West African Bush Taxis: A Survival Guide

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Ah, the bush taxi, that African travel rite of passage.  Le sept place, taxi brousse, the good old shared taxi.  Different countries, different names, same concept: a cozy and communal transportation experience that inconveniently links towns with no better way of being linked, via endless hours of camaraderie, torment, mechanical ingenuity, and chickens.  What’s not to love?  Bush taxis are public transport at its most basic and raw.

At some point, probably while trying desperately to pass time in a bush taxi, I calculated that I’d spent well over three full days of my life riding these rattling metal death traps around West Africa during my multi-month overland journey.

Before I started my trip, they were one of the biggest unknowns in a long list.  By the end, they were – inexplicably – one of the most relaxing ways to spend my time.  If you see bush taxis in your future or are just curious about how people get around in places with no “normal” public transport and very few personal vehicles, then read on!

Or don’t, because if you’re the type who’s going to like bush taxi travel, you better be comfortable with surprises.

Guinea tea in sept place
Our driver examines the giant hole in the middle of the wheel where it separated from the axle. An old man watches while holding live chickens by the feet.  Just a normal day in rural Cote d’Ivoire.

What is a bush taxi?

Bush taxis, or shared taxis as I prefer to call them, are a rudimentary public transportation system common in less developed parts of the world.  In francophone West African countries like Guinea, they are also called sept place (French for “seven places,” meaning 7 seats, obviously an understatement), taxi brousse, and probably a few other terms I couldn’t quite catch. 

They leave when they’re full (instead of on a schedule), are notoriously overloaded and overcrowded, and no one really knows how long they’ll take to reach their destination.  They are like the zen meditation of West Africa.  The car arrives when it arrives.  Just keep breathing.

In addition to a motorbike, this car appears to be carrying its own bumper on the roof. Not a lot of tread left on those tires either…

The quintessential bush taxi is either a battered ancient Peugeot station wagon, or a battered ancient Renault sedan.  In some countries you may also find minivans and even mini-buses, also battered and ancient.

Conditions vary by country and region, but in the extreme these vehicles are mechanical miracles on wheels.  Decades past their intended useful life, they are held together with twine, wire and tape.  The upholstery has been gone for longer than anyone can remember and the doors don’t close, or if they close, they don’t open.  There may or may not be any mirrors still attached.

The inside of a sept place car door in Guinea. To open the door, pull the rope.  To roll down the window, put a screwdriver through the bolt hole and turn.

Cars are relatively expensive to import into this part of the world, especially compared to local economic means.  So any cars that make it to West Africa will be driven until they quite literally fall apart.  Then, while you wait by the side of the road in the shade of a mango tree, they will somehow be patched back together by a creative driver using – wait, oh god, please tell me that’s not tape! – and driven some more.

While a similar system probably exists in some form in many developing countries, I don’t think there is a region anywhere in the world that can rival West Africa for its utter dependence on bush taxis as a widespread public transport system. 

Typically, when a region develops enough people who can afford to move between towns regularly and smooth enough roads to do it on, you will find bus routes linking major towns.  West Africa is not there yet.  While you will find some good quality bus lines in Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire for example, they only link the major towns and often run on a sparse schedule.  In Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, I did not see a single bus.  Shared taxis all the way!

Personally I think this extensive and decentralized transport system, with a barely detectable order amidst its flagrant chaos, is actually an impressive solution to the needs of a struggling region lacking infrastructure, money, predictability, and a whole lot of other things.

So without further ado, here is everything I know about how to get where you need to be in a shared taxi in West Africa, and probably other parts of the world too.

Find where the taxis park.

This is called, aptly enough, taxi parking or taxi park in most anglophone countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia.  In francophone countries it’s la gare routierre or usually just la gare (pronounced kind of like the “gar-” in “garage,” not coincidentally).

In small towns this is usually one obvious spot where brightly painted vehicles congregate haphazardly in a dirt lot along the main street.  In larger towns or cities there may be several different parking areas, with taxis bound for different directions leaving from different corresponding locations on the outskirts of town.

Kenema Sierra Leone taxi park
View of taxi parking in Kenema, Sierra Leone, through a typical taped-together windshield.

To find the correct taxi parking, simply ask pretty much anyone.  Your guesthouse is a great place to start, or a restaurant, or random people you pass on the street.  You can literally just say your destination name, followed by “taxi parking” / “la gare” (depending on whether English or French is the official language) and look questioningly at anyone.  If you look truly confused there is a good chance someone will simply get up and walk you there himself.

