Are you worrying about driving in South Africa? Don’t. Like anywhere else in the world, drive cautiously and careful and you’ll be fine self-driving a rental car in South Africa. Having said that, each country has its own peculiarities and rules. So here are our tips to make your self-drive holiday in southern Africa the best ever.
Driving is on the left-hand side of the road and your steering wheel is on the right side. If you are not used to this don’t worry: most people pick this up very quickly. You might find in the beginning that when you think you are switching on your indicator, your windscreen wipers will move instead. Yes, these are the other way round as well.
All distances and speeds are in kilometers and roads and turn-offs are well signposted. Plan your journey carefully: South Africa is a huge country. If you’re not used to driving long distances, rather break the journey, as fatigue causes accidents. Many of the national roads between the major centers are toll roads. Safe up on small cash to pay.
You need to carry a valid driving license with you when driving. If your driving license is not in English you also need an additional International Driver’s License. When you collect your car, bring your passport and a valid credit card in the main driver’s name. Additional drivers need to bring driving license, International Driver’s License (if applicable) and passport. Take your papers with you when driving – Traffic Officers expect you to show them if they stop you.
You need to be at least 23 years of age to rent a car in South Africa; if you are 21 or 22 you pay an additional surcharge.
On highways and main through ways the speed limit is 120 km/hour (90 miles/hour), on secondary roads 100 km/h and in urban areas 60 km/h. An urban area starts and ends at the name sign, even if a new speed limit is not indicated there. In many towns you’ll find dual carriage ways which carry their own speed limit. Keep an eye out for differing speed signs in towns in any case, there are areas where speed is limited to 30 km/h.
Most Game reserves have their own speed limits; you’ll find these indicated at the gates.
Speeding is controlled regularly and unannounced with cameras or laser guns by Traffic Offices in hiding. Most fines need to be paid cash on the spot, so it is better to avoid speeding.
In and around the main cities traffic jams occur at peak hours, but once you hit the countryside wide open empty roads are the norm. Most other traffic is motorized, but donkey-carts are still used widely. These move much slower than most people expect. Also many people use the road as a footpath. Take special care when schools go out: you’ll see many pupils walking home and likely to cross without warning. Cyclists are not very common due to the many hills and mountains we have, but if the terrain is suitable for cycling there will be plenty on the roads. A special point of attention form the many ‘taxis’: (usually) white minivans that form the backbone of public transport in South Africa. These are exempt from speeding, stopping or indeed most other traffic regulations – at least in their own mind. Also they have the uncanny ability to materialize out of nothing. So don’t overtake when you see a taxi parked on the other side of the road or before a turn-off.
Try to avoid driving after dark; most donkey-carts, bicycles and pedestrians are unlit and they tend to use the roads more widely as closing time of the bars approaches. Having said this, driving in the daytime is a pleasurable experience! It is for instance very common to see a car go into the hard shoulder to enable you to overtake them, turning most roads virtually into three lanes. Sometimes blinking left is added. It’s a nice custom and good to follow, but not before a turn-off, corner, or the top of a hill though – remember those taxis? Thank you is said by flashing your alarm lights once or twice.
You won’t find many parking meters in South Africa, but you’ll find plenty of parking attendants, usually in bright day-glow vests. Most are official but you’ll also find unofficial ones coming up to you and asking if they can ‘look after your car’. This is actually a good thing: people make money guarding your vehicle instead of breaking into it or turning to petty crime. The standard rate is 2 to 5 Rand, depending on how long you parked. Never expect change so have small money handy for this. Usually your vehicle is secure, however don’t tempt fate: never leave any valuables (camera, bags, satnav etc.) in sight.
In cities you’ll also find parkings where you pay at the gates. Most tourist attractions, hotels, lodges and guesthouses have their own secure parking area.
Filling stations are found in most towns and larger villages and at regular intervals along the major highways. Don’t wait too long with filling up though: as a rule of thumb, if you have less than 100 km’s left, fill up. Most petrol stations are cash-only so have enough cash to pay your fuel. Credit card payments are on the rise but not yet common. You only get a receipt if you ask for it.
Self-service as known in the west does not exist in South Africa. You’ll always have an attendant coming up to you to fill your tank, clean your windshield and offering to check your oil and water. Tipping is not obligatory but it is common to tip a few Rands – most South Africans round off the amount due.
Service stations along the major roads often incorporate services like a parking, toilet, restaurant and shop. Smaller service stations can be very basic so don’t always count on there being a toilet. You might have to go to a restaurant or bar to find one – or use the omnipresent bush toilet.
Robots and such
When asking directions you’ll often be told to turn right at the next robot. Don’t go looking for R2D2: a robot is a traffic light. Another confusing point can be four-way crossings with stop signs on all roads. You have to stop at the stop sign, but then it is first come first serve: you cross the road in order of arrival at the crossing.
During working hours road-works are usually indicated with a lot of enthusiastic flag-swaying. Often one lane is closed and traffic allowed through in one direction at the time – waiting times can be up to 20 minutes so prepare to be patient.
