How to survive South African self drive

Tips for self driving in South Africa
Potholes at Giants Castle, Drakensberg, South Africa

Why does it always happen to us?

My heart sank as the traffic policeman pulled us over whilst we attempted to negotiate our way out of Johannesburg airport. Hubbie calmly opened the window, ready for battle man-to-man. I helpfully shoved the guide books out of sight in the deluded hope our tormentor wouldn’t realise we were new in town. A rather pointless exercise since we were driving a clean and shiny white Ford Ikon, which just screamed ‘tourist’ from every angle. Plus we’d just driven from the rental car port.

Good morning sir, how are you? I don’t really care how you are, I just need to gauge the weight of your wallet.

I’m very well officer, how are you?I also don’t care, but smiling and nodding always helps.

Did you not see the ‘Stop’ sign back there sir?Of course there isn’t a sign, but these tourists won’t know any better, especially as they’ve been in the car less than a minute!

No I didn’t officer, I apologise if I missed it! Sh*t! How the hell do we get out of this dilemma? Remember to be polite at all times or you’ll make it worse.

I’m going to have to write you out a fine for R1000 which you will have to take to the police station in Kempton Park to pay.Suckers!

Ah, that’s no good officer, we have a 6 hour drive ahead so I’m afraid we won’t be able to do that. Whose bright idea was it to come back to this god-forsaken country? Oh, that’s right, mine.

That’s unfortunate sir. So tell me, what can I do to make this problem go away for you?Ching ching…money time…drinks are on me tonight.

How about you don’t give us a fine, officer?There’s no way I’m giving him a bribe…besides, that is an offence in itself!

15 minutes later after neither side has backed down…

Well officer, looks like you’ll just have to write out the fine then. I’m calling his bluff, and if he writes it, we’ll just not bother to pay it.

Oh. Erm…well, I’ll just let you off with a warning this time sir.Bollocks. Read that one wrong. First time I’ve not extracted a bribe all week. Damn-it.

Thank you officer. You have a wonderful day.Bit of over-the-top smarm should seal the deal.

You too sir, have a wonderful trip. You just wait, if us police don’t get you, the pot-holes will!

There’s no doubt about it. Self-driving in South Africa and Swaziland isn’t a walk in the park, yet if you want to explore beyond the cities (which of course you do) then hiring a car really is the only option. Public transport is limited and often unreliable so unless you have all the time in the world and a pitiful budget then it really is a no-brainer. But…there are a few things you should know before you find out about them the hard way like we did. Hopefully a little prior knowledge will make your journey less stressful, and believe me, I think we lost a few cat lives on our most recent trip!

Hazards to watch out for

Unfortunately you’ll encounter most of these on a daily basis in both South Africa and Swaziland. You have been warned…

Potholes

The state of the roads is terrible, and even the major highways are riddled with potholes in places. Sometimes there are helpful warning signs (rather than repairs), which cause you to slow right down, only to discover there are in fact no potholes. Sometimes massive subsidence pits big enough to swallow an entire truck will be upon you with no warning whatsoever. It really is pot luck (ha ha).

Seriously, this pot hole was wider than our car!

Seriously, this pot hole was wider than our car!

Tip: make sure your vehicle has a good spare tyre and that you have the phone number for breakdowns. We had 2 punctures on our last visit, where I discovered that the most valuable travel accessory is a ‘Hubbie’, for all your tyre changing needs!

You should never leave home without a 'hubbie' - useful during punctures and other sticky situations

You should never leave home without a ‘Hubbie’ – useful during punctures and other sticky situations

Assorted domestic livestock

After spending nearly 4 weeks swerving around nonchalent cows, and swearing at timid drivers who are too scared to gently edge towards the herd in encouragement, we’re utterly sick of wondering whether today is going to be the day of impact. If it’s not cows, it’s goats and sheep, and even more arrogant are the baboons who stalk slowly across the road, leaving you in no doubt as to who is boss! Just remember, if you hit livestock, you’ll end up paying for it as the owner will appear from nowhere having witnessed the entire incident.

Mooooove out of the way!!

Mooooove out of the way!!

Tip: shouting ‘steak’ out of the window seems to have no effect, so you’ll just have to be patient.

Rules of the road

The rule we found most odd was the 4-way stop junctions. Whoever arrives first has priority, but in reality the person with the biggest set of balls takes the initiative whilst everyone else dithers. Then the ditherers all go at once and mayhem ensues. This system is particularly dangerous on major highways. These junctions appear with little or no warning, so you slam on the brakes giving your wife a heart attack, and are forced to stop despite there being no other vehicles waiting to turn. Yet there’s a police car up ahead so if you don’t stop you know that’s going to be another uncomfortable conversation, one which this time you may not win!

