Self Drive in South Africa – use the GPS or use written directions?

Surely nowadays using a GPS is the way to go you ask for self drive in South Africa? Paper directions (even if they are displayed on your tablet) are just so old fashioned!

Indeed it is now standard practice to be able to take a GPS with your rental car in South Africa and we have great ‘package rates’ with Avis and Budget which mean that the cost is often only a few rands more per day.

In theory this should make obsolete one of the jobs of the tour operator booking the self-drive holiday – providing good quality directions to help you get from A to B or more particularly from Hotel A to Game Lodge B.

Not so fast….

We also have so many hotels who email to say that clients should not use GPS directions and should use the directions supplied by them (which we put in our proposals). In my experience, and that of many of our clients, the directions should be treated with caution when using the car rental GPS system …

They are useful but should be seen as an adjunct to your tour operator’s written directions in the itinerary and NOT a replacement…

The reason for this is that the GPS seems to take the shortest route but in South Africa, where we have a range of roads from highways to winding mountain passes to gravel farm roads, the shortest route is certainly not necessarily the fastest or the easiest.

Where GPS in the rental car helps

The GPS is very useful for self drive in South Africa….when you are in a city and want to navigate your way from the main highway or airport to your hotel or to a well-known attraction. (This is especially the case if your co-driver/navigator is directionally challenged.)

I would still use the written directions as a broad guide (as we know which routes are usually easiest) but having the visual map on the GPS in front of you on the windscreen is definitely useful.

The GPS is also good if you want to quickly see how far it is from A to B without having to study the road atlas and add up kilometres in your head.

Where GPS in the rental car does NOT help

BUT the GPS can go wildly wrong in rural areas of South Africa for the reason mentioned above. If there is a gravel road which is shorter than the tarred one, they will suggest it even though it will probably take you a lot longer as well as making for more taxing driving.

This seems to be a particular problem when it comes to navigating your way to a game lodge.

A recent case in point. We were travelling from Hazyview to Simbavati River Lodge in the Timbavati Game Reserve. We have been to the lodge before and so we know the route but I switched on the GPS to check on the distance and kept it on.

First the GPS wanted to take us a right into Acornhoek, which is a rural African town, and not on the correct tarred route. Later I saw on the map that there was a gravel road which cut through this large, rather confusing and shabby town to the tarred road beyond it leading to Kruger’s Orpen Gate. Shorter (in theory) but not faster.

Having ignored it, it then directed us to take a right onto the tarred route to the Orpen Gate. However this is still not the right road.  (There is a lengthy and corrugated gravel road off this tarred road which eventually gets to the Timbavati Game Reserve but this would have seriously added to the journey time.) We continued northwards on the correct route, the tarred road. Then the GPS wanted us to turn right again into the private Kapama Game Reserve which is adjacent to Timbavati but you can only drive in there if you are staying at Kapama…

Then it wanted us to turn right again onto a game reserve road but there was a small problem: the reserve fence was in the way! But this time, the various occupants in the car were enquiring whether our GPS had had one too many drinks.

Finally we turned right onto the correct road and continue into the reserve.  Then it wanted us to take a random selection of game drive roads instead of the main route to the lodge. At this point, we turned it off.

The bottom line is that if someone had been relying on the GPS to get them to the game lodge, the routes suggested would ALL have added serious time to the journey to say nothing of anxiety and added driving pressure from all the unnecessary gravel roads.

So, in conclusion, use the GPS in cities, or when the route seems straightforward. However in country areas, and especially if going to game lodges, I strongly recommend using your tour operator’s directions as your main source of info and follow the GPS only if it is corresponding to the written directions.

Contact us if you would like to start planning a self drive holiday in South Africa or look at our Self drive in South Africa pages with sample tours…

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Kate Bergh is co-founder of Cedarberg African Travel, a specialist tour operator for Southern and East Africa.

She heads up the South African office, having lived in South Africa since 1993. Her home looks up to the Cedarberg Mountains, where she enjoys hiking and cycling, when she’s not out discovering new places to visit, with her three children in tow. Kate has travelled extensively throughout the region to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as most areas of South Africa. She also loves history, meeting people and a good thriller...


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