A Day on the Big Red Bus

cpt02Cape Town, South Africa – August 2015

It is so often said that one of the main advantages of travel is that it takes us out of our comfort zones. For the seasoned traveler, however, it is easy to get stuck in our own travel comfort zones. Many prefer organized group tours. Every activity is rigidly planned. No need to stress about getting from here to there. Others, like myself, choose independence and spontaneity, often at the expense of convenience. There are many in-betweens, but we rarely immerse ourselves in other tourist realms.

As the red double-decker bus approaches the stop, I take a deep breath. It’s the first bus of the day. It’s low season in Cape Town. Maybe it won’t be full. Please don’t be full. The bus comes to a halt. A long, luxurious exhale. It’s almost empty. Three women and I are the only passengers at this stop. I buy a ticket and take a seat inside. It’s too chilly to sit on the upper deck.

Anyone who has traveled around Europe and elsewhere can recognize the distinctive Hop On/Hop Off buses. They ferry people from one major tourist attraction to the next. Faces turned in unison, following the instructions of the tiny voice in their red earphones. I used to snicker as I watched them pass. I’d never be caught dead, I’d tell myself, upper lip curled into a sneer.

Well, here I am. The travel snobbery of my youth has dissipated. I enjoy the challenge of navigating public transport. The authenticity of moving around with locals. However, Cape Town is just too spread out, and then there are the safety issues of using the public transport.


This was taken late afternoon the following day during a return visit to Kirstenbosch.

I am on the Blue route. First stop: Kirstenbosch Gardens. A dull green blankets the slopes below the cliffs and canyons of Table Mountain. Too early yet for the famous wildflowers. The sun blazes down. The kind of sunshine that erases contrast and personality. After a brisk stroll through the paths, I head back to the bus stop. There are no other stops along this route that I wish to visit, so I settle into the seat. The bus barrels down the winding coast road, passing the beach enclaves of Camp’s Bay and Green Point. How tranquil it all seems. I’m told it’s a different place when the sun goes down.


At the V&A Waterfront, I slam a double espresso and wolf down two chocolate muffins before changing to the Red route. Lunch of champions. An elderly couple sits on the bench by the bus. The man is sporting black socks, white sneakers, and Bermuda shorts. His blue Hawaiian shirt strains against his belly. Windblown gray hair, unruly beard. He grips an old-fashioned cane.

“How long do we have to wait? What’s included? Is it a real tour?” A nasally pinch to his voice. Not pronounced enough to be Michigan. Indiana or Ohio, maybe. He taps his cane forcefully on the pavement.

“We’ll just have to see,” his wife mumbles in the absent way of someone used to questions for which the answers will never be satisfactory.

The bus door opens. I flash my ticket. The driver hands me some earphones. “You should sit on the upper deck.” He smiles. I return the smile and take his advice.

Wheezing and mumbling. The old man heaves himself up the stairs. His eyes harden when he catches sight of me. His wife sits two seats in front of me. He sits on the opposite side of the aisle from her.  “Aren’t we supposed to get earphones? I can’t believe they didn’t give us any!” He bangs his cane on the floor.

His wife shrugs. “Guess not.”

I look down at the little red earphones in my grasp. Still in the plastic. My own perceptions are preferable to those of a tinny, disembodied drone. I bite my cheek, and then tap the lady on her shoulder. “Here, I won’t use them.”

“Oh! Thank you!” She takes them out of the package and inserts them into her ears.

The old man twists around. Bushy eyebrows furrowed over a glare of petulant fury. Ruddy jowls aquiver.

The slightest lift of eyebrows is my reply. Easy now, Captain Ahab, ’tis not I the source of thy deprivation.

He twists back around. Tap, tap, tap.

His wife takes the earphones out and passes them to him. He grabs them and shoves them in his ears without a word.

I shake my head and turn away. They are instantly forgotten as I take in the view. The bus is worth taking, if only for this perspective of a city. You can look down at the little people going about their day. I recognize the amusement in their eyes as they watch us pass. Yes, I’m a dork! Hello! The buildings rise beside rather than above.


The massive monolith of Table Mountain looms closer. It reminds me of the mesas along Highway 666 in New Mexico. They seemed like forbidding fossils. Table Mountain glows. I stifle the pang of disappointment at not having enough time to hike it.


The bus empties at the Cableway stop. In just a few minutes, I find myself at the top. Most of the tourists don’t venture far from the Cableway area, so I soon find a tranquil trail to walk. A cool breeze blows, carrying distant voices, but it is not long before they vanish into the silence. I sit on a rock and stare down the peninsula. The Cape of Good Hope is out there somewhere. And, far beyond, Antarctica.


