23 tips for your first cross-border African road trip07 Mar 2018, Posted by Tips & Ideas in
Here’s a list of tips from experiences we’ve had out on the highways of Southern and Eastern Africa. This is based on things we found out the hard way or wish someone had told us before we set off on road trips into unknown territory.
When planning a long road trip, it’s important to find safe and comfortable places to stop over. We also try and stop at towns that are near tourist attractions so that we can make the most of the journey. Many towns and even some border posts have places to stay listed on Airbnb. For hotels, try sites like Agoda and HotelsCombined which enable you to compare prices and find the best deals.
2. Border posts
If you have all your papers, we found most border posts are really easy to get through – unless you arrive behind a bus, which means you’re in line behind 50 people – or two buses, hahaha. But then again, I make that joke from the perspective of a motorist. I once waited 6 hours at the Beitbridge Border Post between Harare and South Africa because not only was I travelling on a bus, there were six other buses in front of us. Yep, you heard it right, SIX. That’s not mentioning all the private cars that were there as well. And it seemed that the immigration people on the South African side were on a go-slow strike. Thankfully though, no other border I have encountered so far comes even close to Beitbridge, which is one of the busiest in Africa.
There is an effort to make more borders one-stop affairs. Chirundu (Zimbabwe-Zambia), Busia (Kenya-Uganda) and Malaba (Kenya-Uganda) have transitioned to the one-stop system. You clear immigration and customs for both countries in one building which makes things so much easier.
One thing you need to be aware of is the closing times for the borders. A few are open 24 hours, but some close for business at the end of the day. I can tell you from experience that the angst of arriving at a border post at it closes is unparalleled in the levels of desperation it concocts inside you.
3. Carnet de Passage
About a week before we set off on a road trip from Cape Town to Kenya in 2017, it suddenly came to our attention that we needed a document called a ‘carnet de passage en douane’ (or just ‘carnet de passage’). We found most customs officials just call it a ‘carnet.’ This is issued by the Automobile Association (In Zimbabwe or South Africa. Not sure about other countries) and it acts as a surety that a vehicle being brought into a country will leave that country within a stipulated amount of time. That may be unclear. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: The Carnet allows travellers to temporarily import their vehicles, or other items of value such as broadcasting equipment, without having to leave a cash deposit at the border. It is, in essence, an international guarantee for payment of customs duties and taxes to a government should the vehicle or item not be re-exported from that country. Persons who temporarily import their vehicles or items into countries where the Carnet is required must agree to obey the laws and regulations of that country and particularly the conditions of temporary importation.
The cost of this crazy document was just over the equivalent of US$1,000 for us (South Africa). Before you go into shock, most of that is refundable when the vehicle returns to its country of registration.
There are so many buts and ifs though; We didn’t need the carnet to drive from Zimbabwe to Zambia (and we’ve never needed it to travel anywhere in Southern Africa. Once we crossed from Zambia into Tanzania though, it was required as it was when we crossed into Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. However, cars registered in East Africa don’t need a carnet within the region. That’s all I know about this.
4. Drive on the left, or on the right?
In all the countries we’ve driven through, from South Africa to Rwanda all of them were drive-in-the-left, except Rwanda (influence of the French). I’ve also recently learnt that in Burundi the DRC, they also drive on the right-hand side (Don’t ask me about North and West Africa – I don’t know yet). We found it absolutely crazy when we drove into Rwanda, after 7,000 odd kilometres of left-side-of-the-road-driving that had brought us there from Cape Town, that there was not a single sign saying hey, you now need to remember to drive on the right. We just crossed the border from Uganda and there we were, facing oncoming traffic.
5. Footwear for Drivers
In Tanzania, one cop officiously announced to us that it was illegal to drive in strapless footwear, such as sandals or flip-flops. I argued with him spiritedly about this and then later looked it up. I found a story about a tourist who had been arrested in November 2017 for driving in sandals (I’m not even joking here. Read the article for yourself here and also see their reasons why flip flops and sandals are a bad idea when driving)
There are some places where the distances between towns are quite long so when we’re road tripping in a new country we make it a point to fill up whenever we go below half a tank. You will sometimes find vendors selling fuel in jerry cans or plastic containers by the side of the road. Unless you’re in a really tight spot, avoid buying this fuel as it is sometimes contaminated and might cause you problems.
7. Google Maps
How do I put this? Google Maps works in general in all the countries we’ve driven through (Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe). It’s only when you get down to specifics that it sometimes gets confused. In Kenya, it has taken us to the wrong place a few times. For example, during a trip to Lake Naivasha, it took us to the middle of the bush somewhere and said that we had arrived at the YMCA camp. Then it took us somewhere else and said that we had arrived at Buffalo Mall when we hadn’t. In Kigali, it took us around several intersections a number of times as it tried to figure out the route and then gave us the silent treatment when it couldn’t. In Jinja, Uganda, it took us to another bush and said that we had arrived at a campsite we were looking for – which was about 15km away. I must mention that I love Google Maps and think it’s freaking amazing. It has taken us to the right addresses in these places – and others – more often than not. I put this here just so you don’t blindly trust it.
