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Driving us mad?

Our regular blogger, Chris Harvie, takes a tongue-firmly-in-cheek look at South African drivers, in order to prepare visitors for their onslaught. We strongly recommend the fastening of safety belts for this one…

Often people have said to me – although admittedly not so often recently – that South African drivers are both polite and disciplined, and that our roads are fantastic. However, they can occasionally be fraught with danger for the uninitiated. So here, in a service to our readers, is a string of tips for drivers unfamiliar with South African driving conditions:

  • You will initially be baffled by our ‘Stop Streets’, although it is essential to understand them very quickly as you will encounter them immediately, even in the Parkades and on the precincts of the airports (where you will almost certainly be harassed by a traffic officer hell-bent on annoying you before you even get out onto the public roads). At a Stop Street, you are obliged to come to a complete and utter stop. The order of departure from the ‘Stop’ position is dictated by the order of arrival – first come, first leave – although in reality, it is simply a game of Chicken with potentially expensive consequences for any player who makes a wrong judgement. Note that drivers from Gauteng Province (with GP at the end of their number plates) are of the belief that Stop Streets do not apply to them.
  • When you see the word ROBOT painted on the road, do not slow down in the belief that R2D2 is about to cross. Robots are traffic lights, so yes, do slow down and prepare to stop if the light is red, unless you are driving a GP-registered car (see above) in which case, as above, you might get away with believing that stopping at red robots is optional - and maybe die. A flashing red robot is out of synch and must, perversely, be treated as a Stop Street.

  • Similarly, the solid white line in the centre of the road which, in the whole of the rest of the world, indicates that there should be ‘No Overtaking’, is generally (and often lethally) taken here in South Africa to indicate that overtaking is perfectly OK even (maybe especially) if you can’t see around the blind corner. Another frequent cause of accidents, this doesn’t seem to put anyone off. In fact, the U-turn just over a blind rise is also now becoming increasingly popular.
  • The area to the left of the yellow line – the hard shoulder – is also strictly out-of-bounds to all vehicles unless they have broken down. It is nevertheless always used to allow overtaking and, especially by vehicles bearing a sticker with the words THIS VEHICLE DOES NOT DRIVE IN THE YELLOW LINE, to allow triple overtaking, which is tantamount to treating a single-lane road as a three-lane highway.
  • Undertaking, as everywhere in the sane world, is strictly illegal and therefore extremely popular here, so check ALL your mirrors regularly. It is absolutely not sufficient to assume that no-one is coming past you on the left. They probably are (see GP-plates above).

  • Circles are roundabouts. Be aware that South Africans are relatively new to the concept of roundabouts and are really not very good at them. Roundabouts are indicated by a hollow black broken ring on a triangular road sign and, often, but not always, rumble strips with the intention of slowing down those who have ignored the hollow ring. The said ring should not be confused with a large (sometimes very large) rectangular signboard with a huge solid red spot and the words HIGH ACCIDENT ZONE. These signs mean what they say, but it would be a foolish person who assumed that the lack of a red spot sign meant, in any way, that you were entering a LOW ACCIDENT ZONE. We do not have any such zones.

  • Dicing and speedsters are high among the reasons for the road accident rate, although, mercifully, visitors are rarely involved as they tend to be a little bit more grown-up than South Africans when it comes to racing off traffic lights, stop streets and circles and zig-zagging in and out of fast moving lines of vehicles. It is fun though.
  • Contrary to what you might think you are seeing, driverless cars have not yet hit South African roads. The car you are looking at – and which appears to be driverless – does actually have a driver, but he is lying down while he drives. He may be asleep. He may not. Either way, he can’t see very much, any more than you can see him.
  • Similarly, you will often see an apparently empty Traffic Police vehicle parked on a verge or along the side of the road. In fact, sometimes they are actually in the road. The car is, however, not empty. There is at least one traffic officer in the car – sometimes two, three or even four of them – horizontally digesting a large portion of fried chicken and chips and a full-fat fizzy drink. The prevalent belief that all traffic officers are a) corrupt and, b) are living in very large houses, is untrue. It does not apply to all of them. But it does apply to some of them and you should (seriously) NEVER pay them cash, even when they are awake.
  • Car guards, on the other hand, never sleep. They are always there, sometimes uniformed and sober, sometimes in a borrowed, torn high-vis vest and looking a little the worse for wear. “I look after your car for you, Boss/Ma’am” signifies a contract to pay on your return for leaving your vehicle in his or her care. “Everything still fine, Boss/Ma’am” signifies that the contract has been completed and it is now time to pay up. The going rate is about R5 – and it is worth keeping them on your side.

  • Another sleepless group consists of the interesting people at the robots, who are out to sell you licence disc holders, wiper blades, mobile phone chargers, ‘genuine’ Police sunglasses, selfie-sticks, car-branded keyrings and coat hangers - all the things you can’t get anywhere else or, in the case of the selfie-sticks, live without. Be nice to them. They have probably come all the way from the Ivory Coast to sell you a pack of dustbin bags.

  • And of course, in case you are not scared yet, night-time, when the traffic cops are asleep in their beds (as opposed to in their cars) is the time when all the un-roadworthy cars come out, held together with duct tape, chewing gum and bailer twine and with limited numbers of functioning lights. In fact, frequently they have no real lights at all and drive with just their hazards on for a suicidal game of “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t”.
  • Finally – and talking of “Now You Don’t See Me” – no piece of South African road would be complete without a sprinkling of SLAGGATE signs. A SLAGGATE sign does not, however, indicate the Exit for a Person of Easy Virtue. Slaggate is Afrikaans for ‘potholes’ and such a warning should be taken very seriously. For anyone struggling to ascertain whether we drive on the left or the right side of the road, we have a sophisticated system, especially when faced with a rash of potholes, of driving on the best side of the road. And if you see a pair of ears sticking out of a looming pothole, it might not be a rabbit but a giraffe.

Of course, what I really mean to say is that South Africa is a fantastic destination for a self-drive holiday and the drivers are both polite and disciplined - with one or two exceptions and by no means all of them with GP number plates – and our roads are, for the most part, in fantastic condition, dead straight and blissfully low on traffic. Just mind you don’t fall asleep!

Chris Harvie - in real life - is a Lowveld hotelier of thirty years' standing. Having cut his tourism teeth in some of South Africa's finest hotels, he founded Rissington Inn in Hazyview, in 1995. In the parallel universe, however, he is a renowned author, inveterate traveller and freelance travel writer with an insider's view of the industry he loves. Often amusing, occasionally caustic and always entertaining, Chris can be relied upon to dig up an unusual tale and to spin it with consummate skill.

More from the mind of Chris:

Hazy history: A glimpse into Hazyview’s past

Walking it off: 6 strolls in Mpumalanga

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