What you need to know:
- Imagine a bus filled to capacity with humans and luggage and with about seven or eight extra passengers on the aisle.
- It is speeding west but it keeps stopping at random points along the way for a mechanic to fix something or other.
The belching of the bus after it stopped was a therapeutic sound. Not music to the ears on normal occasions, but this one was worth celebrating.
The trip had come to an end and I could finally exhale! It was one of the longest seven hours of my life aboard a Climax Coach bus from Nairobi to Kisii on Sunday.
It seemed like an eternity because of the sheer unpredictability; that feeling of not knowing whether some tyre is about to jump off or maybe some component hanging by a thread might finally give in and turn this into a blender for flesh and metal.
Imagine a bus filled to capacity with humans and luggage and with about seven or eight extra passengers on the aisle.
It is speeding west but it keeps stopping at random points along the way for a mechanic to fix something or other.
No explanations given, no apologies for stoppage or anything. As soon as the mechanic is done, the racing continues.
Until the bus stops at another undesignated spot for another mechanic to fix something.
To call the trip Russian roulette would get close to describing the uncertainty, but not exactly.
On a mission to explore the well-known perils of festive season travel among buses domiciled at Country Bus in downtown Nairobi, I found myself in the Climax Coach bus.
Well, “dragged there” would be a more apt description because at Country Bus, the sight of someone carrying bags invites swarms of touts who will do all they can to give you a tunnel vision towards a certain bus.
One thing I was quietly happy about was the fact that no luggage was tied to the roof of the bus.
A common sight at Country Bus is that of dexterous men struggling to incorporate any luggage they receive regardless of the shape, size, smell it emits, on the roof carrier.
Boy, don’t some buses get overloaded! Given the shape of the overhead loads and the speed the buses are driven at, it usually sets a stage for laws of physics to prove themselves and sometimes the results can be fatal.
But my happiness was short-lived because a few kilometres from Nairobi, a passenger showed up with a long contraption of pipes and what looked like roof gutters.
They couldn’t fit on the bus belly and so they had to be placed smack in the middle of the aisle.
Some passengers walking in or out had to step on this contraption and also walk over a row of bags.
Comparing the Country Bus transport with other long-distance travel buses like Tahmeed, Easy Coach, Guardian, Ena Coach among others presents a tale of two worlds.
While order and predictability are the selling points of the rest of long-distance buses, at Country Bus anything goes.
A bus that has four seats per row has five at Country Bus. There is always a crate of soda somewhere in a Country Bus matatu for the benefit of the extra passengers, and it was no different during the Sunday trip.
And while the rules on loading are adhered to elsewhere, at Country Bus the occupation of all seats does not mean the bus can’t take a few more.
Our bus, despite leaving when every seat had been taken, picked up a number of passengers in the outskirts of Nairobi, and some stood in the bus for the better part of seven hours.
“Hakuna magari, simama. Kila mtu anaenda nyumbani (Just stand along the route as there are no buses and everyone wants to go home),” the conductor would tell passengers.
The bus charged me Sh1,600 to Kisii, while the other buses plying the route typically charge Sh1,000 regardless of the season.
During off-peak travel, the fare at Country Bus matatus drops to Sh800 or lower. That’s another characteristic of Country Bus transport — fares shift with demand.
Already uncomfortable at my seat, made smaller to accommodate five in one row, I had to contend with the fact that we were six in a row because someone had placed a crate and sat there.
Surprisingly, none of the traffic police officers encountered along the route seemed bothered about overloading.
And while other bus companies have banned hawking inside their buses, at Country Bus it’s free for all.
In our bus, we had a steady flow of hawkers selling items like machetes and jembes, nail-cutters, ready-made chips, power banks, earphones, and everything else that can be hawked.
And if you thought preachers and sellers don’t feature in long-distance travel, you would have been surprised to be in the bus I took.
Somewhere in Maai Mahiu, a quirky man with a slim frame, a quick tongue and a twisted sense of humour crept in and stood to address all on board.
The ohangla music playing was paused and the began speaking in a way to suggest he was a preacher, though he quickly turned out to be a seller of alternative medicine, selling conspiracies like why there is no cure for cancer yet (apparently the West knows the cure but is cashing on the disease) and waxing lyrical about over-simplified cures for complex diseases like diabetes, hypertension and the likes.
Impressively, he managed to win over some of the passengers and sold a number of bottles because of the solutions his fast-spinning tongue said they would provide.
As I finally got my panicking heart, sore backside and aching legs off the bus, it became apparent that the target audience for the Country Bus matatus has learnt to live with all the chaos.
Most looked well at home. There are those who murmured things especially during the unexplained stops but none was too incensed.