Tip: don’t be shy and hang back, that will cause more problems than just going for it!

Traffic lights that don’t work

Although 4 way stops are what you normally encounter at junctions, sometimes there are traffic lights thrown in for a bit of variety. Yet they often don’t work, especially when electricity for the area has been turned off for a few hours during load shedding. During these circumstances chaos rules, and you’ll probably have to barge your way through aggressively if you want to continue your journey.

Chaos at a busy junction in Nelspruit when the traffic lights stop working

Chaos at a busy junction in Nelspruit when the traffic lights stop working

Tip: often where there are traffic lights there may be 3 lanes per carriageway so that’s potentially 24 lines of traffic to do battle with. And that’s only if it’s a mere 4 way stop. Have fun!

Overtaking and slow drivers

There are very few dual carriageways which makes constant overtaking necessary. Surprisingly local drivers tend to dawdle rather than speed, which is just as dangerous and even more irritating. Normally overtaking wouldn’t be an issue, but add in the excitement of potential pot holes, cattle, speed bumps, police, weather and a car that doesn’t enjoy accelerating, and you’re in for a few adventures. To assist with this, the hard shoulder rule dictates slow vehicles should pull over to allow others to pass. This works well until the hard shoulder unexpectedly runs out, or is blocked by pot holes and overrun with animals, and the overtaking vehicle is taking his merry time, preventing you from returning to the carriageway. To add to your woes, an enormous forestry truck is hurtling towards you on the oncoming side of the road so your only real option is the ditch. Or the sheer cliff. Or the cow…

Tip: Hire a car with a decent size engine, we’ve found a 1.6 just about does the job. Anything smaller then you may as well double your journey time (and halve your survival chances!), especially if laden with luggage!

A larger engine helps with all those hills, even the steep bits around Table Mountain!

A larger engine helps with all those hills, even the steep bits around Table Mountain!

Lack of signs

So you’ve successfully navigated to the next town, and are feeling quite pleased at having survived. Yet your joy is short-lived. There isn’t a single sign to be seen in the entire place, and you’re soon lost and cursing the day someone thought self-drive would be a good idea. After going round in circles you notice a sign in the opposite direction, so with a bit of geographical guesswork you eventually figure out the general direction in which you need to be heading. You then take hubbie on a really ‘scenic’ route and hope he doesn’t notice he’s already driven down the same road half an hour ago.

Tip: When there are signs, it’s often the smaller more obscure places that are indicated, rather than the obvious ones (like Johannesburg!), and sometimes the districts are signed rather than the towns, which is really confusing if you’re trying to search for them on a map.

Speed bumps

Particularly prevalent in Swaziland as a speed calming measure, especially around Mbabane and Manzini, these are monstrous, generally appear in sets of 3, are unpainted and appear without any warning. You’ll do a lot of damage to the under-carriage of your vehicle if you miss them, which is easy to do especially when it’s dark or the weather is bad. Speeding has been a major problem in Swaziland (I once heard it has been quite common for Swazi Transport Ministers to die in road accidents!) but I can’t help thinking they’ve solved one problem by creating another.

Tip: these occur primarily around built up areas and schools so slow down when you see people around!

Corrupt police

One thing I hate about being a tourist in South Africa is knowing that if we needed help, there really is no-one to call. You certainly wouldn’t contact the police, a huge proportion of whom are utterly corrupt (as our unpleasant experience above illustrates), and with dire warnings about not stopping in certain areas, you never know if the local people would come to your aid or in fact make the situation worse. A sad fact is that cultural and ethnic divisions in the country are still painfully obvious, making us feel very wary and uncomfortable whilst travelling through rural and non-white areas.

Tip: It is illegal to bribe a policeman in South Africa or to pay him directly, so if you’re stopped and ‘fined’, and can’t talk your way out of it, always ask for the official written paperwork. Many districts have cards available for tourists with anti-corruption phone numbers on which could be useful in a situation like we encountered at the airport. Show this to the officer who is asking for money, and if that doesn’t work, call the number on it. Hopefully that will do the trick.

Weather

Throw a bit of bad weather into the mix and the dangers are made worse as now they’re hidden. We’ve just driven through a zero visibility rain and mist storm so vast that it took 2 days to get from one side to the other, between Mkhaya in Swaziland and Hazyview (that place is named for a reason!) in South Africa. Honestly a couple of the most terrifying days of my life. Locals didn’t alter their driving accordingly, and most never even bothered to put their lights on, which is just wonderful when you can’t see further than 2 feet ahead. Our subsequent blindness resulted in missed junctions, dozens of 3 point turns on blind corners, and fervent praying for no oncoming traffic.

