Getting Around In Southern Africa
Created | Updated Feb 24, 2009
One of the defining features of a lot of Africa, and particularly from the Cape of Good Hope to the Caprivi strip in northern Namibia, is the amount of wide open space. This is soothing on the eye and great for the wildlife, but it does mean that getting around can be hard work. This Entry offers some advice on making this easier - it is particularly relevant to Namibia and Botswana and most of South Africa, and is probably also generally accurate for some of Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique. It lists transport options.
This is a good option, as long as you don't try and see too much. It's also really helpful to have at least two drivers. This should address one of the common causes of a road accident in these countries, falling asleep or making an error through fatigue. The other main issue is that of speed. Many Namibian, South African and Botswanan roads are mainly straight and largely empty. It can be very tempting to put your foot down that bit harder to get through the desert that bit faster. This is very dangerous at night, as wild animals sometimes like to cross the road without stopping to listen and without looking both ways. If you hit a large antelope, it will be totalled but so will you. It is also very dangerous on the gravel tracks, as you can lose the back end in the blink of an eye. On the sand tracks (a particular speciality of Botswanan desert and semi-desert), there is a particular technique required to keep moving, and this involves not slowing down too much. Presumably, if you are intending to use this kind of track, you either know what you are doing or you know or will pay someone who does.
You can hire cars easily enough in all the cities in the region as well as in some of the towns. Don't go for anything flash if you are planning to go even partly off the beaten track. Ideally, something that doesn't immediately mark you out as a tourist would be better. There are no dramatically unusual rules of the road, but local driving style can be fairly aggressive in the cities, especially in South Africa. Watch out for the minibus taxis.
Obvious safety precautions for safe independent travel include taking plenty of water and some warm clothes, as well as a decent spare tyre or two. If you're going off-road, add additional petrol in a can, food, good tools, a four-wheel drive vehicle and so on. Be aware that mobile phone coverage can be patchy, and if you are in the middle of nowhere, someone will not necessarily be 'along in just a minute' or indeed for a week or two. Let someone know where you have gone, and don't change route on a whim. Really remote areas require at least two vehicles in the party, in case something terminal happens to one vehicle. A map and GPS can help, but these are no substitute for genuine local knowledge.
In built-up areas of South Africa, you don't risk dying of thirst in the desert, but there are, unfortunately other risks linked to the high crime rate. In some areas of South Africa you should be cautious about picking up hitchers, and indeed about where you stop full stop. If you have a small road accident in the cities and townships (and motorways through townships), you should drive with the other party to the nearest police station, rather than getting out of the car1. There are other anti-carjacking precautions you need to take; consult your consulate if you think you are likely to be travelling in these areas.
When you park your car in an urban environment, either park in a secured car park, or park it on a street where there is some-one watching the cars. Normally these people wear some kind of uniform or armband, identifying them as private security guards. If you give them between two and five Rand (in South Africa) they will make sure nobody steals your car. It is a sad reflection on both unemployment levels and the security situation in South Africa that busy streets can have one of these chaps every 100m or so.
For Angola and Mozambique the security situation is variable. One special hazard is the landmines that can still be found in some areas of the country and particularly after floods, when they have been known to move around. If you need to urinate by the side of the road, for example, you don't move off the road, you go behind the truck on the road.
A halfway house between plane and the other options, the coach service is reliable, comfortable and the best option for any journey longer than about four hours. It is also safer than a minibus for city to city travel in South Africa.
We're talking slow train here, really slow -but also cheap, on the whole. Namibia and South Africa's rail services are designed mainly to haul freight, and although that doesn't mean you have to travel in an open box car, it does mean you often go just once a day (usually overnight) and at freight speed - about 30km/h on average. Still, there's something very evocative about taking a night train through the desert... There are also some commuter-type trains in South Africa, as well as some luxurious and expensive tourist trains.
If you have the cash, aeroplane is the quickest way to cover the distances. Still, it doesn't have the sociable aspects of other forms of travel, as it is essentially reserved to a rich elite.
This is how the vast majority of the local population get about. Minibuses are cheap, with generally sociable passengers and (dangerously) fast once they hit the open road. As with most African minibus taxis, they leave once they are (over)full. You pay before the taxi sets off, and yell when you want to get off. Realistically, this is the most likely way of having an accident whilst travelling in this part of the world, particularly at night - see antelope/car interactions as described above. There are also generally no seatbelts. However, travelling by minibus provides the only practical way for an independent traveller without a car to get to destinations off the beaten track. It is also one of the best ways to get to talk to local people not directly involved in the tourist industry. One piece of advice often handed out is to try and have a quick look at the driver before you decide to take the minibus. Does he (they are mostly men) look dead on his feet before the five-hour trip ahead of him? This is sound in theory but difficult in practice, as you may not see the driver until just before the minibus is ready to go, you may not have any choice if you want to get to your destination that day, and it is going to be difficult to size up the driver and back out without offending people.
Taxis are only practical in the towns and cities, but are a useful way to get from A to B. They are recommended if you need to get somewhere in the dark without using your own car. They're especially recommended in South African cities as an alternative to walking, if you are not sure of the area you are walking in.
Hitching is feasible, but only worthwhile for destinations not served by minibus taxi that still have some lorry and car traffic. This Researcher hitched across the Kalahari into Botswana without too much difficulty, but you will need plenty of time. As with all hitching, be careful and take plenty of water. It is probably best to avoid hitching in or into South Africa, which is more dangerous than both Namibia and Botswana for example. You should expect to pay the driver roughly what you would pay for a minibus taxi, or at least a contribution towards petrol. They may be kind enough to refuse, but you should definitely offer.