Let’s face it. Driving in another country can be intimidating. Jumping into your rental car and heading off with little knowledge of local driving culture can lead to misunderstandings at best. Here is the good news. We have driven to nearly every corner of South Africa, many times. Ed grew up there. So we can offer both tips that the locals know as well as the perspective of an outsider.
Organized tours of South Africa are one way to go, but you will be stuck with a pre-determined itinerary, with little room for improvisation. Renting a car and self-driving around the country provides you with the freedom to explore at a pace that suites you and to adjust your plans as you see fit. There is really nothing like having your own vehicle.
But just how is driving in South Africa? Well, that depends a little on your perspective. If you have ever experienced the traffic in a large lower-income city, like Delhi or Cairo, South Africa will seem like a walk in the park. If however, you have never driven outside a moderately-sized city in a high-income country, then driving in South Africa can be a bit of an eye opener.
Let’s start with the basics. In South Africa you drive on the left side of the road. The same as in the UK, Australia and India. So if you come from Europe or North America, this presents a bit of a challenge. Ed has little difficulty switching from one side to the other. I find it more of a challenge. Most people don’t have a problem when driving on the highways or in rural areas, like Hoedspruit. Negotiating traffic in the cities takes some concentration. Just remember, as the driver, keep yourself to the centre line. Right turns are across traffic, left turns are not.
South African drivers can be rather aggressive, from the perspective of this Canadian. Speeds can be high and passing happens a lot, even under less than ideal conditions. I have even seen the police pass on a solid double line. Share taxis (mini-buses) are some of the worst offenders. There is an expectation that slower drivers will drift into the shoulder area to allow for someone to pass. Large trucks will generally do this for you. It is customary to flash your hazard lights as you pass, to say “thank you” for giving way.
You do not need an international driver’s license- just a valid license from your home country
The police have speed traps located throughout the country. Be particularly careful entering or leaving small towns, as there may be speed traps in the areas that highway speeds transition to the lower speed limit of the town.
Depending where you come from, you may not be familiar with negotiating roundabouts (often called “traffic circles” in South Africa). These are common throughout South Africa. Traffic flows in a clockwise direction. As you approach a traffic circle, you must yield to traffic that is already in the circle (the traffic on your right). Be sure to use your signals to indicate if you plan on turning left or right one you enter the circle. You must also signal when you are leaving the circle. This video shows you how.
Some drivers may not be familiar with All-Way stops. These are another form of intersection control and can be either 4-way or 3-way, depending on the number of roads intersecting. The rule is this- whoever gets to the intersection first gets to proceed. So as you approach the intersection, you must be pay attention to where you are in the order. When it is your turn, proceed with caution. This is also the procedure to use when traffic lights are not working (as can happen regularly in some cities).
Road conditions throughout the country vary a lot. The main national highways (the N routes) are usually in excellent condition. These are usually toll roads. Keep a small amount of cash handy for paying tolls. Tolls may cost around 50 ZAD, some are less. You will pass through multiple tolls booths driving to Kruger Park from Johannesburg.
The greater Johannesburg area has numerous e-tolls. These are structures that you drive under, which automatically tag your license plate and send you (or your rental company) an invoice for driving on that road. Your rental car will have an e-toll chip installed. Listen for the beep as you pass underneath. You will be billed for these charges when you drop off the car.
Provincial highways are generally in good condition, but the more rural ones can be challenging. Potholes can be large and can appear almost out of nowhere. Often there will be signs announcing their presence, but not always. The same goes for speed bumps in towns, which are sometimes put in place by the local residents and are not marked. Roads in the Western Cape tend to be better. Rural roads around Kruger Park, especially Phalaborwa and further north can have significant stretches of potholes. You also need to watch for animals and pedestrians on the road and slow moving farm vehicles. By keeping your speed reasonable and remaining alert, you should not have any problems. Avoid driving longer distances at night.
Driving in Kruger National Park
Driving in Kruger Park itself is very easy. The roads are well-maintained and well-marked. You can purchase maps at the park gates or camp gift stores. Some river crossings may be blocked after heavy rains. Always obey signs indicating high water. NEVER drive into a flooded river bed, as the waters can rise very rapidly.
There is no need for a four-wheel-drive in Kruger Park. Even the dirt and gravel roads are maintained well enough for a two-wheel drive. Still, if you are going to rent a two-wheel-drive car, I would recommend getting one with a high clearance. A higher vehicle also allows for better game viewing. You can ask the rental company which of their fleet is most suitable.
A search of YouTube will find you numerous videos of drivers close, or dangerous encounters with wildlife in the Kruger Park. These can almost always be attributed to irresponsible or ill-informed actions by tourists, putting themselves or the animals in danger. It seems obvious to say that large, wild animals need to be respected. Don’t drive too close. Watch for signs that the animal is becoming aggressive or agitated. This could include turning towards you and posturing. You should move out of the way, even if it means reversing.
Petrol/ gas stations in South Africa are full-service. There will usually be a team of attendants to fill your tank, check your oil and wash your windows. It is custom to provide a tip for these workers, as wages are very low. We usually tip around 10 Rand for the lot.
Parking lots in all cities and larger towns will have car guards who will watch over your car and assist you in finding a parking space. This is a major source of work and a much needed deterrent for petty thieves. Most survive strictly on tips. It is customary to give at least 2 Rand.
Many thousands of tourists drive around South Africa every year, with absolutely no problems. Indeed we have driven around all of Southern Africa for hundreds of thousands of kilometers without incident. But a country with more than 25% unemployment and one of the world’s greatest income inequalities is going to have crime. So take the following as common sense advice, but do not let it deter you from driving around the country.
You will see signs around major cities indicating a “high hijack zone”. Hijacking is what we would call carjacking in North America. Local South African’s are much more likely to be victims of a hijacking, as thieves often target commuters in their driveways. Still, it is important to be aware of who is around you as you stop at an intersection in the larger cities. But please do stop at intersections! Some visitors are under the impression that it is unsafe to come to a complete stop at an intersection. However, you are at much greater risk of harm from causing an accident by not stopping than you are of getting robbed while coming to a full stop.
Keep your doors locked and keep any valuables out of site. Do not leave bags on the back seat if you can avoid it, lest someone “smash and grab” your belongings.
Car jamming is another way that thieves can steal your belongings from a parked car. Thieves wait in parking lots with devices that block the signal to your remote locking devise. You press the button to lock your car, but the car does not actually lock. Once you walk into the shops, the thieves simply help themselves to the content of your car. You can avoid this by always manually checking that your door has locked after you press the button.
Don’t forget-distances can be long. Carry some water and a few snacks. The larger petrol stations usually have shops where you can purchase everything that you need.