It was supposed to be a bus ride so I assumed that I would only be required to show up with my luggage at the bus stop. But since it was a night journey to the Coast, I knew that prior booking was necessary.
One Thursday morning, after putting everything in order, including booking accommodation as well as alerting my friends in Mombasa that I was on the way, I headed to downtown Nairobi where most of the busesâ€™ booking offices are situated.
My first stop was at Modern Coast, the operators of the Oxygen bus, one of the favourites plying that route. I asked for a VIP seat for later that evening. The lady at the booking counter immediately shook her head and informed me that all the dayâ€™s buses were fully booked. She then said a VIP seat was available three days later on the 10 am bus.
Shrugging, I informed her that I wanted a night bus; that night to be precise. I then made my way to Mash bus office. The story was the same. At the Spanish bus office, the situation was no different. Frustrated, I called my friend in Mombasa who had helped me reserve a hotel room to inform him that there was a hitch.
He told me it was obvious I could not get the elite buses on such a short notice. Getting a VIP seat is even harder. As we talked, I asked him to move the booking to three days later. The agreement was that I would make my way back to the Modern Coast office and reserve the available seat as he changed my hotel booking.
Back at Modern Coast, I walked straight to the woman who had informed me about the available VIP seat. Barely 20 minutes had passed.
â€œIâ€™m back,â€ I told her as she leaned forward to serve me. â€œWelcome back. So, what have you decided?â€ she posed.
Watched the screen
â€œIâ€™ll take the Sunday morning VIP seat,â€ I fired back. Quickly, she checked her computer and searched for that dayâ€™s booking details as I watched the screen.
â€œOops! Itâ€™s gone,â€ she told me as I stood there, confused. I frantically tried to call my friend in Mombasa to tell him to stop the second booking but his phone was engaged and, by the time my call went through, he had sealed the second reservation.
After profusely apologising, I asked him to wait for my call before making further bookings. Meanwhile, another customer had arrived to book a VIP seat. He was to travel 10 days later. I finally secured a VIP seat for Sh2,300 for two days later â€” on a Tuesday. Relieved, I telephoned my friend and asked him to move my reservation to Tuesday.
To book tickets for some of the Mombasa-bound buses, one is required to produce either a national identity card or a passport as well as provide a mobile phone number.
On the travel date, I made my way to the Oxygen offices 30 minutes ahead of time as required by the operators. On the way, I came across several buses headed to Mombasa.
Several youths were touting for passengers with the buses slated to leave in less than an hour. These, though, are the low-cost buses that charge an average of Sh800. This could go lower depending on your negotiation skills.
I hadnâ€™t bothered to charge my phone since I was aware that the luxury buses had charging ports, which I could use. As I made my way inside, a Wi-Fi username and password were posted near the door. After several unsuccessful attempts to connect to the network, I signalled a smartly dressed woman who was chatting with the driver. The woman, I later learnt, was the hostess who would serve us with snacks along the way.
She helped me choose the correct network after which I started streaming YouTube videos as well as accessing other social sites. My seat was a spacious recliner with lots of leg room â€” something that any long distance traveller will tell you is invaluable.
The sitting arrangement in the luxury buses is fashioned on the same lines like an aircraft. However, there are three categories instead of two â€” the VIP, business and economy classes. But in a few buses, VIP and economy classes are merged.
The VIP section comprises four seats located in the front of the bus. Those in the middle are packaged as business class while those at the rear are economy. The fares vary depending on class. At Oxygen, a VIP ticket will cost you Sh2,300 while the same will go for Sh1,800 in the Mash and Spanish buses. The economy and business classes cost anywhere between Sh1,200 and Sh1,600 depending on the bus.
The difference between the seating sections is that VIP seats are spacious with more leg space. You also get first priority when the hostesses serve bitings and drinks.
When travelling VIP, one does not have to scramble for a charging port as they are enough. The VIP section in Mash buses is partitioned with curtains just like the first class segment on a plane.
