We realize that there are many folks out there reading our blog to assist them in planning their own trips- with that in mind I have prepared a series of posts with the type of nitty-gritty detail that will help others intent on their own adventures. I have placed this series under the pre departure or preperation tab on our website.
Driving in Southern Africa
First off I have to say that doing our own self-drive safari was fantastic. In one or two places we did commercial safari drives like 95% of the foreign tourists do and there is no comparison to the type of experience you have. Self-drive was for us a far better experience. A good guide will likely spot the game from farther away and will undoubtedly see one or two things you miss, but you will see plenty on your own and the experience of sitting 15 feet from a lion with no one else around is awesome. If you are serious about taking pictures as I was, being able to stop EXACTLY where you can frame your shot properly makes all the difference between snapshots and quality photographs.
Best advice- don’t plan on driving too far each day. 350 -500 kilometers a day on average is great. And as you will read everywhere- NEVER DRIVE AT NIGHT IN AFRICA. There are black people in dark clothes walking everywhere all the time. DON’T DRIVE AT NIGHT.
The actual speed you drive will be dependent on several things- mostly how good your eyesight is and how tall you are- REALLY. On many roads there are potholes that will destroy your vehicle – I found that given my mediocre eyesight and short stature if I went no faster than 100 kph I could see a pothole ahead and swerve or slam on the brakes fast enough to avoid destroying my front end. You also need nerves of steel, and good spatial judgment.
Many of the roads are barely wide enough for two trucks to pass each other and there is no shoulder at all. A typical driving moment will be looking ahead and seeing a truck doing 120 kph coming at you slightly in your lane, a bicycle going your way at 15 kph and two ladies just ahead walking with water jugs on their head. You have about a millisecond to determine whether you can swerve around the ladies walking, then cut back into your lane before the huge pothole ahead, then decide if you need to speed up or slow down to not pass the truck at the same spot in the road where you will encounter the bicycle.
In many countries you may pass 20 or 30 people walking per kilometer and not see another vehicle for half an hour. Potholes will always keep you on your toes. Even if you have not seen another vehicle for half an hour it is critical to continually check your rear view mirror. On one lonely road where I had not seen a car for 45 minutes I started to swerve into the other lane to avoid a pothole and at that exact moment another car that I had not noticed was starting to pass me. We nearly collided- and it would have been my fault.
In Tanzania the roads are really atrocious. The asphalt is sometimes only three inches thick and the trucks are so overloaded that they sink into the asphalt. On the hills they sink in the worst and the road from Tunduma to Dar es Salam is so bad that your tires are riding in deep grooves like mini toboggan runs. The ridge between the two grooves may be six inches higher so changing lanes or diving off the road when the oncoming buses take your lane is very hazardous.
Breakdowns and wrecks are everywhere. It is not uncommon to see a truck broken down on the road with the crew camped out for days awaiting parts or alternatively seeing them rebuilding entire engines or transmissions right on the road where it died. On our last day in Tanzania we counted 10 wrecked semi tractor-trailers. Ten, in one 200-kilometer stretch of road! These were entire trucks tipped over on their sides or rolled completely onto their backs and looking like a dog with its paws in the air. One was still smoking as we passed it, another had a load of clothes and there were dozens of people gathering up clothes and trying them on right on the road. Another had come down a hill and at the bottom of the hill was a huge pot hole across two thirds of the road. Just past the pothole was a curve and the truck either swerved to miss the pothole or hit the pothole and lost control and rolled completely over as he hit the curve.
Despite the carnage you will see everywhere, in general African drivers are quite good. Specifically they are good at judging clearance on their narrow roads. In the US if two drivers approach each other on a narrow road both usually slow down, but in Africa they will often pass within inches at 120 kph never letting their foot off the gas. In cities they may follow another car separated by only a foot or two.
African drivers in many countries are blessed with X-ray vision. This is clear from the fact that they will often pass on a completely blind curve. You see this more often in Tanzania and other Muslim countries where they believe in “inshalla” or the concept of “God (Allah) willing”. If it is your day to die you die and if it is not your day to die you don’t die- it is up to Allah, not you, so passing or not passing on a curve has little to do with it.
In Africa you will usually see the bicyclists leap off of their bikes and dive off of the road as soon as they hear you coming- I always thought this strange – did they think I would run them over if they did not get completely off the road? The answer is YES. In Africa size equals right of way. The trucks and busses would definitely not swerve, slow down, brake or take any other evasive action- it is incumbent on the bicyclist to get out of the way. This is nowhere more evident than in Tanzania.
In our first few hours in Tanzania I was run completely off the road three times. Usually you will see a truck coming your way and then a bus will pull out from behind the truck. The bus will see you and flash his lights- this is a signal that he is taking your lane and you better get out of the way. They think this is nothing unusual. The bus is bigger and he now owns your lane. All three times this happened to us on our first day I was forced to slam on my brakes and dive off of the road into the ditch. As the roadbeds are usually raised with no shoulder this meant driving off about a one foot drop into the ditch and getting completely off the pavement- the alternative was a head on collision with a bus doing 100 kph. I do not use the term “run off the road” in a figurative sense- if you do not exit the pavement you will likely be killed. In one of these instances I had to use four-wheel drive to get back onto the road.
In almost every country there are a number of hand signals that you will see and you might want to ask local drivers what they mean.
One common signal is that as you come up on a car or truck in-front of you moving slowly he will signal with his left turn signal. In Tanzania and Zambia this means you are clear to pass, him and there is no traffic ahead. Unfortunately, in So. Africa they use the right turn signal to mean the same thing- this is confusing as if a truck were planning on a right turn to a side road he would also use his right signal- in which case that means don’t pass. I found it best to only pass when I personally could see ahead rather than trust the trucks signal.
