Millions of visitors each year enjoy their holidays in South Africa – and I am one of them. I have visited three times already, and I hope to go back in for more! Last time I visited, I went with my sister and we decided to rent a car and drive around. It was a truly fun way of exploring the country and allowed us to appreciate its dramatic beauty.
Driving in South Africa is, for the most part, safe and easy. However, while most trips go without a hitch, it’s important to know the dangers and how to keep yourself safe. Even if you’re a good driver, driving in unfamiliar territory is tricky, especially if you’re not familiar with the local rules.
If you are planning on driving in South Africa, you are probably curious to know what to expect. I thus thought about putting together a post and share a few tips that are based on my personal experience.
Want to have an idea of the prices of car rental in South Africa? Check them out here.
What You Must Know When Driving In South Africa
Driving is on the left!
The most important thing you need to know about driving in South Africa is that you’ll be driving on the left. Don’t assume is straightforward! I have seen plenty of people getting into the wrong lane and I won’t deny that I have almost done it myself a few times.
If you’re used to driving on the right, you’ll need to be extra alert so you don’t accidentally revert to the way you drive at home! One thing that may help you when driving on the left is to have an automatic car – at least you won’t need to worry about shifting gear!
Many of the typical rules for driving in South Africa will likely be familiar to you. By law, the driver and all passengers have to wear seatbelts.
Don’t call and drive
Cell phones while driving are prohibited in South Africa, unless obviously you’re using a hands-free device.
Know the local traffic slang
I’m betting you’ve never heard of the word “Robots” used to describe traffic lights, and depending on where you’re from, you may not be familiar with the four-way-stop method that allows the first person who arrives to go first. Cars coming from the right have the right-of-way at roundabouts and when turning right at a traffic light, you must give priority to oncoming traffic no matter what colour your light is.
Familiarize yourself with road signs
Before you get behind the wheel, it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about the different road signs and rules of the road. Don’t assume that all street signs are going to look the same as the ones you’re used to!
Don’t go over the speed limit
Always respect the speed limit – for safety reason, and because the last thing you need is a speeding ticket. One way to go around it is to ask for your rental car to have a GPS – this will usually warn you about the presence of speed cameras and speed limits, so you won’t go over!
Beware of road conditions
The roads in South Africa aren’t always in great condition. They are definitely excellent closer to larger cities, where multiple-lanes highways are common; but not nearly as good once you are far from a city – in which case you will often be driving on a two or at most three-lanes road, where the central lane is used for passing on both sides.
Also, be aware that many of the highways in the country don’t have painted lines and are just one big lane with cars swerving around slower-moving vehicles.
Finally, the risk of hitting a large pothole is possible and that could mean dealing with a flat tire or worse. Make sure your rental car comes with a spare tire – it’s better to be safe on this front!
Let others pass you
As you will often be driving along two or three-lanes road, you will notice that passing is not nearly as easy. You will often notice slower vehicles (often large trucks) pull over to the side to let faster ones pass. Keep an eye on your rearview mirrors to spot any car trying to pass you, and if they are do the same – slightly pull over the side of the road. Once the car has passed you, chances are they will flash their emergency lights once or twice as a thank you – in which case, you can answer by flashing your lights.
Beware of wildlife
A common hazard around the country, particularly in more remote areas and around national parks and game reserves, are animals blocking roadways. Elephants, lions, springboks, and – especially in the Cape Point Peninsula – even baboons are just some of the animals you might see on the road.
Pay attention to road signs indicating animal crossings and if you see an animal, stop as far away as possible, stay in your vehicle, close all windows (baboons will try to get in your car) and wait until the animal is off the road before moving on. Many animals move more at night, so it’s important to make use of your high beams and reduce your speed when driving at night.
Avoid driving at night
And speaking of driving at night, it’s not recommended unless you absolutely have to. Some of the dangers you may encounter when driving in South Africa are especially common at night. Carjacking is an issue everywhere in the country, but especially in isolated areas in the KwaZulu Natal and Zululand, and along the roads that lead to Kruger National Park.
Be wary of any debris on the road
Sometimes would-be carjackers place an object in the road to force cars to stop. To avoid this scenario, stick to main roads as much as possible, always have your windows up and doors locked when stopped and avoid getting out of the car in places that are away from the main tourist path.
Watch out for people crossing
One thing I noticed already the first time I visited South Africa is that people have a thing for crossing the highway, often jumping right in front of cars – and that’s when a crossing bridge is just a few hundred meters away. This is dangerous not only for pedestrians, but also for drivers!
Keep your eyes open for people crossing the street, especially closer to cities and villages and even more so if you drive at night (one more reason not to do so, actually!).
Stop in designated areas if in need of help or directions
Do your research and get familiar with the areas you should be avoiding. Many places around the country lack cell-phone coverage so it’s a good idea to let someone, either at your hotel or back home, know where you’re going and when you’re expected to return. If you need directions or help, stop at a service station rather than venturing off course or asking a stranger.
The same applies in case you want to help someone else. If you see someone by the side of the road with a seemingly broken vehicle, either have another passenger call for help or stop at the next gas station for that.
Don’t pick up hitchhikers
Hitchhiking is actually quite common in South Africa, yet it’s not a good idea that you, as a foreigner, do that. You never know what their intention may be, And don’t feel bad about it!
Don’t flash your belongings
Avoid displaying valuables in plain view while driving in South Africa, and even more so when you park the car and leave. A nice piece of clothing hanging on the back of a seat or a cell phone propped on the front console can make you an easy target.
Keep your windows up at all times
One important safety tip in South Africa is to keep your windows rolled up at all times and the doors locked, even in cities and especially when you are stopping the car to park or at the traffic light. If someone approaches your car at a traffic light to sell you something or ask you something, don’t be tempted to roll down the window.
In fact, keep an eye on the rearview mirror to spot anyone trying to approach, and if someone tries to wash your windshield immediately signal them to stop. If you don’t they will demand money and if you refuse to pay things could get nasty really quickly.
If your car breaks, remain in the car while waiting for help and – again – keep your doors locked and windows up.
Only park in designated areas
When parking your vehicle, park it in a high-traffic area or an official car park, best if a parking garage or a store parking lot.
Parking is an issue in many places and because of this, you may find yourself dealing with what locals call car guards. These unofficial guards aren’t employed by anyone but they take it upon themselves to point out parking spaces and guard your car while you’re running errands. All this is done for a fee, of course.
For many of these car guards, the spare change they earn is their livelihood. They are usually harmless folks just trying to earn a living. Since their presence in an area seems to deter would-be thieves from breaking into cars, you can offer them some change. If their service is not needed or wanted, a friendly “no thank you” goes a long way.
Bring extra fuel
Depending on how far you plan to travel, you might want to have some extra fuel on hand because gas stations are hard to come by in some areas.
Watch out for fraudulent traffic police
If you have doubts about the police that has just pulled you over (ie if they demand you pay a fine on the spot), ask them to follow them at the station.
If you are planning a trip to South Africa, make sure to read my other posts:
- The Best Places To Visit In South Africa
- The Best Things To Do In Cape Town
- The Best Day Trips From Cape Town
- The Best Things To Do In Johannesburg
- The Best Day Trips From Johannesburg
- The Best Things To Do In Knysna And On The Garden Route
- The Best Beaches In South Africa
- The Best Things To Do In Durban
- The Best Wine Estates In Stellenbosch
- The Best Things To Do In Stellenbosch