Buses: My love-train relationship with them


Buses hate all that is me.

On a trip seven years ago, I was taking a bus from Zagreb, Croatia out to the coastal town of Split. This was on the old road, so it was an eight hour drive (new road is five.) Somewhere around hour six or so, the bus pulled to the side of the road, sputtered, die, and then the engine exploded in a ball of flames. Luckily, I lived to tell about that.

Two years ago, I was taking a bus from Belgrade to Sarajevo. The bus was doing fine until it lost a radiator hose which was thankfully repaired mid-ride so that I made it in to Sarajevo tired and late, but on the same bus and without serious threat to my well-being.

These experiences all seem like child’s play now that I have experience what Sean at Journey without Maps calls, The Most Miserable Bus in the World. Yes, the crappy-bus bar has been set high in this latest experience and I hope it will remain the pinnacle of personal bus crapdom for me, lest one bus run me over, back up, run me over again, and then shoot me dead. Yes, buses can carry concealed weapons if you didn’t know.

It all started with my wife and I throwing caution to the wind and thinking we could circumnavigate the most hellish part of this bus trip by not taking the route from Abidjan up to the border. That can take from 1-2 days by itself due to the buses not wanting to drive through Yamoussoukro at night due to the fear of roving bandits in the area. Feral, rogue buses are probably also a threat given that they are armed.

So, we got up at six on Friday morning and mooched rides through various friends of friends who were knowing people going north and we eventually bounced our way to Korhogo and spent the night at a friend’s house there. This part was all well and good, hauling along at 100kph with air conditioning and avoiding the slowdowns that come with the damnable checkpoint “greasings”.

Well-rested, we set out from Korhogo the next morning to take the Sama Transport bus from there up to Sikasso in Mali where we thought we’d spend the night as the trip took so long. The bus was scheduled to leave at eight and we were pleasantly surprised to have it leave at 9:30–you take small victories when it comes to African buses.

The trip up to the border was mostly uneventful. Slow would be the primary tag to attach to any article about it though as the bus stops at literally every wide spot in the road to take on more passengers, drop off others, or pick up letters that people are sending. Ah yes, if you want to send something via express mail in Côte d’Ivoire or Mali, you use Sama.

After getting a quick, painless stamp at the Malian border, we then went to customs. I wish I had brought a chair. That took something like an hour as the inspection officers wanted to look through every single part of the bus, come up with a tally and then negotiate the “donation” they were to receive, as our driver put it. I also learned a new word on this particular Saturday which was the “donne-donne” as in the “give give” which is what some kids told us when we asked where the driver was. “Oh he’s at the donne-donne.”

Once crossing the border, we were puttering our way along in minor passenger transport and mail delivery courier stops until we reached Sikasso. So, here’s the funny thing about Sikasso, according to the ticket guys in Korhogo, there is no transfer to another bus in Sikasso to reach Mali, to which I retort, oh yes, there is very much a transfer to another bus in Sikasso to reach Mali and the really really cool part is that they oversell that bus so you have to scramble to get on it. Or you can then wait for the night bus of which the first one leaves at 22:00. Not having it in us to fight through the line for the oversold tickets, we took one quick glance dusty, dingy Sikasso and opted for the night bus.

The night bus left at a quarter past 22:00 which was pretty good. The driver drove like a maniac and had to listen to his music through the bus sound system at full volume, so sleep was out of the question, but rolling discotheque was very much in the question (or the answer?) Whatever, it was going to be alright as forward momentum to Bamako was the goal and that was happening. Of course somewhere around 1:30 we came across a massive line of trucks and quickly came to a dead stop.

It turns out in the course of all this driving, a strike had occurred that the Malian truckers (or more their bosses) called. They had decided that buses were part of it as well (they weren’t) and thus about 5km East of a town called Bougouni, they stopped our miserable bus. The strike was about the fact that the government had reduced the maximum weight that trucks can carry (a good move considering what happens often) and so they had been striking for four days prior to our arrival at the point of blockage.

No amount of negotiating by the bus drivers (there were more than just us stopped) could get up through and so we did what you do when stopped in the middle of nowhere at 1:30 in the morning–you sleep on the ground next to the bus. That was an adventurous night filled with strange dreams of Malian women walking past me dressed in their brightly colored clothes as well as the feeling I was in a zoo as I believe that every single person who walked by shined their flashlight or mobile screen at the beleaguered white guy sleeping on the ground.

At 6:00, everybody got up, took a piss/crap in the bushes next to the road, and we decided to get the hell out of there, walking past the blockage point, hitching a ride to the nearest town, and then taking yet another bus that did eventually get up to Bamako in the middle of the day. In a private car, from Korhogo, Côte d’Ivoire to Bamako, Mali, the trip takes a bit less than six hours, checkpoints and all. As it went for us, it took 30.

While the strike was unfortunate, these things can happen. You get snarled up in them rightly or wrongly, but you move on. It’s more the issue of Sama Transport that I have. They are Satan. Actually no, they’re worse than Satan as you know Satan’s rules when you’re headed “down under”.

In short, Sama is a horrid company, but unfortunately they’re the main choice you have to take to get around and they seem to have a monopoly in Côte d’Ivoire as well as Mali. The only other options are scooting along in shared taxis between towns or to take very expensive flights. From Abidjan to Bamako is $500 and it’s an hour flight. Needless to say, if I have to fly back, I will if the choice is that or spending another night sleeping in the savanna next to my otherwise illustrious “direct” bus. Sean, I am a fool to not have heeded your wise words.

4 Replies to “Buses: My love-train relationship with them”

  1. I’ve take a train between Split and Zagreb once, but since the Split to Knin tracks were being renewed we were put on a bus in SPlit to Knin and then on the slowest and noisiest train from Knin to Zagreb, took about 4 hours longer than the bus would’ve.

    About the Bamako to Cote d’Ivoire, you should’ve taken Bouaje (CI) to Bobo DIoulasso (BF), about 10 hours (A/C) and then Bobo DIoulasso to Bamako, 11 hours (A/C) all with a BF company called TCV. Comfortable buses, safe drivers.

  2. Wild, so it’s actually faster to go in to Burkina Faso to get to Mali from Côte d’Ivoire? Would have required a second visa, but good advice for anyone else thinking to make the trip.

  3. so that was Bouake and not Bouaje and all the other more obvious typos aswell
    you can get a burkina visa at the border

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