If you somehow manage to strike out in the helpful stranger department – not something I have ever experienced in West Africa – it’s nearly foolproof to hail a motorcycle taxi and ask him to take you there.

Plan your route.

Can you get there from here?  The answer is pretty much always yes, if you have the time and patience.

All major towns are linked to adjacent major towns by shared taxi.  Smaller towns are linked to the nearest major town.  Both small and large towns farther away can be reached in multiple stages by changing cars in a town along the way.  There is always a specific end destination, but passengers can come and go anywhere along that route, so even tiny villages can be reached as long as they’re on the way to somewhere else.

When you get to a new town, make a habit of asking locals you meet about the route to your next destination: how long it takes (take this with a big grain of salt though), how good the road is, what time you should arrive at the taxi parking, how much it should cost, whether they’ve been there…  It’s a great conversation starter (hey, I’m an introvert, I need help with these things) and you’ll learn valuable information at the same time. 

If you can’t get useful information this way, stop by the taxi parking the day before you plan to leave and ask the drivers.  Be sure to tell them “tomorrow,” otherwise they’ll enthusiastically try to sell you a ticket for today.

In truly remote areas of Sierra Leone and Guinea I did find some areas where shared taxis did not venture, either because the road was too bad or there weren’t any locals who wanted to go there (like national parks).  In these cases, you can always find a motorbike taxi.

Liberia travel taxi park
Small taxi parking lot in Zwedru, Liberia

Plan your timing (hah!).

When to arrive at the taxi park?  The best blanket advice, if you don’t know anything else, is to show up at la gare early in the morning.  How early?  It depends.  I’ve heard some people say before sunrise, but personally I like sleeping more than I like wandering around in the dark with all my important possessions.  In practice I’ve found arriving around 8am gets the job done on standard routes between major towns that should only be a few hours apart.

There are exceptions though, which is why it’s best to ask locals when you’re there.  In remote areas or for destinations that take all day to reach, there may only be one car going per day and you don’t want to miss it.  If you’re really in the middle of nowhere, there might not be a car every day (you can probably take a motorbike any time though).  On short routes between busy places there may be many cars each day, leaving all day long.

Many towns have market day once per week, when people from the surrounding villages come to buy and sell goods, and you will usually have more options if you travel on this day.

How long will the ride take?  Good question.  My advice: ask a few different people, then completely ignore whatever they told you and plan as follows:

  • For a route that should be less than two hours based on distance alone, plan four.  If you start early you can probably connect to a second car for another short leg on the same day.
  • For a route that should be two to six hours, plan a full day.  You may get lucky and arrive in time to connect to a second car, but you should probably plan to spend the night at your destination in order to avoid traveling after dark (the #1 Rule of West Africa Travel Safety, see safety section below).
  • For a route that should be longer than six hours based on driving time alone, you are risking overnight travel.  Try to start as early in the morning as you can.
  • For a route that should be longer than eight hours, you are almost certainly going to be on the road after dark.  If you value your life, find a destination in the middle and break up the trip into two days.

The reason I say to ignore what people tell you is because it’s notoriously optimistic.  They might be trying to sell you a ticket, or just telling you what they think you want to hear (a perplexingly common theme I found in Africa).  For example, I asked a lot of people about a long stretch of dirt road between Ganta and Zwendru, Liberia, and was told everything from “five hours” to “you’ll arrive the next morning.”  We arrived at 4am.

If you’re traveling in rainy season or on especially bad roads or in an especially bad car, all bets are totally off.  Good luck.

Find the right car.

You show up at the correct taxi park early in the morning – so far so good.  Stroll in like you know what you’re doing.  Depending on where you are and the size of the town, either a) five guys are already running toward you asking where you want to go, or b) everyone is ignoring you. 

If no one is approaching you, simply approach any person who appears to be connected with a vehicle or shop, greet them politely and ask how they are (always important in Africa) and ask for your destination.  They will point you in the right direction, or if they’re not sure, they’ll usually find someone else who can.

One of the most useful things on my packing list for times like this is a small notebook and pen.  Just write your destination down beforehand (helpful if your pronunciation of local names leaves something to be desired), show them the notebook, and point to the name.  I’ve had taxi park guys hand my notebook around to half a dozen other people trying to find someone to lead me to the right car, and this is not usually a good place to be passing around a fancy looking smartphone.

