Travelling without a car in South Africa

How exactly does one go about travelling through South Africa without a car?

Being able to travel without a car is something a lot of people take for granted, and others can’t imagine. I have been fortunate enough to experience the ease of having access to a car (or a friend with one) during most of my time living in South Africa.

Sometimes the best adventures begin with a logistical mess – and things not quite working out as planned. About a week ago, a straightforward journey of a single day somehow stretched itself over multiple days. This happened due to a series of detours and a few situations that were completely beyond my control. This journey was defined by a weird anxiety. It stemmed from not having access to a car or someone with one.

Context Matters

If you come from a country with multiple, trustworthy and regular alternative transport options, or regard hitch-hiking as safe, my predicament might seem ridiculous. However, it’s impossible to deny that we seem to have quite a big crisis when it comes to public transportation across rural South Africa.

If you live in the city – it’s a different story altogether. Our urban spaces have invested a massive amount of resources to the development of rapid public transport networks. Projects like the Gautrain in Johannesburg, MyCiti in Cape Town and GoDurban in Durban can attest to that. The availability of a vast network of regular minibus taxis, and services like Uber and Taxify can ensure that your life is quite uncomplicated without a car in these places. The challenge comes in when you need to either cross the country, or move between one small town to another – and you need to do it without access to a car.

When away from Home:

Sometimes you just need to sit next to the road for a while
Sometimes, you need to spend quite a bit of time next to the road. Photo :Caro Minnaar

When you are abroad for a long time, it is impossible not to compare and contrast the differences in lifestyle and culture. A large part of my introduction to these differences are usually the result of simply figuring out how to get around. I think you really get a feel for a place simply by finding yourself in transit.

For instance, I can never speak highly enough of the incredible kindness of strangers that I experienced in Israel. I could hitch-hike across the country alone, with no problems. People really went out of their way to help. Once, I forgot a pouch of tobacco in someone’s car, they turned around and came back to return it.

A metro bus driver in Tel-Aviv once told me to wait for him to finish his shift. He then drove out of the city to the middle of nowhere where I had to be, free of charge. If I didn’t want to hitch-hike, there were multiple busses throughout the day on any possible route. Almost every bus and bus station had free Wi-Fi (even a remote bus stop in the middle of the desert). It felt too good to be true.

When there is an abundance of options:

Sleek and Beautiful, German Transport is usually synonymous with efficiency.

In Germany I fell in love with life on a bicycle – and for longer distances there were always trains or busses. I cannot overemphasise my initial amusement when people got agitated at a bus or train that was three minutes late. My silent mental response to the agitated person would always be something along the lines of ‘you have NO IDEA how good you’ve got it, my friend’. When it comes to transport, I felt a tangible lack of stress living in Germany. Everything felt constantly available, straight forward, and easy. If this is something you are not used to, it makes a huge impression.

 

In India – The rule of thumb is generally if there is a road, there will be a bus.

Though much more chaotic, it is also incredibly easy getting around India without a car. In fact, I think I would recommend any form of transport above a car there. Long distances can be covered by any of the trains that cover an immense network across the vast country. There is a huge variety of busses – from the cheap and crowded ‘local’ TATA bus, and the more comfort-oriented VOLVO and sleeper busses. You are almost always guaranteed to meet a few interesting, curious and friendly faces. For small distances there are Auto Rickshaws everywhere. Once acclimatised, it’s an easy hustle to get around. Though improvable, the variety of transport available is immensely impressive if you consider the incredible amount of people it serves. Navigating the challenge of the chaos, and the small miracles that happen along the way is a big part of being on the road in India.

When there is not an abundance of options:

In South Africa, however, your options are super limited – especially if you are a woman travelling alone from one rural town to another, and value your safety. It’s no secret that we struggle with a crazy level of violence here. Yes, it is technically possible for you to get anywhere, but you must be willing to hitch a ride or walk quite far at one point or another. For this you need to have a very well-developed gut, and be constantly vigilant. Doing this is usually a last resort.

The challenge comes in when you need to either cross the country, or move between one small town to another – and you need to do it without access to a car.

Be Mentally Prepared:

You could take a long-distance bus. They tend to be very delayed, and regardless of the company you use you should ideally book well in advance. You need to be mentally prepared to for arriving at your destination covered in recycled-airconditioned-human-sweat-and-breath condensation, and a numb bum. If the bus has a television in it, you need to be prepared to see the same movie on repeat for sixteen hours straight. There are also the breakdowns in the middle of the night on national highways. In my undergraduate student years, I used to bus across South Africa often. A common approach to mental preparation amongst students would be to try and get on the bus as tipsy as possible. It worked wonders for courage.

When you are in a Taxi - you need to accept that nothing is in your control
When you are in a Taxi – you need to accept that nothing is in your control

You could take multiple minibus taxis, the notorious dangerous speed freaks of our roads. They are often the only form of transport available, and serves the majority of the commuting public and workforce. Taxis have no fixed routes and only leave when the driver considers it to be full. You can be sure that the ride will be quite intimate. This can be quite a challenge if your imperative is being on time. Urban taxi ranks are usually quite crowded and busy. You also need to be very aware of what is going on around you in such places.

Final Thoughts:

You could hypothetically speaking try the Shozaloza Meyl, a train which travels a few times a week between major cities. Yet the booking process super complicated, it’s often cancelled and usually booked full up to three months in advance. So, unless you are looking for a novelty experience, this is not really a viable or sustainable option.

Walking, hitching a ride, taking a long-distance bus or multiple taxis are thus your only options if you do not have access to a car and live rural. With all of the above, you need to accept that the travel time is truly beyond your control, and have good intuition to guide you. It cannot be disputed that widely available, reliable and affordable public transport will play a big role in changing the lives of all South Africans. I hope that someday – hopefully not too far in the future, this will become a reality.

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Ana Katrina Lopez
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Hi Marleen! I enjoyed reading your post. It gave me insight on what it’s like to travel around South Africa without the help of being able to rent a car. I’m glad to know that there are options for me albeit the cons you mentioned like the travel time. I now know that there are options for travelers and everyone else in South Africa to take public transport. But I also realize that they aren’t always as reliable as you pointed out. That’s when we have to use our street smarts, I suppose? Anyway, thanks for writing this. This would… Read more »