The tunnel on Chapman's Peak Drive in South Africa
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Driving in South Africa - Everything you need to know

Deutsche Fassung German translated articles

South Africa covers a big area, and therefore, the best way to explore the country is by doing a road trip. A customised road trip enables you to visit the most remote locations. Although travellers may feel intimidated at first when planning a road trip through South Africa, they quickly realise it is much easier than they imagined. 

Travellers might reason that they will not be able to drive on the left side of the road or that there are too many safety concerns for driving in South Africa. 

My article intends to alleviate many of these fears of doing a personalised road trip through South Africa. I provide helpful tips and demystify some of the questions you may have.

Driving in South Africa
We love doing road trips in South Africa

Is it difficult to drive on the left-hand side in South Africa?

South African road traffic drives on the left side, which initially may cause uncertainty for many travellers. However, this concern is often short-lived. After just a few metres, you will realise that driving on the “wrong side of the road” quickly becomes the new normal. All you need to do is follow the cars in front of you and concentrate, especially when turning right. A helpful tip here is to always “keep left”, and driving becomes second nature.

 

Changing gears with your left hand may take some time to adjust to, but after driving a few kilometres, you will soon find this much easier. Remember you have the option to book an automatic car if you want to eliminate this small inconvenience.

Cape Town Street, Driving on the left side, Autofahren in Südafrika
Driving on the left side of the road

What are the traffic rules for driving in South Africa?

Traffic rules in South Africa are not much different from European rules. One example of this is the 4-way stop rule, which applies at junctions with four-way-stop intersections. Just remember, the person who arrives first has the right of way. This rule also applies at four-way junctions where the traffic lights are out of service, most probably as a result of load shedding or power outages.

At roundabouts, the vehicle already in the circle has the right of way, similar to Europe. Note that in South Africa, you enter the roundabout on the left.

You should always adhere to the speed limits, as speed limits are enforced in South Africa through fixed speed cameras or mobile speed cameras.

There is a lot of overtaking in South Africa (in my opinion), with locals sometimes taking enormous risks by, for example, overtaking either on a solid line or overtaking in oncoming traffic lanes (particularly early morning during peak traffic). Don’t let this imitate you; just remain calm. Nevertheless, road users are, in general, respectful to each other when overtaking. The slower car often moves out of the way to the left of the ‘yellow line’, indicating the road’s shoulder to allow the car behind to overtake safely. To thank the person for pulling over to the left for the driver to pass them safely, drivers activate their hazard warning lights for two seconds. 

However, in congested city traffic, drivers become less courteous to one another. Therefore, it may take a while for another driver to give way to you when changing lanes. Taxis (white minivans – you can identify them by the South African flag on the back) hardly ever obey the traffic rules. The best advice is to let them go and in no way get involved, either by shouting or showing hand signals.

How do I refuel a car in South Africa?

Refuelling in South Africa is even less complicated than in Europe. Simply drive to the petrol station, and an employee will come to your window to ask for the amount of fuel and type you would like. They then request your money or credit card while you are sitting in your vehicle. Many will ask you if you would like your tyre pressure checked or if they can wash your windows. You can then give them a small tip, usually between R5 and R10, for the favour.

Patrol station in South Africa
Filling up the car in South Africa

Orientation and navigation on South African roads

The roads in South Africa are clearly signposted, making overland journeys effortless even without a navigation system. For travelling in cities and planning routes in advance, we recommend using Google Maps or a comparable app. Recently, Google Maps started diverting routes away from known crime hotspots, such as near the Cape Town Airport. Although you should be vigilant during all times of the day (not just in South Africa), most crimes happen late evening or in the early morning hours.

Highway in South Africa, Autobahn in Südafrika
The motorways are clearly indicated

Safety on South Africa’s roads

Safety is often the number one concern for people wanting to drive or do a road trip in South Africa. It is fairly easy if you follow the simple tips below.

The status of roads in South Africa

The motorways, also called highways in South Africa, are generally in good condition. Still, you should be prepared for the occasional person crossing the motorway or driving slowly on the shoulder of the road. 