If everyone is approaching you at once, it can be a little intimidating, but stay calm.  This is actually a normal part of how the system works.  Simply pick the person you feel most comfortable with and state your destination or point to your notebook.  Someone will eventually lead you to the correct car and driver. 

In pushier places they may “offer” to carry your bag, but you should politely refuse.  It’s not likely that they’re trying to steal it – though this is a possibility whenever you let your bag out of your control – but you want to stay in control of your stuff and not be stuck chasing them through a crowded parking lot if you decide you prefer a different vehicle.

On busier routes there may be more than one vehicle queued up for the same destination.  Typically you want the one that is fullest, as it will probably leave first.  Or maybe you want the one in better condition.  Your gamble.

I was lucky to find this car, an actual 4wd, for the 14-hour slog to Zwedru, Liberia.

Sometimes the guy who helps you find the car will ask for a small donation, usually “something small for food” or similar.  If he really did help with something you needed, give him a coin or two.  It’s not technically required though, especially if you didn’t actually want help and he “helped” you anyway.

Buy your ticket.

Usually you’ll be directed to a man with a notebook.  You need to buy a ticket from him to secure your place in the car.  Prices are based on distance and are fixed.

It would be highly unusual for them to try and overcharge you for a ticket, but if the price sounds too high, just ask the other local passengers what they paid.  Not once in two months did someone try to scam, overcharge, or “white person tax” me on shared taxi tickets.

Can you buy tickets in advance?  In very rare cases for long trips (like crossing a country border) people suggested buying a ticket the day before, but I never actually managed to do it.  The one time a local suggested this and tried to help me do it, the driver told us it wasn’t possible.  I think this is more common for bus routes, and not common at all for shared taxis.

Stow your luggage.

When you buy your ticket, they’ll also usually take any luggage that can’t go in your lap and put it either in the trunk or on the roof.  It’s ok to give them control of your bag at this point, though I wouldn’t blame you if you stayed nearby and kept an eye on it from time to time.

Taxis being loaded in Makeni Sierra Leone

Your bigger bag is likely going to be out of your reach for the duration of the trip, and it’s probably going to be stepped on, dumped in the dirt, or pooped on by chickens. It may even fall off the roof from time to time.  Therefore, it’s super important to have a smaller bag with your valuables, breakables, and shared taxi essentials in it, which you’ll keep with you at your seat.  This might include:

  • Valuables and electronics
  • Small snacks, ideally enough to share with fellow passengers
  • Drinking water
  • A shawl or sarong (to use as a dust mask, extra padding, bathroom break privacy shield, sun shade, etc – one of the most useful items on my travel packing list)
  • Sunscreen
  • That mango your new friend gave you, so it doesn’t get squished in your backpack and make a giant mess all over your clothes (don’t ask me how I know this one)

There may or may not be an extra “fee” for the luggage, depending on how much you have (I recommend packing light!), where you are, and who you’re talking to.  If there is going to be a “white person tax” this is usually it.  If the requested amount seems too high, you can do several things:

  • Ask other passengers what they paid and offer something similar
  • Ask the man selling the tickets if this is a real charge (a couple times he told the man loading the luggage to leave me alone)
  • Offer a smaller amount with confidence. Chances are high that he’ll take it without argument.  If not, you can either pay more or use your negotiation skills, which should be well-honed at this point if you are traveling in Africa.

Choose your seat.

You get to choose your seat based on the order you bought your ticket.  If you’re the first person to buy your ticket for that car, you get first choice.  If you’re last, you get squeezed in where no one else wants to be.  This is how it’s supposed to work, but in practice I found that many kind locals insisted on giving me my choice of seat no matter when I bought my ticket, or simply put me in the front seat.

The front seat is usually regarded as the most comfortable, but I find this depends on who you are sharing it with.  You see, that front seat that’s designed for one bum will have to fit two.  If you’re on the inside, you’ll need to move your leg whenever the driver shifts gears.  If you’re on the outside, you’ll probably end up with your head and one arm partly out the open window (hope you packed sunscreen in your small bag). 

In either case, you’ll want a shawl (or if you’re lucky, the driver will supply a small pillow) to put in the middle of the seat, so your sitting surface is a little less spine-twisting.