In the other sections of the bus, there are two pairs of seats on either side of the walkway that are also spacious and adjustable. In the low-cost buses, the seats are smaller to accommodate three passengers on one side and two on the other. The cramming, which is meant to compensate for the low fares, leaves insufficient leg room.
The seats also cannot recline in case a traveller wants to take a nap during the seven-hour journey. And adding to the squeezing and cramming, passengers can only get fresh air by opening the windows.
However, over in the pricier buses, passengers enjoy the luxury of air conditioners throughout the journey, which come in handy particularly as you enter or leave Mombasa.
Inside the Oxygen bus, we were offered a 250ml ready-to-drink juice and two small packets of mixed nuts. On the way back from Mombasa aboard a Mash Cool Aircon bus, we were offered a 500ml bottle of water, a 300ml bottle of soda and a packet of biscuits. But while the Oxygen bus had a working aircon and Wi-Fi, the Mash bus lacked these.
â€œI love travelling in the VIP section of these buses because it is almost like flying,â€ a fellow traveller who told me he is a senior official at the Roads ministry said.
He continued: â€œI developed a phobia for planes after an incident in Mandera with a light-wing aircraft.â€
At the Spanish buses, the experience is even better. Through a partnership with a Mombasa restaurant, travellers get packed lunch or dinner.
The menu includes pilau, chicken burger or shawarma (a Mombasa delicacy).
â€œWhen a bus is en route from Mombasa to Nairobi, we stop at the restaurant where the waiters get in and hand each traveller packed food. They alight and we proceed,â€ explained Mr Felix Kwajumbe, a supervisor at Spanish bus.
The buses are also fitted with working Wi-Fi and have charging systems. However, the Wi-Fi strength fluctuates constantly during the journey due to the countryâ€™s woeful 3G network coverage.
To ensure security in all the luxury buses, travellers are frisked as they board. And once everyone is seated, an employee takes a video of everyone on board.
This, according to Mr Kwajumbe, ensures that it is possible to track down passengers who commit crimes along the way. Prior to this security measure, some passengers were known to dupe the driver into dropping them off at secluded spots before robbing the travellers and taking off.
Drivers are also forbidden from picking up passengers along the way save from several designated bus stops. In case a driver flouts this requirement, travellers can report them to the management by calling a mobile phone number displayed prominently inside the bus.
These services, however, are not afforded passengers who travel in low cost buses. The buses can leave for the Coast before they are full and the crews are allowed to pick up passengers along the way.
The Managing Director of Horizon bus brand, Mr Mehmet Emin Gok, said he anticipated a wonderland travel experience for his passengers, away from the tiring, long journeys on stuffy and crammed buses, where pickpockets would harass passengers and the risk of losing luggage was extremely high.
Instead, he wanted his passengers to experience what it was like to travel in luxury by road. With that in mind, Mr Gok teamed up with a business partner and made his dream a reality in 2010 by launching the first luxury bus, the Horizon brand plying the Nairobi-Mombasa route.
Immediately it hit the road, the bus became the talk of town. Travellers had never experienced such luxury on the road. The bus was fitted with air conditioners, a well-stocked fridge, personalised overhead lighting, flat screen TVs offering a choice of movies to watch during the journey, ample individual space and leg room and pull-back trays.
Passengers fell in love with the comfort and luxury the buses offered leading to an increased demand for similar buses. Before long, Guardian Angel coach, Mash Bus Company, Coast Bus and a few others were forced to upgrade their services. And by so doing, they ended up attracting discerning frequent travellers, tourists, business travellers, high-flying individuals, embassy and UN staff who often hire the buses for private travel.
Competition is fierce, so the newest entrants in the business have added Wi-Fi, snacks, cold and hot beverages, multiple screens to watch movies, piped music and air conditioning, not forgetting a lot of friendly, personalised service.
Ms Rose Bosibori Ongera, the financial controller at Guardian Coach Limited, said a large section of Kenyan passengers had long been denied an enjoyable travel experience.
â€œWe responded to the demands of the ever-growing Kenyan middle class, who yearned for comfort but at a reasonable price.â€