How we went from Johannesburg to Mozambique by bus + Visa on Arrival

By Marae

How to go from Johannesburg to Mozambique by bus + Visa on arrival

This is a typical bus in Mozambique, the capacity is irrelevant, they will fill it to its brim with people, luggage, packages, TVs, appliances, giant bags of food, livestock, car parts and anything else you can imagine.

One of the reasons Mozambique seems so challenging, I think, is the public (land) transportation situation in the country. For this reason, we decided to explore the south coast by bus: and no, this does not mean the comfortable Greyhound coaches you may imagine, although it does not always involve the scary story of one sitting next to goats and being crawled on by bugs like some other travelers recalled.

Maybe we got lucky, or maybe it’s all a matter of perspective, but for all the horror stories I had read and heard, our travels in Moz were relatively smooth.

We took an Intercape bus from Johannesburg direction Maputo the night of the 30th of January. It cost us $28 USD and left at 10pm to arrive in Maputo at 9:30am. We were dropped off at the bus terminal (by our dad’s friend) in Johannesburg about an hour prior to our departure, and as soon as we got to the terminal it became obvious that people going to Mozambique were not playing around in terms of their luggage. The terminal was filled with people carrying what seemed like their entire lives with them. Many people from neighboring countries go to South Africa to shop, work or even live, and when they return home, they bring along as many goods as they can so they can help their relatives or for selling.

This is the inside of a Chapa…this particular one had capacity for 12 but we counted 31 at one point….

We made our line early on, as we knew we had to be one of the first on the bus in order to ensure we were one of the first ones off at the border. We knew you could get a visa upon arrival, but since most people traveling by bus from Johannesburg to Maputo are Mozambican or South African, they do not need a visa. This means the bus only allows for a short 30 minutes border processing time. We had hope this would suffice, we had been advised on what to bring, where to get off, where to sit on the bus and all the other details, but it was still pretty much up to the border officials wether this would work out smoothly or not. It was our goal to not have it fall on us.

Upon boarding, the drivers checked our passports and immediately pointed out that we did not have Mozambican Visas. We explained that we were hoping to get them on arrival, and with skepticism he said “yes, but we cannot wait for you.” After asking how long the procedure takes and a few more details, we decided that if need be, the bus could leave without us and we could take a “chapa” (local mini van type bus) to Maputo.

View from the bus in Mozambique

From the border to Maputo it’s only about 50 kms, so this was not a huge distance to cover in ulterior transportation should the situation need it.

The bus ride was smooth, making very few stops and with reclining seats and dimmed lights, we slept almost the whole way through. We had communicated with our airbnb host and she had agreed to let us check in early, so we knew that we could always nap upon arrival should the situation call for it. With a bag filled with snacks, inflatable neck pillows, and a clear plan we embarked on our trip and slept through the night.

The bus arrived at the border about an hour before it opened. This border opens at 6am and arriving a bit early gave us the chance to be one of the first in line to cross. Our idea was that being in the front, we could process our visas before the rest of the bus finished crossing and getting their passport stamps, making it right on time to get back on the bus to Maputo.

We crossed the south African side without an issue, and entered the Mozambican one immediately after. Upon arrival and asking where to process the visa, we encountered an empty post. We were assured by the guard on the next table that the official would be with us shortly. I guess he was having breakfast.

That’s how we traveled in one of the better buses we took.

To our surprise, these guards are all extremely friendly, but to our disappointment the finger printing machine seemed to not be working properly that day. We stood there as we watched him unhook and reconnect the damn thing over 20 times, troubleshooting tirelessly between different machines and re starting the program over and over again.

He must have taken about 15 pictures of me that hopefully went to waste as he then realized the whole process had to be started again because the finger print machine was once again not cooperating.

This is us in our first Chapa from the border to Maputo….you can’t see all of us because there wasn’t enough room for my arms to extend.

It took so long, our South African friend Marcel  pulled out his hot water, coffee packets and cookies and we all had breakfast right there, standing at the immigration post with the guards (who had previously broken their fast and did not partake other than with jokes and “bon appetite” wishes).

We had become friends by this point. Between broken English, Spanish pretending to be Portuguese, and a few Afrikaans words here and there, this was easily the most pleasant border or immigration encounter of my life. The guards were equally as frustrated with the machine as we were about taking so long, and after a futile attempt on their part to make the bus wait for us, the driver took off and we made our peace with having to take a chapa to Maputo.

After the bus left, we seemed to relax. Mostly because we now knew the “worst” had happened, and it was not so bad. A few more minutes, another false attempt to a picture, and finally  we were paying our fee and getting our visas. We only had rands with us, and we had been advised to have exact change as the guards “do not give you change”. The conversion rate at the time was ZAR 680 to 50 USD so we had 700ZAR per person ready. Upon completing the pictures and finger prints, the guard demanded in flawless english “750 ZAR”. We knew it was  more than we had to pay, but we figured he could’ve asked for so much more, so we willingly payed and within a minute or two we were on our way.

A few guards checked our passports on the way out, and some locals pointed us in the right direction to get a chapa. 

This is us super squeezed inside a chapa

CHAPA: a minivan, normally suited to fit about 12 passengers, which in Mozambique sometimes holds as many as 31 people ( that we have counted).Pictured above.

The chapa guy explained that it would cost 150 Metical per person plus 50 for our bags. So a total of 200 Metical per person to travel the 50 kms from the border to Maputo, not so bad! That’s the equivalent to $3USD!!!

We hurriedly got in the last two rows of the chapa, thinking we would be out of the way and more comfortable. The driver immediately started telling us that we had to put the bags in the back and sit in the last row, as each row fits 4 people. 😮 Maybe we are fat, but 4 people in that back row seemed so impossible. To make matters worse, the “trunk” where the backpacks were supposed to go, was being held shut with a shoelace, and because the seats were not attached to the ground (we found this out later) the room between our row and the door was half a foot wide. No way our oversize backpackers bags with all our equipment were going to go there. 

So we became one with our bags, and with each other, and all squeezed in the back. Marcel said it shouldn’t take more than 30-40 minutes. He was wrong.

The entire trip took about 1:30 min, but by then we had lost all feelings in our feet, legs and butts…so it didn’t matter as much.

Needless to say the seats are not original, but rather thing wood planks covered in some thinner foam and some type or linoleum…. then the van is packed to the brim, at least 4 people per row- regarding of size or amount you pay. 

Some guys we hitchhiked with at some point in our trip, when we got tired of taking the “bus”

All in all, we arrived in Maputo in one piece, and were dropped off at the Junta (Maputo’s main bus station) where we took a taxi to our Airbnb. 

Our first on land public transport experience in Mozambique was unique to say the least, but at least now we knew what to expect. 

What’s the worst public transport experience you’ve ever had?