Many people do not feel comfortable driving in a new country. I can understand this; perhaps people there drive on the other side of the street than you are used to or sit on the opposite side of the car or the signs are in a completely different language. All of this combined with not knowing where you are going can be overwhelming!
Me? I love to drive. And I love to drive in new places. To me, it’s one of the best ways to explore a new place and get a fuller perspective on its culture, landscape, and people. I love the feeling of freedom I get when I drive (I know, such an American). While I have never driven in a country where none of the signs are in English, say somewhere in SE Asia perhaps, I do find that driving in a new place doesn’t have to be as scary or challenging as you may think. South Africa is one of my favorite places and definitely one of my favorite places to drive. This post will give you some information and tips, so perhaps you will consider driving yourself in this amazing country the next time you visit! (Also check out our accompanying photo essay!)
This is the first question you should ask yourself when considering driving yourself in South Africa or any new place. Considering your comfort and skill with driving is very important. If you are a fearful driver at home, perhaps you should consider getting someone else to drive. If you are traveling with a group and the thought of driving a larger vehicle is scary, maybe sit that one out. Some other questions to consider:
- What is your itinerary and for how long will someone need to drive at a stretch?
- Are there others you are traveling with who would sharing the driving responsibilities?
- What are the licensing rules where you are traveling?
- What are the road conditions like there?
- Are there particular safety concerns?
- Is a GPS available and/or do you know how to read a map?
All of these questions should be considered when deciding whether or not to drive yourself in a new place. In South Africa, it is entirely possible for one to drive themselves without major issues. I have done it five times now, so don’t let the fear of the unknown stop you! When deciding whether or not I should drive that first time, my evaluation started like this:
I enjoy driving and know how to read a map, just in case. I knew there would only be two of us in a compact car and that I would be the only driver (my traveling companion, my son, didn’t have his license yet). I created the itinerary and knew I would have control over it so as to avoid any night driving or driving for long stretches. I feel I am a capable and assertive driver. Now that you’ve gotten this far, let’s answer some of the other questions above for South Africa in particular.
Renting a car in South Africa
There are many major car rental agencies in South Africa so obtaining a road-worthy, safe, affordable car rental is a fairly easy process. Some of the major companies include First, Dollar, Avis, Hertz, and Budget and most have locations at airports and city centers for your convenience. Be sure to check out the rules and fine print at each company before you go as they may differ slightly. It’s also advisable to opt for an insurance package, unless you are already covered by your travel insurance or credit card company.
I have had the best luck booking car rentals through Drive South Africa, at which you put in your preferences and they will search across car rental companies to find you what you are looking for. Most car rentals will default to offering you manual transmission vehicles but if you need or desire automatic transmission (like I do!), ensure you request that specifically from the agency. On the Drive South Africa website, the cars are clearly marked so you will be able to tell which ones are manual and which are automatic; be aware that automatic choices are more expensive.
They accept major credit cards and after you book, you will receive a confirmation from them but also an email from the actual company from whom you are renting the car, so you can be assured that they indeed have your reservation. Print out any confirmations and bring them with you on your trip to present when you pick up your vehicle. Car rental agencies do charge an extra fee for additional drivers and each driver must have proper documentation.
TIP: Be sure to book a GPS unit in advance with your car rental agency or there may not be one available when you arrive!
While an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) is recommended along with your valid home license (as long as it has a photo and is printed in English), it is not required for driving in South Africa and you will be fine without one. I don’t have an IDP yet and have had no issues whatsoever every time I have rented vehicles and driven there (even that one time I was pulled over for speeding… ;).
The road infrastructure in South Africa is quite good, especially along the main highways, such as the N1 or N2. That said, if you are thinking about driving in more rural or mountainous areas, to or through a game park, or to an out-of-the-way game lodge, rent a four-wheel drive vehicle! While most places are still accessible via regular car, your trip will be much more comfortable in a 4×4, trust me on this. Also, in a 4×4, you will have the freedom to travel on the unpaved 4×4-only roads that are otherwise unpassable in a smaller, less-rugged vehicle… and this is often where the magic happens!
