The unofficial road rules of Africa – a traveler’s guide

Everything was dark when we got up in Cape Town. The cloudy night sky was smudged with black ink. Our car was waiting in the driveway, packed and ready to go. It had been raining last night, and the clean white paint was beaded with glistening droplets of water.

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We didn’t feel quite so fresh. It was well before dawn, earlier than we were used to, but we were excited nevertheless; we were driving to the other side of Africa.

We did a last minute check of the car, said goodbye to uncle Jan, and started the engine, rumbling down the road with that distinctive diesel clatter.  

The unofficial road rules of Africa

We were learning a lot about life on the road, just on day of the road trip. And the lessons learned during those early days of South Africa, also applied all across southern Africa. Sone points we discovered were:

  • Speed and drinking – although there appeared to be plenty of people speeding, and even drinking at the wheel across Africa, the law was very strict about these issues. We also came across lots of mobile radars monitoring speed in several countries.
  • Animals – Always assume animals are going to run across the road; whether they’re local wildlife or a lazy cow taking a nap in the middle of the road.
  • Driving at night – Don’t even risk it. From animals to people to potholes, driving at night amplifies the dangers of an already dangerous activity.

Trucks

Trucks were king of the road in Africa, adhering to the adage ‘Right of weight’. But they were also, in general, courteous drivers, and used their own system of language to communicate with cars.

  • Indicating – Stuck driving behind a truck? Trucks will help you out by indicating when it’s safe to pass. Indicator to the right means there’s an incoming vehicle in the other land. An Indicator to the left means it’s safe for you to pass.
  • Broken down trucks – When a truck is broken down (or even flipped over) on the highway, the driver usually has lots of time to kill, and stays with the truck. So, he will lay out leafy tree branches on the highway for a hundred metres of so, to warn of his upcoming hazard.

Western Cape farmland at dawn

We crept out of the driveway and past the row of illuminated street lamps. As the city slept, we cleared Cape Town and were soon passing vineyards and farms on the motorway heading north.

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Western cape farm country was a repeating blur of wooden fence posts and sodden green fields. We woke ourselves up with hot thermos coffee served with rusks, a rock-hard biscuit popular in South Africa. A cold, ghostly fog had settled down upon the blacktop, and even our high beams were struggling to light the way.

Hello, African sun

The heat of the day arrived with the sun, dissipating the fog and lifting it’s mysterious veil over the morning. The dew had vanished, along with most of the greenery. We had entered a world of dry, sandy plains, a land of boulder clusters, and of harsh, spiky scrubland.

As we collected hundreds of pale yellow fly-spatter smears on the windscreen, Wessel explained to us the road rules of South Africa. Enforcement seemed lazy. Obey road signs? Don’t worry about it. Speed cameras? Nope. Police? Not many. Wessel said that he’d even seen people driving around town with a beer in hand. In general, the bigger the vehicle gets the right of way.

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T.I.A

I didn’t trust that the authorities could be so lax about their road rules – but T.I.A. ‘This is Africa‘, was the phrase which explained casually the unique, chaotic African attitude of making your own rules, simply because that’s how it’d always been. 

With a dry touch of African patriotism, it implies that shit happens, money talks, rules can be bent, and many people know and accept this. That’s just the way it goes in Africa.

The roads were dead straight. We had 800km to cover to reach Namibia, and all of it was highway. The reason for our haste was due to our wish to spend more time offroad, in ‘wild’ Africa. We made our first stop was at a strange abandoned building on the side of the highway, some kind of visitor’s centre with big egg-shaped towers. 

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It was dead quiet here, and empty. We had a bathroom break, and Jeff and Wessel each lit a cigarette. It was still hot outside, and Wessel explained that in a few months, big areas of this part of the country would explode into a colourful floral bloom.

Meeting locals at petrol stations

We stopped at a town called Garies for fuel, and the staff immediately got to work. The pump attendant filled the car and the fuel cans promptly. Another cleaned the windshield. As we waited, Wessel walked inside to buy food, and Jeff and I waited by the car.

An old man approached us and began telling some kind of long story in Afrikaans. His clothes were dirty and torn, and he wore a blue beanie with holes in it. As he spoke, Jeff and I vainly tried to understand, and talked back in English, hoping he spoke English too. Wessel came back and shooed him away, explaining that it was a common sight in South Africa; the man was just asking for money.

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Springbok was our lunch break, a small town with paved asphalt roads and lined with sandy yellow sidewalks. We stopped at a bar and ordered three Carling Black Label beers, and a pizza big enough to feed the three of us. Our car was parked next to two other white 4x4s. With the huge knobbly offroad tyres, heightened ride, high-lift jack and spare fuel canisters, it certainly looked in it’s place.

A drunk hangs in the window and swears at us

We stopped at a nearby bottle shop and bought a dozen 750mL beers, which we put in the mini fridge installed in the car’s boot. When we got back in the car, we encountered an aggressive local. He’d been hanging around our car in the parking lot, and stumbled over to Jeff’s window and grabbed him firmly by the arm, talking wildly in Afrikaans.

He was very drunk, and was making us uncomfortable. I just decided to start driving and hope the man got his arm out of our car. As we pulled away, he released his grip. “Boerepus met slaai!!” He yelled. We asked Wessel what it meant. “Farmer’s p#ssy with salad!”, he laughed.

At least we got away with the beers.

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The Namibian border was close. In one day, we had covered the entire west coast of South Africa.


5 thoughts on “The unofficial road rules of Africa – a traveler’s guide

  1. My best friend from high school flew to Cape Town after he’d finished college, and he journeyed all the way north to Cairo! Talk about a journey! He visited Victoria Falls, and I believe he went through the Congo, too. Either way, he lives in Nairobi now, and I’m going to visit him soon. I cannot wait! We’re going to Lake Turkana near the Kenya-Ethiopia border.

    I’m writing an Alphabetical Blog of places in the USA that I have been. When I’ve written about those places, I plan to write another alphabetical blog of places around the globe I wish to go. You might want to check it out: http://roadtripebooks.wordpress.com. Feel free to make comments if you visit!

    1. Passing through the Congo is certainly brave; all travel advice we received suggested that we stay away because the country’s quite unstable politically! But to make it all the way to Cairo would be incredible. We thought of doing that at first, but didn’t have the time. Yeah sure thing i’ll check out your writing 🙂

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