Roadtripping in South Africa

OK, I admit it we were nervous about going to South Africa. Let’s face it, South Africa’s reputation does take a beating in the media. We saw the movie District 9 and those alien tourists were not treated very well. But seriously, just google South Africa travel warnings and you’ll find countless forums and blogs on how to stay safe in South Africa:  “Don’t walk anywhere at night” to “Keep car doors lock and windows rolled up at all times” and my favorite “Don’t stop at a red light or stop sign if driving at night.” Despite all these warnings the impulse to see southern right whales and African penguins, visit the famed Cape Winelands, and traverse South Africa’s dramatic mountain passes, coastline, and the semi-arid Karoo Desert overrode any concerns we had. Not to dismiss the warnings but it just meant that we had to be super prepared and diligent while traveling through the country.

Johannesburg to Clarens

Because we are masochist we were doing another self-drive tour starting in Joberg, passing through the free state, crossing the border into the Kingdom of Lesotho, meandering down to the Western Cape and ending at the Cape peninsula. We were too chicken shit to stay in Joberg and Cape Town. (Though in hindsight missing out on Cape Town was a huge mistake). This time instead of a big unwieldy safari camper we were zipping around with a VW Polo Hatch. And instead of Evil Jane to guide us we had Evil TomTom. Whereas Jane was just a product of her upbringing and environment, Tom was actually evil.

After spending a night near the Joberg airport, we picked up our car and drove towards the Golden Gate Highlands National Park on the scenic Maloti route, about a 3 hour drive.

South Africa Maloti Route

Driving through the the park we passed grasslands populated with zebras, antelopes and the black wildebeest that are endemic to South Africa.

South Africa Maloti Route
Black Wildebeest

South Africa Maloti Route

South Africa Maloti Route

The colorful banded sandstone cliffs and outcrops for which the park is notable. Though the most recognizable feature the Brandwag Buttress is not represented here as we didn’t have time to really see it.

South Africa Maloti Route

South Africa Maloti Route

South Africa Maloti Route

We weren’t able to do any hiking as we didn’t have much time before sunset. We were only spending one day here but this area deserves an extra day or two to leisurely explore the surrounding area.

By the time we arrived in the arty and touristy village of Clarens it was too late to enjoy the town’s array of art galleries and shops. We did have a nice meal at Gosto, a Portuguese restaurant.

Clarens to Graaff Reinet

The next day we got up at the crack of dawn to make the long drive to the town of Graaff Reinet in the Great Karoo, about 7 hours drive without any stops. Our plan was to continue on the scenic Maloti route to Ficksburg then cross the border into Lesotho, drive through Lesotho until we reached the Van Rooyens Gate border and cross back into South Africa before hauling ass to Graaff Reinet, all the while hoping we will do all this before nightfall. We calculated this diversion into Lesotho would take us an additional 2 hours making this a 9 hour trip, which is why we were up at the crack of dawn. It was during this trip that TomTom started to show his true colors.

Things started well enough. The border crossing into Lesotho was pretty non-eventful. Our passports were checked, fees paid and then we were in Lesotho. They didn’t even ask for our documentation that gave us permission to take the rental into the country.

Unfortunately, this part of Lesotho turned out to be a bust. The drive wasn’t particular scenic as we mostly drove past strings of towns and flat plains with the surrounding mountains far out in the distance. Unlike it’s neighbor, wealthy white European South Africa, Lesotho felt more chaotic in an urban sense or at least in the parts we visited.

Why didn’t you stop?

Police checkpoints are common throughout Africa. In some cases these checkpoints are used to extort a bribe from unsuspecting tourist, often under some false charge like not having the correct or expired documentation. Shortly after passing through the border town of Maputo, we reached such a police checkpoint. There was a stop sign (painted on a sandwich board propped up in the middle of the street) and about 50 feet beyond was a police officer standing there waiting.  As we approached the stop sign D said to G to stop. But instead of stopping at the stop sign G thought he saw a “go ahead” signal and went through to stop in front of the policeman.

“Why didn’t you stop back there?” the policeman asked, pointing to the sign. G responded that he thought he had to drive up to the police officer and didn’t realize he had to stop at the sign. “Why didn’t you stop?” the policeman repeated. Shit this wasn’t going well!