One signal I never did figure out was often when approaching a vehicle of a similar size going the opposite direction they would put on their left turn signal. As if to say I may be taking part of your lane so move over. I think the first one to signal has the right of way- but about this one I am unsure.
A few other tips:
Speed bumps are everywhere and often unpainted. They are large enough to wreck your front end. Make sure you get in the habit of looking for the signs indicating speed bumps or rumble strips and slow down well in advance. Many places have two sets of rumble strips that will jar your teeth loose if you go over them too fast, then these are followed by serious speed bumps, then you go through town slowly and at the other end of the town you may encounter two more speed bumps and two more sets of rumble strips.
In many countries you are required to carry small red triangles to put in the road if you are broken down to warn drivers coming towards you to slow down. You may also be required to have yellow traffic vests to wear if you are stopped on the side of the road. Other items are fire extinguishers, yellow triangle decals on your bonnet (hood) and tailgate or boot (trunk).
In Zimbabwe there are police checkpoints every 30 or 50 kilometers. They may ask to see your driver’s license or check your brake lights, triangles, vests, fire extinguishers, etc.
If you see a bunch of recently cut tree branches on the edge of the road this is a signal that a truck is broken down ahead of you and you had better slow down.
Speed traps are very common – especially in Tanzania where you may see one every 50 kilometers or more especially on the road from Tunduma to Iringa. As you approach a speed trap the drivers going the opposite direction will likely be flashing their lights at you to catch your attention, this may be followed by a hand signal with a downward motion signaling you to slow down, or some of them may extend their arm out the window and rub their thumb and forefinger together indicating cops wanting money.
If you are not VERY careful you could spend a fortune getting nailed at a dozen speed traps in a single day.
Here are a few suggestions:
If you are entering a town and the trucks which normally go like a bat out of hell are suddenly going slowly – DO NOT PASS THEM- there is a speed trap just ahead.
If a combi (mini-bus) driver signals you with flashing lights or the hand signals mentioned above- just slow down and be patient. If you slow to 30 kph for five or six kilometers just about the time you get really impatient and speed up again is where the speed trap will be.
The speed traps are just that – traps. None are on the open highway as in the US, they are all where the speed drops from 100 or 120 kph to 30 or 40 kph for a village or planned village or something similar. In a day of driving you may hit 50 villages where the speed drops from 120 to 30 kph, but it is the village where the 30 kph sign is barely visible behind a tree that the cops use for the speed trap. If you see the 30 or 40 kph sign it will not be enough to remove your foot from the gas and coast yourself down to 40 – by then you will be past the sign. Rather you will need to brake very aggressively to get down to 40 by the time you reach the sign.
You may need to crawl along at 30 or 40 kph for a long time and even when you get back into open country, wait until you see the end 30 kph sign before resuming your normal speed. The end 30 sign is a 30 with a slant line through it. If you slow down in time and drive slowly for the length of the spread out village and then get back into open country and think, “OK I can now speed up there is nothing around me”- don’t speed up yet. There is likely a speed trap just around the bend—wait until you see the end 30 sign.
Despite these warnings you will likely get stopped. The police honcho will be sitting on his ass in a chair under a tree with a radar gun and his underling will walk into the road , stand on the center line and flag you down. Arguing will get you nowhere, their only purpose is to collect money. We heard that some of the police buy their own radar guns and receipt books. They always offer you a receipt so I think this is probably true. I was stopped a number of times and at first I paid the fines which ranged from $10- $35. Finally I got tired of it. I honestly don’t know if I was guilty of speeding or not but I decided I was not paying any more, especially when I saw locals or combi or truck drivers going faster than I was pass on by. After that I pulled over where indicated. When the cop approached my window I simply told them I was not paying and drove away. The first time I did I had been stopped by a woman police officer who told me I was still doing 100 kph when I passed the 30 kph sign. The fine would be over $130 US. I told her I was not paying it and to have a nice day. I had no idea what to expect as I drove away- would she be drawing a pistol and steadying her two handed grip to blow out my tires? Was she sprinting to her car to give chase or radioing ahead for a roadblock? What I saw was comical- I watched as her mouth dropped open and her shoulders slumped forwards in disappointment. She was crushed. I’m sure she already had a new dress picked out with the fee she was going to charge me.
After that I did the same thing several times. At one place by a dam I was stopped by a military guy who struggled to invent an infraction of which I was guilty. After he came up with an imaginary breach of the law, I told him it was Saturday and I never paid bribes on Saturday, then I walked back to my truck and drove away.
Later I heard a number of clever methods other overland drivers had used to avoid being taken.
In Mozambique bribes are a way of life, but in other countries they are trying to crack down on them and gently threatening the cops that you are going to report them sometimes makes them back off.
One guy had his wife start crying and the cop got so worried he let them go. Another started stuttering and mumbling in his foreign language and was let go.
Spells and curses are still a big part of Africa-less so with educated people like cops but still a part of life. One guy kept pointing his finger at the cops and muttering incantations in his native language while he rolled his eyes in his head- the cop beat a hasty retreat.
Someone suggested making a bunch of fake copies of US $20 bills and telling the cops you can only pay them in US dollars then giving them the counterfeit money. Pretty funny but don’t make them good enough that the US treasury would think you were really trying to counterfeit.
The best one we heard was a guy who had an official looking form that he said was from his home country and his country REQUIRED him to report any violations he got overseas. The form had to be signed by the African officer and a picture taken. Needless to say none of the local cops were willing to sign his form and all of them thought a warning would be sufficient.