Driving in Africa

RENTING AND DRIVING IN AFRICA

IN THE SUMMER OF 2007, my girlfriend and I rented a Toyota RAV4 from CKC Safaris in Nairobi and drove it 5,000 km over 5 weeks, visiting Kenya, Uganda, the Congo, and Rwanda. I have written these suggestions to help other drivers who rent and drive in this part of the world.

The first thing to do is ask yourself whether you really are up for the challenge of driving. Very few people who don’t know the area drive themselves, and you’ll be up against extreme driving conditions – aggressive drivers, potholes, torrential rain, no road signs, and carjackers. There will likely be some damage to your car, and you’ll have to deal with it. If there is any doubt in your mind, or if you have not already spent time in the area, I strongly suggest you get a driver and a vehicle, if not a full pre-set tour. Getting your own accommodation will require a cell phone, patience, and the ability to go to “plan B” at any moment. Finally, if you’re not comfortable driving in the mud or have not driven off-road before, do not learn here.

Rain has a huge impact on your driving. Most roads in Africa are dirt and turn into rivers or mud during the rains. When you imagine driving in Africa, imagine driving in the rain, and ask yourself if that’s how you want to spend your time. Look at the rainfall charts to help plan your trip.

Here I’m using a camera tripod as an improvised tool to check the depth before driving through a puddle. Measure twice, drive once. Go around if necessary.

If you’ve decided to rent and drive, you’re in for an adventure. I would recommend renting from CKC Safaris, but as you’ll see there are other options. I’ll break this document into the following areas:

•    When to go
•    Where to go
•    The car
•    Extras
•    Documentation
•    Gas and maintenance
•    Driving
•    Navigation
•    Dealing with the police
•    Border Crossings
•    Flying and Driving
•    Dangers and Annoyances
•    Waving
•    Online Resources

When to Go

If you’re going to East Africa, realize that June, July, and August are the coldest months, and the grass is highest. That means you, in your rented vehicle, will be seated low on the roads, while the mzungus (white people) in the tour vehicles will be happy popping their heads out of the roof hatch looking over the grass. It’s really best to go in October or November, when the roads are less crowded, it’s warmer, and the grass has been munched down by the grazers for better viewing. September, December, and January are the best second choices. If you go any other time, you’ll either be cold or wet or both.

Where to go

If you’re starting out with little experience, take the new road from Nairobi to Nakuru and start in Hell’s Gate and then Nakuru National Park. These are easy-driving parks that will help you build up your skills and confidence. Hells Gate doesn’t have much in the way of wildlife but is a beautiful place and a good first stop from Nairobi. Then on to Lake Nakuru, which is full of wildlife and easy to get around (unless it’s wet). If you’d rather save a bit of money, stay at the Merica Hotel in Nakuru rather than in the park itself. The park entry fee is very expensive either way you do it, so staying outside the park can save money and the town is just outside the park entrance. If you have the money, stay at one of the lodges in the park – it will get you closer to the lions at dawn and dusk.

If you go to the Masai Mara/Serengetti, go any time other than July and August, unless you’re interested in being surrounded by white minivans full of tourists. September is also crowded, but better. October – January are best.

If you go to  Uganda, I strongly recommend Queen Elizabeth National Park as a first stop, even though the day’s journey there is harrowing. Start VERY early. Plan on 4 days in the park, minimum. Six would be better. We stayed at the Mweya Lodge, and it was hands-down the best place we stayed in all our time in Africa. And quite affordable, given that you get full board and are inside the park so you can drive out early and see the action. Try to get to the Kob breeding ground by 7am, along with all the professional drivers, and either look for other cars stopped on the track or vultures in the air.

We loved Paraa in Northern Uganda as well – tons of giraffes and hippos.

Male elephant, Mweya, Uganda

The early bird gets the worm.

I don’t think you want to drive around Rwanda – the roads are excellent, but there’s no game. Go to Rwanda only for gorillas, and in that case set everything up ahead of time with a tour operator, and try to see Group 13.

The Car

You will need a 4WD, not something that looks like a 4WD but isn’t. Driving on dry dirt roads is challenging, and once it rains things get worse. The “paved” roads on the map were paved once, but that was a long time ago. Now they are dirt tracks. In general, printed maps are of limited use. We only used the 4WD twice, but we needed it both times. It’s difficult to tell if the car you rent is actually 4WD, as many don’t have the standard transfer case shifter you find in a European car. Some just have a 4WD button, that’s unhelpfully labeled “Auto” or “PWR”. Be sure that you are shown the differentials front and back and how to transfer the car into 4WD.

