Renting a Car in South Africa + Driving Into Lesotho
I loved sitting in the backyard at my Airbnb in Cape Town in mid-February. My hosts dogs loved my petting them in the warm sunshine, and the only improvement I could think of was if someone would come rub my shoulders or back, too.
The pleasant weather in the southern hemisphere was a hundred times nicer than winter in northern California. I just wanted to enjoy the day; not be bothered thinking about a potential South Africa car rental. I find it soooo painful arranging this sort of thing– all the price checking. (I impress myself with my procrastination skills. Little did I know how easy + cheap it is!)
Unfortunately, it was my last full day in Cape Town, and my drop-dead date had arrived. A decision regarding the upcoming weeks was required. Immediately. How would I move around the country? There was no lack of options. I could rent a car + drive myself, take public transportation, or sign up for the Backpackers bus for my month-long road trip. It all came down to pricing and flexibility.
Keep reading for South Africa car rental information, rental options, driving tips, border crossing — all from my experience on a Solo 5-Week Road Trip. If you still have any questions, leave a comment or message me! :)
Tip: It is dangerous shooting photos while driving. Do not do it, for the safety of yourself and others!
After procrastinating for weeks (I had debated this even before I bought my flight), I decided on renting a car. It was cheap at less than $20 per day! This is cheaper than the USA, albeit comparable to Spain. Also, this way, I could make my schedule for pony trekking in Lesotho + cage diving with great white sharks.
Public transportation is inconvenient in the countryside due to a limited schedule, according to my guidebook. Otherwise, this would have been my first choice. I much prefer meeting people on buses, watching the scenery over driving, + looking out for animals on the road. I actually saw many people walking miles on the roadside between small towns and villages. I imagine this was because public transportation is infrequent, or too costly for those particular people.
Tourist Hop-On Hop-Off Bus
The backpackers bus, Baz Bus, had these drawbacks for me:
- Lack of flexibility: A certain route and the does not run everywhere every day.
- Worse than regular public transportation: I would be traveling with other tourists, and not locals.
- Cost: It seemed overpriced. Maybe their buses are posh and not at my accustomed level of comfort and speed.
Am I Sure About My Decision?
Renting a car seemed a bit risky, since I was unfamiliar with the rental companies I found in my Google search. My Airbnb host looked it over and it seemed reasonable to her. In the end, it turned out great! Aroundabout Cars is like Kayak or Orbitz in that it finds the prices for many car rental agencies. In fact, I later realized they are reputable. In the free backpackers guide I picked up later, I discovered that one hotel I staying gave a discount Aroundabout Cars customers.
They got me a car rental through Tempest car rental agency for 32 days. I paid about $550 USD (6,660 ZAR). The car was an adorable little gold 4-door Volkswagen Golf, stick shift. Again, this car was reserved one day in advance. Hertz and other brands I had heard of were also available, but prohibitively expensive for my budget.
Driving Into Lesotho
Driving the rental car into Lesotho was easy. I advised the rental car agency of which countries I would be entering, and there was no other cost or paperwork for Lesotho. They gave me the rental agreement with a mark that I could take the car into Lesotho. My contract stated that I would have had to pay an extra fee for permission to drive into Namibia or Botswana, but Lesotho and Swaziland were free.
Upon entering Lesotho at Qacha’s Nek border crossing (use the search tool at the top of this screen, and search ‘border crossing’ or ‘Lesotho’ for details) I simply showed my passport and paid the posted fees for entry for the car (several dollars). No one asked me anything about the car, although they can.
Insurance for Your South Africa Car Rental
Investigate your credit card’s benefits before traveling, since they often include car insurance up to 30 days. Otherwise, accept the rental car agency’s insurance. You will be so unhappy if something goes wrong and you do not have insurance.
Renting a 4×4 Truck
During my road trip I met a French family living in South Africa. The 2 parents and 2 kids were in a rented 4×4 pick-up truck and paid about $122 USD per day. It was an amazing + fantastic vehicle. I cannot imagine the horrible gas mileage the got, but it allowed them to go anywhere + spend the night wherever they pleased. In it were 2 sleeping areas large enough for 2-3 people each (upstairs and downstairs, a solar water heater for showers, a refrigerator / freezer, table, chairs, + so much more. There was even cabinet space for food! Here is the link to Avis Safari. (If you get this vehicle, please send me pics!!!)
Ugh, the Details Make for Drama
I departed my Airbnb in an Uber to pick up my rental car at the rental car office at the airport. Happily, there was no line + I walked right up, ready to pay + get on the road. What?!? Why won’t my credit card go through? The rental agent and I had no idea what might be happening. She tried swiping it a few more times.
