35 Hours from Kampala to Dar es Salaam

I did this in Jordan two years ago, flying into Tel Aviv in Israel, traveling overland between the two countries and then throughout Jordan before leaving from Amman. I did it again a couple months later by taking a series of buses throughout the Balkans, including an overnight bus through Albania. I thought these experiences would prepare me well for an even bigger trip that took in the summer of 2007. For the most part, they did.

Taxi Park - Kampala, Uganda
Incredible Taxi Park – Click to Enlarge

My trip began in Kampala, Uganda, where I visited one of the largest taxi parks in the world and spent some time with local NGO workers. After a few days sightseeing, I bought a one-way bus ticket to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania via a number of other cities along the way. The ticket cost $54, and the journey was expected to take 31 hours.

I showed up at 12:30 for the 1:00 p.m. departure, but I didn’t see a bus anywhere. I sat with all of the other passengers for two hours, waiting for the appearance of an elusive bus. It finally arrived close to 3:00. In a way, I didn’t mind the delay, because another passenger told me they were fixing the tires. Not having good tires is a major cause of road accidents in Africa, so better to be late with good tires, I thought.

Uganda to Kenya

After the delayed departure, our trip began well enough. Every seat on the bus was taken, but there was no overcrowding and no one standing. I was also the only Westerner for the entire trip, which definitely helped with getting a more natural perspective of East Africa. After we got out of Kampala, the driver’s assistant passed out ice cream samples to each passenger, a nice treat after not eating lunch.

For the next four hours, nothing much happened. I had hoped to use a big part of the trip for reading and writing, but the roads were far too bumpy for that. We rode along through Eastern Uganda until arriving at the Kenyan border directly at sunset. Border stops are rarely boring, and in Africa, they are often highly disorganized and corrupt. At this one, though, all the formalities went about as well as could be. I paid $20 for a transit visa, as I had expected, and headed back up the road to the bus after receiving the necessary clearances. The whole process took less than half an hour, complete with an amazing dust storm that I tried to capture in a couple of quick snapshots.

Kenya Dust Storm!Kenya / Uganda Border

We had roughly seven hours more until Nairobi, where we were scheduled to arrive at 3:00 a.m. for a two-hour stop. Mid-point through the journey, the bus broke down. I wasn’t thrilled about this, and neither were the other passengers, but after a while the engine started up and we were underway again. We arrived in Nairobi sometime around 4:30, waiting at the bus station for a couple of hours, and got back underway just before dawn.

At this point my memory gets a bit fuzzy, because I had only slept an hour or two during the night and wasn’t feeling well from all the bumpy roads. I think it was about three or four more hours when we arrived at the next border, this time between Kenya and Tanzania.

This stop was also fairly efficient—we were through within 45 minutes. There were a fair share of “helpers” who tried to offer their services to me (to change money, expedite the visa process, etc.), but after I declined a few times they stopped asking.

Waiting in Arusha, TanzaniaWaiting in ArushaWaiting in Arusha

Back underway and a couple more undetermined hours later, we arrived in Arusha, a Tanzanian city in the north of the country. We were told that we had to change buses, but no other bus was around. I spent the time in the transit area writing postcards from Kampala and eating peanuts, which in addition to two Cliff Bars I had brought from Seattle and the ice cream 24 hours earlier were my only food. I wasn’t really hungry, but I was certainly tired.

A new bus finally arrived two hours later. We were all relieved to transfer our bags and hop onboard, but there was just one problem: five other passengers had joined us at Arusha, and they had seat numbers for seats that were already occupied by those of us who had started way back in Uganda. Thankfully, I had already taken my seat when the mistake was discovered, so I didn’t have to worry about standing up for the remaining nine hours.

After a lot of arguing and the unsuccessful mediation efforts of the bus company’s employees, a woman stood up and addressed everyone. “Brothers and sisters in the Lord!” she began. “We are all Christians, so let us find a way to solve this problem!”

So far, so good, but some guys in the back were laughing and not listening to her, so she commanded them to “Shut up in the name of Jesus!” It was one of the most interesting social interactions I’ve ever been a part of. For better or worse, the evangelist was able to resolve the problem by acquiring some extra makeshift seats from the bus driver. Before we left Arusha after waiting far too long, she led the whole bus in a prayer for the journey. Even the Muslims supported a Christian prayer for a safe road journey to our final destination.

