Self-Driving in South Africa—A Reasonable Choice?

Self-Driving in South Africa—A Reasonable Choice?

Stopped vehicles inside Kruger National Park

PHOTO: Tourists stop their vehicles on a bridge just inside Kruger National Park. (Photo by Paul Heney)

For many Americans, South Africa is a bucket-list vacation destination, but how exactly to navigate this large country can be a major question mark. South Africa is large—if superimposed on the U.S., it would stretch from Texas to Ohio. What’s more, it encompasses many varied regions and some tourist destinations are separated by vast distances.

Self-driving in the country has been a popular option for many Europeans, especially the British, who are more comfortable with the drive-on-the-left-side street setup. But Americans haven’t been as quick to jump on this touring option, perhaps dissuaded by perceived safety or infrastructure issues.

Jack Fillery, owner of Tomjachu Bush Retreat, located about an hour outside of Kruger National Park, said that one of the issues with travel in South Africa is that the public transport system is not particularly efficient. Thus, it can be quite expensive for those who aren’t self-driving.

“I think a lot of travelers find that it’s a lot cheaper to rent a car for two weeks than it is to get transfers from one place to another, from one lodge to another,” he said. “Plus, people enjoy the experience of being a little bit more in control of their own journey. You have a bit more freedom when you self-drive to pop off and have a quick breakfast here or there, and you’re not just being shuffled from one nice place to another nice place, to another nice place.”

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Fillery explained that he’s seen a big rise in experiential travel and the self-drive concept is a part of that, in South Africa and neighboring countries as well.

“There’s a lot more people who are renting camper vehicles and going camping in Namibia. You can hire your 4×4 vehicle with the tent on top, and all the food and everything is all there for you; it’s all done for you. But you still get the experience of being in a 4×4 traveler, venturing through Africa. And I think a lot of people really enjoy that experience,” he said.

Part of what may be changing may also be the plethora of online resources, including message boards and review sites where people share experiences about things like car rental, road conditions, safety, etc. Before our recent trip to South Africa, my partner and I checked a variety of sites to assuage our nervousness about driving in the country. We felt much better after reading about other travelers’ experiences.

In the end, we rented a car for a one-way journey from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth and another for a round trip from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park. The rentals each ran about $300, including full insurance coverage, taxes and all fees—quite reasonable in our opinion. We drove more than 1,000 miles over a two-week span and didn’t have a single problem.

Travelers planning to self-drive should note that their U.S. auto insurance policies likely will not cover them outside the country. And while the roads were well-maintained and modern, you will see many more people walking on the shoulders of highways, especially in the rural areas—a reason to be extra cautious and vigilant of the road ahead.

Giraffes in Kruger National Park
PHOTO: Giraffes wander across one of the main roads in Kruger National Park. (Photo by Paul Heney)

While Fillery’s property has many good relationships with travel agents and is included in package tours, he also depends on the self-driving visitor, as Tomjachu is off the beaten path, miles outside the nearest city, Nelspruit (Mbombela). And he’s hopeful that more Americans will discover the joys of self-driving in his country soon.

“There are very few questions that you can’t type into Google that haven’t been asked before. ‘Is it safe to drive in South Africa?’ ‘How easy is it to rent a car there?’ and so forth,” Fillery said. “You can very quickly ascertain whether a place is easy to travel in or not. I think the information about travel is far better than it used to be.”

“There are certain countries in which I wouldn’t dream of renting a car. But the advantage of traveling in those places is that it’s very easy to travel from one place to another, and it’s safe to do so— there are good buses, there’s good public transport, there are long-distance buses that are very easy to get. Maybe it’s something to do with the history of South Africa, but public transport here is tough,” Fillery said.

“Also, I think the demographics of the traveler in South Africa is usually a little bit older. There’s not a lot of backpackers traveling around South Africa. Those public transport routes haven’t really been explored to the same extent as they have in other places—where they’re more geared towards backpackers.”

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