Starting my big Southern Africa road trip

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out transportation for my Southern Africa travels. Many of the tourist attractions lie outside the reach of any public transportation. In fact, in some parts, there is not much private transportation either!

In all Southern Africa, people drive on the left. On some unpaved Namibian roads, the right side sometimes looked like it was in better condition, so I would drive on the right for tens of kilometres before eventually moving to the left at the very distant sight of an oncoming vehicle. When told there is no public transportation available, a friend of mine and avid traveller always answers: “OK, so how do the locals get there?”. He is usually right, although sometimes it involves strange methods, such as when he and I took a bus in Syria all the way to the last stop, and then essentially transformed the public transportation into private transportation with the help of a generous “tip”. Anyways, places like Fish River Canyon have no locals. No villages, nothing. People who work in the lodges also live there (as they do at the Grand Canyon, by the way).

My intention was to travel North from Cape Town through Namibia and Botswana and make my way to Zambia for an onward flight. Unfortunately, one-way car rentals to Zambia from South Africa are not possible. Furthermore, the problem with the Victoria Falls area is that within a few tens of kilometres, you have the borders of Namibia, Angola, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Crossing the borders with the car is another problem and adds to the cost. I looked at flying from point to point and renting cars in different cities, but in the end, I decided to drive a car from Cape Town to Johannesburg, through Namibia and Botswana. I got dinged with a R1000 one-way penalty and two R500 border crossing fees (about $230 in total, not too much on a 28 day rental).


The itinerary, well over 5000 km!


The Northwestern part of South Africa is one of its least populated area. While I am sure there are many things to do, I just drove through it, stopping in Springbok for the night to cut the drive to Namibia in half. There, I met this group of Italians travelling in a convoy of three modified 4×4 (sorry for the through-window picture). Quite the set-up, but common in this part of the World. Parked next to their convoy, you can see my convoy, composed of one Kia Picanto. As is often the case in countries like Namibia, you see the same tourists time and time over, as you both make your way to the same sights along the same routes. I must have seen them 5 or 6 times in three different “cities”, including once, when they were changing a flat tire. Pretty much everyone I talked to had at least one flat and travel guides recommend travelling with two spares, as you can be a very long way from a garage when you do get that flat. As I am writing this after 20 days on the road, the Picanto has yet to have one. I’m guessing it just doesn’t weight enough to drive a pointy thing through the tire!


As I said, this is a sparsely populated area. I realize I probably shouldn’t take pictures while driving, I could get distracted and hit the oncoming car that appears every hour. Actually, I did manage to hit a little bird that flew right in front of the car. This “accident” was so improbable, my formal investigation arrived at the conclusion it was a suicide.


This was a little dumb. I wanted to know how precise the fuel gauge of the Picanto was (and I knew where the gas stations were, with a map, a GPS and everything). As I suspected, it’s not precise at all, it will go 250 km on the first “quarter” and less than that on the rest.


I made it in time and luckily, the gas station was well stocked, allowing me to purchase all the rabbits I would require for my onward travels (and a good deal, at only $3 a rabbit)!


As I crossed into Namibia, the scenery got quite spectacular and the population density remained steady at around 0.0 people per square kilometre.


“Watch for the train”, warns this sign. You know what? Don’t. I know there is no gate or blinking red lights or anything, but the odds of being on the tracks the instant before the weekly train arrives are so fantastically remote that if it happens, just accept that it was your time to go. Avoiding it will just cause the Universe to come up with an even more ridiculous way of killing you.


I got to a very funky lodge called the Canyon Roadhouse and told them I wanted to hike around the lodge at sunset and see the canyon at sunrise, or vice-versa. They recommended the canyon at sunset. The person making the recommendation was clearly not into photography and I got there just in time to stand on the Eastern edge, with the Sun nicely in my eyes. These two shots were the best I could manage under theses conditions.


The canyon is the second largest in the World and is famous for a 5 day hike you can do along the bottom. Unfortunately, too many ill-prepared fools had to go and die at the bottom and the hike is now only allowed until September (before it gets too hot). That’s a reality of long-term travel, you’ll hit some dates right, but you won’t hit them all.


Time to leave, as it was a 50 km drive to the lodge on an unpaved road, and I don’t think driving at night in the park is allowed. I camped at the lodge and the next morning, I got-up before sunrise to go hiking. I was fiddling with the trunk of the car and the alarm went off – right in the camping area! It took me a good ten seconds to find the keys in the dark and turn it off.

This is a rare mishap but believe it or not, it was not the first time it happened to me. Since it is so embarrassing, I clearly remember the previous time. It was not a camping ground, but a motel-style affair, next to the Grand Canyon, also at the crack of dawn. I can now proudly say that I accidentally woke-up everyone, at dawn, with a car alarm, next the largest and second largest canyons in the World!


The lodge is car themed, in a big way.



