On Driving in South Africa, Part I

Chas and I are not “car people.” We’re bad at it. We’re bad at driving them. We’re bad at having them. After our last car died less than a year into owning it, we decided that we would admit defeat and find other ways to get around (a scooter, public transportation, Zippers, our bikes, gracious friends…). And we’ve gotten along carless for the last 5 years pretty well.

But, Cape Town is a car city. Everyone has told us this. There’s a pretty connected subway system, but we’ve been told it’s best not to be used after dark. Uber has blown up here in the last year, which has already proven to be useful, but we still booked a car “for hire” for the first two weeks until we can figure something out more long-term.

As American drivers, there is just no way to prepare yourself for driving on the left-hand side of the road. You can’t practice this kind of driving, so when we got our little white Hyundai on Saturday afternoon, and made the decision that I would drive first, I instinctually opened the left-side door, and Chas went to the right. We laughed. This will be fun!

Once we got on with it, the constant noises from Chas in the passenger seat to my left were those sharp little intakes of breath when a person is preparing himself for the worst. Just as terrifying as it is to drive in the right-hand seat is riding on the left side. You are constantly trying to re-align your brain into not expecting the incoming traffic on the right-hand side of the road to hit you at 50 mph 80 kph.

Our first order of business was to buy a GPS, since our phones’ maps were useless here without data. We got lost, of course. And in an effort to find the electronic store we’d spotted, I hit a parked car.

Yeah, oops.

I should say that this was not a “pride comes before the fall” moment of overconfidence. I was not pleasantly surprised with my quick adjustment to South African driving. No. If anything, I was absolutely terrified before, during and after I hit the other car. My hands were glued to the steering wheel, adrenaline rushing, Chas was sucking in air, and I was going fairly slow for the part of town we were in. Luckily, it was only a mirror-to-mirror collision…but his was broken.

When people tell you that South Africans are friendly, they mean it. The man whose car I hit was so genuinely friendly and helpful (including his entire family, who were all sitting inside his car when it happened—added bit of fun), that we resolved the issue quickly. Mainly, it was us saying over and over, “We’re from the U.S.! We don’t know what we’re doing on this side of the road!”

I found out later, after calling our rental company, that you actually have to report any collision to the police, regardless of damage. Second day in a new country, and we’re on our way to the police station. I have never felt more stupid. Chas drove.

The process was fairly easy minus the part of the report wherein we had to write the street that the accident occurred on.


…Earl Street?

…Victoria Walk? Does “Wk” even mean “walk”?

 …maybe Mountain Road?

The look that police officer gave us. Such stupid Americans. How can someone not know where they got in a car accident?

Five days in and we’re feeling more and more comfortable. At least we’re not still yelling at each other from the passenger seat while simultaneously squeezing our eyes closed, expecting the inevitable mirror crash or oopsie turn into the right lane (you would not believe how badly you want to do that when you’re not supposed to).

And despite our misadventures with the car, one thing that has proven to be well worth it is where we can now go. Turns out, cars are awesome! That first night, Chas suggested we drive to find a place to watch the sunset—probably as way of calming my nerves.

It was ok, I guess. He drove.

I love this selfie. We were trying so hard to get ourselves and the giant peak in behind us.

Minolta DSC

Our first South African sunset from the side of the road in Camps Bay. Pretty splendid.

12 thoughts on “On Driving in South Africa, Part I

    • amyfant says:

      Mike, that is so funny! I was just reading something somewhere that said, “If baboons get into your car, get out.” That’s crazy that it happened to you! If y’all are ever back on this side of the world, let us know!


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