You Can Do Even Better
Our South Africa road trip, the Hectic Route, was incredible and unforgettable even though we barely had time to plan it.
Or maybe it was incredible and unforgettable despite the fact we barely had time to plan it. Because even though we had a great road trip, it could’ve been even better.
Had we known what we know now, we could’ve seen, experienced, and even saved more. We had to learn everyting the hard way.
But you don’t. With the following tips for planning a South Africa road trip you can have an even better trip than us!
Our 6 Best Tips
Of all our many South Africa road tips to follow, these are the ones we most strongly recommend you pay attention to.
1. Get Up Early
Nighttime is dangerous and boring in South Africa and daytime is when you’ll be having all your fun, so the best way to squeeze the absolute most out of your South Africa road trip is to get up with the sun.
That means you should have the sleeping schedule of a 93-year-old.
For example, we tried to get to bed before 9 p.m. and up by 5:30 a.m. We’d then hit the road ASAP to get to our next destination with plenty of time to hike or adventure.
2. Rent a Small, Cheap Car
A small, cheap car will save you on gas and won’t attract unwanted attention.
You don’t need any more horsepower or clearance, anyway. The only bad roads we experienced were on the Wild Coast, but our little Suzuki Baleno handled them without the slightest issue.
3. Don’t Over-Plan
Definitely do some research beforehand to get a general idea of what you want to see along your trip, but don’t set too much in stone. Stay flexible.
By being flexible enough to follow the recommendations of people we met along the way, we made some of our favorite discoveries. And we could spend an extra day at places we liked most, and cut short those we weren’t as impressed by.
The risk, of course, is that the place you really want to stay at will be fully booked when you get there. We never had that issue, though. The only places we’ve been told you should book in advance are the Garden Route and the Wild Coast, but only in the December and January peak season.
4. Get a Plug-In Mosquito Repellent Device
Go to a Woolworths or Pick n’ Pay and pick up a plug-in mosquito repeller as soon as you arrive.
The 50-or-so rands ($3.50 US) we spent on ours was perhaps the best value-per-rand investment of our whole South Africa road trip. It kept the bugs at bay, which allowed us to sleep deeply, which enabled us to be at our best during the day.
The thing actually works. We use it here in Cape Town too, and every time we forget to plug it in, we end up waking up in the middle of the night covered in super itchy bites.
There aren’t many mosquitos in South Africa and they’ve never been a nuisance during the day, but at night even one mosquito is enough to cause havoc. Unlike the mosquitos we’re used to, the ones here are fast and sneaky and they bite you over and over again.
5. Get an Audiobook (or Two)
Our audiobook, The Power of One (21 hours) provided us with plenty of entertainment and interesting nuggets of info about South Africa’s culture and history during the 50.2 hours of driving we did on the Hectic Route.
It was my favorite book as a kid and we still enjoyed it now as adults, so it’s a good pick for the whole family.
We also highly recommend Born a Crime (9 hrs), a memoir by South Africa’s current favorite son, Trevor Noah. It’s a funny but revealing look into what it was like growing up in Soweto around the end of the apartheid era.
Check if the car you rent has Bluetooth before you set off. Ours did, which made listening to our audiobook extra easy. If not, remember to take along an auxiliary audio cable.
To get two free audiobooks (instead of the normal 1), sign up for an Audible account using this special link.
6. Don’t Be Scared
South Africa doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to safety and, based on the stories we’ve heard, it’s well-deserved. But that doesn’t mean you should ever be scared.
Worrying about something that may or may not happen is a waste of negative energy. If it happens, it happens, and all your worrying won’t have helped a thing.
Instead, be smart—see the safety tips below—to substantially minimize your risk and enjoy every last second of your South Africa road trip to the fullest extent.
These are things we were worried about before we started our road trip but turned out no be a big deal at all.
- Good drivers. Especially on rural highways, which is where you’ll be spending most of your road trip time, the drivers are courteous, safe, and follow the rules of the road. Drivers get a bit more aggressive in cities, but no worse than in North America or Europe.
