Although as a country South Africa is vast, it is relatively easy to drive around and see many highlights in a 2 or 3 week holiday.
South Africans drive on the left hand side of the road, and all signposts are written in English. It is law to wear a seat belt at all times, and using a mobile phone when driving is prohibited.
All drivers must have a valid driving licence from their country of residence. If the license is not printed in English, then you will need to obtain an International Drivers Licence. You must carry your driving licence with you at all times when driving in South Africa. If you licence doesn't have a photograph on it, then you must also carry your passport with you so that you can be identified as the legal holder of the driving licence. Please note that the various car hire companies have different regulations regarding the length of time that you need to have held a driving licence, so it is advisable to check with your hire car company about their requirements.
When asking for directions, you may be surprised to get the response "turn left at the next robot..." - no, you have not suddenly been transported into a Star Wars film, rather a 'robot' is the South African term for traffic lights. South Africa is also home to the 4 way stop sign.
The general speed limit is a comfortable 120 km/h on the tar roads outside of towns.
The main roads and highways are generally maintained in an good condition, and are straight, long and fast. There are very few roads in South Africa where you would need a 4WD. Even in the self-drive National Parks and safari areas such as Kruger or Hluhluwe, the roads are good and a 2WD can adequately cope with the odd bit of unevenness.
Many of the major main road are toll roads, in order to help maintain them in their present good condition. Tolls range from a few Rand to over R50, and you can pay either by cash, or some toll booths will take Visa or MasterCard credit cards. The toll roads are clearly signposted, and give you plenty of warning, so that you can get your money ready. However, if you do not feel like parting with any money, you can always take the alternative route which will be signposted as a non-toll road, but in general this will be longer.
Road Signs (or rather Road Non-Signs)
Something else to be aware of during your self-drive holiday through South Africa is the erracticness of road signs, and the inconsistencies between them and the published road maps. You may think that the route you are about to embark on is easy to follow, but certainly in the more remote areas, roads suddenly appear that are not marked on maps, or the road numbers and town names are completely different from what you are expecting.
Speed cameras operate in cities and towns. If you are caught on camera, the fine will go straight to the hire car company, who will simply debit your credit card with the amount. A more common speeding trap is on the outskirts of towns, where traffic police wait for the unsuspecting driver to come racing out of the built up area.
If you are caught speeding by traffic police, there is no such thing as an on-the-spot fine. If you are asked by the officer to pay a cash fine, simply refuse - this is one of the more popular tourist scams happening in some areas at the moment. The correct procedure is for your details to be taken down, including your passport number, and to issue you with a speeding fine ticket. You have up to 60 days to pay your fine. All you need to do is go to the nearest Post Office, buy a Purchase Order for the fine amount, and send it REGISTERED POST to the required address. It is advisable to retain your receipt for both the PO and the registered post, as this is your record that you have paid your fine, just in case there is a problem when your passport is checked at the airport when you are leaving the country.
It is worth noting that none of the petrol stations in South Africa are self-service. When you pull into a petrol station, you will generally be waved to a free petrol pump by an enthusiastic attendant, who are all dressed in smart uniforms and generally welcome you with a big smile. Do make sure that he waves you to the correct pump, however, as you do not want him putting petrol in your diesel car.
As a matter of course, while the car is being filled up, they will clean your windscreen for you - and take great care in making sure even the smallest dirt mark is wiped away. If you are really lucky, they may clean all the other windows as well! It is customary to tip around R5 to the petrol attendants, but you may wish to tip more if they check the oil, water and tyres or if your car is exceptionally dirty!
The majority of the larger petrol stations will take overseas credit cards, but some of the smaller ones may not. You will generally find an ATM on site so that you can withdraw cash if necessary, but in the more remote places, even this facility may not be present. You should therefore always ensure that you have sufficient cash whenever you pull in to fill up with petrol - just in case!
If you want to drive across the border from South Africa into one of the neighbouring countries, then you need permission from your hire car company in the form of a letter including the vehicle registration number and chassis number. This must be presented at the border post, and a permit will be issued which must be carried at all times. There may be a fee payable as well.
People and Animals
Outside of town areas, it is a common sight to see people walking along the side of the roads, especially schoolchildren who sometimes have a long journey on foot to get to and from their school. In addition, livestock are generally not fenced in, and have a tendency to wander wherever they feel like. Don't be surprised to go over a hill or round a bend in a road to find a herd of cows crossing the road in front of you, or several goats grazing right at the roadside. During the day, it is easy to see and avoid people and animals, but at night it is more difficult, and extra care should be taken.