The sun’s relentless glide towards the horizon. I rouse myself and head back to the Cableway. The bus meanders almost the same route as this morning’s. Round and round again. I recognize the short, stubby palm trees at Camp’s Bay. Solitary Lion’s Head peak. How quickly places become familiar nowadays.

Back at the V&A Waterfront, I take the Yellow route to Long Street. I can grab a quick dinner and take out some cash before heading back to the guesthouse. It is the end of the day, so a cashier is also catching a ride back to the main office. He sits across the aisle, and then turns to face me. He introduces himself. He is from Zimbabwe.

He leans close, strokes his chin, lifts his eyebrows up and down as he looks me up and down. “WhereareyoufromwhatdidyouseetodaydoyoulikeCapeTown…”

I keep my expression neutral. “I’m originally from America, but now my husband and I live in Prague.”

The mention of husband provokes the obligatory, “Why isn’t he here with you?”

I know, by now, that no matter what I answer, it won’t wipe away the knowing smirk. My voice tightens as I give the usual excuses: he has too much work, he would love to be here, we’ll come back together one day. The more the “h” word is mentioned, the deeper the smirk.

I used to think that solo female travelers fall off the male radar as they age. However, we simply move into a different zone. Youthful beauty has been edged out by middle-aged desperation. If the husband is absent, it’s because there is a problem. We are on the hunt for “adventure”. Wink, wink. Starved for compliments and attention, we are laughably easy to seduce. I’m grateful that my ego doesn’t require such empty flattery.

“But what about you? Do you miss Zimbabwe?” Best thing to do is switch the focus back to him.

His shoulders slacken. He relaxes into the seat. For the rest of the short ride, he speaks about the country he wishes to return to one day.

I feel his eyes on my back, cunning and fierce, as I scurry across Long Street. I try to think about dinner, in an attempt to shake off the ickiness. The vague shame. But my appetite is gone. The issues that we try to escape always find a way to tag along, no matter how small the backpack and how hectic the itinerary. He would be here with me if he could, wouldn’t he? I want him with me, don’t I? I prefer to travel alone. I really do. But why is that?

Evening’s long shadows creep along the pavement. I quicken my steps in a futile attempt to outrun them.

71 thoughts on “A Day on the Big Red Bus

  1. I can relate to a few things you mentioned in this post, including the fact that my traveling style changes over time. I wonder how much different it will be a few years from now. As for when a stranger happens to inquire into personal matters, I agree with you — deflecting the focus back to that person usually works well.

    • Hi Bama – It’s usually the independent travelers who adapt with age, probably by necessity. I admit that I require more comforts these days – no more grungy hostels! I’m not sure I could ever do a long group coach tour or a cruise, however. Unless someone paid me a lot of money.

    • I was surprised at how pleasant it was. I wouldn’t use them in compact cities with adequate public transport, but for more spread out places, why not. But I can imagine what it’s like in high season when the buses are packed.

  2. Another fine piece, Julie. It’s such a pleasure to find you again. Somehow I don’t spot you in my reader, but today here you were. Or here I was! Or there was an ‘R’ in the month 🙂

  3. Great piece, loved the character descriptions. I too have sneered at tourist buses, noddy trains, tour groups and the like but have found myself on or with a few. I loved SA and like you found it easy to get away from the crowds on TT Mountain. Wilbur

  4. lol yes the unwanted male attention never stops. I met an older Canadian lady in Fiji and we were exchanging stories about some minor harassments we had endured during our trip and she said “how old and ugly do I have to get before they leave me alone?” How true….and she was much older and less attractive than you are.

  5. Great write, Julie. I’ve often wondered if travelling-singly females get pressured that way, and I’m sorry to find out it’s true. As far as aging out of the thing is concerned, there are probably more, not less, mature men out there trolling than ever before. Some of it can be explained by societal gender roles, but much of it is just plain oafishness.

  6. So many thoughts on this one, especially about traveling alone…something I have always enjoyed. Sad that the simple act of making eye contact can create a problem.

    The photos are beautiful, as is your telling of the adventure. But, what I really noticed is your writing ability…wow. Lines like this “The kind of sunshine that erases contrast and personality.” Very poetic. Great post, Julie.

    • Thank you, Van. 💗 I still love traveling alone and I’ve done it for so long that the annoyances have become normal. When I travel to a place where I’m left in peace – like much of Central/Eastern Europe – it’s really a pleasure.

  7. Van’s compliments on your prose are well deserved. I admire your writing and the way you take readers along on the external and internal journey.

  8. You have an uncanny ability to write about all the things I think about and experience in my travels. In recent years, I have begun getting on the red buses and enjoying a few hours of city overview (I didn’t even know they HAD earphones – haha); they are great for getting the lay of the land in the early days of a visit. Just rode all over Havana last month; it’s much more spread out than I’d imagined, and it was a breezy beautiful day to ride up top. I no longer care if anyone thinks I’m a dork!

