Driving in Africa
(photo by Jason Becker)
Driving in Africa is fun, stressful and at times exhausting. On any given day you are just as likely to see donkeys, kudu or cows standing in or crossing the road as you are pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Road conditions vary from smooth pavement (thank you China!) to rutted tracks and potholed tarmac. In the first 3 countries of the Tour d’Afrique we drive on the right hand side of the road. In the last seven we drive on the left. Being from America I was at first worried about driving on the “wrong” side of the road but you get used to it pretty quick. The steering column is also on the “wrong” side of the car so it feels naturals to drive on the left.
The way drivers in Africa communicate with each other is quite different. Horns are not just used when someone is angry or to point out that someone is doing something wrong but to say hello, indicate a pass, offer a lift etc… Turn signals as well are used to indicate when to pass safely (right blinker on), which side to pass on and at night, the size of the vehicle approaching. African drivers, in one sense, are some of the best drivers in the world. They know exactly where the edges of their vehicles are and can make a pass or squeeze through a tight spot with the smallest of margins. They drive small, two-door cars in various states of repair on rough, muddy roads that even intrepid soccer moms in the west would not take their SUVs on.
The rural areas of Africa are often quite fun and pleasant to drive in. Herds of cattle and goats, wandering donkeys and chickens mean you have to stay alert and watch your speed but in general traffic is light, the roads are good enough and the scenery is entertaining. Cities are another story. Overcrowded roads, a lack of signs and non-existent or faded road markings make driving in cities like Cairo, Addis Ababa and Nairobi stressful and dangerous. The rules of the road often seem as non-existent as the lane markers and road signs. Drivers weave their vehicle in and out of traffic ignoring lane markers, narrowly missing each other and playing chicken with oncoming traffic at speeds that are better suited to race tracks than roadways. Minibuses stop every 200 meters at overcrowded bus stops and block the road. Huge transport trucks navigate the narrow streets, barely missing overhanging electric lines. Bikes, push carts and pedestrians are everywhere, dodging cars and trucks in the ultimate game of Frogger.
Driving in Africa is nothing if not interesting.