I’ll be the fist to admit that driving has never been my strongest skill. I got a couple of lessons in driving stick shift back in the states, but to even say I am a novice at it would be a stretch. So you can imagine my unwillingness to get behind the wheel of our rental car here in South Africa, with the steering wheel on the right side of the car, driving on the left side of the road.
Adding to my reluctance are all of the crazy scenarios that I have witnessed on the roads here. To name a few:
- People attempting to cross a 6 lane highway, Frogger-style, in the dark.
- Cars blatantly running red lights, or starting to drive well before the light turns green. That’s if the lights are even working, which they often aren’t.
- Hawkers, beggars, and pedestrians in the middle of lanes whenever and wherever they like. In the countryside, it’s more likely to be cows blocking the road.
- Cars overtaking 18-wheelers into oncoming traffic, on a hill.
- The aftermath of horrific accident involving a truck that had flipped down the side of a cliff.
- Mini-vans (called ‘taxis’) packed with way too many people driving ruthlessly and with a general disregard for road rules.
In Joburg’s defense, the roads here are fairly well maintained and very well marked. Once you get out of the city and off the highway, however, roads become increasingly pockmarked with potholes, and there are parts of the country you can’t even get to without a 4×4.
Another factor adding to my disinclination to drive here is law enforcement itself. After picking up our rental car, Spencer was driving us toward the exit of the airport garage when a police officer on foot waved us down.
“You have pulled through the stop-sign without stopping,” he said. “The fine for that is 500 rand (about $30). I will write you a ticket and you must go to the fines office today to pay. The office closes at 3:00pm.”
“Sir,” Spencer responded, “we are leaving town just now, does it need to be paid today?”
“Ah, you are tourists. You just landed, eh? OK, do you want the fine for 800 rand? I see you are tired, so instead you can just pay me now. Only 50 rand.”
We looked at him in confusion. “What do you want to pay?” he asked.
At this point it dawned on me that he was hoping we would line his pockets rather than take a ticket, but we weren’t going to play. “We will just take the ticket,” I responded.
He seemed disappointed to realize we weren’t falling for his trap. “OK, I will let you go with just a warning this time.”
Unfortunately, this kind of corruption is all too common in South Africa. Twice more on our 4-day trip we were pulled over at traffic stops, but thus far have gotten away without paying any bribes.
Despite my reluctance, I did give driving a try on our latest road-trip. It was only highway driving, and Spencer talked me through it. I didn’t cause any accidents, and no one’s lives were ever really in danger. But it wasn’t pretty.
So, to make my life a little easier (and to save our marriage), we are now in the market for an automatic car. Most cars here are manual, making it a tough search so far. Eventually, I will get enough practice and feel good driving around the city all by myself. In the meantime, we have returned the rental and are making use of Uber and doing lots of walking. Probably a better way to discover the city anyway, right?