    And the single female traveler problem of male attention: ugh – yes – why are they looking at and pursuing me now? The best deterrent I’ve found is a purposeful stride and, in contrast to other’s comments, a very direct look that says “I am not amused or interested.” I so relate to your statement that “If the husband is absent, it’s because there is a problem.” I often join small group hikes in remote places and have found myself constantly explaining to my fellow trekkers that I am perfectly happily married and that my husband simply does not have the time or interest in disappearing into the Himalaya for 3 weeks. I don’t think they ever believe me, but again, I no longer care!

    • I think the best thing about getting older is that we no longer give a shit what people think. The assumptions of others are still annoying, though. I tried something different during my trip to Chile/Easter Island. When people (on tour groups) asked why my husband wasn’t with me, I said, “Because he’s a boring stick in the mud who only likes to watch TV.” Wow, did they shut up! It’s seems it’s fun for them to hear excuses and speculate on the “truth”, but when you say what they’re thinking, boy do they squirm. Bwahaha.

  9. An enjoyable bus ride, thanks Julie – I was similarly sniffy about Big Red Bus tours until I was tempted onto one in Dublin. It was the best hour on a bus/anywhere I have ever spent – the driver/entertainer/comedian would have been worth the fare even if the bus had never moved 😀

  10. i’m smiling to getting a taste
    of this South African tour bus!
    sad to also experience
    the discrimination of critical judgment
    faced for traveling alone.
    a woman i know often
    says, “why do you ask?”
    and, “it’s none of you business”
    then happily enjoys her time and meal
    in peace 🙂

  11. Hi Julie
    I loved your post. We have talked often about unwanted attention. But I am glad it never stops you from going places.

    • I’m sure you remember that fat guy with the gold chains by the pool in St. Martin. He thought he was doing us a favor by gracing us with his presence. So clueless, but it’s something to laugh about now.

  12. An interesting read as usual. I agree, travel habits change, especially when parts of the body ache that didn’t use to. But one thing does’t change; I try to avoid other tourists as much as possible.

    • Sometimes we have no choice but to be with other tourists. I was relieved that there were so few others on the bus. I bet in high season it’s full of the “Captain Ahab” variety. I’d have to be sedated to deal with that.

  13. Hi Julie! I suppose the beauty of those red buses is the fact that they are double deckers, and it’s always nice to be going around besides – and not below, as you said – the buildings, having a peek into other people’s windows. I always do it when I need to catch a bus here in London.

    I can’t recall whether it happened to me to meet, whilst being on the road, with ladies who are married but travelling by themselves. Had it happened, I don’t think I’d dare asking where their husbands were, it seems too much of a 1920s question to ask! My mother was a teacher and as a result she had massive holidays which my dad obviously couldn’t match. Had anyone asked her “so, where’s your husband?” she definitely would’ve rewarded the asker with a hot-press tattoo of her hand and five fingers on their cheeks!

    (now I’m not advocating violence, but sometimes… in the face of abject imbecility… why not?)


    • Hi Fabrizio – it depends on how the question is asked and who does it. A belligerent “why isn’t he with you?” asked by some random guy who is in my space is different than an indifferent “your husband didn’t come?” over lunch with a bunch of fellow day trippers who just ask the question as a way to keep the conversation going and couldn’t care less about the answer. Good for your mother for traveling solo!! Sounds like a cool lady.

      • True that Julie, I didn’t consider that. My mum was a cool lady, and even if her travels were somehow limited in space (she rarely straddled outside our region), more out of condition than out of choice, she taught me a lot!

  14. I love to travel by myself! I don’t do it often and I do like having my ‘safety blanket’ with me. He has a much better sense of direction, for one! You do get some obnoxious characters though. I tend to be the mad lady who rabbits away, sharing past history 🙂 🙂
    I so envied you being up there on the Table! And I’ve always wanted to see Kirstenbosch. Dream trip for me, and beautifully subjective, as ever, Julie. Love it!!

  15. Interesting narrative, Julie, not because of the place names here, as I have been to Cape Town couple of years ago, but for your journey experiences, through familiar situations playing out with characters different and places new and the insights therein. Keep the narrative going…

  16. I think those bus “on and off” are a great first introduction to any city, but especially large ones. Later, if there is time one can then go back and explore areas of interest. Also great as a solo female traveler, as you mention.

    I look forward to going back to Ce Town eventually…I was born in South Africa but have not been back for some years now.


