Ultimate guide to driving a rental car in South Africa: 25 tips for a South African road trip!
Our epic South Africa road trip is one of our favourite trips EVER and renting a car was an essential part of our itinerary. After all, four wheels are a must have when you’re planning a road trip through three countries! We had huge plans for our rental car: a 3 week drive from Johannesburg to Cape Town taking in Kruger National Park, Lesotho, Swaziland, the Garden Route and the incredible Sani Pass. Having driven over 6,000km on South Africa’s roads we wanted to share everything we learned about driving in the country to help you plan your trip. Here’s our top tips for driving in South Africa!
Choosing a rental car
1 | Rent the biggest car you can afford if you’re travelling for more than a few days. The vastness of the country means you are going to spend many, many hours in the car and it is more than worth it to spend a little extra for some comfort. We, as three adults, shared a Toyota Fortuna, and it was perfect for a longer haul trip. The tinted windows meant our luggage wasn’t too visible in the trunk and we had plenty of leg room during the trip.
2 | Consider a 4x 4 if you are tempted to go off-road. We ended up taking the Sani Pass into Lesotho, something which was only possible with a 4x4. We also encountered a number of roads which would likely be uncomfortable in a regular car due to their very poor condition.
South Africa Driving Etiquette
3 | Driving is on the left hand side in South Africa.
4 | We generally found South African drivers to be very courteous and everyone we met on the road was very considerate when over taking and changing lanes.
5| When driving on a single lane road move to the left into the hard shoulder to let cars past. This can be quite counter-intuitive as a European driver but it was a common occurrence and caused us to sweat profusely when it happened on the brow of a hill!
6 | If you wish to pass a slower moving vehicle indicate to the right and the car in front will typically move in when possible.
7 | Climbing lanes are often available as the South African roads are quite hilly and there are lots of large trucks and lorries. Use them to pass trucks and slow-moving vehicles when going uphill. If you are moving more slowly than the traffic move into the left lane to let traffic overtake.
8 | Once you pass another driver a flash of the hazard lights suffices as a thank you. You’ll usually be greeted by a friendly flash of their headlights. It’s a friendly gesture so don’t be alarmed when it first happens!
9 | Honking the horn is a definite no-no except in an emergency. We only heard a horn twice and on both occasions the drivers were almost in an accident situation.
10 | Watch out for the stop signs! Being used to driving in the US and Europe the stop signs on the main roads through the towns took us by surprise. Be sure to come to a complete halt at the stop sign and give way to cars coming onto the main road.
11 | A good GPS is essential. We used an offline GPS app (Osm And navigation) which we have on our cellphones and, on occasion, used the data on the sims we purchased at the beginning of our trip. Our GPS was equipped with speed limits which, although sometimes out of date, was useful for the ever-changing speed limits we met.
12 | Double check your route before you start and have a general idea of the route before you set out each day. This is especially important in the eastern parts of South Africa. Sometimes the GPS suggested off-road conditions because the distance was shorter but don’t be tempted by the shorter predicted times as the roads can be horrific!
Driving at night
The number one rule is to avoid driving after dark whenever possible! Our car rental company advised us of this a number of times when we picked up our car. There are a number of reasons for this:
13 | Outside of Cape Town there were lots of people walking and running on the hard shoulder after dark and it was almost impossible to see them with the head lamps as they didn’t typically wear any reflective gear. It is especially common to see walkers in and around the townships.
14 | Lots of animals come out at night and it is a huge driving hazard. We came across so many herds of goats and cows wandering on the road and it would not have been pleasant to hit them!
15 | Many of the roads, including the main highways, did not have fluorescent line markings or cats-eyes. This makes driving after dark particularly difficult as it can be difficult to see the road!
Despite these warnings we actually ended up doing quite a lot of night driving as our itinerary was so jam-packed and we underestimated some of the driving distances.We encountered all of the above as well as an incredibly foggy mountain pass and it made for very stressful evenings!
Speed Limits in South Africa
16 | Watch your speed! We noticed that the South Africa drivers rarely, if ever, broke the speed limit.
17 | The police presence was very heavy in most areas of our trip, particularly on the Garden Route portion of the drive. This meant there were mobile speed cameras setup everywhere and we found cruise control invaluable for staying within the speed limit. Fixed speed cameras were prevalent in Cape Town and we saw a number of them during our time there.
18 | The speed limit varies frequently and it was common to go through zones of 60, 80 and 100 km/h interchangeably.
Road Conditions in South Africa
19 | Generally speaking the roads were very good throughout all of South Africa, especially on the Garden Route and were of the European standard we are used to. The roads in Lesotho from the Sani Pass to Maseru were, somewhat surprisingly, excellent due to the new road upgrade. The Swaziland roads were fine but we did encounter some patches poorly maintained roads. There are of course a number of caveats to these:
- The Sani pass road has a fantastic new surface on the Lesotho border side, however the road is still 4x4 only between the Lesotho border and the South Africa entry point. Only 4x4’s will be allowed to enter, you have been warned!
- There were occasional long stretches of road works. Outside of Cape Town we passed at least 30 instances where roads or lanes were closed because of temporary and road works. This can drastically increase your drive time!
- We came across roads in quite bad condition in the rural areas. Potholes, dust roads and roads without line markings were relatively common on our road trip through the country.
Gas Station stops
20 | Petrol stations were available frequently during our drives throughout the country. The only exception to this was Lesotho where we didn’t pass a single major petrol station on our drive. We had read this before we travelled and planned accordingly. The stations were less frequent on the Eastern side of South Africa but were not sparse enough for us to be concerned about the distances.
21 | Don’t fill your own car. There are petrol attendants at all the fuel stops who will fill you up, bring the credit card machine and wash your windows as you wait. If you need it, they can check your oil, water and tyre pressure. As a tourist, it’s customary to tip a small amount such as 20 Rand for the service.
22 | We loved the parking attendants who were present in the car parks at all the popular spots. A small tip e.g. 20 rand was sufficient and we felt very secure leaving our car. In Cape Town there were official parking attendants on most streets, charging a standard price for parking and monitoring.
23 | Use common sense when a parking attendant isn’t around. Do not leave anything visible in the car. We were warned on multiple occasions by locals about this. We didn’t have any bad experiences, however they warned that even leaving a charging cable visible was enough to increase the risk of a break in.
Driving in other African Countries
24 | Most of the major rental companies allow their cars to be driven into Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
25 | If you want to drive outside of South Africa be sure to mention it to your rental company when you pick up your car. We rented from Avis and received a letter (free of charge) which gave us permission to enter Lesotho and Swaziland with the rental car. These letters were required at the borders. We were still liable for the vehicle border crossing fees.
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