One of the reasons that South Africa has such a high-quality road system is because there are tolls everywhere! Some along major highways now have automated tolls, especially in Gauteng province (where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located), so when you drive through the gate or under a large toll structure, you don’t have to stop and the toll is automatically charged to an e-tag in your car. Don’t worry, your rental car will have an e-tag in it already; it is usually attached to the inside top of the windscreen. You will need to pay for any toll fees when you drop your car rental back at the agency at the end of your trip.
Becoming familiar with the common road signs used in South Africa before you go can be helpful. Most road atlases will list and explain these in the beginning pages. I especially love seeing this sign:
In South Africa, drivers sit on the right side of the vehicle and drive on the left side of the road. So keep left, pass right. On major highways, the “slow lane” is on the left and the “fast lane” is on the right. If you forget this while there, another driver in the right lane is sure to remind you! Exits from the highway are also on the left. Some other basics you should know:
- In South Africa, a stoplight is called a robot.
- Distances are measure in kilometers and speed limits are measured in kilometers an hour.
- Speed limits on major routes is usually 120km/h (75mph), on rural roads is 100km/h (60mph), and in busy areas is 60km/h (35mph).
- Drivers in the US are used to being able to turn right on a red light but turning left on a red light in South Africa is not allowed.
- Mobile phone use will driving is prohibited.
Refueling your vehicle shouldn’t be difficult in South Africa, as in most areas, stations are plentiful and usually 24 hours, except in more rural areas. Be aware that stations are full-service, so you can expect to be guided next to a pump by an attendant, who will then fill your tank, wash your windows and perform any other related task you wish. You will then give them the money and they will go up to the counter to pay and bring you any change. Other tips:
Parking is parking, right? Yes but in South Africa, there are many people who will help you park. So parking attendants can be found at almost every parking lot; sometimes they are hired by the establlishment and other times they just are there of their own accord, trying to make a rand or two. These guys will direct you to and into an empty spot, offer to watch your car and keep it safe, and then guide you out of your spot when you come back out. Of course, they are hoping to get a tip for this service. Sometimes this can actually be helpful, more often, they “help” even when it’s not needed in which casse, I give them a small tip anyway. Just something to be aware of.
First, buckle up and for the love of Pete, don’t drive under the influence! This should be obvious, but I have to say it. Next, it is advisable to keep windows up and doors locked in major urban areas. You will encounter many people asking for money or trying to sell you things at intersections; I usually just wave them off. It can be really jarring to encounter so many people on the roadways in South Africa; they are at intersections in urban areas, walking in and along roads in more rural areas, selling things along the roadsides, and crossing busy highways, often to get from their township to the city. Between people and the animals you see in and on the roads, you must exercise caution. Stay alert and pay attention! Seriously, folks, if I had a dime for the number of people, goats, vervet monkeys, or cattle that I’ve had to swerve to avoid, I could’ve paid for one of my trips. 😉
Joking aside, it is important to be aware that carjacking, or hijacking as it is called in South Africa, is a problem, especially in urban areas. I’ve even seen signs at exits from highways that warn of a high highjacking area. While the threat of highjacking is real, it has never stopped me from driving and I have never experienced anything even close to this (knocking on wood). Hence keeping your windows closed and doors locked in urban, high pedestrian areas. It is also almost acceptable practice to roll through a stop sign or robot, if you can safely do so, to avoid stopping when there may be a threat nearby. Listen to your gut, don’t freak out, and make good choices.
I want to be sure to include a caution about driving in urban areas. I would advise anyone to think twice about driving in inner-city Johannesburg because it can be very busy and the minibus taxis rule the road whether you like it or not. They pretty much do what they want and can put other drivers in very dangerous situations. Driving from the airport to Pretoria is not so bad and even driving to the Maboneng precinct of Joburg is do-able. Just plan your route ahead, follow your GPS, and exercise caution. Cape Town diving isn’t quite as bad with the taxis but the traffic at rush hours is horrendous at best and it will take you a long time to get to your destination.
- When parking and leaving your car, be sure to lock it. Store any bags or other personal items in the trunk (called the boot in South Africa) of your car.
- It’s best to avoid driving after dark.
- Don’t ever get out of your car to photograph or feed wild animals you may see while driving.
- Watch out for potholes on back roads.
- South Africa is a big country and can take more time to drive than you originally think, so be sure to plan plenty of time to get to your destination (and make any stops along the way!) so as to not have to drive after dark.