Experience More of South Africa, Better
Our road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town, the Hectic Route, was bonkers (in a good way).
But it could have even better.
Had someone shared with us the following South Africa road trip tips beforehand, we would’ve experienced more, spent less, and had more memorable moments and less forgettable ones.
We learned the hard way but, since you’re reading this, you don’t have to.
With the following tips for planning a South Africa road trip, you can maybe even have a better trip than us!
South Africa Road Trip Tips Outline
Our 6 Best Tips
Of all our many South Africa road trip 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.
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
The 50-or-so rands ($3.50 US) we spent on our plug-in mosquito repelling device 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.
Go to a Woolworths or Pick n’ Pay and pick one up as soon as you arrive.
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.
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 one), 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.
✓ This country is freaking amazing
South Africa blew away our expectations. There was so much more to see than we had heard about and it was all so much safer, easier, and cheaper than we expected.
For these reasons, we named South Africa the best country in the world to visit for a comfortable adventure in our Best Countries to Visit for 16 Unique Types of Trip.
✓ South Africans know how to drive!
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.
✓ The roads are in great shape
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 the road isn’t so bad
The first hour or so is a bit scary, but we got used to it surprisingly quickly.
Even driving manual (…as long as you already know how to drive manual) on the other side didn’t turn out to be too tough.
The only thing we still screw up is accidentally turning on the windshield wipers when we want to use our turn signal.
✓ There’s plenty of wildlife
We delighted in seeing a good deal of wildlife—monkeys, baboons, giraffes, eagles, zebras, antelope, ostriches—all along the highway.
Note: If you’re going to Kruger, see our 16 Kruger Safari Tips to See More Animals, Save More Money, and Have More Fun.
✓ The scenery keeps things interesting
The South African scenery really is as varied and beautiful as everyone says.
Of the over 50 hours we spent in our car, there were only a few when we started to get bored with the scenery. (Johannesburg to Golden Gate National Park in Day 2 and Durban to Port Shepstone on Day 6 among them.)
✗ 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.
On the 11 days we drove, we averaged over 4.5 hours driving, which was more than we would have liked.
Side Note: This turned out to be nothing compared to our Namibia road trip.
✗ It always takes longer than it says
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 our route from Johannesburg to Cape Town, 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 to cover some ground when it’s dark out.
✗ The highway-side food sucks in the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape
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:
Use Google Maps’ saved locations functionality
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.
For more detailed instructions on this, check out our post on our favorite Google Maps tricks.
Check out these other bloggers’ posts
Most blog posts on South Africa road trip planning repeat the same things, but we found these ones to be actually helpful:
- Be My Travel Muse – We agree with pretty much everything she says
- Adventurous Kate – Even though it’s from way back in 2012, her tips, especially on things she didn’t like, are helpful.
- Departful – Their awesome photos will get you pumped for your own trip.
Don’t over-rely on bloggers and travel guides
Ask people you meet along the way instead.
They know better.
Use Maps.Me for hiking
Maps.Me is free, the maps work offline, and they have all of South Africa’s main hiking trails.
Download the Maps.Me here, then download all the relevant South Africa maps (they’re only 20 MB or so) before you head out.
Garden Route schmarden route
Just because everyone talks about the Garden Route (including us in our Unearthing the Garden Route series) 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.
Stick to smaller towns
During our South Africa road trips, we’ve found that, 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.
Check out our absolute favorites
Jump down to the Where to Go section at the end of this post to see what we found to be the very best of the best hikes, places to stay, restaurants, and more.
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 here we’re just sharing packing tips that specifically apply to South Africa road trips:
Pack for extreme weather
You never know about the weather in South Africa.
That doesn’t mean you need to pack a lot, though. My go-to minimalist packing list had everything I needed.
Bring the right adaptors
For whatever reason, we had a hard time finding out online what type of adaptors we needed for South Africa before we came here.
It turns out South Africa has two types of outlet.
The most common is type M (the one on the left in the photo above) and you’ll also find quite a few type C sockets (on the right).
If you have binoculars, bring them
Get a mosquito repellent plug-in thing
As mentioned in our Best 6 tips above.
Don’t pack fancy pants
Physical maps aren’t necessary
We had zero issues relying entirely on our phones for directions everywhere we went.
Rental Car Tips
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 a
Get unlimited kilometers
On our road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town we covered 3,500 km in 14 days. That’s an average of 250 km a day, which exceeds the 200 km a day limit that most of the cheapest car rentals usually offer.
Good thing we got unlimited kilometers.
The last thing you’d want to do is stress about kilometers and have to cut your driving short just to avoid the stiff penalties for exceeding the daily limit.
Know what your credit card insurance covers
Read through your credit card policy to understand what exactly it does and doesn’t cover in car insurance.
You might find some surprises. 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.
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 car rental was 100% worth it to be able to not have to backtrack and cover a longer distance.
Tell the rental agency if you plan to leave South Africa
If you want to incorporate Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, or any other country into your road trip, you have to let the rental car company know before you take your
Look at Around About
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.
When in doubt, 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.
Check if your car has a toll road chip
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.
Trust Google Maps mostly, but not always
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.
Speed traps and radar are very common so, unless everyone else is speeding, keep within the regularly-marked speed limits.
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.
Pass and be passed with class
If a car pulls off 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 your 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.
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
Cell Phone Tips
Get MTN rather than Vodacom
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 the 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 airtime to buy packages as you go
For my MTN line, I loaded 200 rands of airtime my account, which I used to buy 7-day, 1.25 GB packages for R55 whenever the days or data ran out (whichever came first).
To buy packages with MTN, dial *142#.
Just be careful to reload immediately after your package expires. If you don’t, your phone will automatically use your airtime balance and the base cost per megabyte is ridiculously high.
Get shorter packages
It was way cheaper for me to buy consecutive 1.25 GB, 7-day packages for R55 each time than to buy a 30-day, 3 GB package cost R299.
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
You’ll need coins to tip car guards (2-10 rands, depending on time parked) and gas station attendants (5-10 rands).
Don’t forget to tip at restaurants
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.
The standard rate is 10%.
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 to pay with your phone
SnapScan is a free app you can use to pay with your credit card through your phone. Sometimes you can’t pay with a physical credit card,
Here’s How Much We Spent
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 from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
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.
Here are our absolute favorites among what we’ve managed to see and experience in South Africa so far:
- Hiking in Cathedral Peak then feasting on our hotel’s buffet for dinner
- Wandering the not-so-wild but wildly scenic coastline in Mdumbi
- Karoo-sing around Nieu Bethesda, Prince Albert and everything in between
Least favorite towns
Favorite dining experiences
- The pork belly at Kolonaki in Johannesburg
- The sumptuous buffets at Cathedral Peak Hotel
- The platter at The Brewery and Two Goats Deli in Nieu Bethesda
- The ostrich filet at Ibis restaurant in Nieu Bethesda