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How to drive yourself to the World Cup

Fri, 11 Jun 2010 00:00:00 -0700

It's no secret that Americans will make up the largest contingent of visitors to South Africa for the World Cup 2010 soccer tournament. The vuvuzelas (plastic trumpets played by fans) are getting louder by the day. Knowing how most of us think about trips to Africa, it's very likely that many of us will be doing more than just watching men kick a football about.

It's a safe bet that there will be many a safari taken, along with various trips to the country's diverse natural wonders. And some Americans may be brave enough to drive themselves around, probably in rental cars. For those contemplating doing that, here are a few things to know.

South Africans drive on the left side of the road, in right-hand drive cars. But that should not deter the confident drivers among us, as long as you remember the big pitfalls that await drivers habituated to driving on the right. Roundabouts, or traffic circles, if you prefer, are negotiated in a clockwise direction, and care has to be taken when backing out onto a street. If there's anywhere you're likely to go wrong, this is it.

But that's just the start of it. First of all, most cars in South Africa are manual-transmission models, which means you'll be shifting with the other hand, even if you are an expert with the old stick shift. There are a substantial number of automatic-transmission cars in the rental fleet now, but they cost more to rent than manuals, and the word is out that rental prices are being jacked substantially for World Cup visitors.

Once you have your car, you have to negotiate traffic in one of the strangest mixes of first- and third-world driving styles while also navigating. My advice is to rent a navigation unit when you pick up the car. It isn't expensive (or wasn't, in March, when I tried the experiment), and it could save your life in more ways than one.

Getting lost in South Africa can be quite dangerous. Crime is a problem, and some of it is violently predatory. Wandering into the wrong place should be avoided, and a nav system ought to keep you out of trouble and on the straight and narrow.

Now for the real challenge--the drivers. There are thousands of those forward-control minivans operating in South Africa as taxis for much of the population. These taxis have their own way of doing things. They stop pretty much wherever they want, and occasionally they perform maneuvers--such as backing up on a major road--that can be a bit of a surprise to drivers from well-regulated traffic environments.

The taxis cluster at certain points to pick up and drop off passengers, and the general confusion makes it hard to monitor everything going on. Having a lot of pedestrians around doesn't help, particularly when some are in a rush to catch a particular ride. You really need to be on top of this one. The things are unpredictable and occasionally downright irresponsible.

Some of the rest of the driving population can be a little spontaneous about their actions, too, so constant vigilance pays off. Even though the traffic is pretty aggressive in the big cities, there isn't much personal antagonism involved, and a smile and a raised hand will often elicit a cheery response from someone who just got in your way.

Back to pedestrians. Since the end of apartheid, the country has opened up to free movement of its population and it has relaxed many of the regulations typical of uptight western democracies. Thus you will find people on the street in towns walking, bicycling, trading, dancing, singing--pretty much whatever they feel like doing.

Markets are on the sidewalk in rural towns, with boom boxes going, deals being done, cars stopping to chat, all the colorful trappings of Africa. Not only that, we saw roadside stalls on a divided highway in Kwazulu-Natal, with people walking around, sliding down the bank and crossing the road. This is the equivalent of seeing pedestrians calmly walking down the shoulder of the Jersey Turnpike while preparing to cross the road.

Get used to seeing small pickup trucks loaded to the gunwales, or trucks with a whole gang of people traveling in the bed. And heavy-goods trucks in South Africa never seem to have enough power for the loads they carry, so speeds up a hill on a major artery may drop to 25 mph, with a line of cars forming behind some smoky old truck.

Being caught behind slow vehicles can be seriously dangerous, as increasingly impatient drivers seek desperately to get around the moving roadblock. The situation is compounded by the variation between the country's fleet of fast BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Audis, etc., and the quaintly unhurried rural folk, for whom 30 mph is a huge improvement on walking.

We had a couple of situations where drivers, possibly with some local political influence from the look of it, would simply carve through the prevailing traffic at high speed with little regard for solid white lines (the equivalent of the double yellow here), and conduct themselves as if completely above the law. It was a puzzle.

I borrowed a Toyota Auris to drive around in (it's a hatchback version of the Corolla, in essence), and it was powered by a 1.8-liter four and equipped with a six-speed manual. To get the requisite fuel economy--did I mention that gas is expensive in South Africa, at more than $4 per gallon?--the Auris is geared pretty high. In fact, if you encountered a hill in top gear at a normal cruising speed until the speed started to drop off, you'd require a downshift to fourth rather than fifth to maintain headway.

There are a lot of carjackings in South Africa, and people stopped at red lights at night are careful to keep an eye open for approaching gunmen. Many just drive through the red once they've made sure there are no other vehicles coming. The same vigilance needs to be practiced in parking structures and any secluded or dark places.

The typical urban security response to threats, in an ironic turn of events, often has you waiting outside friends' houses while you speak to them on the intercom or cell phone about opening the gate. Talk about feeling exposed. But most shopping centers and malls have adequate security staff discouraging car break-ins and other opportunistic theft.

Above and beyond all that, the country has put thousands of extra cops on the street to protect World Cup fans from all the vile things that have made up dinner-party talk these many years. So go ahead and take the trip. It might sound dodgy but you won't regret going there. Just exercise a little caution, ask for advice from trustworthy sources, and you'll probably have an experience you'll treasure forever.