Driving in South Africa

JT drove 1,867 km (19463-21330 km on the car; 1,160 miles) in South Africa – around Johannesburg, out to and around Kruger and then from Kruger to Johannesburg Airport. It was certainly some of the most intense driving he has ever done!

First of all, they drive on the left side of the road. This is not as simple as just “staying left” of the center line; it changes everything! The driver sits on the right side of the car. The gear shifter is on the left side of the driver, as well as the rear-view mirror. Even after driving for days and 1000+ km, JT was still instinctively reaching to the right for the gear shifter and looking up and to the right for the rear-view mirror.

Left turns become the easy ones at lights and right turns are not only harder than we are used to, but weird to our right-side-driving brain. JT would chant “far lane, far lane, far lane” to remind himself not to instinctively pull into the right lane of traffic at these right turns.

Finally, you must remember to drive in the right-most side of the lane – as the driver side is on the right instead of left. Otherwise, you will accidentally end up on the shoulder, as we did.

Road types
Specifically to South Africa, we experienced three types of roads:
(1) “N” roads are generally like interstates in the US – limited access highways where the speed limit can range from 80-120 km/hr and 2-10 lanes across. Out towards Kruger National Park (~300 km from Johannesburg), the N4 was more like a US highway: no limited access and only two undivided lanes

N4 on the way to Kruger
The N4 narrows to two lanes as you approach Kruger

(2) “M” roads are city roads that do not have controlled access, but are generally larger and may be divided in the middle
(3) basic city roads

We learned that the M roads were not major highways the hard way. On our way from the airport to our hotel the first night, we did not have access to mobile data or a printout of directions. We figured that we could just take the M2 to the R41 over to the N1 and head north towards the area our hotel was in. However, the M2/R41 took us through quite-sketchy neighborhoods. We were surprised – and concerned – by the dozens and dozens of people crossing the roads along the way. Since it was dark, we sometimes would not see them until they were crossing in front of our headlights. This certainly left us on edge! We had to stop at multiple lights where we were quite concerned for our safety. Of course, nothing ended up happening and I don’t know if our fears were completely unfounded, but it was a stressful time. Also, it ends up that we drove at least 20 km more than we needed to 🙁

Driving outside of the city, passing is a critical skill in South Africa – but it is downright terrifying. When the lanes narrow to 2-3 lanes across, there are trucks limited to 80 km/hr and the speed limit is 120 km/hr, you are going to experience a lot of passing.

On steep uphills (and sometimes downhills) in 2-lane stretches of roads, the road planners will often have 3 lanes across – 2 uphill and 1 downhill – to facilitate cars easily passing trucks struggling up the hills. Also, they will have random 3-lane stretches of roads also to allow cars to pass slower trucks (which there were a lot of). Here it felt to JT like the autobahn: way-too-slow vehicles (60-80 kph) in one lane and way-too-fast vehicles (140+ kph) in the other. If you want to just go a reasonable 100 kph, you have to be wary of vehicles “flying up” behind you and make sure your depth perception is top-notch for managing your own passes.

An example of a three-lane segment, with slower trucks staying left

During 2-lane stretches of road, there is can often be enough room on the shoulders that the road could be 3-4 lanes across. In these areas, it is common for slower vehicles to pull well onto the shoulder to facilitate easier passing by faster vehicles. However, it is important to note that vehicles will not only pass like this when there is no traffic coming the other direction. As long as the traffic coming the other way can see the passing car, the passing car will often cross well over the center line. If you are a US driver like me, you probably will not expect to have to watch for oncoming traffic partially pulling into your lane. Make sure to watch for this and pull into your shoulder in order to avoid a head-on collision!

Be extra cautious in the “High Accident Zone”s!

To thank the vehicle for pulling over into the shoulder or slowing down to let you by, you thank them by flashing your “hazards”/flashers 2-3 times.