Where has everything gone? Almost zero visibility on the road to the aptly named 'Hazyview'

Where has everything gone? Almost zero visibility on the road to the aptly named ‘Hazyview’

Tip: don’t travel in such weather unless you absolutely have to. It’s the sort of thing that shortens your life expectancy!

It’s not all doom and gloom

Finally, there is a bit of good news about driving on South Africa’s roads…and that’s the petrol stations.

Filling up

Never fill up yourself, always wait for an attendant to do that for you. Whilst he fills your vehicle, another team member will leap out from nowhere with a window cleaning squeegee and before you know it the soap suds are running down your windscreen. Yet another team member will be checking your tyre pressures. This used to irritate us, as they’d always require a tip for doing something you’d not even asked for, but now we find it quite useful. After all, the car does get caked in dust and it is actually helpful to be able to see out of the windscreen. And it was they who noticed we had a slow puncture, and pumped up the tyre each time we stopped, thus enabling us to limp back across the country to the airport. Plus on our last trip many of them didn’t even wait for a tip (except the more unscrupulous ones in Johannesburg), as they’re now paid an actual wage, so for us it’s just a little bonus.

Just another ENTIRE day driving through a storm

Just another ENTIRE day driving through a storm


We always say ‘never again’ to self-driving in South Africa, yet we then change our minds, simply because the stunning scenery the country has to offer far outweighs the dangers of getting there. More or less!

And despite feeling smug at winning our argument with the policeman, I’m sure he’d be happy to know the potholes did indeed get us in the end!

Apologies for the poor photo quality, but in my defence I was using my phone whilst travelling at speed!

12 Comments

  • Frank says:

    Hi Heather!
    Our experience totally different than yours – but we also explored a different part of ZA.
    Have just come back from a 2 week driving trip around the Garden Route and the Karoo. About the easiest driving I’ve had anywhere (and I don’t like driving in foreign countries). The roads in this area are actually good, it’s just when you hit some of those dirt roads (and there are many) that it gets back. We did the Montagu Pass between George and Oudtshorn and the Swartberg pass between Oudtshorn and Prince Albert and that was pretty rough – it would have been preferable to have a 4*4. But you know what, generally roads better than in Canada and as you mention you have that wide shoulder…
    Love the gas station attendents and the car guards. Just made life easy. yeah, goats, cows, and even baboons crossing the road..but we did over 200 km and had only one experience with each.
    The worst aspect of South African driving around this area were the rednecks in their pickups who drive right up your ass (when you are already over the speed limit) wanting to push you faster. Assholes.
    But overall a good driving experience and it is THE way to see the country. So much beautiful geography.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Heather Cole says:

      Yeah, I guess it’s different depending on where you go in SA! We’ve found driving in the west much better than our experiences in the east. I’m surprised about the roads in Canada being worse, guess that’s just something you assume will be ok out there. Agree driving is definitely the best way to see SA, mishaps and all!

  • Samantha says:

    Wow this is such a great guide! If I ever drive in Swaziland I know where to refer to. The driving and road conditions sound a lot like Costa Rica! Potholes, unpaved roads, no traffic lights. Exactly why Yeison does all the driving haha.

    • Heather Cole says:

      It’s always an adventure driving abroad, and thankfully Pete generally does it too (think he gets scared when I do). Sometimes it’s best to leave the boys to it hey 🙂

  • João Sá says:

    This article is awesome! I’m going down to SA next year to visit my mom, can’t wait to ride there !

  • Tim says:

    I did a road trip through South Africa a few years back and went through all the same dilemmas except the cop/bribe situation. Cows wandering across the road at every turn was a bit of a nightmare but fortunately only had one incident. Made it out in one piece and with great stories…as do you.

    • Heather Cole says:

      Wow, hope the incident didn’t result in you having to purchase the animal! They’re a menace but I guess we’re the visitors in their patch, not the other way around.

  • melody pittman says:

    wow! those are amazing hints and tips. thanks so much. we drive very often in panama and the roads are horrible, policemen corrupt, a lot of the same. stay safe!

    • Heather Cole says:

      We didn’t dare drive when we were in central America but I guess it’s something you become accustomed to if you do it a lot. And if we were always safe there’d be no adventures 🙂

  • Skye Donnelly says:

    This gave me rather a good giggle after reading your blog! spot on you are!
    I’ve never really seen how rocky it is until i saw it from another persons perspective!
    Cannot wait to keep on reading!
    xx

    • Heather Cole says:

      Ha ha,I guess you get used to it living out there, though think I’d have to buy myself a plane to get about rather than drive if I ever moved out 🙂 Lots more still to come on the blog!

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