Our RAV4 got great mileage and went on all the game drives we wanted, but it didn’t have the clearance to ford all the rivers we approached. You must have clearance to drive off road – more clearance is better. A sedan with 4WD is useless in this part of the world. A Prado is probably the best model to rent if you’re going to be driving long distances and then game driving. A Range Rover or Toyota Land Cruiser is better but gets worse mileage. Be sure to ask how deep you can get into water before you get the engine wet, and ask what you should do if you get into water deeper than that. Roads here are generally in good shape except in the valleys, where they meet the rivers. Low-lying areas are the most trouble, even when dry. It’s not uncommon to find yourself looking across a rushing river with pavement leading in and out of the water, when the map says you are on a paved road.

The car should be relatively new – under 50,000km. The tires should be as new as possible, and there should be a new spare. You MUST imagine that you’ll need the spare. That means you should practice taking a wheel off in the parking lot before you even leave. You will need a collection of wood blocks to put under the jack if you’re stuck in mud or off road. A towing rope would be smart, but we didn’t have one. Don’t forget the wood blocks!

Again, put the car on the jack and remove a tire before leaving town. Is one of the lug nuts on each wheel special? If so, It’s a locking nut, and it will require an adapter. You need to know where this adapter is – without it, you can’t get the wheel off.

On the road in Uganda.

Extras

You should bring a GSM phone and get a phone card. We bought a phone in Nairobi for $50 and a SIM card for $20 and used it everywhere. SafariCom is great in Kenya but does not work in Uganda nearly as well. Celtel seems to be the way to go for multiple countries – check with the dealers on coverage areas. Don’t let them tell you SafariCom is good in Uganda – it wasn’t in 2007.

Ideally, the car comes with a stereo that has a mini-stereo jack on the front, then you can bring your MP3 player and a connecting cable (buy before you arrive) and then you’ll have all your music with you. You can get a cable to charge your iPod in the car at www.igo.com. You’ll also need one flashlight per person. Batteries are widely available.

Bring a couple of good nylon shopping bags, so you can get groceries and keep things organized, without having to buy and toss plastic bags. Once you arrive, you should also pick up a roll of small garbage bags, napkins, and plenty of water. Bring some camping cutlery for days when you need a spoon or fork to eat on the run.

Bring extra big duffel bags stuffed with nylon bags for each type of item you’re bringing (pants, shirts, underwear, cameras, etc), rather than luggage. When going by car, it’s easy to toss everything into a big expandable duffel and go on – you don’t need to pack tight unless going on an airplane, and you’ll be able to pull stuff out easily on the road.

Documentation

You are supposed to have an international driver’s license, but no one will ever ask you for it. I had one, along with my US driver’s license, and never needed either of them, even when the police stopped us. Going back, I wouldn’t bother with the International license.

If you plan to cross borders, you should have the original of the car’s ownership document that allows passage to other countries. It’s called the “log.” It’s yellow, and it says which countries the car is allowed in. More in the Border Crossings section.

You should also have a letter from the car’s owner (which may be different from the rental car company) saying you have rented the car and it’s not stolen, and if anyone has any questions, to contact the owner (give the owner’s phone number).

Some roads are better than others, and the big trucks ALWAYS have right-of-way. Often, you drive with one wheel on the pavement and one wheel off, at speeds up to 100 kph – no kidding!

Gas and Maintenance

Gas is about the same price as you’d find in Western Europe. It’s readily available. Try to buy from the larger chains and only stop at small pumps when you don’t have another choice. Prices tend to be the same everywhere.

Check all fluid levels, especially battery water. Know how to replace all fluids. One tip – you can use Type II transmission fluid for the power-steering reservoir (our car needed new power-steering fluid about every 500km!). Check all fluids every other time you fill up. Did I mention battery water?

Bring a small tire gauge – it will spare you the expense of paying the know-nothing guys who hang out at the air pump. There are no tire gauges in Africa – only the ones attached to the pump. And those gauges are usually wrong.


Driving

Driving in Africa is true third-world driving. The roads are usually full of very deep potholes. Trucks and buses don’t stop for anything and will rarely move over to give you any room. They laugh as they force you off the road. You spend a lot of time behind slow-moving trucks waiting for your turn to pass. Passing is dangerous, as people coming toward you are passing as well. It’s a contact sport, where everyone thinks that missing by 10cm at 100 kph is plenty of room.

Hit one big pothole at high speed and you could ruin your trip. We eventually learned to drive fairly fast on the roads, but it’s a calculated risk. Start slow and learn to read the roads. Even then, you really have to play it safe and try not to take too many chances.