- Good roads. Aside from the town of Hogsback and about the last 15 kilometers in the Wild Coast from Mthatha to Mbundi, all the roads were in pristine condition. And there is very little traffic. There are no highway lights though, which is a big reason why we wouldn’t recommend driving at night.
- Driving on the other side of road isn’t so bad. Even driving manual (…as long as you already know how to drive manual). The first hour or so is a bit scary, but we got used to it surprisingly quickly.
- Plenty of wildlife. We delighted in seeing a good deal of wildlife—monkeys, baboons, giraffes, eagles, zebras, antelope, ostriches—all along the highway.
- Rarely boring. Out of the over 50 hours we spent in our car, there were only a few when we started to get bored of the scenery. (Johannesburg to Golden Gate National Park in Day 2 and Durban to Port Shepstone on Day 6 among them.) The scenery really is as varied and beautiful as everyone says.
- Everything is far. We thought having two weeks to get from Johannesburg to Cape Town would allow us to make short leisurely drives every day. Nope. On the 11 days we drove, we averaged over 4.5 hours driving, which was more than we would have liked.
- It always takes longer than it says to get anywhere. However long Google Maps told us it’d take to get from one destination to the next, we’d typically have to add 25% on top of it to account for inaccurate directions, construction, and fuel, bathroom, and coffee stops. If you’re following any legs of the Hectic Route, you can find the actual number of hours we drove each day in our overview page.
- Driving at night is too sketchy. We tried it on Day 2 and then never again. It’s too bad because during road trips in other countries with better-lit roads it can be helpful to be able cover some ground when it’s dark out.
- There’s almost nothing good to eat at along the road in the poorer Kwazulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces. We looked hard and could only find junky fast food places like Debonair Pizza, Nando’s, KFC, Wimpy, and Steer’s Steakhouse.
- Poor hitchhikers are all along the roads. We felt bad speeding by them and their pleading looks, but we’d been warned not to stop for anyone.
In addition to our Best 6 Tip to not over-plan, here are some more suggestions for planning your South Africa road trip:
- When researching online, save every possible point of interest to a list on Google Maps. To do so, locate the business or attraction on Google Maps, click the bookmark icon that says “Save,” then select your list or make a new one. This way, when you’re on the road planning your next destination you’ll be reminded of nearby points of interest you’d come across earlier.
- Check out these other bloggers’ posts with tips on planning a South Africa road trip that we found helpful:
- Don’t plan based only on what bloggers and travel guides say. Ask people you meet along the way instead. They know better. That’s how we found some of our more memorable destinations and attractions like Prince Albert, Sophie’s Choice in Willowdale, and Meiringspoort Pass, among many others.
- For hiking maps, download the Maps.Me app, then download all the relevant South Africa maps (they’re only 20 MB or so) before you head out. Maps.Me is free, the maps work offline, and they have all of South Africa’s main hiking trails.
- Garden Route schmarden route – Just because everyone talks about the Garden Route doesn’t mean you have to do it too. If you have tons of time for your South Africa road trip, by all means include it in your itinerary. But if you’re traveling during the busy season, on a tight budget, or tight on time, consider going somewhere less conventional but equally, if not more, rewarding.
- As a general rule of thumb, smaller towns are better places to stay in than bigger ones. For example: Nieu Bethesda > Graaff-Reinet, Prince Albert > Oudtshoorn, and McGregor > Robertson.
- For our absolute favorite experiences, hikes, food, and more, jump down to the Favorites section at the end of this post.
If you’re old enough to rent a car for a South Africa road trip, you’re old enough to know how to pack for a trip, so we’ll just list some tips of specific interest for a South Africa road trip:
- Pack for all weather, just in case because in towns like Hogsback it can snow any time of the year, and in the Drakensberg it can go from a sunny day to a hurricane-avalanche in the blink of an eye. That doesn’t mean you need to pack a lot, though. My go-to minimalist packing list had everything I needed.
- Adaptors. South Africa has two types of outlet. The most common is type M (the one on the left in the photo below) and you’ll also find quite a few type C sockets (on the right).
- Binoculars. We would’ve loved to have a pair of binoculars to get a closer look at the parrots and loeries in Hogsback and at the animals we saw from afar while hiking in Golden Gate, Drakensberg, and Camdeboo.
