What you need to know before Embarking
on a South African

Road Trip

Byron and Tammy with outstretched arms by the Katbakkies Sign

Table of Contents

There is no doubt in our minds that a South African road trip is the best, and no, I’m not talking about the 14-hour drive you do from Jo’burg to Cape Town.
That’s just tiring.

I’m talking about those road trips that take you on an absolute adventure, where you have the freedom of the open road, the ability to go wherever you please – no timestamp or schedule. Going from tar roads to dirt roads, from snow-capped mountains to sunny turquoise oceans. You may get lost along the way but end up in the exact place you needed to be.

Passing through mountains and forests, you drive and follow the dips and rises of the terrain. 

You stop for coffee along the road at a lonely “Padstal” and discover that it’s a local gem with the best pancakes!

Those are the moments that create memories.

Those are the memories that we want you to create.

We have just come back from our epic 64-day road trip across South Africa.

We had such an amazing time that we cannot wait to share everything with you. So, we thought we would start at the very beginning. If you are planning a South African road trip, this is what you can expect and what we think you should carry with you for your epic adventure.

Travel Safe Friends!

What Do I Need To Know About Driving on South African Roads?

Firstly, if you are coming from overseas, it’s important to know that we drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Secondly, don’t worry about our signboards. They are pretty well marked and are in English. However, there may be one or two signs along the way in very small towns that are in one of our 11 official languages, but generally, it shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate our roads, plus Google Maps is a thing.

We also use our hazards to say ‘Thank you’ to other drivers. For instance, if there is a slow car in front of you and they move to the left allowing you room to pass and overtake them, then you let your hazards flash 2 or 3 times to acknowledge them.

Generally, if you see a brown coloured sign, it indicates some form of tourism; a rest stop, accommodation, national park, monument etc.

Tammy staring out over Van Rhyn's Pass
A quick stop at the Van Rhyn's Pass Viewpoint

What Are The Laws Around Renting A Car And Licences?

In order to drive and rent a car in South Africa, you will need a driver’s licence: You will need to obtain either an International drivers licence or have a national driver’s licence that has been authenticated in English. Also, if your driver’s licence doesn’t have a photograph on it, you might need to carry your ID or Passport with you. We’d say always double check with the rental company before you come.

What Type Of Car Do I Need?

So, here’s the thing…
You can quite happily conquer a South African road trip in a sedan… We did!
Some roads that we managed, definitely deserved a 4×4. (We are convinced that our little car is a beast!)

However, if you want to travel in a more relaxed manner, and want to see those hidden gems or more famous excursions, possibly consider a 4×4. There are a lot of dirt roads with bad potholes and, in our experience, those roads lead to some of the most spectacular places. Also, If you want to go on a game drive, having a 4×4 with higher ground clearance is better and gives you access to some roads that normal cars cannot travel.

There are also some accommodation gems like The Shack In Mostertshoek that is far better suited to 4×4 cars.

Toll Roads & Do I Need Cash?

Our roads are maintained by the South African National Roads Agency. That means that on certain highways or national roads, you will approach a toll gate along the way. You will have to pay a fee to continue onto the next stretch of road. We have always been able to pay with a credit card [Mastercard or Visa] but it never hurts to have some extra cash on hand just in case.

Also, if you are South African and have an E-Tag (or have rented a car), you can go right through the Shesha Lane without a problem. It is much faster as you can skip all the queues and don’t have to make a manual payment.

Look Out For Potholes

Our highways are generally well maintained, but if you want to go on a “full-on” South African road trip and travel from small town to small town, expect some potholes. Some bad potholes!

Luckily the dirt roads are often very quiet, so you can swerve, dodge and dance along the entire width of the road without too many issues. In fact, we weirdly found that everyone we passed on the dirt roads was super friendly and waved at us. It’s nice out there. You get to/have to go slow and admire the incredible vistas while making your way through the hidden gems of South Africa.

Fill Up With Petrol When You Can

South Africa has some long roads and you never know when you will find another petrol station. It is highly recommended to fill up when you can, even if you still have half a tank left. We left our petrol to chance once and we barely made it to the petrol station. We arrived at a lonely petrol pump in the middle of nowhere, red light flashing, doing no more than 10km/hr, no music, no air-con, hoping that the petrol pump was actually operational. Luckily for us, it was! 

We recommend planning your petrol stops. Just add them into Google Maps along with your route.

