The old cliché that men don’t like to ask for directions may or may not be true in your case. But one thing that is universally true, is that most people rate themselves as “good drivers”. Without exploring the accuracy of this statement as it applies to you, we thought it may be wise to delve into the nuts and bolts of driving on dirt – especially for those of you visiting sunny South Africa for the first time.
South Africa is blessed with thousands of kilometres of wide smooth tarmac between all the major cities. However, many of the true gems that lure tourists to this beautiful place are hidden away, and well off the beaten track. In fact, a beaten track is often all you’ll have between you and the next addition to your bucket list.
Which brings us to the point of this article.
Sand, gravel and corrugated roads snake across South Africa and there is a very good chance that you will encounter these on your travels. Too many people assume that their “great” driving skills will be sufficient to allow them to navigate their way over these roads.
While you won’t always a need a 4×4 to traverse these tracks, the additional traction and control that they offer can be a bonus. For the most part, a solid sedan will see you through. Provided, of course, you respect the dirt.
A rookie mistake made when driving on dirt roads is a little too much speed. The wide road, relatively solid surface and complete lack of verges often encourage you to put your boot down and pop the occasional tailslide. Fun, right? Wrong. Gravel and sand can be as treacherous as driving in snow or ice. A deep section of sand, a little loose gravel and an unexpected oncoming vehicle will see you in trouble faster than your skills will allow you to correct.
Following on from that, hard braking and aggressive steering are additional checkpoints to add to your “things not to do” list. Overcorrecting and braking at the same time will see you on your roof. Or at the very least, enjoying a close-up of the nearest tree.
While on a loose and often treacherous dirt road, drop your speed to a sensible 40- 60 kph, depending on the state of the road. Potholes and rain gullies will slow you down whether you like it or not, but even a smooth surface can wreak havoc on your hire car if you’re not super careful.
If the road you’re on is very long and very corrugated, consider letting some air out of your tyres – no more than 20%. This will ensure a softer and quieter ride…just don’t forget to pump them up again at the end of the road.
If you’re on a rural road surrounded by beautiful bush, then you will no doubt encounter some of the local wildlife. Goats, sheep, cattle and dogs are common fellow road users in the South African outback, but when you’re driving in a game park or conservation area, you are likely to come across a somewhat different type of creature.
To be fair, most wild animals are pretty skittish and are more likely to bolt away from you at high speed. But others are more curious and less concerned about the size and speed of your car. It’s not uncommon for animals to run alongside or in front of your vehicle while you’re driving on dirt – and is definitely something to look out for.
Don’t assume that the animals will get out of your way in time – or at all. And if you are going too fast then you may get a Springbok on your lap. Explain that to your car hire company!
Slow down and don’t hit the animals. Got it. However, there is a little more to navigating a successful South African road trip than that.
Defensive driving – on and off dirt roads – is a must. We all know to maintain a safe following distance, to keep your eyes on the road, avoid distractions such as cell phones, and of course to make sure you don’t drive whilst tired or after a few beers.
However, when you’re driving on dirt, these “good ideas” can save your life. A safe following distance on a sandy road means that other vehicles will still be able to see you outside of the dust cloud thrown up by the car ahead of you. Sticking closely to your side of the road when cornering means less likelihood of side-swiping an oncoming driver on a tight bend if one of you loses a little traction. Keenly concentrating on the road ahead – keeping your eyes up – increases reaction time in the event of an emergency.
For more information on driving safely on gravel roads take a look here. Being keenly aware of the perils (and joys) of driving on dirt will guarantee you a wonderfully exciting holiday in South Africa.
To book your safe and affordable car, talk to one of our team and let’s get driving.