- Bug repellent plug in thing. As mentioned in our Best 6 tips above.
- Nothing too fancy. Cathedral Peak Hotel required men wear pants and shoes to their (incredible) buffet dinner and I wore a collared shirt to some nicer restaurants in Durban and Barrydale, but that’s it.
- Physical maps aren’t necessary. We had zero issues relying entirely on our phones for directions everywhere we went.
Tips for Renting a Car
In addition to our recommendation to go small and cheap from our Best 6 Tips, here are some things to consider when renting a car:
- Don’t get a Volkswagen Polo. Too many people here have told us thieves can break into Polo and drive away with them in less time than it takes for you to pop into a shop for
bottleof water. There are even Youtube videos that demonstrate exactly how to do it.
- Get unlimited kilometers. The cheapest rentals typically have a 200 kilometer-a-day limit. You’re going to need a bit more than that—we covered 3,500 km in 14 days, which is 250 km a day, on our Hectic Route—and you definitely don’t want to have to cut your driving short just to avoid the stiff penalties for exceeding your limit.
- Know what your credit card insurance covers. Some credit cards limit the number of days of rental insurance they provide, some require you pay 100% of the rental fees and deposit with the card, and some insure your possessions from theft in certain situations. Read through your credit card policy to understand these details, just in case.
- On a related note, fellow Canucks might be interested in what our research uncovered to be the best credit cards for international travel.
- Get a one-way rental. The extra 400 rands we paid for a one-way rental, was 100% worth it to be able to not have to backtrack and cover a longer distance.
- If you want to enter Lesotho or Swaziland during your road trip, you have to let the rental car company know before you take your
car offthe lot so they can give you a permit.
- Around About Rental Cars had the best price when we did our exhaustive research—3,116 rands ($212 US) for 14 days of unlimited kilometers, one-way, with an additional driver. Somehow it was cheaper than Tempest even though Around About contracted out the rental to them. Everything went so well with our rental that we didn’t think twice about renting from them a second time when friends came to visit. Nevertheless, check other sites like Expedia and RentalCars.com too, in case they have a special offer.
- Fuel up. Whenever your tank drops below 1/3 (or 1/4 if you’re a risk-taker), fill ‘er up because stations can sometimes be far apart. Our closest call came from trying to go from Graaff-Reinet to Nieu Bethesda, where there’s no station, and back on a quarter of a tank.
- Toll roads. Our rental car had an automatic payment chip on the windshield, so we could drive right through the toll booths that were near Joburg, Durban, and Cape Town. Ask if your rental car has one too. The tolls will be deducted from your rental car deposit.
- Maps. You can trust Google Maps everywhere but on the Wild Coast to Mdumbi and you’ll have reception everywhere. Sometimes it’s better to take the scenic route, though, so ask the locals.
- Alternate who’s driving. Kim and I found it worked best for us to take turns driving each day. The one who wasn’t driving was in charge of figuring out where to eat and stay.
- Don’t speed. Unless everyone else is speeding, keep within the regularly-marked speed limits. Speed traps and radar are very common. Generally, the limits are as fast as we felt comfortable driving anyway—120 km/h on big highways and 80-100 km/h on littler ones.
- Passing etiquette. If a car pulls off the the shoulder to let you pass, flash your hazards to say thanks. If a faster car is behind you and there is a wide shoulder, move off to the side to make way for them to pass.
- Treat the criminals like lions. If you’re careful to respect them, you’re almost certain to be safe. It’s only if you get overconfident, do dumb shit, and attract unnecessary attention that you’re going to have an arm and a leg ripped off. Lock your doors, keep windows shut and doors locked when driving through busy streets, don’t leave anything visible in car when you park, park in guarded lots, and don’t speak in a loud foreign language or accent.
- Don’t drive at night. The highways don’t have lights, so your chances rise exponentially of hitting a nasty pothole, animals, or anything else that goes bump in the night.
- Smile. Kim and I feel if we smile at even the scariest looking strangers the same way we do at good friends, we’re less likely to be targeted.
Food and Drink Tips
- Tap water is fine everywhere. We drank tons of it everywhere we went and had no stomach issues at all.
