Driving in South Africa

Driving in South Africa

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!)

Should I drive myself?

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!

Licensing regulations in South Africa

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… ;).
Road conditions in South Africa

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!
Toll system in South Africa

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.
TIP: Many tolls around South Africa are not automated, so be sure to have cash and change on hand! Fees will vary from R10 to R200 for passenger vehicles.
Road signage in South Africa

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:
See more great South African road signs in the accompanying photo essay!
General road rules in South Africa

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.
There is one common, yet not legally sanctioned, practice in South Africa that occurs on the highways of which you should be aware. When driving on a highway with two lanes (one in each direction), it is common for a truck or slow-moving car to drive on the shoulder in order to allow the faster moving vehicle behind to pass. I have seen this mostly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and less so in the western provinces. It is so common in KZN that oncoming traffic will also drive on their shoulder at times if they see that someone is trying to pass going the other direction, to give the passser more room to do so. I should stress that this is not legal per se but again, a very common practice along the N2 in KZN. I follow the custom while driving there, not only because of the many, many big trucks holding me up but also because you become a hold-up to other traffic if you don’t. I would say that even if you aren’t comfortable passing in this way, be aware that folks coming up behind you will want to pass and they may want or expect you to move onto the shoulder so they can pass more easily. If you do move onto the shoulder (which can sometimes be wide and paved, to almost seem to allow for this practice), you MUST watch for pedestrians and animals and be very careful. After you move to the shoulder and someone passes you, they will flash their hazard lights 2-3 times as a “thank you.” The person passed then usually flashes back as a “You’re welcome.” This flashing of lights takes place in other situations as well but I have noticed in mainly on the roads of KZN.     ​
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:

  • Gas is called petrol in South Africa and service stations are called garages.
  • Petrol will be sold by the liter (one gallon = 3.8 liters).
  • Please tip your service station attendant, anywhere between R2 and R5 is expected.
TIP: Garages will not always accept credit cards, so be ready with cash in hand. 
Parking in South Africa

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.
Safety while driving in South Africa

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.
Other tips:

  • 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.
I hope this article helps you to get on the road in South Africa. It is such a beautiful country with stunning landscapes, villages, and people that are best seen and experienced at your own pace. It’s great to have control over where you are able to go and when, so give self-driving some thought for your next holiday in South Africa!
Now it’s your turn! Do you like to drive when visiting other countries? Would you drive in South Africa? Please comment below! And did you check out the accompanying photo essay?

Shakespeare (and George Whitman) & Company

Paris, early 1980s: I was your standard-issue teen backpacker, clutching the requisite copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Shy. Bookish. Not terribly independent, but on my own nonetheless, on my first day in Paris.

I spent most of that first day sitting in the sun on the steps of Notre Dame, daydreaming and writing in a spiral notebook I’d bought at Gibert Jeune on Boulevard St Michel, and now, the sun was setting. If I’d paid more attention to my guidebook, or to reality in general, I would’ve realized I should have already secured a bed for the night.

I inquired at every youth hostel I could find, as night slowly fell. Shyly. In my best French. But no luck. Pas de chambres, the concierges all muttered, giving me barely a glance. No room at the inn.

My panic was rising when I finally noticed the faded yellow shingle of an English-speaking bookstore, tucked into a tiny, cobblestoned corner on rue de la Bûcherie. Outside, a slightly gaunt, middle-aged man who looked like he might speak English, was just closing up.

“Excuse me, sir,” I began, “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might know of a youth hostel that…

He cut me off with a scowl, and waved me inside his shop.

“You can sleep back there. With the others,” he said, pointing a bony finger at a dusty, carpeted back corner between the stacks. Someone else’s blue sleeping bag peeked out from a corner, neatly rolled.  “The kitchen’s upstairs. But you have to work. Help clean the place, or, or, something.”

“You mean I can… stay here?”

But he’d already gone back out to finish locking up.

Relief and excitement spread through me like butter through a warm croissant. This man was gruff, but okay. I felt it would be all right. I was going to sleep in a bookstore in Paris! I’d found a strange port in a storm.