Enjoying bush taxi in Guinea
Enjoying the outside front seat in a Guinean bush taxi

The back seat, designed to fit three, will have four adults.  If the other three adults are, shall we say, on the large side, this will be interesting.  Often a small child or two will be wedged on a mother’s lap or standing in the space behind the front seats.  Occasionally someone may carry live chickens on their lap or at their feet.

If the car is a station wagon with two rows of back seats, the far back row is the worst because it has less head and leg room.  If you’re tall you may have to slouch, or fold your legs up on the seat, or both.  I have seen grown men sit this way for hours.

Sometimes seat choosing is explicit, and you leave something (I recommend a shawl or scarf) on the seat you want when you buy your ticket.  More often everyone waits until it’s time to leave, which makes a lot of sense because the best seat really depends on who’s next to you.

Wait.

You’ve bought your ticket, loaded your luggage, and maybe chosen a seat.  Now what?  You wait.

The car will leave when all the tickets have been sold.  This could be anywhere from immediately (if you were the final passenger, which somehow happens far less often than statistics would suggest) to several hours from now.

So, take a seat on the step next to the man selling the tickets, or by the woman selling biscuits, and indulge in the fine African art of waiting.  Watch the sights, shoot the breeze with people nearby, play with the kids, daydream, enjoy being able to move all your limbs for a little while longer before you get into that car.

If you’re in a bigger town or city and there’s a lot going on, pick a place where you can see your luggage if it’s already been loaded into / on the car.

Now is also a great time to go get breakfast and tea if you want to.  Tell the driver or ticket seller where you’re going (or ask them to suggest a place), so they can send someone to get you if the car is ready to leave before you’re back.

Wait more.

Taxi parks usually have lots of people selling useful things, for obvious reasons (captive audience of waiting customers).  Use this time to run your errands, so to speak: top up on phone credit, buy a sachet of laundry detergent, pick up some cookies for the drive.

Keep waiting.

I’ve read that some travelers like Kindle e-readers for this part, but personally I never felt comfortable showing off unusual electronics and burying my head in a book.  It’s amazing how many hours I’ve passed just sitting.

If you’re in a hurry and don’t mind paying extra, you (or a group of passengers) can buy the remaining seats to get the car to leave immediately.  This will also buy you more space.  I only did this once, when I needed to get to the airport.  Usually I was watching my budget, had the time to wait, and didn’t want to display my financial means so blatantly in front of other passengers who could barely afford a single seat.

Get in the car.

When guys start climbing on the roof and tying down the luggage, this is a good sign.  You may also see them fuel the car by siphoning gas from jerry cans or large mayonnaise jars, if there isn’t a functioning gas station nearby.

There’s a good chance the car needs to be push started, so don’t panic when a bunch of guys push the car out of the parking lot with your luggage in it.  They’ll be back for you once the engine is running.

This is the part where everyone makes their final seat choice and piles in.  It can help to have someone on the outside close the door, since the person in the outer seat will probably need to partially stand up to get their hips out of the way, and then squeeze back in once the door is shut.

If the car is leaving and, miraculously, there are only a normal number of people in it, rest assured that the driver is planning to pick up more on the way out of town.  Don’t get too comfortable.

Get as comfortable as possible.

You and your new friends now have some arranging of body parts to do.

It helps to alternate who leans forward and who leans back, since shoulders usually can’t all fit side by side.  Some people may also need to sit further forward on the seat if some of the passengers have larger hips.

In the front seat, it seems to work better for the person on the outside to put their shoulder in front, and lean their upper body partway out the open window.

It’s polite to take notice when the person next to you starts to squirm uncomfortably.  That’s your signal to shift a bit so they can shift too.  Maybe switch positions so they can sit back if they were leaning forward, or vice versa.  Variety is the spice of life when it comes to bush taxi comfort.

Take your shawl or sarong (you do have one don’t you?) and wedge it into any crevice you want to even out, or over anything hard that’s jabbing you.  If the route is dusty, you’ll get to choose which is more important: dust mask or padding.

The windows are probably already open, which is good because it’s f-ing hot out (you weren’t expecting air conditioning right?).  They probably don’t roll up easily because the handle is missing.  If it’s raining or super dusty, you may be able to get a screwdriver or old bolt from the driver and put it through the bolt hole on the window crank, coaxing the window upward.  To get it to stay up if it wants to fall down, you can wedge something (your shawl?) between the seal and the glass.  Usually though, the windows will stay open for the duration of the ride.  Just wrap your shawl around your face to keep the dust or smog out of your lungs, because it’s better than dying of heat exhaustion in a car with all the windows rolled up.

