You could call me pessimistic. Or backward. Or unappreciative. Or all the three. But finding an air conditioned bus on an African road was the last thing I ever imagined.
It was one of those days when you get on a journey and all you wish for is to fall into some deep, long slumber, and only wake up to the sight of your destination’s signpost. Or any feature that signals the end of your horror treat. This trip came at a time when I would have killed to skip any journey of sorts, road or air. The previous week had been a rather long one.
This, of course, wasn’t in my beloved Uganda. We are still millions of years away from attaining such a feat (OK. That’s a bit exaggerated, but you get the picture). We need better roads more. We need those potholes gotten rid of, before we can start dreaming of comfortable road trips, self-driven or public.
Whoever is going to invest in such an expensive venture, both in initial purchase and maintenance, would have to be sure of roads before staking their hard earned capital.
A client call the previous week had requested for my technical input at a product pitch meeting in some far-flung township, somewhere in the heart of Lilongwe, the country’s capital. I happened to be staying in Blantyre. So you can imagine my immediate reaction, given my psychological state at the time. This wasn't welcome news, certainly.
I asked around for the best transport means I could use, and someone recommended Axa Coaches. I contemplated hiring a private car. My initial perception about public road transport was the usual stale, fuel-infused reek that leaves your head in a spin, before you even get to your seat.
Oh, and probably that half empty mineral water bottle just underneath the seat in front of you. Or a tanned banana peel forsaken below the seat ahead. Probably left as evidence that the bus had a stop-over at Namawojjolo or Lukaya on its previous trip. I dread bus trips.
Now, I have seen, and heard of buses that offer serviettes to passengers that have snacks on the way. Elgon Flyer, plying the eastern region to Mbale used to do this. It was the same for Gaagaa, plying the northern route, then. I hope they still do. I certainly hadn’t seen one that offers a free snack and drink. It was on my first bus trip in this new region on a not so short trip to the capital, all of 300+ Kilometers away.
The interior cuts an executive look, with properly lockable luggage cabins, while the seats have sufficient leg room. The tickets bear the passenger’s seat number, names and next of kin contact, just in case of any eventuality. You are asked all these details at the time of booking, which is a good move, in my view.
All seat-belts are still intact, clean and functional. A travel hostess makes rounds, ensuring everyone on board has their seat-belts fastened just before departure. She says the journey’s prayer, and does so many other things thereafter. Like serving the journey’s snack, and subsequent announcements during the trip. The bus has two doors. One for boarding, where tickets are verified at the same time, and the alighting door that is usually closed during boarding.
There is a loo as well. Situated somewhere on the left side, and just next to the alighting door. I checked it out. It’s quite fairly passable, though it did not have tissue. That made it more of a short call sojourn than a full scale place of convenience. Which is still a plus, all the same. I have not seen it in a Ugandan bus. This is stuff many a traveller would only expect to find on a flight. Not your ordinary dust-coated monstrous automobile.
The upper section is fitted with fully operational AC, so one doesn’t have to open the windows to enjoy a cool breeze. This ensures the leather seats retain their executive feel. And tidiness. And everything else good about them. The window curtains are neat and fully retractable, while the aisle bears a polished red carpet, creating a semblance of comfort, contentment and any other adjectives you could fix in between to describe a good feeling.
Inside the Axa: Spacious. Comfortable. Cool. That enclosure to the left (Looking like a fridge) is the loo.
Another good point was the punctuality. With so many possible unexpected obstacles on the road, it’s not easy to have accurate estimates for departure and arrival times. Their scheduled time read 07:00 Hrs. By 07:10 Hrs we had hit the road, and arrived in Lilongwe in just over 4Hrs 15 Min. Just as the estimate suggested.
The fare might have been on the higher side for the ordinary folk (the equivalent of UGX 60,000 or approximately $25), but it’s certainly worth it. I would recommend it for anyone that happens to be in this part of the world and they intend to do a long trip to/from the capital. Or any entrepreneur that wishes to borrow a leaf from Axa. It’s a good idea. It would certainly give customers value for money. The closest experience to a self-drive one will get. If your ride is comfortable already, that is. If it's not, park it home, and use Axa. You will like it.
- Dan B. Atuhaire