In addition to breathtaking scenery, incredible wildlife, and culture-rich cities, South Africa is blessed with an excellent road network. For those seeking the freedom and excitement of a self-drive safari, renting a car is the obvious option, but there are a few things that you will need to know before you hit the road in South Africa.
There are some key differences between the rules of the road in South Africa and other places, from driving on the left side of the road to traffic lights referred to as "robots." The latter is important to remember in case you need to ask for directions, and someone tells you to "turn left at the second robot." In addition to robots and left-side driving, you'll need to know the rules of the road and be prepared with the correct documentation.
To avoid trouble with the South African traffic police, make sure that your driving license is valid. If your license is not written in English, you'll need to apply for an International Driver's Permit (IDP) ahead of your trip. If your driver's license doesn't include a photo, you must carry your passport with you also. You should never drive in South Africa without some form of photo ID.
Checklist for Driving in South Africa
- Valid driver's license (required)
- IDP (required if your license is not printed in English)
Rules of the Road
Driving in South Africa can be a novel experience for those used to the roads of North America or Europe.
- Driving on the left side of the road: In South Africa, you will need to adjust to driving on the left side of the road. Before you take on the major highways, take some time to practice and adjust to driving on the left. Remember to keep to the left and pass on the right.
- Speed limits: Speed limits change frequently, so make sure to keep an eye out for signs. Generally, the average speed limit is 60 kilometers per hour (37 miles per hour) in cities, 100 kph (62 mph) on secondary roads, and 120 kph (75 mph) on highways.
- Road signs: Road signs are often written in Afrikaans as well as English and distances are measured in kilometers.
- Seatbelts: Drivers and passengers are both legally required to wear a seatbelt at all times.
- Drinking and driving: In South Africa, the legal blood alcohol content is 0.05 percent, which is between one or two beers or glasses of wine depending on your body weight.
- Tolls: You'll find tolls on the main highways, which can cost anywhere between 15 and 50 South African rand, and can be paid by cash and occasionally by credit card.
- Roundabouts: Known locally as turning circles, you must give way to the right when using one. However, some smaller ones will operate on a first-come, first-served basis, which will be clearly marked.
- Single lane highways: You'll find that cars often pull over onto the hard shoulder to let other vehicles overtake. Flashing your hazards is the correct way to thank people if they do this for you.
- Four-way stop streets: These are common in cities and operate on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Gas stations: Attendants will pump your gas for you as well as checking tire pressure and oil levels. It's customary to tip these individuals at least 5 rand.
- Cell phones: Using a cell phone, whether talking or texting, while driving is not permitted.
- In case of emergency: If you run into any problem for any reason and need to contact emergency services, dial 112. For more specific assistance, you can dial 10111 for emergency police response and 10177 for an emergency ambulance response.
Should You Rent a Car?
The independence of renting a car is ideally suited to family travel, and when checking out the safari parks, a more cost-effective option than an expensive packaged tour. Renting a car is especially worthwhile in South Africa, where public transport is limited in big cities and non-existent in rural areas (and often either unreliable or unsafe for visitors to use). Rideshare services are readily available in major cities such as Cape Town and Durban, and can be used instead of a rental if you don't plan on leaving the city. If you rent, check your insurance carefully, making sure that it includes coverage for vehicle theft, and remember to ask about additional fees.
If you intend on covering large distances, fuel efficiency may be your top priority, while a high clearance vehicle (and possibly a 4x4) is a good idea if you're headed out on safari. Air-conditioning is a must, especially if you're traveling during the South African summer, while optional extras including roof racks or a GPS can help you to get the most out of your self-drive experience. Stick shift cars are more common than automatic cars in South Africa, so make sure that you're comfortable driving manual, or request an automatic.
In South Africa, you'll find many of the main roads and highways are in good shape. However, occasionally you may come across a road in which an off-road vehicle would be necessary, particularly if you are doing any driving through rural areas. In more remote areas, be mindful of the directions you are following and pay attention to your surroundings as online maps don't always have the most updated information.
You may see many people walking along the road as well as animals like goats and cows crossing in front of you. They will be easy enough to see during the day, but you should be extra careful when driving in the dark. The majority of animals you see will be livestock animals, and it's very unlikely you will come across any lions or other wild animals. If a lion, buffalo, or elephant does happen to cross your path, stay in your car, and wait for the animal to move on.
South Africa has an unfortunate reputation as a dangerous destination, but the reality is that staying safe is usually easy, with a little common sense. When it comes to driving, there are a few simple rules.
- Keep your windows and doors locked when driving through urban areas, and especially when stopped at a traffic light.
- Never leave valuables in sight when parked, and try to park your car in a well-lit area that's protected by car guards (attendants in reflective clothes will look after your vehicle in exchange for a tip of a few rand).
- Hitchhikers are common, but picking them up is not recommended.
If you're using a GPS, it's a good idea to research suggested routes ahead of time. Often, the shortest route is not always the safest. In addition, try to avoid driving at night: In the cities, the majority of carjackings take place after dark, while rural roads are rarely lit by street lights, making people and free-ranging livestock difficult to spot. Additionally, drunk driving is inevitably more of an issue at night, no matter where you are driving.