- Pick up some nuts and biltong as snacks. The one kilogram of macadamia nuts we bought in Johannesburg and half-kilo of biltong we got outside the Drakensberg lasted our whole trip.
- Keep a couple of bottles of wine in the car. We were glad we had them for shared dinners at Terra Khaya, Mdumbi, and Buccaneers, BYOB restaurants like Karoo Kombuis in Prince Albert, and post-hike relaxation in our room at Cathedral Peak Hotel.
- MTN was a better mobile network than Vodacom. At least in our case. Kim had Vodacom and I had MTN. MTN was a bit cheaper and there were a couple of times we had reception with MTN and not Vodacom.
- Get same company as others you’re traveling with. Calling between numbers of the same carriers is cheaper and sometimes they’ll give you some same-carrier minutes for free as a promo.
- Load up credit and buy packages as you go. For my MTN line, I loaded 200 rands onto my account, which I used to buy 7-day, 1.25 GB packages for 55 rands whenever the days or data ran out (whichever came first).
- Shorter packages are cheaper. For example, a 30-day, 3 GB package costed 299 rands, so it was cheaper for me to buy consecutive 1.25 GB, 7-day packages for 55 rands.
- Call *136# or *142# to see and select your packages. I could use both numbers with MTN, each of which had different offers.
- Download the app. MTN gives you a bonus GB (though it only lasts 24 hours) for doing so, and with the app it’s easier to track and manage your balances.
- Keep a bunch of coins on hand for tipping car guards (2-10 rands, depending time parked) and gas station attendants (5-10 rands)
- Tipping at restaurants. 10-12% is standard. When the waiter brings you the bill and credit card machine, you have to calculate the tip, add it on top of the bill, and tell the waiter how much to charge.
- Stash a few thousand rands cash. That should be plenty enough for a road trip of 2-3 weeks. We only needed cash to pay national park entry fees and for our hotel in Nieu Bethesda.
- Download SnapScan. SnapScan is an app you can use to pay with your credit card through your phone. Sometimes you can’t pay with a physical credit card,
buyyou can pay with SnapScan.
- Total budget. To give you a rough idea of how much to budget for your road trip, here’s a breakdown of the $1,899 US total we spent on our 14-day Hectic Route. We converted the rands to US dollars because most of us can do the conversion to USD more easily and the rand is steadily devaluing. Use the drop-down to see how much we spent each day.
For some ideas on what to include on your own South Africa road trip itinerary, here are our absolute favorites among what we’ve managed to see and experience in South Africa so far:
- Favorite days: Day 3 in Cathedral Peak, Day 7 in Mdumbi, Day 11 in the Karoo.
- Favorite towns: Hogsback (Day 9), and Nieu Bethesda (Days 10 and 11)
- Least favorite towns: Durban (Day 5), Coffee Bay (Day 7), and Robertson (Day 13)
- Favorite dining experiences: Kolonaki (Day 1), buffet dinner at Cathedral Peak Hotel (especially Day 4), platter at The Brewery and Two Goats Deli in Nieu Bethesda (Day 11)
- Favorite hikes: Our Day 3 Drakensberg hike and wandering the Wild Coast on Day 7
- Favorite scenery: Cathedral Peak (Days 3 and 4), driving Meiringspoort (Day 11) and Swartberg Passes (Day 12), entering Cape Town (Day 14)
- Favorite accommodation: Cathedral Peak Hotel (Days 3 and 4), Durban Airbnb (Day 5), Barrydale Airbnb (Day 12)
We mentioned and linked to our Hectic Route post a bajillion times already, but if you didn’t click through to it yet, do so now. At the very least, we guarantee you’ll find a couple experiences to add to your own itinerary.
And for ideas on what to do and see around the Cape Town area, where we’ll be living for six months, check out our Cape Town page.
One FINAL Tip
Don’t keep it to yourself.
Whether you have a question to ask, a disagreement with anything we wrote, or your own tip, share it with all of us in the comments.
You probably appreciate reading others’ comments—and we certainly appreciate getting them (even when it’s criticism!)—so don’t hold back.