Pass the time.

You might think now is the perfect time to pull out your ipod, headphones, smartphone, Kindle, etc.  Maybe that works for you.  Personally, I spent over 70 hours in shared taxis and never once did this.  Why on earth not?  Who knows.  I’m pretty good at doing nothing when given a good excuse.  I can stare out the window and daydream for hours.  Often the road was too bumpy for reading anyway.

The other thing is, no one else is doing it.  Africans are some of the most patient people I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with, which is really refreshing coming from a place where anyone in a restaurant will pull out a smartphone to pass the time while their dining companion uses the restroom.  Plus, it always seems awkward to pull out a bunch of electronics when no one else in the car has access to such fanciness.  So, in my futile quest to blend in, I do as the locals do in shared taxis: mostly nothing.

Here are some ways to pass the time:

  • Chat with your fellow passengers!  This is absolutely the best way to spend your taxi time, and one of the main benefits of putting up with all the discomfort.  I got to know so many people and had so many interesting conversations.  One woman divulged, over several hours as my legs started to cramp, how she was about to get married to the father of her baby but didn’t love him.  An old man who didn’t speak English wordlessly compared his calloused palms to my smooth ones, hinting at the story of the very different lives that had led us both to the same taxi.
  • Ask for travel advice.  Most people in the car are either from the area you’re leaving or the area you’re going to.  Ask them for guesthouse recommendations, ideas for what to see in the town where you’re going, or whether they know how to get to the next place on your itinerary.  If you’re lucky you may even get an escort to your guesthouse, or a shared meal, when you arrive.
  • Sleep.  I thought I was bad at sleeping in cars until I traveled in West Africa.  I became constantly amazed at the contorted positions and bumpy roads that somehow lulled me to sleep along with all the other passengers.
  • Make faces at the baby in the mother’s lap next to you.  He’s probably looking at you like you’re an alien.  Maybe he’s even poking your strange white arm, or pulling your strange light hair.  This interaction is good for at least 30 minutes of entertainment on both sides.  In general, children on transportation in Africa are incredibly well behaved and don’t tend to cry or fuss much, which I found truly impressive given the difficult conditions.
  • Take pictures.  This one depends on where you are, and I wouldn’t recommend sticking a camera out the window in busy towns or cities.  But on country roads or going through small towns, if I had the good fortune to be in a window seat, I would point my camera out the window and capture some of my best shots.  It’s a great opportunity to not worry about getting your camera stolen, attracting attention, or offending people who might feel awkward having a camera pointed at them as you walk down the street.

Eat and drink, but not too much.

On most routes you’ll have plenty of opportunities to buy food.  This usually comes in the form of women and children, who will storm the car whenever it stops, dangling their wares in through the windows and aggressively yelling “banana banana banana!” and “cold water cold water!”  

This used to scare me, as they can be quite persistent, but eventually I realized it was incredibly convenient.  The prices are usually cheap and fixed (they can’t easily overcharge you for something when you just saw the person next to you buy it for less).  On offer are usually small snacks like baggies of nuts, packages of cookies, handmade doughy biscuits, bananas, and sometimes hot food like skewers of meat or corn on the cob. 

If you really don’t want anything, I think it’s polite to make eye contact, smile, and say no thanks and shake your head.  Otherwise they will just keep asking.

I’ll often start a trip with a little something to eat, just in case, and then buy other snacks along the way.  If you’re going to eat in a shared taxi, I highly recommend you share with your neighbors.  Buy a bunch of bananas and give some away.  Offer a cookie from your package to the person whose ribs you have been elbowing for five hours.  This is a very African gesture and will certainly earn you goodwill.

On long routes that take all day, the car will stop in a town and everyone will get out for a very quick meal and tea.  Usually this is rice and sauce, or you can often find a kiosk that serves sandwiches with egg or beans.

Guinea tea in sept place
“Tea bag” to go in a sept place in Guinea

What to do about water?  This is a tough one.  I like to bring some with me, because I never want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere on a really hot day with nothing.  Just consider what would happen if the car broke down.