It goes without saying that you need to make sure that you have vehicle insurance that will cover you in the countries you are driving through. Also make sure to get travel insurance, because the unexpected does happen. Every country we drove through though, required us, on top of our standard car insurance, to buy third-party insurance that was specifically for their country. One customs official explained to us that it was difficult to chase up on insurance companies from other countries, which is why this was a requirement. The amounts vary from county to country, but we’ve paid anything between US$20 and $40 in the different countries we’ve driven through.
You can get three months COMESA ‘Yellow Card (of Carte Jaune) insurance,’ as it’s known, for about $60 (or $120, depending on your broker. You will find brokers/agents at most border posts). This is third party vehicle insurance which will cover you in the following countries; Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s explained more fully on the COMESA website.
9. International Driving License
If your license was not issued from a country which is a member of the Commonwealth of Countries, then you need to have an International Driving Permit (IDP) along with your license when you drive in Kenya. This we were told before we drove to Kenya in 2017. We’ve been stopped by police many times in that country and none of them has ever asked for an IDP.
I found a list of other countries that require an IDP here (it’s quite a tedious document, so only open it if you need to look at it and not just for fun).
We’ve found that most countries we’ve driven through have at least 3G phone networks even in small commercial centres. The idea, in a lot of places, is to have mobile Internet coverage along the major highways, but we’re not quite there yet. There are gaps where you’ll get an ‘Edge connection or nothing at all sometimes. See my tip on SIM cards below.
You’ll also get free wifi at a lot of coffee shops, restaurants and hotels in the bigger towns.
In most of Southern Africa, you’ll find that people will understand some English. In East Africa, we’ve found that if you don’t know a few words of Swahili it’s possible to get totally stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Then there are times when even that won’t work and you just have to look at the other person, smile and draw pictures for each other on the ground. In Rwanda, outside Kigali, we got lost looking for one of the Genocide Memorial sites. We stopped and spoke to three or four people, but we just couldn’t understand each other. We tried English, French and even Shona, but nothing worked. Then we finally found a woman who knew some English, but we were still not hearing each other. She thought we were trying to give her a lift. In the end, we turned back and abandoned the mission.
If you were flying into Nairobi for a visit, you would not need to take anti-Malarial medication. Ditto a lot of the cities we have driven to in Southern and East Africa. If you are driving though, it’s a different issue, as you will probably pass through areas where there was a risk of malaria infection. Use this map to check.
Besides anti-malarials, remember to carry mosquito repellent and mosquito nets. See also ‘Yellow Fever’ below.
Do carry some US dollars with you. They’ll come in handy (for example at the border out of Uganda into Rwanda, I needed to pay US$30 for a visa and it had to be paid in cash, in US dollars). We’ve also found that many banks are on the Visa network and you can withdraw local currency with your Visa or Mastercard credit or debit card. Visa cards have worked for us in South Africa, Zimbabwe (when cash was available), Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana. We’ve only tried Mastercard in Kenya and it’s worked for us there.
Once you’re in a particular country, do withdraw some local currency as soon as you can as a lot of the more remote shops and fuel stations don’t accept cards for payment.
Just for the fun of it, I’ll let you know that we once got a card stuck in an ATM in Mozambique. On a Sunday. Hehe. We definitely were not laughing then. We did get it a few days later, but that’s the story for another day. Oh yes, there is a lesson in there. Have more than one card.
You will come across numerous roadblocks in many countries. The worst, from the countries we’ve been to (Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe), are definitely Kenya and Zimbabwe, followed by Tanzania and Uganda. The police will often check everything on your car and sometimes even make things up, just so they can find something wrong and make you pay a ‘fine.’ In some cases, when they fail to find something wrong with your car, they are not shy to ask for a ‘gift’ or ‘money for lunch.’
Using a cellphone while driving will get you pulled over in many countries
We found that in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Uganda there are quite a number of cops with speed guns. See also the post about triangles, fire extinguishers and reflective vests below.
Don’t expect coffee shops and fast food outlets at all the little towns you find marked on Google Maps. You may be slightly disappointed. Take a cooler box. Pack enough food for your trip. Carry a thermos flask of your favourite hot beverage. Once again here, experience has been an unforgiving teacher. I will say no more.
16. Road conditions
In 2017, when we drove from South Africa to Kenya, we were told to expect some pretty terrible roads on many parts of the road, especially in Tanzania. To our pleasant surprise, most of the over 20,000km of highways we’ve driven on around Southern and East Africa have been pretty decent. We drove from Zambia into Tanzania via the Nakonde Border Post and up through Mbeya, Dodoma, Iringa and Arusha, then through the Namanga Border Post into Kenya. Between Nakonde and Dodoma, we experienced some pretty bad roads, but that’s not the complete story. There were huge teams of construction workers at several points along the highway building a totally new road. There were points where we drove on stretches of 30-40km of freshly laid tar inter-spaced with detours where work was actively taking place. That was in January 2017. At the rate they seemed to be moving, we’re sure that road tells a different story today.
