South Africa has excellent road infrastructure, large vehicle hire fleets run by international and local rental companies, great weather and plenty of stunning scenery – which combines to make self-driving a viable and enjoyable option. If you’re thinking of taking the long way round, here are a few tips to enhance your trip.
Most car rental companies (see the links on the right) are represented at South Africa’s main airports and in most city centres. Vehicles may generally be picked up at one centre and dropped off at a branch in another centre, subject to a fee.
It is advisable to take out the insurance offered by the vehicle rental companies, unless you have specific cover in place. All major credit cards are accepted.
Any valid driver’s licence is accepted in South Africa, provided it bears the photograph and signature of the holder and is printed or authenticated in English.
However, vehicle hire companies may also require an international driver’s licence. It is worth confirming requirements with your travel agent or the vehicle hire company when making your booking.
This holds for additional drivers as well, who must be identified when you hire your vehicle. Remember to carry all your documentation with you when you travel as traffic officers will expect to see it if they stop you for any reason.
Keep left, belt up, think kilometres
Keep left, pass right. South Africans drive on the left-hand side of the road, and our cars – rental cars included – are therefore right-hand drive vehicles, the gear shift being operated with the left hand).
All distances, speed limits (and speedometers) are marked in kilometres.
Wearing of seat belts is compulsory. Using hand-held phones while driving is against the law – use a vehicle phone attachment or hands-free kit if you want to speak on your mobile phone.
Drinking and driving is prohibited, with a maximum allowable alcohol blood content of 0.05%. That’s roughly about one glass of wine for the average woman and perhaps one-and-a-half or two for the average or bigger man.
South Africa’s road safety website
The general speed limit on South Africa’s national highways, urban freeways and other major routes is 120km/h (75mph). On secondary (rural) roads it is 100km/h (60mph). In built-up areas it is usually 60km/h (35mph), unless otherwise indicated. Check the road signs.
If you’re in a hire car and get a speeding fine, the car rental company will pay the fine, and will charge that amount plus an admin fee to your credit card.
Various types of petrol (gas) are available in South Africa: unleaded, 97-, 95- or 93- octane (“super” or “premium”). The 95-octane petrol is available at higher altitude, as well as 93-octane. At the coast, your choice is between 95- and 97-octane.
Diesel is available with 0.05% sulphur content and 0.005% sulphur content.
Hire cars are more likely to require unleaded petrol, but check before you set off.
Fuel is sold per litre (1 US gallon is equivalent to 3.8 litres).
South African petrol stations are not self-help: an attendant will fill the car, ask if you’d like your oil and water and tire pressure checked, and offer to clean your windscreen – a service for which they are generally tipped around R5.
Fuel stations – or garages, as South Africans call them – are found on both the main and country roads, most of them open 24 hours a day, although some keep shorter hours. However, distances between towns (and therefore between petrol stations) are considerable in some parts of the country, so remember to check the fuel gauge before passing up the opportunity to fill up.
When it comes to paying for fuel, you can pay cash or use your credit card. Historically, filling stations used to be cash-only operations so some smaller stations may still not accept cards. Check with the attendant what payment method they accept before filling up. Many filling stations have on-site ATM machines.
Driving around the country
Our road infrastructure is excellent, so driving between cities and towns is a viable option – and, given the stunning scenery in many parts of the country, a highly enjoyable one.
However, South Africa is a huge country not easily traversed in a day, so plan your journeys carefully. If you’re not used to driving long distances, rather break the journey, as fatigue is a major contributing factor in motor vehicle accidents.
While most national roads are tarred and in good condition, the more rural the road, the more likely it is to be pot-holed and poorly surfaced.
Road info, maps
Current information on the conditions of roads can be obtained through the Automobile Association of South Africa. The AA also provides invaluable guides for road users in the form of strip maps tailored for specific destinations and information for tourists on accommodation en route.
Traffic signs are generally pictorial or in English.
Automobile Association: maps, road reports and an online route planner
Maps of South Africa
Arrive Alive: South Africa’s road signs
Before you set off, check your route. Many of the national roads between the major centres are toll roads. Check the fees before you leave, and make sure that you have either a credit card or cash to pay.
Toll fares for a light passenger vehicle vary from R4 to R175 per toll plaza – and you may pass through three or four of these before you reach your destination.
Automobile Association: Toll fees in South Africa – includes information on fees, locations, vehicle classifications and costs for frequently travelled routes.
South Africa has a high rate of traffic accidents so drive defensively and exercise caution when on the roads – especially at night – and keep a wary eye out for pedestrians and cyclists.
Drivers of minibuses and taxis can behave erratically, and often turn a blind eye to rules and road safety considerations.
In many of South Africa’s rural areas, the roads are not fenced, so watch out dogs, chickens, sheep and even horses or cows on the road. These can be particularly hazardous at night.
Large antelope crossing the road can also pose a danger in certain areas – if you see road signs depicting a leaping antelope, take it slowly, especially towards evening.
Never stop to feed wild animals – it is dangerous and you can incur a hefty fine if you do so.
In general, be aware and keep your wits about you. It’s a good idea to drive with your doors locked and windows up, especially in cities and at traffic lights.
Don’t ever stop to pick up hitchhikers. If you are worried about someone on the side of the road, report it to the police station in the next town.
Ensure your car is locked when you park it and do not leave anything in sight. Lock things away in the trunk – known as the boot here – or the glove compartment (cubby- hole).