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13 Top Tips: Driving in Botswana

April 20, 2010

As you know, I’ve been doing a lot of driving around Botswana lately and I want to share some of the things I’ve learnt about driving here, some of which are obvious and some of which weren’t quite so.

1. Always have your driving licence on you when driving
Not doing so is illegal and will land you in bother. It really does seem to be help if your licence is a photo id – not the old-style paper one we can still hold in the UK. Although to be fair, it might be the fact that mine fell apart in the policeman’s hands that made him want to fine me P500. He very nicely changed his mind when I asked for the ticket to pay at the station (and promised to get a Botswana licence).

2. Don’t pay fines on the spot
On the spot fines are illegal in Botswana, but the police are allowed to impound the car on the spot until the fine is paid. So if you are stopped (and you will be) and need to pay a fine, ask for the ticket to pay it at the station – don’t hand the money over there and then. Common reasons for tickets include not wearing a seat belt, jumping a red light and “over-speeding” but impromptu road blocks and random checks are not uncommon (hence my little conversation with the officer in point 1).

3. Expect the unexpected
When I was being shown different routes around Gabs, I was told by more than one guide that it didn’t matter which lane I was in at a circle (roundabout) – even when there were three different options. This worried me at first, (that ‘stick to the Brit rules’ trait is still strong in some areas) but having driven around a bit I realise that no-one seems too botherd about lanes and I shouldn’t rely on them too heavily to tell me where someone is going. This applies much less at robots (traffic lights), although approach lanes can be interesting.

When the driver in front swerves suddenly – slow down! There is probably a pothole/cow/cyclist/other such obsticle nearby. Yes – potholes are common and there can be cows even in the middle of Gabs. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s a junction so the only hazzard is the other traffic – goats regularly trot across circles and potholes are no respectors of situation.

Remember, combie drivers make their living on the number of passengers they carry – not how far they carry them. They keep an eagle eye out for potential punters walking along the roadside and can stop suddenly – especially if a passenger realises they’re about to miss their (unmarked) stop!

4. Look out for robots and four-way stops
Most of the rules of the road are  similar to those in the UK – we drive on the left too – but there are some differences. One of the most obvious is that red and amber lights do not mean the lights are about to go green, they mean the right-hand filter is about to go from green to red. You also need to pay attention to the position of the light as well as the colour as they’re often bleached by the sun.

It’s worth noting that robots (traffic lights) frequently don’t work. You can tell very easily – either there are no lights or the red lights are flashing. When this happens the junction reverts to a four-way stop. These are much easier to deal with than they sound –  every vehicle has to stop.  The first person to get there goes first, followed by the person to their left (as at a roundabout or “circle”) but you don’t follow in streams as you do a roundabout – every vehicle must stop. Four-way stops are very common at cross roads throughout Botswana.

5. Try not to drive at night
As with virtually everywhere in the world, you need to pay extra attention at night time, particularly over the weekend and at the end of the month (when people have been paid). If the DJ on gives out this warning, I think it’s only fair to pass it on to you.

It’s also not a good idea to drive in rural areas at night. I thought this was just people (and the British Foreign Office) being paranoid but you have no idea how hard it is to spot a cow at the edge of the road, in the dark, at speed, until you’ve narrowly missed one.

6. Check your anxiety
Check points are common and nothing to worry about. The first few times you get stopped by officials can make you feel a little anxious no matter how law-abiding you are, but once you’ve been through a few you soon get the hang of it. A little Setswana goes a long way in these situations. The roads are long, journeys can be tedious, and a little interaction at a vet point can be a welcome diversion.

7. Stick to the limits
Just because you can’t see a village doesn’t mean it’s not there. You’ll often come across (sudden and unanounced) speed restrictions for what is apparently no reason. Somewhere off to the side there is a village, or a cluster of cattle posts or a farm or something. Hazzards are increased in these places, even if it doesn’t look like it. Stick to it – it’ll be over soon.

8. Play it safe
Judging speed and distances is hard. The roads in Botswana are long and straight. Really long and really straight. It can be hard to judge how far away oncomming traffic is and how fast it’s coming at you. This is doubly hard at night, when the variety in brightness of headlights makes it all the more confusing.

9. Have a good map
Don’t rely on signposts – they are few and far between and don’t indicate the quality of road ahead. Most maps will show roads, gravel tracks/4×4 roads and 4×4 tracks. Don’t even think about taking a non-4×4 along a 4×4 track. Think twice about it down a gravel/4×4 road. Make sure your map also shows filling stations. You don’t want to run out of fuel half way to Kasane – that 200km of nothing really is a lonely road.

10. The 4×4/2×4 Debate – you decide!
4x4s are great. They’re high up, they’re comfy, they can go anywhere. But they’re also expensive to hire, thirsty, and can be tricky to get your hands on (especially if yours is car-jacked in Pretoria the morning it’s supposed to come back to Gabs so you can hire it – as ours was). All the driving I’ve done here has been in a standard car. Most people will tell you you can do most routes in such a vehicle. They’re right – you can – but whether it’s a good idea to plan to is a very different matter. Certainly, I would not advise anyone to take the route we took from Stevensford to Kwa-Tuli in a 2×4 (which we did). A lot of it also depends on the rain, which at this time of year is supposed to be stopping, but typically decided to grace us for 6 days straight when we needed to drive in it. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Not having a 4×4 has restricted where we can go and when we can go there, and given us some worry when out and about – but it has also meant we can afford to stay at places we otherwise couldn’t.

11. Fill up
The government sets the price of fuel, so there’s no need to go shopping around for the best price here. Unleaded is currently set at the wonderfully cheap (by UK standards at least) P5.4/litre (that’s about 54p). Gas stations all have staff who dispense fuel for you, wash your windows, check your oil and tyres, etc. Pay for the fuel and tip for the window cleaning (about P2-P5) – it provides employment and means your camera won’t focus on dead bugs and dust when you’re trying to snap a pic of the cows in the road. (You will.)

Don’t take a chance on making your fuel last. You don’t want to run out in the middle of nowhere and not all filling stations have fuel at all times. Fill up when you can.

12. Don’t forget to fuel yourself
Did I mention the looooong straight roads? Because really – they are. Don’t forget to make sure you have plenty of water/Coke/chips/fruit/nuts/whatever to keep your concentration levels up. There are loads of little tree-stops and “lay-bye” places so you can stop along the way to stretch your legs.

13. Have a hitch-hike policy
Hitch-hiking is common in Botswana – it’s one of the main ways in which Batswana get around. I’m not going to say whether you should or shouldn’t offer lifts, but I will say that if you think you might, be aware of what is in your car and what might leave it with your passenger. Most Batswana are very honest, but as everywhere, there are some who are less so. I was advised not to give lifts to people, and I would never do it when travelling on my own, but we did give a couple out when I was with my boyfriend and they were both fine – although our lack of Setswana made conversation with one very limited.

So there you are – my 13 Top Tips. Driving gives you a great way to see Botswana and get a feel for the country you’re in. You can’t beat the feeling of watching baboons or elephants walking across the highway in front of you! And my Secret Best Top Tip™? Have a buddy and get them to drive! 😉

Edit: It has been pointed out to me that some people may have been offended by the original version of this post so I have amended it slightly. Obviously, it was never my intention to offend and I apologise for any upset I may have caused by careless phrasing. Most of the points are the same as in the original and I hope the two which have changed better convey the meaning originally intended.

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