Most of the highways are single lane either way and have no shoulders or stopping lanes, which means you’ll see lots of overtaking. The country we give the highest marks for crazy overtaking is Kenya. Cars will pass you on blind raises and going around blind curves. It can be pretty hair-raising when you’re new to the country. South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are pretty consistent with providing climbing lanes on steep climbs which makes a WORLD of a difference.
We make it a point to do most of our road trip driving during daylight hours. The reason given above about crazy overtaking is enough to make anyone not want to drive at night, but then there are the numerous trucks to deal with on a number of the highways, e.g. Harare-Beitbridge, Harare – Lusaka, Nairobi – Mombasa and Nairobi – Kampala. Of these, the worst, by far, is Nairobi – Mombasa. I have never seen so many trucks on a highway in my life. During a December 2017 road trip to Mombasa, we played a little game of counting trucks. We didn’t even start in Nairobi, but about 50 kilometres along at the Machakos Junction. In the 440 or so kilometres between that point and Mombasa, we counted 2,000 trucks that we either overtook or that came past us going in the other direction. Imagine all those trucks, then buses and private cars, all jostling to get ahead on a single lane highway with lots of curves, dips and rises. It’s gripping.
17. SIM Cards
At most border posts you will find vendors selling SIM cards. Buy one and test it for both data and calls before you leave the vendor. I know, it’s risky business buying stuff from random people in the middle of a street you are not familiar with, but you often have no choice. In many cases, vendors are the only way of getting a line at the border. You don’t want to find yourself broken down in the middle of the bush on a highway you’ve never driven on before, in a place where you don’t know the language AND to not have a way of contacting anyone. That sort of thing will make you cry, no matter what your age. Get a line.
If you have a newer model phone, you may have to carry an older model as sometimes the SIM cards are not the ‘micro’ size and SIM card cutters may not be available.
18. Speed & Distances
There are some places where the distances are short but it will take you forever to traverse them because of speed limits, curvy roads and traffic. The distance from Kenya to Kigali is about one-third of the distance from Harare to Cape Town, but the former trip took us more time than the latter one to complete. With the Kenya to Kigali trip, there were points (E.g. Nairobi, Kampala, Eldoret) where the traffic could get insane. On the day we drove into Kampala as we returned from Rwanda, we encountered rush hour traffic at 10 pm. We were told that wasn’t normal, but on our trip through Kampala the first time around we’d encountered stop-and-wash-your-car-then-change-the-oil sort of traffic, so we left that city convinced it’s always crawling with traffic.
The speed limits on the highways vary. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, for instance, it’s 120km/h. In Kenya, it’s 100km/h, although apparently, and this is really crazy, speed limit signs are not legal and the law makes it difficult for the police to do anything about overspeeding. Having said that, I wouldn’t advise you overspeed.
On our road trips from Zimbabwe to South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda and the only two countries that had toll roads were Zimbabwe and South Africa. Toll charges in Zimbabwe are US$2. If you are driving all the way through the country from North to South, budget about $20 for tolls. In South Africa, the toll charges vary. Sometimes you’re paying the equivalent of about US$1 and then at other toll gates it’s close to US$3.
20. Triangle, Fire Extinguisher, Reflective Jacket, First Aid Kit
In Kenya, they call them ‘lifesavers’ and the police will ask for them in many countries that you drive through in Southern Africa. These are your reflective triangle, Fire extinguisher, reflective jacket and first aid kit. Only in Kenya have we been asked for a first aid kit, but all the others were pretty standard fare elsewhere.
In Zimbabwe, you’ll also need reflectors stuck to your vehicle in the front (white ones) and at the back (red ones). Yes, I know, your car comes with reflectors in the lenses for the lights. Doesn’t matter, you still need the extra reflector – and it has to be of the type that works even if the light source is approaching at an angle.
If you’re road tripping between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, it makes sense to get an East African Visa (if that applies to your country). For instance, my wife is from South Africa and it cost her US$100 for a three month, multiple entry East Africa visa. A normal Visa into Kenya would have cost her $30. Rwanda and Uganda would have each charged her $50, so the East African visa was worth it.
As a Zimbabwean, I didn’t need visas for Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, but to get into Rwanda cost me US$30.
Carry drinking water with you. As much as you can. Many cities in Africa do not recommend you drink their tap water. As usual, carry some other water for general use; topping up the radiator, hosing down an overheating child :-), etc. All the big grocery shops and many fuel stations stock it aplenty.
23. Yellow Fever
If you’re travelling to Kenya, you will be required to provide proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination at the port of entry. Usually, this is a yellow card stamped by your doctor or medical practitioner and inscribed illegibly with the vaccination details. The same applies to Tanzania.
There was an outbreak of Yellow Fever in Uganda in April 2016 after which the Ugandan Ministry of Health issued a statement requiring all travellers in to and out of the country to provide proof of Yellow Fever vaccination. No minimum age was given, but in general, it’s any traveller over 1-year-old.
With Rwanda, this proof is only required if you are coming from a country with risk of yellow fever or a country with an active yellow fever outbreak.
If you’re over 60, it seems this vaccination is not required. When my mother in law travelled to Kenya, she was informed by her doctor that a yellow fever vaccination would not be necessary as she was over 60. It turned out he was spot on.