In most cases though, you can buy water the same way you buy food.  Women and children will sell bags of water, often amazingly ice cold, every time the car stops.  You bite the corner off and suck it down.  If you want to save some for later, pour it into your water bottle.

Some say these bags are not as safe to drink as true bottled water.  I leave that decision up to you.  I drank a lot of them.  There is really nothing better in life than an ice cold water baggie to hold against your forehead and sip slowly when you’re covered in sweat and dust and trapped in a rolling oven on a 95 degree day.

Pray for bathroom breaks.

I always underhydrate a bit on long rides because I don’t totally trust the bathroom stop situation.  In general though, the car will stop often enough for folks to get out and take care of business.  This is known by various charming euphemisms like “short call” (different from “long call”) and “I need to ease myself,” depending on which country you are in.

For men, this is unfairly easy.  Especially in Africa.  African men, at least in the sub-Saharan countries I’ve visited, have free reign to pee literally anywhere.  I have walked right by hundreds of men peeing on the streets.

But what about the women?  Well, life is not fair for many women, especially in Africa, but there is a way and it’s not all that different from the men.  If you are a woman and you need to pee, you have two options:

  1. If there are bushes or trees and it’s not a busy area, scamper behind them and do your thing.
  2. If it’s a busy area, do as the locals do: walk a little ways away from the car, face away from the road, wrap your shawl around your shoulders so it covers your behind, pull down your pants as you squat down, and do your thing.  Yes, people can see you.  But if you’re doing it right, they can’t see ALL of you, and that’s all that matters.
Sept place stop in Senegal
Stopping for a bush break and leg stretch on a dusty road in Senegal

If you need the bushes for a “long call,” so to speak, then I wish you luck.  The same basic technique applies, with more emphasis on finding a spot that’s a bit hidden from the road.  I once spent ten hours on a minibus taxi ride while dealing with an intestinal parasite issue in Cote d’Ivoire.  Let’s just say there was a silver lining to the five stops we made to fix mechanical issues.

In general, you will find that African culture is more tolerant and less squeamish about necessary bodily functions than many western cultures.  I guess they often have bigger things to worry about.  So don’t stress, just do what you have to do.

Handle stops and breakdowns like a local.

The typical shared taxi will stop potentially dozens of times along its route, especially if not on a main route where everyone is going from big town A to big town B.

These can be broken down into expected stops and unexpected (but you should still be expecting them) stops.

Expected stops: dropping off passengers and picking up new ones.  This can sometimes involve taking all the luggage off the roof to reach the departing passenger’s sack of rice and cage of chickens, then tying it all back up again.  It also requires getting out, if you’re sitting in the front row by the door, or letting people climb over you.  I’ve also read that drivers will sometimes stop for Muslim prayers, but my drivers never did.

Unexpected stops: these can be, well, pretty much anything.  Here are a few of the reasons we’ve stopped on my personal shared taxi journeys:

  • Flat tire (duh, this should basically go in the expected category).  Driver will fix and continue, unless the jack is not working, in which case driver will wait for another vehicle to come along and lend a hand.
  • Overheated engine (this one too is expected).  Driver will pour water on it and continue.
  • Bumper falling off.  Driver will tie it back on with twine.
  • Out of gas.  Not really sure what driver will do in this case, as I caught a ride with another car, but I assume he fixed it somehow.
  • Broken axle, wheel has fallen off of car.  Luckily we were going slowly.
  • Luggage fell off roof and needs to be retrieved from road and reattached.
  • Luggage fell off roof again.  Reattach and station a guy on the roof to keep an eye on it this time.
  • Driver arrested at police checkpoint. Never really found out why.
Ivory Coast minibus flat tire
Trying to fix the jack, so they can fix the tire, so we can hit the road.

Sometimes you will never know the reason for the stop.  This is just a fact of life when traveling in Africa, and West Africa especially.  If you don’t speak French well and you’re in a francophone country, triply so.  Just get used to the fact that at least half the time, you’re not going to have any idea what is happening until it’s over (and even then maybe not).

During stops, I recommend doing whatever the other passengers are doing, and above all staying chill.  This is your chance to prove your credibility as a seasoned African traveler.  Exchange knowing and good-naturedly exasperated glances with your fellow passengers.  Pretend to be mildly amused.  Join them under the shade of a tree.  Stretch your legs.  Take a “short call” (or a long call).  Play with the curious kids who wander over to see what’s going on.  Eat that strange fruit someone gives you from their tree.

