The Blogging Abroad Boot Camp Challenge 2016 Continues! This week’s topic: on the road (aka the aspects of our communities that keep us entertained while moving through our communities). My source of constant amusement are the minibus taxis (I live 500 meters from the local taxi rank) and I could probably write an anthropological case study on minibus culture. For the sake of brevity and in the spirit of South Africa’s safari-dependent tourism industry, here is my take on a field guide for the vehicles that keep me mobile. My page code names for South African places are found here.
Side note: “Minibus” and “taxi” are interchangeable. However American-like taxi services are available in the big cities like Pietermartizburg and Pretoria. Keeping my audience in mind, I tried to refer to the animals…er vehicles as minibuses except the traditional model which is only called taxi.
A Field Guide to Amajuba Minibus Taxis
While they have numerous names across Southern Africa from “combi” in Botswana to “dala dala” in Tanzania, minibuses or taxis in Northern KZN are the lifeline between rural communities. For men who do not get to leave their communities after metric /high school graduation, minibus driving is a sustainable job, especially in rural areas with high unemployment rates. The country of South Africa is connected through local taxi associations and their dedicated drivers. The people of Amajuba are dependent on minibuses to maneuver groceries, luggage, and of course relatives.
A minibus is capable of being any car color such as blue, red, orange, turquoise, or lime green. The majority of minibuses are white. Décor is minimal but a predominate design is the South African flag emulating a comet on the passenger doors with the five colors (red, blue, yellow, green, and black) appearing as intertwining flames throughout the bus’ exterior perimeter. Occasionally minibuses serve as an advert for a variety of products like groceries and in some cases soapies/televised soap operas. These minibuses are a rolling billboard with the entire décor theme based on the product.
A typical minibus, bringing people home in the Drakensburg Dusk
A minibus sporting Huletts (one of the main sugar brands in SA) adverts in Duke City
A minibus (or driver) makes their presence known by incessant honking of the car horn and boisterous music. This music ranges from the latest KZN sensations like Dbn Nights to flute covers of Celine Dion’s greatest hits (I kid you not, yesterday most of my 5 hour drive from Gauteng was spent trying to identify the songs). If loud music is a problem, it is imperative to bring earplugs for the minibus encounter as it could be one decked out with large speakers next to your ear.
Species of Minibuses in Amajuba District
There are currently 5 types of minibuses that serve the rural areas of Amajuba. At minimum taxis are capable of transporting 15 people (and they will not leave until they are close to 15 passengers. Fares are determined by distance and are same regardless of the minibus model.
Traditional and Quantum in Research Town’s taxi rank. Quantum are the taller cars
Traditional (15 Passengers):
The oldest model, traditional taxis have the defining feature of folding seats as seen in the cross section below. The only seatbelt available for passengers tends to be the front seat. Traditional models are the least expensive option on the market and drivers in the rural areas can easily obtain this form of minibus. By far traditional models are the most available species of minibus in all of South Africa.
Interior layout of a traditional South African Taxi that seats 15 passengers
Quantum (16 Passengers):
As the traditional minibus is cramped in space, more drivers are starting to opt for Toyota Quantum. The additional space supports passengers with physical disabilities, provides and additional passenger seat and more space for groceries. Quantum also tend to have seatbelts available in all of the seats.
Interior layout for a Quantum, that seats 16 passengers
Shoprite (SA’s discount grocery chain) Soup Kitchen service at my org, with a Quantum adapted for their needs
Sprinter (21 Passengers):
Located near larger cities, advantages of the Sprinter include space, a comfortable height, bag storage above the seats, and storage in the trunk for luggage. These models also have seatbelts accessible for all the seats and are by far are the safest transport option in rural Amajuba. Sprinters are the most expensive model to obtain and only drivers serving urban destinations are capable of obtaining them.
Interior layout of a Sprinter for 21 passengers
Sprinter in Duke City’s local destinations taxi rank
Nyathi (13 Passengers):
The Nyathi is used for celebrations as opposed to practical purposes. Nyathis are rented out for parties, weddings, and metric formals. Passengers are treated to loud music and dancing on the way to their destination.
Nyathi (with a blue stripe), right of my local taxi rank (500 meters from my compound)
School Buses (~40 Passengers):
For frequent destinations like local cities, some rural areas use school buses to transport large groups of people.
Example of the school buses in rural Amajuba
Beyond their usual rounds on country roads and urban streets, minibuses typically reside at a taxi rank. Minibuses retire under tin awnings for shade when available, and nicer ranks have signs indicating the destination names. In ranks, you can spot minibus by watching the local vendors. Vendors will congregate around taxis selling a myriad of goods from airtime, towels, and of course food. For passengers waiting for taxis to fill, vendors sell cold treats directly through the windows.
In rural areas without rank facilities, drivers create their own ranks by clustering minibuses on the side of the road. Ask the community members where the rank and minibuses stop (different destinations tend to have different watering holes…or parking spots where the minibus waits to fill).
Scotland’s taxi rank, with vendors in position at the windows
How to Approach a Minibus
Unlike most South Africa wildlife, minibuses will not automatically stop at the presence of humans. Especially if all seats are full Approaching minibuses involves an acquired technique, the below tips are only meant to serve as a guide.
Before approaching a minibus, research where you want to go and the fare. Unless you are going a significant distance, most drivers cannot break large bills like 100 or 200 ZAR. Do your best to break the fare at local tuck shops or in town; exact change is always the best option. Also, learn the local language enough so you can maneuver the minibuses because chances are high that the driver will struggle to understand English.
Once the fare and language skills are covered, you are prepared to take the minibus. Using the local knowledge walk towards the side of the road. If a minibus approached, point your index finger up for the nearest city or down the nearest hub. If the bus is full, the driver will turn his palms up and go past you. If there is space and you are visible, the driver will pull over! If your community has a taxi rank that services the desired destination, simply walk to the rank and locate the minibus.
When on the minibus, wait for the locals to start paying before offering the fee. Often minibuses serving rural areas need to transfer passengers to another driver for specific destinations and the fee will not be paid until everyone boards the new bus.
One last tip:. Building rapport through acknowledging a driver’s presence as you wander around the community may help when you actually need a ride. They make respond to a friendly wave with a lively honk for “hello” in return! If the ride was particularly safety oriented and smooth, a local “thank you” and “go well” to the driver when you disembark never hurts.