And I’d met George Whitman.

For three days, I stayed. I swept up, washed dishes, re-shelved books. Once I minded the till. Thank god no customer showed up, because I didn’t even know how to open it.

Up the creaky old stairs, in a minuscule kitchen, I hung out in a haze of smoke with other residents – like Australian Maggie, the street performer who made me chai in a copper pot and talked constantly about her young daughter – whom, the others informed me in stage-whispers, had tragically died years earlier. Or the young Indian man who ranted a type of crazy that came out like poetry. Two giggling German girls showed up – they only talked to each other, but they threw open the ancient kitchen window and washed all the cracked dishes in the sink for the first time in maybe years.

It was a fantastical interlude, one I’ve never forgotten. I barely set foot outside the tiny shop, those three days. I’d found a wanderer’s world of adventure inside its listing walls.

I’d actually stumbled into a literary landmark, a world treasure. George Whitman, proprietor and host, died at the age of 98 in 2011, but Shakespeare & Co. is still a working bookstore, going stronger than ever. According to some estimates, upwards of 40,000 travelers have stayed there through the years — some only for a few days, like me; some for months, and even years.

George first opened the shop in 1951, calling it le Mistral. But he soon became friendly with literary legend Sylvia Beach. Her original bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. on rue de l’Odéon, was a mecca for Lost Generation writers like James Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Picasso – the best of 1920s Paris culture.

The elderly Sylvia blessed George’s bookstore, and willed him many books when she died — as well as permission to use her prestigious store name. So le Mistral became Shakespeare & Co. in 1964. And it became a hotbed of literary bohemian culture in Paris.

Also, a pretty good place to sleep and hang out.

George died at age 98 in 2011, and since then, it’s been his daughter, the beautiful and beautifully named Sylvia Beach Whitman, who runs the show.

It’s still there, operating steadily, the dust and rabbit-warren of bursting shelves looking a bit improved upon. The carpet’s been updated, and now they sell “les tee shirts.” Richard Linklater has filmed there, as has Woody Allen. Sundance has even aired a documentary about the place called Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man. Here’s a hair-raising clip. The IMDb write-up describes an older, even more deranged George than the one I met in the early 1980s – a 92 year old George who’s spent a lifetime offering “free, dirty beds to poor literati, cutting his hair with a candle, and gluing the carpet with pancake batter. Illustrious guests include Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Jacques Prévert, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Welcome to the makeshift utopia of the last member of the Beat Generation.”

So, that gives you a small idea of what George was like.

There are other changes to the shop, these days. No one sleeps there anymore. You can’t visit Australian Maggie in the tiny kitchen and chat over chai, or hear poetic rants from random residents emanating over the stairs.

They are just ghosts, now, as is George himself, who died in bed upstairs when his time came.  He lived his life in that bookstore. He was one soul who didn’t want to go out in the world with a backpack to prove himself. He stayed in, with his towering piles of books.

And the world came to him. ​

​Visit Shakespeare & Company at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, on the Left Bank, 10am-11pm. 

Have you been to Shakespeare and Company? What bookstores around the world are your favorites? Have a Recollection of your own to share? Comment below to let us know!

Street Art in Johannesburg: A Photo Gallery

Johannesburg is an amazing city to visit for many reasons, not the least of which is a burgeoning art scene in several up-and-coming neighborhoods. One of these neighborhoods is Maboneng, which is undergoing a renaissance of art, culture, music, food, and life.

More about Maboneng will be included in a future post but this one is dedicated to the street art of this area as well as others within Joburg. Street art has come a long way from the graffiti tags of the early 1980s.

Around Joburg, it is vibrant, colorful, experimental, beautiful, challenging, and often at once a memory of South Africa’s turbulent history and a tribute to its bright future.

If you can get to Johannesburg, make your way through the local art museums but ensure to keep your eyes open for these and many other pieces around the city by some lesser-known, yet ultra-talented local artists.

What are your favorites? What cities have you visited and seen some great street art? Please comment below; we love to hear from you!

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