If things really start to look bleak, you always have the option of hitching a ride with a passing vehicle.  I almost did this a couple times, but in both cases the original car started moving again just in time.  If you do hitch, it might be another commercial car, a cargo truck, or private car.  In all cases you’ll want to agree on a price with the driver before you get in.

I’ve read stories of drivers that stop for the night to sleep, and everyone just beds down on the ground by the highway.  I never experienced this, maybe because I made a point to be off the roads at night.  The one time I broke this rule, we didn’t stop to sleep.  I guess I haven’t truly experienced all the glories of bush taxi travel yet.  Gotta save something for next time!

Handle police and immigration checkpoints like a savvy traveler.

In most West African countries police checkpoints are a frequent occurrence.  As far as I can tell, they are basically fundraising booths.  Every vehicle that comes through has something obvious wrong with it – it’s not registered, it has too many people in it, its mirrors are missing, etc – and needs to pay a bribe in order for the officer to look the other way.  Sometimes they don’t even bother with the formality of making up a reason, and the driver simply dangles cash out the window and drives through.

The Guinean checkpoints, on the way to the Sierra Leone border, were the worst.  Money was collected from every passenger at each stop, much to the outrage of my Sierra Leonean seat-mate.  “They are so corrupt in Guinea!” he exclaimed angrily.  “If Sierra Leone police want to take money from you, at least they do it in private.”

The good news for you is, as a foreign visitor, you are not usually the target of their fundraising.  I was often allowed to pass without offering the traditional small bribes, whether because people were so surprised and happy to see me or because I was the stupid tourist who couldn’t understand their French, I’ll never know.

At any kind of checkpoint I recommend:

  • Smile and greet the officers.
  • When asked, tell them where you’re from, how much you’re enjoying their lovely country, where you’re headed, etc. Usually they just want to chat.
  • Answer their questions and show your passport if asked.
  • Laugh or shrug off any requests for money, a trip to your home country, a request for marriage, etc.  Usually they are not too serious.
  • Always stay polite, even if the officers are not friendly.  This almost never happens though, so don’t be too worried when you see those uniforms and guns out the window.

Prepare for arrival.

Good news, you’ve survived the ride and it’s almost time to get out of this godforsaken prison of a vehicle charming communal transport experience.  If you can still move any of your limbs, now is a good time to get your stuff organized and back in your bag, and exchange contact information with any new friends. 

Think about how you plan to find lodging one you arrive.  Are you going to just walk down the main street and look for a guesthouse?  Will you hire a motorcycle taxi and ask them to take you somewhere?  If you plan to walk, it’s a good idea to know where the taxi is dropping you off.  I use a cached google map on my phone for this, and glance at it one last time as the car is arriving.  This way I know, without having to pull my phone out on the street, which way to start walking.

Transportation in Guinea
My sept-place arriving in the Fouta Djallon region of Guinea.

If you are getting off somewhere that’s not the final destination for the car, you may need help knowing when you’ve arrived.  Ask the driver or a fellow passenger to let you know, or look at where you are on your cached google map.

If you are the only person getting off there, you’ll need to make sure the driver knows to stop.  Tell the driver you want to stop, get off, “come down” (in Sierra Leone), or “je veux descendre” (in francophone countries).  If the driver isn’t understanding or hearing you, the other passengers will usually jump in and help.

Otherwise, you’ll stay in the car until it reaches it’s final stopping point, usually at the taxi parking of the destination town.  From there you’ll be on your own to find transportation to your final destination.

Get out of the car.

Congratulations, you made it!

Your first task is to get out of the car.  This is not always as easy as you think.  If you’re seated by the window, try the inside handle, but if it doesn’t work, here’s another chance to show what a seasoned bush taxi traveler you are: casually reach out through the open window and pull the outside handle.  If the door still doesn’t open – this has only happened to me once – calmly crawl out through the open window.

Keep a tight hold on your small bag of valuables until you get a feel for the new place.  Make sure to grab your bigger luggage as soon as it’s handed down from the roof or unpacked from the trunk.  Assuming you have a backpack, which you really should, strap everything onto your body and then plan your next move.

Depending on where you are, you may be mobbed by motorcycle taxi drivers wanting to take you to a guesthouse.  If you want to hire one, great, just pick one and start negotiating.  If you don’t, calmly tell them all no thank you, you are going to walk, or you are meeting someone.  They’ll usually leave you alone pretty quickly.