Throughout Uganda, these are average-size potholes.

Driving in the morning is the best way to go. You don’t want to be on the roads after 5pm, and you’ll find them much less crowded at 7am. The best advice anyone gave us before our trip was: “Get where you are going by 2pm in the afternoon, or don’t go.” Leave early, get there early, and spend the day at your new destination. We broke this rule many times, but only when we were quite confident that we knew what we were getting into. We ALWAYS had a Plan B prepared and used it once. Get up early, leave early, and arrive by noon – that’s really the best way to get around. If you prefer to sleep in, Africa isn’t for you.

Game drives in the mornings are better than evening, because it gets lighter and lighter rather than darker and darker. If you don’t know the terrain, don’t count on being in the right place at dusk, as you may be too far from your bed and have to drive back in the dark.

Do not drive after dark anywhere in Africa. If you’re not at your destination by 4pm, start planning your exit. Be off the road by 6pm. Seriously. We broke this rule a very few times, but only after we had built up confidence and were going places we’d already been.

This is where you get gas.

Navigation

Maps are not that helpful, because they don’t reflect the conditions of the roads. What looks like a major highway on the map can turn out to be a jeep trail on the ground. It will help to preview your route using Google Maps. In general, there aren’t any signs showing you where to go. Sometimes you see a sign, but normally you’re on your own.

Bring two maps for each country and two different guide books – having multiple sources of information really helps.

The best way to navigate is to talk with people before you leave and get directions from someone reliable. Most of the time, this will turn out to be incorrect and you’ll have to adjust, but it’s still the best way to get going. The more you know what to expect, the better.

To be sure you are going in the right way, you have to stop and ask locals. Always ask men – women won’t be interested in pointing you in the right direction. Much of the time, they will give you the wrong information, so you should always ask two different people and compare their answers. In general, people don’t know anything about the road or conditions just two villages away – they’ve never been that far.

Very important – NEVER show a map to an African person, white or black. People in Africa don’t have any idea how to use a map. It will just confuse them. This is also true of people in hotels and offices.

It won’t help to bring a GPS to Africa, unless you are going to South Africa. There are no maps you can load into a GPS unit. Without a map, you can only leave breadcrumbs and track your path, and it’s not very helpful. We had one and didn’t look at it once. A phone and a guide book are MUCH more helpful.

We used the Bradt Guides, which have self-drive instructions for getting around.

Remember that it is going to rain and you WILL need a plan B.

Beatrice shot this through the front window during a sudden storm as a fellow motorist and I had to remove a fallen tree from the road. Just one of the many joys of driving yourself in Africa.


Nice kitty. Don’t chew the tires, please.

Dealing with the Police

The police are harmless. At police checks, they will wave you through smiling. Police checks are for commercial trucks and matatus (shared minivans). If you are stopped for a traffic violation, they will try to scare you into thinking this is going to be a big hassle.

Don’t let them intimidate you with a story of how you will need to go to court next week or the week after – it’s just the warm up to their sales pitch. It’s best to smile and tell them you’d like them to talk with the American Consulate and offer to dial the number on your mobile. When they get to the sales pitch, where they need some lunch money, tell them “You know, I’ve been all over Africa, and the people in [name of country] are the nicest, most honest people I’ve ever met. It’s a totally safe country. I’m really impressed at how much better it is here than in [neighboring country].” That should do it. If you need to use money to get out of the situation, it shouldn’t be that much, but if you just appear as though you’re happy to hang around with them talking about things, they’ll eventually let you go.

Remember, the police don’t want trouble any more than you do. If you’re more of a pain to them than they are to you, they’ll let you go.

Police checkpoint? No problem. Just be sure to stop. Keep in mind these are NOT marked and occur randomly. If you are going too fast, you’ll trash four tires quickly.

Border Crossings

Border crossings are a hassle. I would advise against them. We got to be pros at the system, but the first time you do it you’ll be very intimidated. It will take hours and hours. There are miles of huge trucks lining the road, and everyone is wagging papers and money into different little windows, and there’s an order of processing that will confuse you. There are dozens of guys who run to you and tell them they will take you through for a fee. It’s confusing, crowded, and bureaucratic.

If you have to cross a border, you will need photocopies of every document, and you’ll want to cross between 8am and 10am. Don’t cross after lunchtime, when it’s more crowded. You might pay the guy to walk you through the first time, but you’ll get it worked out and won’t need him the next time. Do NOT let the border people keep original documents under any circumstances – tell them you’re returning by another border crossing and won’t be back.

