When traveling West Africa, you won’t find an extensive infrastructure of public transport. You won’t find a bus that leaves at a pre-determined time, which connects to a train whose ticket you purchased online, which pulls into the underground driveway of a Central Station, where you follow the signs, put your coins in the machine, and catch the subway to your final destination. Unfortunately, none of this exists. Instead, if you choose not to fly (an almost prohibitively expensive option), lack your own vehicle, and don’t have the patience to hitch-hike, travel down here is done in one singular way: the ever-exhausting, and ever-exhausted, West African bush taxi.
What is a West African Bush Taxi?
The West African bush taxi is effectively a car, and the primary means of transport for locals and travelers like. It’s called a “bush” taxi because it’s often barreling through the bush, bumping along dirt roads and tearing through village-land. Typically, this car is a Peugot 504 station wagon, like the one pictured above. However, it can assume many vehicular forms. When you want to move from place to place, village to village, or country to country in West Africa, this is how you do it.
Where will a bush taxi take me?
A bush taxi will take you almost anywhere you want to go. All major routes, such as between capital cities in adjacent countries, are bound to be serviced by bush taxis. Large, adjacent cities within a country are sure to be serviced as well. Unless your destination is truly in the middle of nowhere, you will probably find a bush taxi to take you there.
However, this is not to say that all taxis are direct. With a longer journey, you may need to break it up into multiple bush taxi rides. In addition, if you, like myself, strive your hardest to not travel at night in West Africa, you’ll often need to pause each day’s travel at whatever city you reach before sundown, and hop right back in a different car the following morning.
In general, the rule for reaching your destination is as follows: if there are people living there, there’s probably a bush taxi that will take you pretty darn close. You just have to connect the dots yourself.
How many people fit in a bush taxi?
The car fits 7, tightly. In Senegal–a more developed country–the bush taxis will only take 7 passengers. In Guinea, it’s 9. The poorer the country, the more people they will jam and squeeze and essentially purée into the musty confines of the rusty car. And that’s just inside. There will be people sitting on the roof, hanging off of the roof, tied down length-wise with a rope across the trunk, or maybe even dragged behind by a string and a skateboard. Almost anything goes in a West African bush taxi; your horizons for what you think is possible and permissible on the road will broaden very widely down here.
As a foreigner, however, you won’t be hanging off of the roof. You won’t be tied to the back of the trunk. You have logic, and you understand this to be a miserable idea. You will buy your ticket, and you will sit inside the car, in a seat for which you paid. There is no reason to ever do otherwise. Be safe out there, soldier.
Is a bush taxi comfortable?
No–not in the slightest. You will end each journey will some sort of ache or pain. But this is reality for the local and traveler alike. Take it in stride, and understand that when you get back to your home country, you’ll likely be once more able to travel in your own seat, in an air-conditioned vehicle, without any babies puking on you, with both of your bum-cheeks securely on the cushion. When you really think about it, and in the correct context, the burning physical discomfort in a West African bush taxi is very trivial.
Is it safe?
Far and way, the most terrifying (and probably only terrifying) thing about West Africa is traveling in a bush taxi. These things are worn. Often, they are just hollow metal shells, with benches secured inside and holes in the floor. You may have to hand-crank your window closed with a stray screw–you may have to put a piece of cloth between your knee and the inside of the door so you don’t burn yourself. In a Western country, I doubt a single bush taxi would pass a safety inspection.
Regardless, this is local reality, and if you want the real experience of traveling in West Africa, you do as the locals do. While the cars aren’t perfect, the drivers do know the roads, and they do know their vehicles. Basically, just make sure the guy isn’t talking on the phone nor driving too fast, cross your fingers, and you’re bound to arrive safely at your destination. I wasn’t involved in, nor did I personally see, any car accidents during my time in West Africa.
So, how do I actually find one of these things?
To find your bush taxi, you go to la gare, which is French for “the station.” Generally, la gare is just a large, dirt parking lot, and it is from here that your bush taxis will leave. A given city may have several “gares,” if it services many destinations; it is important to make sure that you go to the correct one, as certain cars only leave from certain gares. A given gare may have anywhere from 10 to 100 cars awaiting passengers and preparing to leave.
How do I get a ticket?
To get your ticket, ask for the driver or syndicate, and everyone and their mother will point you in his direction. Ask him for a ticket, pay, and you shall receive. The prices are fixed: no one will try to rip you off.
What about my luggage?
When you buy your ticket, you hand over your luggage. It will either be put in the trunk, or strapped down to the roof. Mostly likely, it will be the roof. Once all of the luggage is on the roof and securely in place, the car may speed off in search of gas, or a teapot, or a bundle of straw, or a bucket of carrots, or something of the sort. Do not worry: your things are safe, and the drivers will be right back.
When will my car leave?
Excellent, excellent question. And one I could never answer definitively.
Each bush taxi has a set number of seats, and the driver won’t budge until he’s filled them all. You may show up at 7:00am, pay your ticket, and be the 3rd of 9 passengers in a car. 10:00am may roll around, and you maybe still have only 3 passengers. In this case, you are left with two options: buy up the rest of the tickets yourself (or collaborate with the other passengers to share these costs), or wait it out. If you choose the second option, you may be waiting for a long time. This may seem illogical to you–you may become frustrated. But this is Africa, and this is how it works. Bring a Kindle to pass the time (see Will’s Tips for Backpacking West Africa as well).
When will my car arrive?
Another great question, and another one I can’t quite answer. Even if you ask a local, regarding a journey with a less-than-perfect road, they will unfailingly tell you “it depends” every single time.
So you hop on board, and you get going. You cross your fingers, and hope you break down 10 times instead of 20. You bring with you no schedule–no time constraints. Your car will arrive when it arrives.
Sound fun, these bush taxis? Maybe not. But they are how we travel in West Africa, and moreover, they are an experience. And this–experience–is one of the big reasons we travel in the first place.
More questions about these beauties? Leave it in the comments!