Beyond the Rack - Team Tane Decodes the African Roads
Words and photos by Shane and Tarryn Quinnell
Travelling the roads in Africa is like figuring out a new language. There’s a steep learning curve but with some attention, practice and real-world immersion, you’ll be able to get around within no time.
For most Africans, owning cars is a pipe dream. The financial barrier for the average citizen in a third world country is simply too high. Like most places where this is true, organic solutions to the transportation conundrum have manifested into a chaotic, yet somehow functioning, system.
Bigger vehicles are rare because of affordability. In the rural areas, bicycles and motorbikes, called Piki Pikis, Bora Boras, motos and any number of other names depending where you are, outnumber cars like ants to antelope. People use them for absolutely everything; from transporting their entire family, to moving half their village banana plantation or charcoal supplies to the main road to sell.
I witnessed the difficulty of this lifestyle when a local girl dropped her bike while trying to let us pass on the narrow-rutted road. Seeing she was struggling to lift the bike, I stopped and jumped out of our little Suzuki Badger, to help her lift it. It took every ounce of my strength to lift the bike and what turned out to be three GIANT bags of charcoal. The whole collection likely weighed about 60 kilograms (130 lbs)! Her bike was far from the heaviest we saw.
The three wheel motos, which you don’t see often but when you do are EVERYWHERE and can include horse carts, cars, minibuses and small trucks. Most of these vehicles except the small trucks are used for transporting people and they follow one rule: fit as many people as possible before you go anywhere. Motos are also a very common local taxi and tourist vehicle. Other than in Rwanda, where a hard maximum of two helmet wearing people is permitted per moto, as many people as possible with no helmet are usually jammed on board.
The last group is the one to be the most wary of. They work on the “dog eat dog,” principle- that big trumps small, ALWAYS! They drive where they want, when they want, in spite of road conditions, speed signs or other commuters. If you want to survive the African Transportation system you better learn to move out their way. QUICKLY! They are the big fish in the African pond. They are the trucks and buses.
Vehicles aside, there are many other things that characterize the unique nature of time on the African roads. The roads themselves vary from sections of surprisingly decent tar to tracks which animals like cattle would struggle on. There are no street signs and speed limits can change according to a local policeman’s whim on any given day.
The roads and tracks which Africa uses for transportation are not just for vehicles. The alternative to a well beaten path are thorns as thick as fingers that await shoeless feet and hooves, so the roads are used by every manner of creature imaginable to move. People are often walking everywhere, weaving between traffic. Tiny children walk to school while kicking their balls along. Domestic animals like pigs, chickens, goats, cows with horns like lances roam the roads while dogs and cats play chicken with moving vehicles at every turn. And if that wasn’t enough chaos to deal with already, wait until you nearly plough into a herd of elephant, a hippo or a pack of wild dogs.
The roads of Africa are a busy place. They are capable of frazzling the toughest inexperienced African explorer into being more nervous than a teenager on a first date and making them drive slower than their Grandmothers.
Somehow, it works. Like most systems, African Transportation works by a set of rules. But, like most things truly African, these rules have likely never been clearly defined, are unwritten, yet understood by all involved. So, long as you learn the cardinal rules of “big beats small”, “assume no other vehicle on the road has working brakes” and “make sure you look and act like you know who’s boss”, you’ll get through it just fine. Enjoy the ride… its likely to the be the most exciting and chaotic one of your life!