Road Rules: South African Edition


Prior to hittin’ the dusty trail (this is sometimes more of a reality than a saying in these parts) there are a few things to lay out (in no particular order):

  1. You need a map. I guess if you have a GPS you can use that but since we were low on technology we went the old school route and bought the AA South Africa Atlas. We did look up directions on Google maps when we had access to Internet before we started driving because this atlas didn’t provide detail on the small towns we passed through, but we relied a lot on this paper map to plan routes and see where we were. One particularly nice feature was that it had all the big rest stops marked so you could see the distance between them. You can drive for quite a while without seeing much so this is really important in things related to keeping your tank full.
  2. About gas. At every gas station everywhere in Africa you will have a gas attendant. This is not optional. You can’t pump gas yourself. Just tell them how full you want it, the type of gas, and they’ll do the rest. Of course, they’ll want a small tip for their service. Depending on what they do for you – pumping gas, window washing, etc. you can give them anywhere between 1 and 5 rand.
  3. Another good thing to note is that there are many small picnic areas along the roads that occur more frequently than rest stops or small towns. This is nice for stretching your legs, or if you really need to, answer the call of nature. There’s not much traffic out there so it’s pretty private, even though it’s on the side of the road.
  4. Don’t pick up hitchhikers or stop for anyone. Just don’t.
  5. Oh yes, you’ll need a car. We had a Fiat Punto (see above). A small car, economical, light on gas, but you might want something with a little more giddy up. Most of the roads you will experience are one lane highways meaning there’s a lot of passing going on and you’re going to need some more power to blow some peoples’ doors off.
  6. They drive in the left lane here. For those of you new to this, the hardest part is centering yourself in the lane by using the right lane line as opposed to the left like we’re used too. For the first half hour or so my side of the car was considerably over the line. Now, there’s a time for that (see below) but it’s definitely not when we’re screaming through Joburg on a six lane highway.
  7. When a ve-hickle is trying to pass you, you need to move onto the shoulder. Yes, this is crossing the line. When a ve-hickle successfully passes you or you successfully pass it, the universal language to say ‘thank you’ is a flash of your hazards. I’m not sure why the wave didn’t catch on here- maybe in the next decade?
  8. As far as deciding how far to drive in a day: we were told that the road works (construction) were going to slow down our time considerably. This turned out to not really affect us. I’m not sure if we were just lucky or if we drove during the right times on the right days but the Google time and the real time it took us were pretty accurate for the most part. Never under, but never over by more than an hour or hour and a half. Seeing as being held up by road works is a possibility though, always start driving early enough so that you’re not driving in the dark.
  9. Don’t drive in the dark. There are too many dangers when the sun goes down and the monsters come out to play.
  10. It’s probably worth it to take your own food with you for lunch and to snack on while driving. There aren’t many options and the options aren’t very good. You have Steers and you have Wimpys and you have gas station snacks. But there is biltong. And there are farm stalls here and there that might be selling something a little more nutritious. We bought a cooler but alas, there is apparently nowhere that sells ice so that was kind of a bust. At least we had a cool carrier.
  11. Go the speed limit. We were warned to not stop for cops even if they are trying to pull you over because of their level of corruption. There are apparently also other people who pretend they are cops and then go on and hi-jack you. Just don’t give anyone any reason to pull you over.
  12. Never leave anything of value visible in the car even if you’re just running in for a bathroom break. Either throw it in the trunk or take it with you.
  13. If you don’t know how to drive stick, maybe you should consider it. Most car rentals places only offer manual unless you get lucky. I can’t do it and after my first failed lesson and put-putting my way across an intersection at .1MPH Nick was subjected to driving the entire trip. Whoops.
  14. Most importantly, remember that South Africa is quite large. We allotted two weeks and were incredibly rushed. We could have easily spent many months driving around this country. There are mountains, beaches, ostriches to ride, animal kingdoms to explore. Take the time to dig in. I can’t wait to go back.

This post is part one of four on our series on our South Africa road trip: Joburg -> en route to Cape Town -> Cape Town -> en route to Joburg.

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