Roadtrips – US vs. South Africa

I am a huge fan of road trips. There is something so exciting about the prospect of a long drive, despite the obvious drawbacks of road travel. It’s far from the fastest way of getting anywhere, but even without the insufferable security screening, endless lines and baggage restriction induced panic, I would opt for a road trip any day. I love listening to music, staring out at the landscape and towns whizzing by, snack breaks, chatting, stretches of comfortable silence, and, of course, finally getting there.

I’ve road-tripped in a lot of places, and haven’t met one yet I didn’t like. I even relished the epic drives on potholed roads in Liberia. Somehow the repetitive soundtrack of Lionel Ritchie, Lucky Dube and West Africa’s greatest hits induced a trance-like effect that had me doing some of my best thinking on the road.

Nick and I just got back from driving his car back from Jo’burg to Cape Town, via Arniston. I’ve done quite a number of roadtrips over the years in South Africa, including the Jo’burg-Cape Town drive (about 16 hours) 5 or 6 times. There are quite a lot of differences between road-tripping in the US and South Africa – here are just a few:

  • While the main roads in South Africa have pretty major gas stations that have snacks, food, clean bathrooms, etc, if you venture even a short distance off these roads you’d better plan in advance! Even on stretches of major roads, the towns are sometimes far apart, meaning fuel stops are too. A major challenge for people with pea-sized bladders like me.
    • Even the major N-S route that crosses South Africa is a one-lane highway in many places. There are few super-highways in the middle of the country, unlike in the US, despite the fact that it is the major trucking route. This means there is a LOT of truck dodging and passing. Even on tight, windy mountain passes.
    • Passing is polite here. There is an unwritten rule that if a vehicle pulls over or somehow tries to make it easier for you to pass, you thank them by turning on your hazards. They respond by flicking their lights at you. If you don’t do this, you will incur the wrath of the driver (I’ve seen it firsthand – normally calm Nick yelling ‘you’re welcome, jerk!’ at cars that haven’t thanked him…)
    • There are hardly any billboards! I spend my time trying to read and pronounce the odd Afrikaans named towns and landmarks since those are the only reading material. It would be damn hard to play the alphabet game in some parts of the country!
    • Only pretty major towns have streetlights, so once the sun sets it is just DARK.
    • There is not nearly as much to buy. There are farmstalls along some roads that sell fresh naartjies (nectarines), pies (the meat ones, not the fruit ones) and preserves, you won’t find the same kind of roadside stuff shops you can in small town USA.

    Of course, some things are the same – speed traps in small towns, construction and lane closures, artery hardening burgers and chips as the main form of sustenance on the road, crappy radio stations, etc. I’m sure there are a lot more, so I’m going to plan another road trip to try and find out! Now if only I can stay awake long enough in the car to take note…


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