Next step: find your guesthouse.  Good luck with that.

Stay safe in general.

Road Safety

There’s no beating around the bush (heh)…  Bush taxis are one of the more dangerous things you will experience in Africa.  Car accidents are frighteningly common, especially on the newly paved roads where people drive way too fast.  The rusted and burned out wrecks you see along these highways are a sobering reminder of the risk you’re taking.  The standard advice for mitigating this risk is: BE OFF THE ROADS BY DARK.  Accidents do happen during the day, but they’re way more common at night.  Make this a non-negotiable rule, because even then you are still probably going to break it a few times.

Sometimes the distances between stops are just so long, and the roads so bad, that it’s just impossible to reach your destination in one day.  By the time this becomes obvious you are already comfortable with your fellow passengers, you’ve already paid money for the full distance, and that dingy stopover town doesn’t look like such a safe place in the waning light of dusk.  It’s oh-so-tempting to just stay in the car.

I faced this decision twice in West Africa, under two very different sets of circumstances.  The first was on incredibly bad (read: slow) and empty roads with minimal collision risk in the middle of nowhere, southeastern Liberia.  One of the passengers happened to be uniformed state security officer who promised to walk me to a guesthouse when we arrived in the early morning hours.  On top of all that, the driver got oddly protective when I asked to get off at the last town before dark, declaring “I’m not leaving you behind!” and threatening to make all the other passengers spend the night there too.  So I got back in the car, and it worked out fine.

The other time was during a disaster of a full day ride in rural Cote d’Ivoire.  The wheel had already fallen off the car and we’d had several flat tires.  We were approaching a busy highway with smooth paved roads and fast traffic.  Our driver was sticking fastidiously to the left side of the road, which would have been great in Ghana where he probably learned to drive.  But in Cote d’Ivoire traffic moves on the right.  Approaching cars would blink their lights, we’d swerve to let them pass in their own lane, then drift back to the wrong side of the road.  Yeah, no redeeming qualities in this case.  I got out at the first town on the main highway and lived to travel another day.

Personal Safety

In terms of personal security, I always felt quite safe in shared taxis. No one is going to steal from you in such a close environment where everyone else would know, and most people outside the taxi don’t expect a foreign visitor to be in there anyway.  Having a low profile like this is always reassuring.

The one case where you should be a little careful is when driving through busy towns.  In larger towns and cities it’s quite common for thieves to reach in through an open window and grab a small purse, or a mobile phone out of someone’s hand.  This happens to the locals too, and they would warn me if I forgot and had my phone too close to the open window in a busy area.

I’ve read a lot of warnings about theft in taxi and bus parks, and I suppose this is a risk as in most busy places.  Personally I never had a problem, but it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your stuff and keep your backpack(s) strapped securely to your body as you’re walking around.  You do make a bit of a vulnerable target when you unfold your numb limbs and clamber out of the car in a new and unfamiliar place.

It’s also worth noting that the “don’t travel at night” rule applies to personal safety too.  Especially in big cities, you really don’t want to be arriving late and wandering around in search of a guesthouse.  Even if you take a private taxi directly from the taxi parking to your hotel, you can still run into trouble, as I did in Freetown when I was robbed at night walking all of 20 feet from a taxi to a hotel door.

Enjoy the ride.

Despite all their craziness and discomfort, by the end of my West Africa trip I actually felt a visceral sense of calm when settling into a new shared taxi.  It was a much needed break from constantly scanning my surroundings, making decisions, and analyzing new people.  Once I got to know my fellow passengers, that was it, and as long as the car was still moving there was very little I needed to think about or do.

Once you get into the mode of enjoying the craziness and reacting with amusement instead of frustration, shared taxis really aren’t that bad.  The sense of camaraderie and connection can be comforting, and is fun to find so far from home.  Heck, even the excessive physical contact stopped bothering me eventually.  Maybe I had just been away from home too long and needed some hugs from my mother, and a stranger’s elbow in the ribs was the next best thing.

Guinea Truck Bonne Chance
“Good luck and don’t forget your mother” in French. Pretty much sums up the transportation situation in Africa.

Other West Africa Travel Resources

Adventuring in West Africa? Check out these other resources to help plan and navigate your trip:

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