What Else Should I Consider?

Tammy walking on a stone wall overlooking the mountains of the Outinique Pass
The Outeniqua Mountains backdropping the Outeniqua Pass

Plan Your Trip Ahead Of Time & Drive The Most Scenic Route

You want to see South Africa, and explore all of its hidden gems, but you also don’t have 7 months to roam about aimlessly. You need to have a general idea of what you want to do. South Africa is huge! If you know what you want to do beforehand you will save time and get to see more. Then you will also be able to drive the most scenic route, instead of just driving on the highway. It’s also important to know when certain attractions are open due to the changes in season, for example, the Namaqualand Flowers or Whale Watching in Hermanus and DeHoop which are very season-specific.

Download Your Route On Google Maps Before You Leave

Once you have a plan, create a saved route on Google Maps and take it offline. It’s better to have a back up in case the signal goes south, it’s not uncommon.

We had a couple stop us on the side of the road to ask if they were headed in the right direction because they didn’t have any signal and were worried that they were going the wrong way.

Rest Stops Along The Highways

We do have some really nice petrol stations that offer a mini shop, cafés, takeaways and nice restrooms. 

There are also truck stops or what I like to call picnic spots along the national roads. Some are beautiful; offering benches and picnic tables under groups of trees or overlooking the scenic view, where you should stop to have a break and a snack.

Unfortunately, however, these do not offer restrooms and some stops continue to be used as a restroom, so pick your spot carefully and tread lightly.

Get A Wild Card!

South Africans, I cannot stress this enough! You need a wild card! It is so worth it. We paid R 1030 for the year for a couple’s card. This gives us one year’s unlimited access to 80+ National Parks, Reserves and Resorts around South Africa. You would normally end up paying around ±R70p.p for each visit and on this trip, we visited a lot!

There is also an option for international visitors, the “International All Parks Cluster”. I would recommend this if you are visiting for a while. Prices for foreigners are pretty high, so even though the cost of the wildcard is steep, visiting the parks individually would end up costing you more money.

If You Are Vegan, Bring Your Own Food, Snacks Or Plant- Based Milks With You

Unfortunately, this is something I haven’t been able to figure out yet on our travels. Many small towns, restaurants and coffee shops in South Africa do not offer any vegan options. I have gone places where a plate of meat is shoved in my face and that’s that. So, I recommend packing your own lunch in a container and bringing it with you. If you are looking for a coffee shop, try to find a Mugg and Bean. They have a few vegan options on the menu and we found quite a few of them scattered along our South African road trip.

Google The Towns As You Pass By, They Have Awesome History

If you want to include some interesting history on your journey Google small towns as you drive past them. We first did this to pass time when we were held up in a traffic “stop and go” (normally road works of some sort) in a small town in the Eastern Cape. The town was so small and dilapidated, but you could see that the buildings were from the 1800s. So we decided to Google it. We were so fascinated by what we learnt and how much history was attached to that little town! It became a thing after that to start Googling places as we went past.

Tammy running along a dirt road amidst yellow flowers

Recommended Essentials For Any Road Tripper To Carry With Them At All Times

Byron & Tammy sitting in the midst of purple flowers

Keep-In-The-Car Items

Toilet Paper: This is an essential item to keep in your car. Not always necessary, but I would rather have it than be stuck without it.

Keep some spare cash or change on hand: There may be some situations where having small change comes in handy. Like giving a tip to a security guard who looked after your car or to a petrol attendant for their help. Maybe you just need money to pay for a parking ticket at a mall. Or you stop at a small burger joint and their card machine doesn’t work. It’s always handy.

First Aid Kit: Road trips are unpredictable, you could fall, slip, scrape your knee or just have a headache. It’s safe to always keep a basic first aid kit with you, plus some extra medicine in case you get a headache, a stomach ache or nausea etc.

Road Side Emergency Kit:
Make sure you have a kit packed in your boot. Especially jumper cables, a torch, a spare tyre, jack and reflective triangle. Having a spare tyre is very important (remember to check it before you head out on your journey, rented car or not!). We were warned about some gravel roads that have shards of slate in them and it can be pretty easy to get a puncture… or two! We, however, never encountered them on our journey. Some really nice-to-haves are also a 12V tyre pump, digital tyre pressure gauge and foam tyre sealant.