  17. To me, vacations and travel have different meanings. Vacations are simply seeking a mode of transport that reminds me of “home.” Traveling, on the other hand, is reaching out into the unknown. It is not for the faint of heart for there is always risk associated with “adventure.” I just came across a quote this morning by Mary Catherine Bateson that I think you would appreciate: “Of any stopping place in life, it is good to ask whether it will be a good place from which to go on as well as a good place to remain.”

  18. I too sneered at the geezers on the tour buses when I was young, but now I’m one of them. My wife likes the convenience and safety and they’re really not that horrible – we always enjoy the trips. But there are a lot of flavors you miss that you get when you travel independently and alone. One could argue you don’t see the “real” country when you travel on a fixed agenda, but rather just the frosting on the cake. That may still be true if you travel independently, you just decorate your own frosting.

    • So true. And that’s why, except for minor exceptions such as this, I’ll always make the effort to travel independently. I prefer my own frosting recipe. 😉

  19. I have been on this exact same bus on that exact same Blue Line! Ah, the memories…the drizzle…the earphones…the foggy purple of the Kirstenbosch mountains. Why is preferring to travel alone always seen as such a woebegone thing?

  20. I’ve never been there, but it seems a fantastic place to visit. I’m originally from Europe, and I have been to quite a lot of countries there. It’s probably nice to go by tourist buses. I usually don’t. My husband also has a type of work that he cannot accompany me when I’m going to Europe, but I love traveling alone. Back in Canada, we are most often going by car. That includes huge distances. We’ve been driving all around USA, too, even in Mexico we did lots and lots of driving out of resorts and into the wild. I like going to some place and staying there for a while, no rush, no schedules, therefore, I never join tours. I speak quite many languages, so it’s easy to get along.
    You have written a great story about your travel, great piece to read.
    My art blog is only for art, but lifeschool blog deals with life matters and there’s some writing, too: https://inesepogalifeschool.com/

    • Thank you, Inese. It’s true that distances are so much greater in North America. But there’s nothing like a road trip. When I lived in the US, I was always going on road trips. I really miss that. Europe is big, but it’s a different feeling when you drive from country to country. Maybe because there aren’t the wide open spaces.

  21. Bonjour Julie. Yet another interesting travel insight. 🙂
    It must be a drag to be “hit on” all the time, I guess. The “boring stick in the mud” retort is a good one. 🙂
    Cape Town must be beautiful. My cousin John lives there. He was born in Kenya. We still correspond in Swahili for fun (His is wayyyy better than mine though).
    I once asked him why he stayed in Africa and he sent me a picture of Table Mountain. 🙂
    Bonne semaine. Mes respects à Hubby.

    • Hi Brian – Your cousin is correct. You don’t need any other excuse to visit Cape Town than that magical monolithic mountain. Wish I could have spent more time on it. Just to let you know – your comment was in the spam folder.

  22. Beautifully written post! I can definitely relate to some of your concerns as a solo female traveller, and have sadly had far too many encounters like yours with the Zimbabwean cashier, though you phrased it more eloquently than I would have!

  23. As usual we enjoyed your post, and made me think of the problems of women traveling solo.

    Maybe you have your reasons to close the likes on your post after a while, unfortunately it deprive some of us, who come late to the post of the pleasure of giving you a like. 🙂

    • Thank you for reading. You can “like” posts from the WordPress Reader, if you wish. I will see it in notifications, even if it doesn’t show up on the blog.

      • Of course, pardon me Julie, and thank you for the tip, I am a Luddite when it comes to how navigate computer technology, 🙂

  24. Hi Julie,

    I love the slices of life that emerge in your writing–the disgruntled man traveling with his wife, the man from Zimbabwe looking you up and down, the moments that matter to you in the places you visit and the moments that don’t. Too often we’re like the man on the bus, striving for some experience we think we’re owed, or that is bought and paid for, when really it is the grace of new places intermingled with the things we take with us–that strange alchemy of being the same and being new all at once, that makes the trip so insightful. The twilight questions have room to breathe. We wonder who we are even as the answer is so richly obvious…


    • Thank you, Michael. I write these little details down so that I won’t forget. The colorful (for better or worse) characters that inhabit the voyages. The feelings that arise during exploration, no matter how banal. I’m grateful that people, such as yourself, enjoy reading about it.

  25. Dear Julie, your touching post brought back to my memories our trip (with my husband) to South Africa ! We didn’t use public transport, but we strolled around in places- Kapstadt- where they told us not to. Don’t tell it anybody! On our recent holiday to Lanzarote we, however, travelled by public transport and it happened that it was an hour late and the people just has to wait and started chatting with each other.:) Very best regards Martina

    • Hi Martina – Good for you for being adventurous in Cape Town. I might have been, but I was almost robbed on Long Street in broad daylight with lots of people around, so I felt dissuaded from straying beyond the safe zones. I did not want to risk my camera being stolen before my trip to Namibia!

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