The reception!


It just doesn’t stop…


The lodge has a four or five km hiking route around it. Quite nice and very, very well indicated!


I saw a lot of springbok and during the hight, I heard them munching on some kind of nuts that fell from the trees near my tent. Actually, one came so close I could see the shadow of its head on my tent. They seem to walk along paths at night, although these could be tracks from other animals, of course.


The area had several crazy trees like this one, but in my half awoken slumber, I only managed to snap one decent picture.

And then I was off to Luderitz, hundreds of km away, on the South Atlantic Coast.

Disclaimer: the picture taken while driving was taken by a professional driver on a close circuit. Do not attempt at home. And if you see rails crossing a road, always stop your car, get out and run in the opposite direction until you can safely call your lawyer for advice (if you are over the age of 10, consult your physician before running).


11 thoughts on “Starting my big Southern Africa road trip

  1. u appeared to have had a ball, i envy u, i would love to be in a position to travel to some of those exotic places but i guess the next best thing is to enjoy the experience through your writings and photos

  2. Thanks Phillip. We can’t go everywhere; I made the decision to go to these places, but I enjoy many other parts of the World through the writings and pictures of others!

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  5. Hi Colin,
    I’m intrigued about your trip and amazed you did it all in a Picanto! Out of interest how long did the whole thing take you? And do you reckon that was about right? My boyfriend and I are contemplating doing a similar trip and I’m just starting to think about how it might all work.

    • Hi Emma,

      6,000 km in 6 weeks. But I spent very little time in South Africa and did Botswana rather fast (actually I spent a week in Cape Town, but I am not counting it in the 6 weeks). I probably spent almost a month in Namibia, which is one of the best countries I have ever visited. It wasn’t so much 150 km a day, more like a series of several days somewhere, than a full day of driving. I chose the Picanto to save money, but it turned out to be fine. However, not all roads are paved in Namibia and on gravel it is not super comfortable, but it works well if you don’t drive too fast. I got passed by many speeding Landrovers with over-inflated tires, and I often saw them a little later, changing a tire by the side of the road!

      Good luck in your planning and I hope you have a nice trip!


  6. Hi Colin, looks like you had a great trip! I was curious about the picanto in botswana.. alot of posts I’ve read says you def need a 4wd there, did you have any trouble? It seems most of the parks requires experience if driving yourself anyways so might be a waste to get a 4wd when we still would need to go with a guide.. would really appreciate your take on this. Thanks!! Sara

    • Hi Sara,

      Timewise, I spent most of the 6 weeks road trip in Namibia and very little time in SA and Botswana. So if you’re planning an extensive trip in Botswana, I’m afraid I’m not the best person to ask. At the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans I don’t think it was allowed to take your own vehicle in anyways, so I went on a group tour. In both Namibia and Botswana, the main roads are fine with any car, although obviously the bigger the more confortable, especially on gravel roads. The price difference is huge however, especially since I rented a car in SA, which is much cheaper. So I would say it depends exactly where you want to go and what your budget is. If you go for a small car, on gravel roads do not overinflated the tires or drive too fast and you should be fine. If you need to travel on a sand road with a small 2WD: DON’T, EVER, EVER TRY IT. Turn back or you will get stuck. Happy planning and have a great trip!


      • Thanks for the reply Colin! we are planning to do a similar trip to the one you did – but starting and finishing in johannesburg, going through botswana, victoriafalls and namibia before going back in to SA and cape town and the follow the coast back to johannesburg. we will have at least 45 days for this journey so we are keen to keep the cost down. we have pretty much decided on bringing our tent and renting (maybe a bit bigger) 2WD. was it easy to find campingspots? we are not so keen on bushcamping so will be looking to stay at organised campsites every night. Also did you cook your own food at all? seems like a hassle to get a hold of gas for a primus kitchen.. maybe its cheap enough to eat at restaurants.. Sorry for thinking out loud – after hours and hours of googling its just nice to chat with someone with experience =)
        thanks again!

        • OK, now I have a little bit of useful info for you (2 years dated though). First, SA rental cars can be taken in Botswana (with a fee), but probably not Zambia and certainly not Zimbabwe. There may be an exception if you only go to Livingstone (Zam) or Vic Falls (Zim), but make sure to confirm or find out how to take a cab from the Bot border. Again, I have much more Nab experience, but in general camping is very easy in Southern Africa. Nice campgrounds proper, but also many hotels/lodges that also have camping areas, so you get the cheap camping and also access to the restaurant/bar/pool, etc. Facilities are usually OK to very nice. Food is comparatively cheap, especially in South Africa. I never cooked, although a few times I packed food in Namibia because the distance between towns is stupid long. I can’t really picture your itinerary. If you want to bounce your ideas on someone who’s done it, call me on Skype; I love talking about road trips. for the contact. Cheers!

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