I would have to call the collect number on the back of my credit card. Between the two of us, we did not know how to dial collect. I gave in and dialed the regular phone number from my cell phone, expecting to huge bill for this, even at the 10 cents a minute fee. Yikes!
Luckily the credit card person answered directly, instead of the innumerable automated menus. It turned out my credit card was flagged for fraud suspicion, and they had put a hold on it. This was due to the transmission method of the various Uber charges I had while in Cape Town.
It was nice that the credit card agent knew the problem and could fix it, but meanwhile I was paying for an international call. The credit card woman had a soothing voice, which was nice. However, I brought to her attention that I would love it if she could hurry, since the call could cost me a lot. Without pause, the woman said she understood and would put a $30 credit on my account to cover the cost of the call. “Would that be enough?” she asked. Wow! Now, I could wait patiently while she did her work, and removed the fraud alert from my card.
With that issue resolved + my car checked out, I departed Cape Town on the nearly empty two-lane N2 Garden Route freeway. Now, just to remember to drive in the left lane, except when passing. Left lane. Left lane. Left lane. Like Great Britain, Australia, and Japan, you drive on the left side of the road here.
LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD
If you’re not accustomed to driving on the left side of the road (like in Britain, Japan, Australia), wait a few days for jetlag to diminish. And, ride in a car with a local driver at first, so you get used to sitting in the ‘wrong’ car seat. It is hard enough driving with new road signs and traffic rules in a new car in a foreign country. Don’t add ‘other side of the road’, while you are tired.
AUTOMATIC OR MANUAL SHIFT?
South Africa car rental places offer manual shifting cars. Automatic vehicles seem much less prevalent, although available. So, if you desire an automatic, definitely indicate this when making your reservation.
KNOBS + BUTTONS
Always ask the rental car person for an introduction to your vehicle, and learn the following items at a minimum: how to turn on the headlights + windshield wipers; how to open the gas /petrol tank. Yes, I’ve searched for knobs at dusk or at gas stations.
MANNERS ON THE ROAD
South African drivers have wonder highway driving manners. Highways were one or two lanes in each direction outside of city areas. Unless actively passing another vehicle, always stay in the left lane. Otherwise you will be tailgated. And, if on a one-lane highway, drivers will often squish to the left into the safety area allowing others to pass. If you pass, put your emergency flasher lights on for a moment and indicate ‘Thanks you!’. You will receive a ‘You’re welcome!’ flash of the headlights.
I also waved at some oncoming vehicles, when I had not seen another vehicle in an hour or two. They almost always waved back, but someone told me that waving is not typically done in South Africa. So, do not expect a wave from anyone, unless you initiate.
BUYING PETROL + RESTROOMS
Fill up the gas / petrol tank when you can, if driving outside the city. The distances between towns are often long, and there are almost no road signs warning of the lack of services. Each day, review your route + plan accordingly. Also, you will never pump your own gas. Gas station attendants will pump your gas + clean your windshield, for which you should give a small tip. If you would like any other service, such as a car wash or oil check, let them know.
The one time I used the toilet at the petrol station, it was beautiful and clean. Marble-like counter tops and a flower in a vase near the sink.
ANIMALS ON THE ROAD
Listen to all the warnings + look out for both wild and domesticated animals on the road. Everyone I met who knew I was driving warned me of the animals, sometimes embellished with a story of a recent collision or near-miss. I mainly encountered animals on the road in Lesotho, but every South African has a story….
ROAD CONSTRUCTION + CONDITION
In South Africa there was a lot of road construction. I suggest checking with your accommodation regarding your route, and plan accordingly for bathroom breaks, etc. The stopping points were often in the middle of nowhere, so no food, petrol, or any other services in the area.
Overall, both Lesotho + South Africa highway conditions were excellent. I think I might have seen one pothole on my entire road trip. However, roads to villages or through small dirt road towns, like Tsitsa Falls or Semonkong Lodge, were dirt + an adventure to maneuver. Potholes were massive + generally I worried about bottoming out. However, taken slowly, it was no problem. Just watch out for the pedestrians.
DRIVE DURING DAYLIGHT ONLY
Animals + people on the road are difficult to see at night, so only drive during daylight. Also, should anything happen with your car, distances between towns, or even villages, are long. Avoid being stuck on the side of the road at night.
South Africa road trips are great! I met another woman driving solo, like me. I also met many people driving as couples or groups of friends. Every backpackers or lodge I stayed at gladly imparted road conditions and advice on my upcoming destinations. I found that most people were pretty excited when I asked “I enjoy animals / horses / photography. Where should I go next?”
Be sure and get the Coast-To-Coast free guidebook when you arrive in country. Many Backpackers accommodation is listed. The accommodation must pay for inclusion in the book, so don’t hesitate to search for others. I found it very convenient to have the maps and phone numbers of accommodation and book a day or two prior to arrival.