Self-driving Africa has got to be the most rewarding way to see this incredible continent. The sheer adventure coupled with the independence to travel on your own schedule really makes it special while the experience of constant discovery becomes an addictive high that begins to nag at you whenever you stop for too long in one place.
Adventure, however, by its very nature comes with stress, uncertainty and risk. Most of the time you will be sharing the road with other drivers and most main roads, especially in southern and east Africa, are in pretty good shape these days, allowing you to make decent progress but also enabling other road users to drive faster and more recklessly. As a driver you need to have nerves of steel and catlike reflexes, but you also need a good navigator.
If there’s one thing worse than driving through two hundred kilometres of car-eating potholes, wobbling trucks and suicidal goats, its driving that same road back again in the dark because you’ve gone the wrong way. Most of the challenges your road trip will meet along the way will end up as great stories to tell over a beer that same night, but getting lost is an exception, mainly because you’ll end up arriving five hours later than planned and the bar will be closed. And if you’ve been driving in the dark you’ll probably be more in the mood for a sedative and some trauma counselling than a relaxing beer with the people you’ve been sharing your own little corner of hell with for five hours.
This is how not to get lost while self-driving Africa:
1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
There are a few countries like South Africa, Namibia and Botswana where it is possible to cover up to a thousand kilometres a day in a good car. But most of Africa’s roads, together with the traffic on them, will limit you to about 400km per day. That will probably take you six to seven hours in most countries, which is more than enough for one day. A short drive of a couple of hundred kilometres gives you the afternoon off, and when you get somewhere nice take a day or two to recharge your batteries before pushing on to the next destination. In places like the DRC, where roads are often terrible, your daily distance maximum should be reduced to about 200km.
2. Plan the route in advance
A good navigator plans each driving day in as much detail as possible. Make sure you have a variety of different maps; one should be a well-known international brand, another should be a locally produced alternative if available and another on a laptop or handheld device. Don’t forget to factor in where you will refuel and while looking for accommodation en-route is great, this will take up a lot of your time so it is best that you know exactly where you start and finish points are. Virtually all paper maps will not have enough detail to show you an exact address, and digital maps will often be unreliable, so make sure to contact each establishment and get detailed directions and a map before setting off.
3. Use multiple sources
You may realise that your maps contradict each other. Junctions will move, towns and villages will appear and disappear and distances between them will rise and fall. You will need to weigh up the evidence before deciding on the most likely reality to expect, but make a note of the inconsistencies, just in case. One of our maps confidently stated the distance from Mahagi to Bunia in the DRC to be 140km, but we discovered that it was at least 100km further than that on a corrugated dirt road that threatened to shake our car and our bones to pieces. Maps are also notoriously bad for representing barely passable gravel tracks as major highways and vice versa, so you need to get a second and ideally a third opinion on the route. Online forums are great for this and anything submitted within the last six months is probably pretty accurate.
4. Make low-tech, offline notes
Having the route mapped out on your phone is useful, but you need to have a backup in case your technology fails. A paper map with the correct route will never run out of battery or shut down because its 46 degrees outside and the air-con is broken. A GPS system’s main advantage is that it always knows your location, even if it doesn’t really know where your location is. You can then cross reference your location with your paper map if you need to.
5. Get local advice
One of the best things about self-driving in Africa is the many fun and fascinating people you will meet along the way. Every stop on your journey, planned or not, gives you the potential to meet new people who can become lifelong friends. While you’re getting to know people, don’t forget to ask them about the road ahead. Africa’s roads improve and deteriorate amazingly quickly, and you can find great shortcuts or scenic routes and avoid massive delays by checking with the locals the night before. Its also good to make use of local knowledge along the route – you are not likely to get much in the way of signposts, so you need to keep track of the distance covered, look out for your junctions and towns and stop and ask someone whenever you’re not sure.
6. Have a plan B, C and D
So you have your route for tomorrow planned, you know exactly where you’re going and how to get there, and if all goes well you’ll be there by 3pm. But what if all does not go well? A flat tyre or other vehicle problem could add a couple of hours, roadworks could slow you to a crawl for what seems like ages, and despite all your preparations the chances are high that you will, at least a few times, get lost. Before you know it the sun is beginning to get low on the horizon and you still have 150km of uncertainty to navigate. The best thing to do is to have an alternative destination for the day, about 250-300km from your starting point. This gives you the option to call it a day with a safe haven in which to lick your wounds. You can always do an early start in the morning and catch up the distance you lost, especially if you’ve been sensible with your route planning. If the route ahead is especially tricky or unfamiliar, a plan C option about 100km down the road is not a bad idea.
7. Be patient and calm
At some point, despite all your efforts, you will have a gut-churning moment when the junction you have been confidently expecting fails to materialise, or a mountain you were expecting to see on the left suddenly and inconveniently manifests on the right. Don’t panic. Stop the car if you can, make a cup of tea and then get your maps and devices out and figure out what’s gone wrong. Ask for directions. Look out for landmarks. If you’ve done your route planning homework properly, the chances are you’re not far off track, if at all.