fare.
  4. Don't pay for your luggage. On about 20% of our trips we were asked to pay extra for our luggage. Usually this is because the driver is just trying to take advantage of tourists and/or he is too lazy to secure your bag to the roof. Call them out. Tell him kindly that your luggage can fit on the roof or under your seat; if not, find another van.
  5. Use duffel bags and luggage locks. Malleable duffels in a dark color are great at handling a rough and tumble matatu. Your bag will inevitably be squished up against something gross and possibly sat on by a shady character up on the roof so these two items will let you roll with the punches.
  6. Go to the bathroom beforehand. Longer rides might come with a bathroom break, but they are uncommon and will most definitely be on the side of the road, and rarely include any privacy (yes, even for ladies).
  7. Score a window seat. No one seems to like to open windows, no matter how hot and stuffy the van. Get command of a window that opens, optimally the right side of the back row or second to back row.
  8. Carry small change for food and fares. At every stop, food vendors will approach the vehicle to sell passengers snacks (mostly grilled corn, eggs with amazing salsas, Marie cookies, fruits and tropical juices) and getting change can be a battle. Regarding your van fare, if you must pay the driver with a big bill, he will hold onto it as long as possible, pretending he can't break iat and hoping you forget, so keep eye contact with him until you get your change back.
  9. Bring an iPod with audio books. This is crucial since the ride will be so bumpy can't read a book and you certainly can't write in a journal.
  10. Roll with the punches and have fun! Find the humor in the Mad Max drivers, Jenga-like seating and junkyard amenities, and what some might see as unpleasant will become the ride(s) of your life.

Check out this quick tips video my travel cohort and I did in Nairobi, the unofficial "Matatu Capital of the World" and for a nitty gritty example of a matatu journey, see our photo-filled post on our four-day, 14-leg journey from Mozambique to Tanzania.