After pulling over, G was asked to get out of the car and show his driver’s license. After repeating their question the officer asked G what the fine he thinks he should pay for breaking the law.

G:  I don’t know.

Officer:  What is the fine where you come from?

G:  I don’t know.  It depends.  Maybe $30 (At this point D is yelling at G to offer 100 [dollars?? no way!]  {D: WTF, I meant 100 Rand or about 7 USD.} )

Officer:  What fine do you think you should pay?

G:  You tell me what I should pay.

This standoff went on for a while until they got tired with G not giving them a straight answer and not reaching for his wallet, which had way too much money in it to show them. I think they were expecting G to pull out some money and just hand it over. Eventually they let him go with just a warning but not before asking for some sweets. We couldn’t even give them that. To be fair, whether they were asking for some type of bribe G did break the law in this case and they had every right to fine him for the infraction.

With the scenery not changing much and after encountering a 2nd police checkpoint (in which we were pulled over even after stopping at the “stop sign” but with no further incident thank God) we decided to leave Lesotho at the next border crossing which was at Maseru, the Capital city. Unfortunately, it took us over an hour to cross the border.

Once we crossed the border we hauled it to Graaff Reinet using Evil Tom to guide us. This was a mistake as Evil Tom took a longer route that added about an additional hour to our drive. All said and done we arrived at Graaff Reinet around 6pm after a 12 hour drive.

Trip Notes:

Johannesburg, O. R. Tambo International Airport

  • Due to the high level of theft from checked bags from airport employees, it is recommended to shrink wrap your checked-in baggage with plastic to deter theft. We didn’t heed that advice and had no issues. We just followed the usual precautions about locking our bag and not leaving valuables in our checked bags.
  • Beware with aggressively “helpful” employees/people who will insist on walking with you to show you the taxi stand, bus stop or whatever. They will demand a tip. When we were approached we just ignored them and refused to follow them, detouring if we had to.

Driving around South Africa was pretty straightforward as the roads and signage were excellent and at par with the US.

When researching places to stay, secure parking was one of the most mentioned amenity that people listed in their reviews. Car break-ins are a problem and secure parking is an important feature for many traveling to South Africa. All the places we stayed had secure parking but we found that in many towns street parking was perfectly safe.

Car Rental:

Avis Car Rental
Johannesburg Airport
Volkswagen Polo Hatchback

Nice roomy car.  Enough trunk space for our two 22 inch bags, two large backpacks and more. We wanted to make sure we had a big enough trunk so we can stash our personal effects out of sight.

Accommodations:

Protea Hotel O.R. Tambo Airport
Room 55
Johannesburg, South Africa
http://www.marriott.com/hotels/hotel-rooms/jnbor-protea-hotel-or-tambo-airport/

We weren’t even interested in staying anywhere near central Johannesburg so this was a convenient overnight stop for us before starting our trip into SA.

It’s about 2 km from the airport so not super close. They do provide a complementary shuttle which you can catch at the bus station behind the Inter-continental. The shuttle comes every half-hour.

Hotel and rooms were clean and stylish. Though the shower is out in the open with the glass enclosure separating you from the bedroom. We ate at the hotel as there wasn’t much in the surrounding area. Restaurant serves international cuisine. Don’t expect much from the food.

We had an issue with catching the shuttle back to the airport to pick up the car. The shuttle was taken over by a soccer team and there was no room for us. One driver noticed that we were left stranded and asked his manager for permission to take out another shuttle to the airport thus saving us waiting another 1/2 hour for the other shuttle to return.

Eddie’s Self-Catering and B&B
Ann Room
Clarens, South Africa
http://clarenseddies.co.za/

Basic room on the smallish side. About 5 blocks from the main shopping area and restaurants. Secure parking. The satin sheets and pillows on the bed made it feel like we were in some type of brothel.

We walked to town at night for dinner and we encountered no problems. Though the walk back to our hotel the walk got very lonely as there were not many people around.

Eats:

Gosto’s Taste of Portugal
Clarens, South Africa

Not sure how Portuguese are the dishes on the menu. Heavy on meat dishes. But it was good.

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