Having more than one drink, not wearing seat belts (for all passengers) and using a hand-held phone are all illegal and the fines are just not worth it.
No matter what road you’re driving on, be on the lookout for animals. Often because you actually want to spot and observe them, sometimes because they cross the road when you don’t want them to.
Inside game reserves animals ALWAYS have right of way. Give them respect and the space they need and you will be fine. So if an elephant, buffalo or rhino shows signs of unrest or worse, approaches you, back-up immediately without making too much noise. And if it is a big cat, don’t forget to close your window… Funny enough they won’t bother with people sitting in an open safari vehicle! They consider that to be a weird moving rock, but limbs and appendixes sticking out of a vehicle are recognized as edible parts. As are people on foot, so never, ever leave your vehicle inside a game reserve – except where allowed.
Outside game reserves be on the lookout for animals crossing the roads – usually domesticated. Cows and goats are in the countryside often grazed in the roadsides and not always tied up, and chickens are everywhere. So slow down when you see animals in the road-side or when nearing a village!
Driving on gravel roads
Some of the most scenic drives are on the smaller gravel roads. Or you want to go somewhere that is only accessible via gravel roads – like the battlefields in Kwazulu-Natal or the R 355 through the Karoo. These roads are mostly untarred, graded dirt roads. The well-maintained ones are actually not that hard to drive on, but you have to be able to stand a bit of sand and dust when using them. The actual driving is different too. Easy does it, both for speeding up and for slowing down. Slow down before corners and never use your brake when cornering, since loose gravel or dirt is easy to slide on. If you find you are going too fast and need to slow down in a corner, use your engine brake. Only in emergencies use your footbrake – with the lightest touch possible.
Some untarred roads may look good but have stretches with potholes and/or corrugation. Adjust your speed and make sure you have a spare tire when taking these roads – and know how to change a tire. Finally, when planning your trip, take into account your speed will be much lower than on a tarred road – so take your time to enjoy your ride!
Safety and car theft in South Africa have made headlines around the world. Though the situation in reality is much better than described, it IS wise to take precautions and do what most South Africans do. So when driving anywhere in South Africa, use common sense and try to apply the following safety precautions:
- In larger towns and cities, or when stopping for people on the road, always drive with your doors locked and windows wound up – especially when you stop at traffic lights.
- Never pick up hitchhikers, however innocent, lost or appealing they look. However sometimes a receptionist or a game reserve ranger can ask you to take a colleague to the next town. This is ok but it is up to you to honor this request or not.
- Beggars are common at intersections. We advise to ignore them, however hard that may be. Many children work in gangs and are begging for someone else’s wallet, not themselves. A large part of the beggars is however in real need, so if you want to help, donate to a charity that actually helps these beggars.
- Don’t leave valuables on show in your car, and always lock your car when leaving it – even if it is for a couple of minutes.
- Always park in a guarded area.
- If possible avoid traveling at night. If you do and it is quiet, slow down rather than stop at traffic lights or crossings. Watch out for people coming up to you – always drive away immediately. Don’t forget to watch your mirrors for this.
- Though very rare, thieves have been known to employ unusual methods to make a vehicle stop, like placing large stones in the middle of the road. If you see this, drive carefully around the obstacle or turn back, rather than stop the vehicle.
- If after all you are unlucky enough to get robbed, give what they ask for. Your travel insurance will cover it.
- If you have an accident, take photos and always call the police – it is not only the law, but you also need an official registration number for the rental company and your insurance. Sometimes that number is all the help you will get from the police.
- Ask your hosts for advice when unsure about anything. When on the road, if you need directions, it is best to stop and ask at a petrol station.
Things you should have in your car
What should you never forget on a drive in Africa? Here is a handy list:
- A camera is invaluable on your trip. From wild animals to stirring landscapes and interesting people, there are plenty of photo opportunities. Documenting your road trip is the best way to relive your African Dream again and again.
- Water. Always bring at least 1.5 liter of bottled water per person in the car with you. South Africa can be very hot and you may drive for a long time without seeing any settlement, so always make sure you’re hydrated.
- Snacks. As always when driving, make sure you have a little bit of food to nibble on to keep your spirits and sugar levels where they need to be. If you don’t eat properly your alertness could suffer and that’s not ideal at all. Biltong and droëwors are great local snacks for meat-eaters and are on sale everywhere.
- Sunglasses and sunscreen. You can get sun burn in your car! And with the bright tropical sun hanging over you the light can be fierce. Sunglasses also help spotting wildlife since they reduce the ambient glare.
- Make sure you have a roadside emergency kit in your car. If you have rented a vehicle, when collecting check there is a kit and a good spare tire.
- Always travel with a basic first-aid kit.
- Have a charged cellphone with you. Though cellphone reception is not consistent all over the country, most roads are surprisingly well covered. Handy for breakdowns or to call your hotel if you arrive later than expected.
- And last but not least: a good road map of South Africa, even if you decide to rent a satnav. That can break down – a map always works and if you get lost, most locals can point out on the map where you need to go.