The Unique world of the dalla-dalla: a guide to getting anywhere in Tanzania
During our trip to Tanzania we used various types of transportation, but mostly we traveled jam-packed together with locals in the so called dalla-dallas. These are older minibuses with 10–20 seats serving as public transport for short to medium distances. Don’t expect any comfort or western safety standards here, but if your budget is low you’ll love the dalla-dallas.
And even if money is no object, if you are interested in the culture and the people, we’d suggest that you take a dalla-dalla at least once, just to have this … how shall we say … unique experience.
Where to find a dalla dalla
In small towns with just one main road dalla-dallas are only passing through, so just stand anywhere on the driving side of the street (careful: Tanzania has left-hand traffic), wait for an undefined amount of time until a dalla-dallas approaches and you and waive for it to stop. OK, even if you don’t waive, the driver’s assistant — this is the guy half hanging out through the window of the sliding door — will have spotted you about a kilometer ago, so the dalla-dalla will top and pick you up.
In bigger cities like Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Moshi or Zanzibar Town you have to find the (right) bus terminal. Ask in your hotel or anyone on the street: “Where is the bus terminal for insert your destination here?”.
To Westerners the bus terminal will seem like total chaos, but there is a system. At bigger terminals there are signs with the destinations, but normally at least 10 people will ask you where you want to go long before you manage to spot the signs by yourself. The hustlers on the street will also try to sell you a ticket for a crazy mzungu price (Tanzanian for “white person”), but just ignore them. You always pay in the bus and the driver and his assistant always told us the right price. Plus you see how much everyone else is paying.
How does it work?
When a bus is completely stuffed with people it leaves and an empty one immediately takes its place. So when you get to the terminal and locate the right dalla-dalla: if there are still seats left, buy a bottle of water and take a seat. If the bus is already too full for your taste, wait for a few more passengers to get in, then take a seat in the next (empty) one. You’ll now have to wait until that bus too gets fuller than full, but at least you have your seat.
Once the dalla-dalla leaves you’ll witness the perfect choreography between the driver and his co-worker. The latter not only has everything in the bus under control, but by hanging his entire upper body out of the window, he also oversees the street completely. He keeps shouting the destination of the bus and constantly motivates people to hop in.
Since the bus is already full, you might be thinking to yourself “But where are those new passengers going to find the place to come in?”. Well, dear reader, you’ll be surprised: in a dalla-dalla there is always space for one more person. Also for his bags, boxes and additional luggage. If a woman with a baby gets on the bus, she probably will have to stand, but someone with a seat will take the small child on their lap and care for it.
Once the new passenger is halfway in the bus, the driver’s assistant taps twice on the roof and the bus starts moving slowly. The new passenger now has about 2-3 seconds to somehow shove himself inside before the bus guy gets in, closes the door and hangs himself out of the window again. It’s a beautiful choreography that you have to see to appreciate.
Unless you are heading to the final destination you have to tell the co-worker where you want to get out and he’ll stop the bus at exactly that location with a hearty tap on the roof: one tap means stop, two taps mean take off again.
Around halfway through the journey the driver’s assistant collects the bus fare. To accomplish this he squeezes himself around all the standing and seated people and makes metal noises by jiggling a few coins in his hand.
Meanwhile the bus stops seemingly every 30 seconds: either someone gets in or someone gets out and both operations are interesting. Getting in is thrilling because you invariably think that there no way possible that there is space for one more person, but there always is. And getting out is interesting because it invariably involves someone from the back of the bus having to climb over seats, bags and people before the bus drives another 250 meters and the next person has to get in or out.
Why you should take a dalla-dalla
By traveling by dalla-dalla you are very (and we do mean very) close to the locals and you get experience their daily life for an hour or so. Sometimes it’s just a smile, a suspicious look or a child staring at you, but with a few words of Suaheli you can get in touch with them. Tanzanians are very happy about foreigners trying to learn their language. Some speak good English so you can get valuable advice or have an interesting conversation.
But riding in a dalla-dalla is also fun and exciting because it gives you the feeling of adventure. Sometimes the driver goes really fast, sometimes agonizingly slow through the stop-and-go traffic, plus you see a bit of the country-side and the markets located on both sides of the street.
Last but not least dalla-dallas are incredibly cheap compared to european prices. They are slower than the bigger and more luxurious buses but you also only pay a fraction of their price. Here are some examples: Moshi – Marangu: 40 km, 1 hour, 1500 TZS; Moshi – Arusha: 90 km, 90 min, 2500 TZS; Arusha – Mto Wa Mbu: 115 km, 2 h, 2000 TZS.
Only consider dalla-dallas if you don’t mind giving up a lot of comfort and you don’t have a problem with allowing strangers into your comfort zone. In a dalla-dalla strangers sit tightly next to each other squeezed like sardines in a tin can.
The seats are very small and there is not much space for feet, long legs or bags. If a seating row consists of 4 seats the bus won’t leave until 4 people sit there. If one or two overweight people take two seats the next person still has to somehow press their butt into the non-existing gap. Since the roof of the minibus is relatively low, the poor people who have to stand have to also hold their heads tilted to the side.
Avoid taking a dalla-dalla if you are traveling with a suitcase or a backpack. There is rarely storage space inside the bus for such a large piece of luggage, so in such cases look for a larger bus with space for the luggage on the roof. That said, we did travel with our backpacks, but we stowed them neatly on an extra seat and payed for that seat as if a person was sitting there.
Travel makes hungry, but you don’t have to worry about food or drinks.
Usually you’ll find several food stands directly at the bus terminal, but then before leaving people will start to get in the bus and offer chocolate bars, toast, potato chips, bananas, water, coke and more. Also don’t despair if you are in need of a toilet item — there are also hustlers for shampoo, pain killers, tooth paste, mobile phone chargers, jewelry, shoes etc.
There is even on-board entertainment: not quite to our taste because they usually just loudly play the same 2 or 3 songs over and over, but also because the passengers, the driver and his assistant seemingly constantly talk (shout) over the music to each other or into their mobile phones.
The windows don’t close tightly and the floor usually has at least a few holes in it, so if it’ raining outside, you’ll probably get some muddy water or road spray on your feet. But like we said, it’s a cultural experience that you should go through at least once.
When you should switch to other buses
We only recommend dalla-dallas for short trips (1-2 hours). Somewhat larger busses (called Coastals) are slightly newer and better, but not by much.
For more comfort and a seat guarantee you’ll need to look for an Express Coach. They don’t cover all destinations, but they only stop only a few times, the prices are still reasonable and there is a comfortable seat for everyone. It’s better to book your seat in advance (ask in your hotel) and note that you might have to pay full price even if you only travel a small portion of the full distance.
A modern and relatively luxurious bus on the route Arusha — Dar es Salaam costs 45000 TZS, which is much cheaper than flying, but it takes 8–12 hours (instead of 1 hour). We decided to fly and spent the extra time walking through interesting villages or visiting tribes and national parks.
Traveling around in Tanzania is not easy, but it’s interesting. In addition to the dalla-dallas and larger buses we traveled by tuk-tuk to a big market, by motorbike to remote tribes and by bicycle to some Masai villages in the countryside. But our most memorable/painful exerience was bumping around for two ours on an unpaved road together with 20 (!!!) other people in a 30-year old Land Rover on the way from Mto Wa Mbu to Mangola.
PS: 5.000 TZS = $ 3 = 2,22 €