“Traffic control”
You will often seeing a camera image below speed limit signs. We were not sure what this meant: Is this mean radar is used to measure speed? Or, does this mean that there are automated cameras catching speed limit violators? After 1,867 km of driving in South Africa, we still are not quite sure… But, we did experience some “speed zones” that we want to share about.

Seemingly randomly – but more likely after speed limit reduction signs – there will be a person on the side of the road operating a radar gun, sometimes quite hidden by the trees or a turn in the road. With them, there is often a police officer who seems ready to jump into traffic to stop violators. There might be a police vehicle further ahead on the shoulder or down an enclave out of sight off the road with “traffic control” on the vehicle.

There was one of these “traffic control” stations that forced everyone to come to a complete stop before continuing, complete with speed reduction signs and cones. It seems that they record your speed further back on the road and then force violators to pull over after they have stopped. Thankfully, we were allowed to pass.

But, we were stopped later… There was a stretch of road at 100 kph, that lowered to 80 kph and then, soon after and around a bend, it dropped to 60 kph. All of this was while the road was going downhill. JT let off the gas at the first drop and pressed the brakes at the second sign, but did not want to slam on the breaks to get down to 60 as the road did not seem to warrant such a random drop. Sure enough, there was a “traffic control” station. The officer jumped out onto the road and waved us over to stop. He explained that we were recorded going 81 kpm and that the fine would be R750 for being more than 20 over. JT explained that we were not going this fast in the 60 kph zone and the officer eventually relented, agreeing that “since you are on holiday” to “only” fine us R500 – the fine for a 15-20 kph infraction. Rather than argue further, we decided to pay the fine and move along. It was a “spot fine”, so it had to be paid immediately. When we asked for proof of payment, the officer balked, saying that he would have to pull the car’s registration paperwork and it would be a long process that he didn’t want to go through. This seemed to further delegitimize the entire process and left us feeling like we were just shaken down by the police.

In South Africa, it is mandatory “for safety reasons” that an attendant fuels your car. When you arrive at a busy gas station, the attendants will likely be waiting for you, even directing you to the pump. At slower gas stations, we pulled up to an unused pump and an attendant would come over to greet us and start pumping. Guidebooks recommended R2-5 tip for attendants. Since the guidebooks were a bit low on cost estimations for the trip – and we would rather be took generous than not – we tipped R5 for fueling only and R10 for attendants who fueled and washed our windows.

Along the N4 from Johannesburg to Kruger, there is a series of “oasis” pitstops – that combine gas stations, pubic bathrooms, and restaurants all in one spot. We fueled at a couple of these.

One of the “oasis” pitstops

There were three fuel options at each pump: 95 Non-Metal, 95 Metal, and Diesel. It seems that they still have leaded fuel?! We didn’t inquire, just telling the attendant unleaded. Fueling costs were between R12.73-13.30 per liter, or approximately $4.17 per gallon.

Many guidebooks report that you may only pay with cash for fuel and that fueling stations will have ATMs in case you do not have cash. However, we never encountered a fueling station where we were unable to pay with a credit card – although we made sure to have enough cash anyways.

When driving around Johannesburg that first night trying to find our hotel without navigation, we noticed how few street signs there were! After that first night, we were able to utilize a combination of wifi and the small data plan that we purchased for JT’s phone to be able to get detailed navigation via Google Maps. Directions and navigation were rather easy using this.

We were pleasantly surprised that Google Maps worked so well offline: we were able to load directions over hotel wifi and then leave the data connection off on the phone and still got turn-by-turn directions. Sometimes, if the navigation did not have time to fully load, we would just get a chime sound from the app when we were supposed to make a turn – rather than the “Turn right on Main Street” audio. But, the maps were still detailed, so we did not find this to be a problem.

If you are driving around South Africa, we recommend that you get a small data plan for your cell phone to assist with navigation. We found it to be well-worth the small cost and medium hassle – which should be a small hassle for you if you see our post about using your cell phone in South Africa.

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