Multiple Music Playlists: HAVE MORE THAN ONE PLAYLIST! Or use Apple Music or Spotify or download some podcasts. We made the mistake of bringing one USB filled with songs and got so sick of hearing them that we drove in silence a lot of the time. Also, you won’t always have signal or you may be trying to save your data and battery for Google Maps. So, if you are using Apple Music or Spotify make sure to download your music beforehand.

(P.S If you like good, true-crime podcasts you have to check out – Dark Stuff: With Christian & Suann. They are hilarious!)

Keep a separate bag in the front seat that has your phone chargers: Phones lose power and that’s not always helpful when it’s 10 in the evening, you are lost, Google Maps is on and you have 2% left. You also don’t want to have to stop on the side of the road to dig through your suitcase.

Picnic Basket & Blanket: Like we said, there are so many stops along the road. There are ±80 National Parks you could come across. Make your lunch break an occasion and have a good old fashioned roadside picnic or hold on and have a picnic near a stream or waterfall in an ancient forest!

Bug Spray: We do have some nasty mosquitoes. Not anything dangerous, but they have a healthy appetite, so always keep a bottle with you, especially if you are headed on safari.

Hand Sanitizer & Wet Wipes:
Covid-19 aside, this always comes in handy on a road trip. I mean have you tried to eat an ice cream in the car…

Small Travel-Size Umbrella: Always handy for those moments of rainy downpour. We mostly use it to protect our camera while we are shooting.

Re-chargeable LED Light or Torch: This came in quite handy for those load shedding moments (our scheduled power outages). It helped us when we stayed in the teepees at A Hog’s Life or whenever we go camping. A torch also comes in handy for photography at night and helped us when we went on a sunrise mission at 4 am with CamoHogs.

Bring your Camera: South Africa is gorgeous! You are going to want to document your journey. We brought along the Sony A7iii to test out on our journey.

Byron giving Tammy a Piggyback Ride through the Namaqualand Flowers
Tammy looking out of the car window at the wildflowers

Eco Friendly Packables

Reusable Shopping Bag: If you are buying food or snacks on the go, keep a few reusable bags in the car with you so you don’t have to use plastic bags.

Reusable Water Bottle: You are going to want to stay hydrated on your trip, so a water bottle is a must if you don’t want to start collecting a hoard of plastic water bottles in your car. Some shopping centres or grocery stores do have water fill-up stations. We had a large 10l water bottle that we would fill up and decant into our smaller bottles.

Re-Sealable Containers: We wish we had brought these with us. We often found ourselves with leftovers and then having nowhere to store it, so we left it behind. What a waste of food!

Is bringing a reusable straw necessary: Maybe, I can’t say we ever used ours, but we don’t often use straws. The only time we used it was to share melted vegan ice cream in the car in Cape Town. Most restaurants and coffee shops offer paper straws.

Clothing Bits You Didn't Think About

Keep a dry bag in your boot filled with swimming costumes and towels for those spontaneous swims: Trust us, again we made this mistake and packed our swimming costumes away in our suitcases, making them almost impossible to reach because we had so much in our boot. There are so many amazing waterfalls and streams that we passed and wished we had brought something with us.

Jackets, one for the rain and one for the cold: Weather is unpredictable. According to research we had done, the weather should have been warm. So, we were very surprised when we arrived to snow-capped mountains and freezing cold weather.

Sunscreen & a Hat: There are so many hiking trails, make sure you bring a hat and sunscreen. Like I said earlier the weather is unpredictable. One day we were freezing in the snow-capped mountains, the very next day we were sweating and getting sunburnt.

Hiking Boots:
I highly recommend getting proper hiking boots! For this trip, I invested in my first ever pair of K-Way hiking boots. Before that, I only had an old pair of Nike tekkies (sneakers) that were completely worn. I felt so much more confident on my hikes.

Stopping to watch the sunrise with the ocean and mountains in the background.

Emergency Numbers Just In Case

Hopefully you will never need these, but we suggest saving them to your phone before your South African Road Trip, just in case.

Well, there it is. We hope that you are now well prepared to embark on your South African Road Trip. That you have everything you need and are well packed. Have a fun-filled journey with excitement around every corner and stay safe!

Pack like a Pro!

Download our ultimate South African road trip checklist now!

Are you about to embark on your biggest adventure yet, but need a little help in the packing department? Leave no stone unturned before your next South African road trip, we have got you covered!

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