Dangers and Annoyances

The biggest danger to your safety is you. You can get sick or get hurt, and that can ruin your trip. Going slowly, leaving early, and washing your hands with soap 3 times a day will keep you safer and healthier than worrying about thieves. You might think that since your car is full of stuff worth more money than most Africans make in a lifetime, they would be happy to open your car and take your stuff. Not true. When driving, you’ll see people selling vegetables by the side of the road. Pull over, and they will mob your car, pushing produce into every open window. They aren’t dangerous. They just want to sell you some carrots. They have no interest in your gear.

Keep in mind that almost everyone in Africa just wants a little money and no trouble. They all want a hand-out or to sell you something, but they don’t want any trouble and they are not a threat. You’ll hear stories of things being stolen, but in my experience these are exceptions. In most towns, a boy will offer to watch your car for you – don’t even think about giving children money under any circumstances. Your car doesn’t need watching, and the boy should be in school. If you’re seriously hassled by a boy, simply ask a grown-up to tell him to go away. People in this part of the world are religious, modest, and honorable. They dress well and care about their reputations. Don’t assume they are trying to rip you off – unless you are in Nairobi, in which case they ARE trying to rip you off, and have probably already done so.

Africa is MUCH less dangerous than most people think. Even in the north of Uganda or East of Congo, it’s safer than you’ve heard. Yes, there are dangerous places, and you are wise to err on the safe side. But most of the violent activity you hear about took place ten years ago. Don’t rely on online resources like the US State Department or WikiTravel – they have outdated information and err on the safe side rather than saying things are safe again. The farther you are away from a country, the more dangerous it sounds. When you get there, you realize it’s not the case at all. It’s important to do your homework and be aware, but in general, most of Africa is safer than most of New York City.

Never give anything to anyone asking for money – it just makes things harder on the next tourist. I have a rule of never paying for photos. If you pay for a photo, you’ll get a fake smile and pose. If you ask if you can take pictures by raising your camera to your eye, you’ll often get fun reactions. If someone waives you off, don’t shoot and put the camera down. Never try to photograph old women. Young men are usually eager to pose.

Flying and Driving

The best reason to avoid border crossings is that it’s not worth your time driving from one country to another. With the exception of Masai Mara/Serengetti, you’ll do better if you plan your trip so that you don’t cross any borders. In most countries, the best (usually only) roads lead into and out of the capital city. So to get around, you’ll be going back to the capital and then out again. The distances between capitals are large. If you drive from Nairobi to Kampala, realize you’re going to have to drive back again.

The best way to go is to fly to the capital cities and rent a vehicle in each country from there. This avoids the long driving days that are the most dangerous because they have the most trucks, the border hassles, and the fact that there’s actually very little of interest to see near the borders. Your best destinations are easily reached from the capital, so start there and then fly to the next capital for your next country.

The rewards of driving yourself are many. You can choose your own schedule, you can be flexible and look for opportunities. You can reschedule around bad weather. You can save money if you are two or more people. And having the autonomy is wonderful. If you’re up for the challenge, I highly recommend it.

Having your own vehicle means you can stop anywhere, anytime.

Waving

People will see you are not African and will yell at you and hold their hands out, hoping for a gift – money, food, a pen, etc. You hear “Mzungu! Give-a me money!” all the time. I always waved back, and they liked waving. I spent 8 hours driving one day, and I was more tired from waving than from driving!

You will attract a lot of attention if you are white and behind the wheel.


Rent or buy?

In East Africa, it’s not easy to find a good rental car company. Most of the reputable companies prefer tours with drivers, as they make more money. As I’ve mentioned, they also take a lot of the hassle out of your vacation, so you might consider a tour in one country and self-drive in another.

We rented from John Muhoho at CKCSafaris in Nairobi. I would definitely rent from him again. It’s a good company with about 8 dedicated 4WD vehicles just for rent. They are reasonable and provide good communication and support along the way.They also provide cars with drivers as well as full-service safaris throughout East Africa.

If you’re in Southern Africa for a long time, you might consider buying and then selling the car back to the people you bought it from. I don’t know much about this so-called buyback situation, but I’ve heard it’s a good way to go if you’ll be there long enough. Either way, a long rental or purchase is expensive. Feel free to contact me to discuss what rates are reasonable.

Online Resources

Hujambo Africa – a blog by a couple who traveled overland in 1999/2000. There is good information on other pages as well.

Africa Overland – a good page by 3 people who went in 1999