Kenya to Tanzania

A lot of other things happened along the way, but as we hit the 24-hour point, I was pretty exhausted. I vaguely remember running my hands through my hair and seeing them completely covered in red dust. I remember a collective bus stop for bananas, which looked nice but I couldn’t buy any because I didn’t have any Tanzanian currency, and I remember waking up after sleeping for three straight hours to find our bus about an hour out of Dar es Salaam. By then, it had gone well over the 31 hours we had expected to travel, so when people said we were an hour away I could hardly believe it.

We arrived at the Dar es Salaam bus station close to midnight the day after I had left Uganda. I stepped off the bus for the last time and walked to the gate where I navigated the usual throng of taxi drivers all shouting for my attention. Choosing one and negotiating a price of $8 (it was late at night and a fair distance away) to take me downtown to change money and then to a hotel near the port, I finally arrived at the beautiful sight of a hotel check-in desk shortly after 1:00 a.m. They had one last room available, which I was quite happy to accept sight unseen and without even considering the cost.

Before I feel asleep, I took two full showers in an attempt to shake off the dust from three African countries and 35 hours in a bus. For the next week, however, my shoes would set off a mini dust storm every time I put them on or took them off. When I finally got home two weeks later, my bags still had Kenya’s dust on them despite my best efforts to clean them with washcloths during my next two stops.

I decided to consider it evidence of an achievement that had personal meaning to me, even if other people might find it incomprehensible. I also decided that I wouldn’t necessarily want to do this again… but I’m really glad I did it once.


Image of central Kampala by CG

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    • Ted says:

      I would usually focus on totally exploring one city over my first few overseas trips (Prague, London) As I grew more comfortable I sought out places outside the guide books, places where I would not be able to speak English, places where real food and real culture existed – Anthony Bourdain would be so proud.

      Rome led to Naples via bus and Capri and Sorrento via ferry. Madrid led to Toledo, Segovia, Caidos by trains and busses. Israel posed a whole new dynamic. Flight into Tel Aviv, sherut to Jerusalem (The last one on a Friday night as shabbat shut EVERYTHING down!) By now I was hooked on the ‘off the path’ adventures Chris described. Incomprehensible van to Masada, Qumran, and the Dead Sea? I’m on it! Taxi to Tel Aviv with no hotel plans? Sign me up, I’ll find a spot somewhere. Train up the coast to see the Lebanese boarder sans hotels? Piece of cake. Rental car to go explore Nazareth and Golan Heights without maps? I’m on it!

      Overland travel is sometimes the literal metaphor of stick-shift vs manual. Get off the guided tour, get away from the safe, and get into the extraordianry.

      Next up: Cancun and the entirety of the Mayan riviera. I’ve got no idea how I’m going to do it. I’ll figure it out along the way. And I’m sure it will be an adventure unto itself.

    • Betsy Wuebker says:

      Best memory of last European trip was the sleeper from Paris to Munich. If we had flown, we’d never been stuck in Strasbourg due to my error on the way back to Paris. And then we wouldn’t have slept in the first class car and been awakened by a nefarious would-be robber who couldn’t seem to bring himself to steal from a mother and her teen-age daughter. And we wouldn’t have been saved by the businessman who took an early seat.

    • Graham says:

      Chris, I can relate well to your last sentence. In the 1980s I did the 36 hour bus ride between Perth and Adelaide in Australia, and at the end I swore I’d never do that again … but I was glad to have done it once.

      The journey was more comfortable than yours – a modern bus with air-con, and we got to stretch our legs and eat greasy food every 4 hours. Yet being squashed into a cramped seat for most of 36 hours was still something I’d rather avoid.

      What made me glad to have done it were the land v. air benefits. Crossing thousands of km of arid, barren “nothingness” with just a handful of small towns gave me a great respect and sense of awe for the sheer size of Australia, and how undeveloped much of it is. The scale of the country can’t be appreciated by flying over it in a metal tube. Seeing the long unbroken Nullarbor cliffs and experiencing the world’s longest bit of straight road were memorable, and you can only reach these by days of tedious road travel.