On country roads, deep potholes are very common, depending on the region, and often, secondary roads are gravel tracks instead of tarmac. For these reasons, it is not a good idea to travel on country roads at night outside major towns.

gravel road South Africa, Schotterpiste in Südafrika
Gravel roads are very common in South Africa

Parking in South Africa

Parking is freely available at most hotels in South Africa. Even shopping centres have large basement parking houses in the centre for a few (often R10  or ,50 Euros per hour) Rands per hour. 

Official or non-official car park attendants guard most car parks in South Africa. Notably, the level of vigilance differs greatly from the self-appointed car park attendants. As a rule, you give the car park attendant a small tip. Nevertheless, it is best not to leave valuables within sight in the car. Also, make sure your vehicle is locked when you walk away. Some criminals use ‘signal jammers’ to stop you from locking your vehicle, particularly at shopping centres.

Beware of staged accidents in South Africa

Staged accidents are not common in South Africa, although they may happen now and then.

Don’t be tricked when someone indicates that you have a flat tyre or that something is wrong with your vehicle. This is when criminals take the opportunity to rob unknowing victims when they roll down their windows to hear what they have to say. 

If you feel unsafe, rather skip a red traffic light (if there is no oncoming traffic); your life is more important than the road rules at that point. Avoid getting out of your car on the side of the road at all costs. Rather, drive to the nearest police station (if possible) or where there are more people present. If you pass the scene of an accident, continue driving and rather inform the police (if necessary).

Self-drive in National Parks in South Africa

In some national parks, you have the option of experiencing the safari in your car. Here, too, you must always adhere to the prescribed speed limits, as speed checks are also carried out within the national parks. 

In addition, wild animals are likely to cross or block the road at any time. When coming across wild animals, you should always be cautious, drive past slowly and wait patiently in the event of animals blocking the road. Especially in the case of larger animals like elephants or buffalo, it is advisable to keep the engine running so that you can quickly react and avoid an aggressive attack (which seldom happens).

Always keep your windows closed, particularly when approaching animals. Remember, you may only get out of your vehicle at certain marked spots. For more information about the rules and regulations, click here.

Street in Kruger Park, South Africa, Straße im Kurger Park Südafrika
Wild dogs on the street in Kruger Park

Car hire in South Africa

It is advisable to book a suitable car from home in advance for your road trip through South Africa. The choice of vehicle type ultimately depends on your personal preferences and requirements.

If you are travelling alone or as a couple, the smallest vehicle class may be sufficient for you. Small cars are available to rent for as little as 15 euros per day, including all insurance. If you plan to do a lot of exploring on gravel roads or the less travelled secondary roads in the national parks, you may want to consider renting an SUV.

Driving in South Africa, autofahren in Südafrika
We loved our little rental car

Where do I book a hire car in South Africa?

We usually use the comparison portal Check24 to find the cheapest car hire deal. There you will get a clear overview of different offers and can see exactly which insurances are included in the price.

Renting a vehicle from Check24 has always worked for us. Moreover, we have been extremely satisfied with the vehicles we have rented thus far from Check24. What’s particularly important to us is the ease of cancellation up to the day before picking up the rental car. Alternatively, we have also booked directly with providers such as Europcar or Avis.

What documents do I need to rent a car in South Africa?

To rent a car in South Africa, you only need your driving licence and passport. However, please note that an international driving licence is required to drive a vehicle if your national driving licence is not issued in English. You can easily apply for this at your nearest driving licence office.

Most rental companies require a valid credit card to keep a certain amount on hold for eventualities.

Conclusion

South Africa is the perfect destination for a road trip, particularly because the scenery is so extraordinary and car hire is quite affordable. I’m sure you’ll find your way around South African traffic just as quickly as I did. I always appreciate the freedom that a car offers me in a new and vast country. 

Don’t be put off by what you hear from others; I can assure you it will be your best decision to go on a road trip as there is no country quite like South Africa!

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About Author

Petra Top is a dynamic freelance travel journalist hailing from Altusried, Germany, who expertly balances her roles as a Motorsport enthusiast, translator, author, and social media strategist. Her expert skill set includes web designing, multilingual communications, and photography, enriched by notable memberships in international travel and food writers' organisations. Petra's life philosophy—"I travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape me"—captivates her audience, reflecting her passion for exploration and sustainable innovation at Travel Buddies Lifestyle.

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