Drive Africa: An Overlanding Guide for your Southern African Road Trip
An epic road trip can be one of the most incredible holidays you can enjoy. It’s important to be prepared to drive in Africa, though. In this feature, with a view to overlanding in Southern Africa, we break down 12 of our best tips for a successful road trip in the region.
Before you head out on your Drive Africa epic journey, check your basics. Make sure your tyres are pumped to the right pressure, and that you have a spare wheel (or two) that you’ve also checked. Check the water levels (radiator as well as windscreen wipers) and your oil. Make sure all your lights are working. Do these things a few days before heading out so any issues can be resolved. You need time to sort out any kind of tyre problems or last minute emergency fixes. Fill up with as much fuel as you can as well, before you hit the road for the first time.
2. Know The Route
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Google Maps is great but will often lead you astray or not work in the many signal-less pockets in Southern Africa. For any Drive Africa plan, make sure you’ve documented your route (and alternatives). This means saving a screengrab of the route on your phone, or printing the map and directions. First prize is getting directions from your final destination directly. Often a route that’s the default supplied by Google Maps is impassable for regular vehicles, or has recently been washed away in a flood, or a variety of other random things that actually do happen.
If you’re new to driving in Africa and road tripping in the Southern African region, but have perhaps travelled by road in major cities or first world countries, it may be difficult to gauge how far you can successfully travel in a day. Research and planning is required, especially if your journey is on-going and not just from A to B. Try to stagger large distances over a number of days, or make one leg long, and the following few legs shorter. Roads can be fantastic in many metros, but the further away you get from cities, the longer (and sometimes harder) the going gets. Reasons for this are varied: rainfall (bad drainage), potholes and broken shoulders, corrugated gravel roads, poor road markings, and the most often – and particularly dangerous – domesticated animals. See also point 8!
4. Road Conditions
Make sure you know whether you’ll be travelling on tar or gravel. A Drive Africa adventure means a lot of gravel. This can make a huge impact on your travel time, and on when you’ll reach your destination. Also, it’s worth doing a search to look for the most recent reports on conditions of the relevant roads. The route may be 250km but it could also be a badly corrugated gravel mountain pass, which could take you 7+ hours to traverse in a regular sedan (been there, done exactly that). A good place to check route information and quality of roads, as well as whether you can do it in the car you will be using, is the 4×4 community forum. This is updated regularly by other overlanders.
5. Stop, Swop, Nap
Though it does happen, and quite successfully, road tripping in Southern Africa is not advised for the solo traveller. Getting stuck in remote areas by yourself can be daunting, especially if there’s no signal, and help or random passers-by are hours away. Road tripping with friends can make the journey all the more epic and entertaining. Make sure you stop often for breaks and to stretch your legs, swop drivers often, and nap whenever you can.
6. Fuel Stops
It really depends where you’re driving but my advice is this: never pass up a fuel and/or comfort stop. There are various places in the region that don’t have fuel stations for large stretches, so it’s always best to fill up. The more remote the area, the more important this tip. So even if you’re on a three-quarter tank, fill up anyway.
The open road and the big blue sky can be so damn gorgeous but music helps keep the long journey lively and energised. I spend months working on a playlist before we head out on one of our epic road trips (5000+ km). If the road trip you’re planning is especially long, you definitely don’t want to keep hearing the same tunes over and over. And you can just forget about streaming music or listening to radio stations, when in the middle of nowhere. When compiling your playlist, be sure to get others involved so everyone’s tastes are catered for. Each person can get one veto per leg, if they really really can’t stand a particular song.
8. Night-Time Driving
The short of any Drive Africa adventure is never drive at night. But seriously, try to avoid it at all costs, and set this as an absolute rule for rural or far-flung places. There are parts of the road network that are shockingly bad and littered with livestock, and that’s hard enough to successfully navigate in the daytime. Simply do not take these types of risks at night.
When crossing borders, be sure you’re familiar with all the requirements. Most border posts will check and search your vehicle, request the vehicle registration documents, require you to purchase a TIP (Temporary Import Permit) or third party insurance, and have certain applicable laws that may differ from their immediate neighbours. Make sure you research this and be sure you have everything you need. We’ve been at the border countless times and there is always someone who cannot enter due to one or other unmet requirement. Imagine driving hundreds of kilometres to cross a border, only to be turned away once there. For more on this, the AA is a great source of information. Definitely also research your border post’s operating times, as very few border posts are open 24 hours a day.
Another very important element which is not often considered by newbie road trippers is whether the food and drink you’re carrying is permitted across borders. Be sure to check the latest information on foods that may be prohibited due to foot & mouth disease or avian flu outbreaks. Anything that has been restricted will be confiscated and there’s not much you can do about it. A great resource is either the 4×4 Community forum, as previously mentioned, or the DriveMoz Facebook group, which now also has off-shoots called DriveBots, DriveNam, and so on. Also be sure to check that the alcohol you’re carrying is permitted. For example, Mozambique does not allow you to bring in any beer whatsoever. Not to worry, as they have many great beers of their own.
That old saying “cash is king” is quite possibly more true in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Though the ability to pay by credit card is becoming more common, there is frequently that fun moment where the person calmly states “We’re offline”. More often than not, border crossings require cash with not an ATM in sight. ZAR (South African Rand) is also commonly accepted throughout Namibia, parts of Botswana, and touristy beach areas of Mozambique. Your best bet will always be US Dollars, particularly outside of South Africa.
11. Emergency Numbers
Be sure to find the emergency contact numbers for the areas/countries you’re visiting. While you’re at it, find the anti-corruption hotline number and keep that handy. Though in all my time travelling in Southern Africa (many tens of thousands of kilometres), I’ve only had to pull that number out the one time, it’s always better to be prepared. More often, you’ll need help being towed or rescued from having car trouble than anything else.
South Africans in particular love their road tripping and overlanding adventures, and will dash out on the road the very second a holiday period begins. This is why you often hear news reports of traffic jams on highways to popular destinations, including huge delays getting through toll gates. The holiday fever sets in big time. This is applicable to long weekends, as well as school and summer holidays. For our epic trips, we make a point of leaving one day later than most everyone else. We get to miss the mayhem and chaos, have more time to pack and prep for our trip, and have a far more relaxed time on the road. The same applies to your return journey, if not more so. Whenever possible, try to time your return date to be a day or two before or after the masses.
The same applies to weekend trips and getting out of the city. Aim to depart earlier so you miss the rush-hour city madness, which on a Friday usually also starts earlier.
Road tripping in Southern Africa is the stuff of legend, and a Drive Africa adventure can be magical, and some of the most amazing vacationing you’ll ever do. Remember that in Southern Africa in particular, you’re in a mix of developed and developing countries, and need to be well prepared as a result.
Don’t forget the most important thing, also covered in my Camping: 10 Essentials for your First Time feature: always have snacks, lots and lots of snacks.