Photo: Grobler du Preez/Shutterstock

How to Catch a Van-Taxi in Rural South Africa

South Africa Student Work Insider Guides
by Elizabeth Atterberry Oct 1, 2013
Elizabeth is a student in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.

IN REMOTE South African farming villages like Sikhwahlane, amenities are few beyond the corner tuck shop stocked mainly with racks of fluffy white bread, neatly stacked cartons of UHT milk, and expired tins of corned beef. Sooner or later, you’ll have to catch a taxi to town to replenish supplies.

Your first minivan-taxi ride can be daunting — here’s a handy survival guide.

1. Center yourself.

Pause to admire the view as you stroll down the dirt road leading to the taxi stand. Let the fields of gently waving sugarcane soothe you, and ground yourself as firmly as the mountains in the distance. Breathe deep.

2. Practice contemplation.

Find a shady spot under the concrete taxi shelter. When you spy a vehicle in the distance, raise your index finger (you want the distance taxi). The first taxi to happen by will flash his lights at you — he’s full. The next driver will raise his hand and spin his down-turned index finger — he’s local.

Another will stop for you, but there won’t be any empty seats. You really don’t want to crouch in the taxi’s doorway for an hour, so decline and wander back to the shelter. Sit in contemplative silence for another 40 minutes, give or take. Your taxi will come.

3. Be neighborly.

Shout a hearty “Sanbonani!” when you climb aboard. After the initial shock wears off (Look! The umlungu / white person / foreigner is greeting in SiSwati!), you’ll be rewarded with a chorus of “Yebo!” and many happy smiles. You’re friends now, so go ahead, squish yourself into that tiny seat next to the large, smiling gogo, or granny.

Don’t get too comfortable, though. Your taxi’s about to stop for a woman with a baby swaddled on her back. She’ll accept the tiny doorway space you rejected earlier. She won’t be able to hold her baby, though, so she’ll un-swaddle him and thrust him in your lap. Your newest friend will stare up at you with wide-eyed wonder — and get progressively heavier — the whole trip.

4. Remain unfazed.

Grab the seat in front of you with your free hand because, as if in apology for your wait, the driver is going to “make up time in the air” like your last airline pilot did. There’ll be some mild turbulence, too. Whump! You take your first pothole at 130kph. Then another. Then countless more. The tar road is, in fact, just a few patches of pavement in a landscape of sink…er, potholes. You stop wondering why the taxi’s transmission sounds like it’s about to fall out.

Herds of cows appear in the road. Your skilled driver will somehow avoid them without diminishing his exceptional speed. Getting around the cows was a neat trick, but nothing compared to when the driver starts collecting fares and making change while driving…as soon as he reaches that twisty mountain pass.

5. Embrace the bass.

Your taxi will be outfitted with a state-of-the-art multi-speaker sound system. This system will stream hip-hop music at maximum volume and full bass to a speaker directly over your head. Embrace this distraction from your very real distress — after all, your driver is making change at 130kph!

Yes, (boom) your ears hurt. The throbbing bass will relentlessly vibrate your insides (boomboomboom), too. Accept it. It’s a small price to pay to avoid staring at grim death beckoning you through the windshield.

6. Show gratitude.

When you arrive, roll open the door and breathe a sigh of relief. Unclench your knuckles, still your quavering insides, and offer your driver a heartfelt “Ngiyabonga kakhulu” (thanks much!). After you run your errands, enjoy a cold beer. Some liquid courage will steel you for the trip back. Get access to paid freelance travel writing opportunities and an active community of travel journalists by enrolling in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.

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