      Another reason I’m glad – the bus trip I did is no longer an option since cheaper airfares have made running the buses uneconomic. You can drive your own car, but that’s a major undertaking. Nowadays I fly between west and east, happy to save time and money, but happy that I know what I’m flying over.

    • Audrey says:

      Before we started our RTW journey a couple of years ago, I thought other travelers with an “overland only philosophy” were a bit extreme. However, when we unintentionally traveled overland from Georgia (country of) to China (and then across China) over six months, I really began to appreciate the value of overland travel. Sure, it likely won’t be comfortable, but you’ll see the subtle changes in landscape and people from one place to another. Most importantly, it gives you a chance to travel and engage with locals and get a feel for what life is like for them day in and day out. Some of our best experiences with locals occurred on these uncomfortable buses or shared transport experiences.

      I have to admit that bus and long-distance travel in Africa kind of scares me and makes me a bit nervous about independent travel in Africa. Discomfort aside, did you find it relatively easy and safe to travel independently in Africa?

    • Steven C says:

      I remember when I was 12 I took the train from Brest (France) to Geneva. I had to change train station in Paris, it was the first time I found myself in a big city and never took the underground before, it took me 15 hours de get to Geneva. At this time I was lost but now I am proud I did it so young!

    • Benny Lewis says:

      … and here’s me thinking the remaining dust on my sandles from a week at Burning Man was an honorable memento! Busing through Africa is quite something else.

      Like Graham I also took a more comfortable bus trip in a comfy Air Conditioned bus stopping at places with lots of food as I travelled through Brazil. I only ever flew into Brazil but I managed to get all the way from Porto Alegre in the very south to Natal in the northeast tip just by bus (that’s over 3,000km as the crow flies, so probably closer to 4,000 driving). It’s a great achievement as you really feel the sense of distance covered. Next time I plan on busing all the way to the mouth of the Amazon!

    • Donna Hill says:

      I’m stumbling on this in 2009, but I smiled as I read it. I visited Uganda in 2006 and rode some buses around Kampala and was taxied around Uganda on bumpy roads by various drivers in cars. There definitely is a lot of red dirt!

      I love the incident on the bus you described. Uganda has a lot of Christians, and if you’re a Christian and others are, you have no choice but to work things out amicably and get along. Great story!

    • Harrie says:

      wow! I really enjoyed reading your “35 hours from k’la to dar” experience. I am Ugandan and my husband has been travelling overland via that route and even more to the south of Africa. The four to five days he would take to reach home would be a nightmare for me because I would be worried of his safety but kept praying for him till arrival. He would all be full of dust. I want to congratulate you for that braveness you showed. It is not easy indeed. I wouldnt do it myself.

    • Andrea says:

      I absolutely love that story of the woman on the bus!!

      I am also a firm believer of experiencing overland travel, at least once on a route that you may then cover in the air later on… I used to get the coach from my birthplace of Hungary to my adopted home in England, back in a time where no budget airlines flew to that part of Europe yet. It used to take 26 hours to get from Budapest to London, but I loved it. I loved staring out of the window, going through the Alps, and then into Germany, Belgium and France. For me at that time it was amazing to see the changes between countries, travelling from ex-Soviet Hungary through the mighty Western Europe. And of course then seeing the white cliffs of Dover as we approached the island of Britain by the ferry, and then getting off it and the coach driving on the other side of the road !!!! For me as an 18 year old, that was just the most amazing experience!!

      Sure these days I fly over Europe, but travelling by coach back in those days makes me appreciate the ease of flying, but also makes me reminisce about those days..

      I also chose to take the coach from Holquin to Santiago in Cuba, which was an almost 4 hour journey, rather than take 1 hour flight option. It meant that I spent less time in Santiago itself, but the journey there, through the Cuban countryside was unforgettable. And to this day, if I am off on a city-break, I refuse to sit on a tourist bus, I would rather walk miles, or explore the local transport system, as that is so much more fun, travelling along commuting local, just the way they do it every day…

    • Michael says:

      Intetesting story there especially with our taxi park being one of the world’s largest. Traveling in Africa and specifically Uganda is fun…but am sure when you come back and do it again, you will have a totally different story!

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