Why you should care
Because its cheaper, more environmentally friendly and you wake up to an unbelievable sight.
Every day masses of humanity hurtle across great distances in planes and trains, but I cherish the opportunity to slow down, to delight my imagination with new sights and sounds. I have traveled between Johannesburg and Cape Town using every method of transportation, but the chance to watch life is why I almost always take the bus.
Why spend nearly 19 hours in a bus when you can fly in just over two? It’s a fair question. A one-way Kulula flight will run about $86 to $130, while the Greyhound costs $50 to $69 — a negligible difference for foreigners. But what you make up in time you lose in experience. Down below the clouds and blue sky lies about 870 miles of cultural and geological history that’s worth seeing, even in a smear.
Picking up in Johannesburg, the bus journey starts at about 5,751 feet above sea level in what’s called the Highveld. Industry, agriculture, rolling hills and a smattering of rocky ridges define the N1 highway span between the thudding metropolis and the edge of the Free State province. Signs along the way hint at the Rainbow Nation’s human diversity: Kroonstad, which means Crown City in Afrikaans, versus Maokeng (an area within the city), a Sesotho word that translates to “place of the thorn trees.”
This vast land pocked with tiny towns and evocative architecture once terrified travelers.
If you take the evening bus, you’ll likely sleep until sunrise over Beaufort West in the Great Karoo semidesert. This vast land pocked with tiny towns and evocative architecture once terrified travelers. In her classic The Plains of Camdeboo, Eve Palmer writes, “At first encounter the Karoo may seem arid, desolate and unforgiving, but to those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety.” Eventually this enigmatic landscape gives way to the mighty Cape Fold Mountains and verdant wine lands, worth a return visit for a tasting or two.
Inside the bus, you’ll get to know the locals. On one trip, I watched with great anxiety as a mother kept falling asleep with a feeding baby clasped to her breast. When she woke up, we shared snacks. Business class is downstairs. Each of the 12 reclining seats comes equipped with a USB outlet and electricity — worth the extra money. I always plan to work but never do: There’s just too much to see outside. And I’m not the only groupie.
Jana Cockrell makes this trip regularly from Cape Town. She says the downstairs bus area is luxuriously comfortable, and she appreciates the free hot beverages and friendly service. Her only complaint? They don’t travel to Namibia.
Sure, your legs get a bit cramped, but three 15- to 20-minute stops along the way — in Kroonstad, Colesberg and Laingsburg — provide relief. You can hop out, stretch, buy some snacks or smoke if that’s your thing. For backpackers on a budget, the overnight bus doubles as transportation and sleeping quarters. And if you care about the environment, the Union of Concerned Scientists says motor coach is the greenest way to go. You’ll barely skim the surface of all that South Africa has to offer, but this trip may inspire a deeper future exploration. It did for me.
Go There: Taking The Bus to Cape Town
- Directions: From Johannesburg, pick up at the Johannesburg Park Station in the Central Business District on Rissik Street. Three Dreamliners travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town every day; I always take the one route via Bloemfontein (instead of Kimberley, which is slightly faster).
- Pro tip: Pack plenty of healthful snacks and beverages and limit your onboard luggage to maximize leg space.