An American Girl’s Guide to Driving in Johannesburg

I put it off for as long as I could.

I let my boyfriend chauffeur me everywhere, even though it didn’t feel right. I bought a bicycle. I called taxis. I accepted rides from friends. I walked. Sometimes, when I really wanted to go somewhere, I just stayed home instead and pretended it didn’t bother me.

If you want to be independent in Joburg, you have to drive. And I had developed a serious Joburg-driving phobia.

I’ve been here for exactly ten months and I’ve used every excuse in the book:

  • South Africans drive on the left side of the road.
  • I don’t know how to drive stick-shift.
  • I’ll get lost.
  • I can’t afford a car.
  • People stand in the middle of the road. What if I hit someone?
  • Driving in Joburg is scary!

Cry me a river, 2Summers.

Yesterday I ran out of excuses. Joe was going to be away for a week, we had a free spot in the garage, and I needed to conquer my fear.

Time to put up or shut up.

I picked up the phone and called Rent-A-Wreck. I’d heard stories of this mythical car rental agency that rents old jalopies at ridiculously low rates, but I didn’t truly believe it exists. Turns out Rent-A-Wreck is the real deal.

I learned that I can rent a “Super” Wreck for R900 ($128) per week, including insurance. (I need a Super Wreck because I can only drive automatic transmission. Manual Wrecks are available for R660 per week.)

Deal!

Two hours later, a nice man arrived at my door with this:

Behold: Super Wreck. It’s a Mazda 323. I’m not sure what year it is but I think it was born well before the dawn of the new millennium.

This angle really captures the spirit of Super Wreck.

Super Wreck’s odometer reads 343,000 kilometers. That’s about 212,000 miles. Everything rattles, the alarm is cranky, and a slightly noxious smell emanates from under the hood.

Once I had Super Wreck in my possession, I wasted no time. I didn’t want to let myself chicken out. I grabbed my handbag, hopped into the drivers’ seat (on the right side), and turned the key. The engine growled slowly to life.

Super Wreck doesn’t have power steering so it took me a couple of minutes to maneuver my way out of our quirky garage. But soon, I was off.

My maiden voyage was less than 10 miles round-trip. I journeyed to Checkers in Emmarentia to buy juice, and I visited friends in Linden. I got lost once and hopped the curb twice. I continually turned on my windshield wipers when I meant to use my blinker (indicator). Blinkers are on the right side of the steering wheel here, not the left.

I arrived home feeling triumphant, and believing that I am the best American driver in Joburg.

Here is a step-by-step illustration of how my Super Wreck journeys begin. (Photos courtesy of Joe.)

1) Unlock Super Wreck and get in. 2) Insert key into ignition immediately — otherwise alarm will sound. 3) Insert gear-lock card into slot adjacent to ignition — otherwise Super Wreck won’t start. 4) Stay calm. It’s only a car.

Study map book and review route. Do NOT skip this step, no matter how simple you believe your route to be.

Fasten seatbelt. Super Wreck does not have airbags.

Take a moment to reflect upon the awesomeness of Super Wreck.

Turn on Super Wreck. Do not worry if the engine takes several tries to ignite, especially on cold winter mornings. Super Wreck will warm up eventually.

Reverse out of parking spot. Strong biceps are helpful for this step.

Turn up the radio and hit the road.

All my fears about driving in Joburg were unfounded. It’s not very different from driving in DC, and it seems that 10 months of riding as a passenger in Joe’s car have conditioned me to driving on the left side.

Best of all, I’ve proved something to myself — that I can really make it in this crazy city.

My only concern now is how I will let go of Super Wreck at the end of this week. Do you think Rent-A-Wreck will sell him to me?

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31 Comments

  • Reply akismet-069f82b6d320654603807f0aa4a9f1e9 June 8, 2011 at 2:29 am

    ~~This was superb.
    If you can leave your job and move to Africa…
    man, oh, man, you can definitely drive a “Wreck a Car”
    good for you 🙂

    • Reply 2summers June 8, 2011 at 7:17 am

      Thank you! I figured the same thing. After all I’ve done to get here, how could I be afraid of driving? It was just silly. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough June 8, 2011 at 2:58 am

    I bet Rent-a-Wreck will pay you to take Super Wreck! But, I promise, I can relate. I hung out at home in Haiti for as long as I coud take it before I got behind the wheel. It is a crazy place to drive, as well. However, neither Sara nor I drove in Vietnam–took tazis the entire year–but then that’s what expats do there. You take your life in your hands just crossing the street–and I kid you not! Good for you, Heather! Happy Super Wreck week to you!
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers June 8, 2011 at 7:15 am

      Thanks Kathy. It’s freezing here today. I hope Super Wreck will start!

  • Reply thirdeyemom June 8, 2011 at 4:05 am

    Hello! I just subscribed to your blog and it sounds right up my alley! Another blogger, Notes from Africa, recommended it to me and said that you did a lot of adventures things and I HAD to check it out. Wow, I’ve been to Joburg and can’t imagine driving there! Driving in big cities is nuts as it is, as we tried driving in Athens and couldn’t even read the signs! The other side of the road poses all those problems when you want to pass and accidently hit the windshield wipers! Lots of laughs, that is for sure! How long have you lived there? How cool for you to just pick up and move! You’ve got to go for it! Life is short! I’m around your age, have two kids, live in Minneapolis (not the burbs) but am fortunate to still be able to travel a bit. Anyway, I look forward to reading your blog! Cheers! Nicole aka thirdeyemom

    • Reply 2summers June 8, 2011 at 7:24 am

      Hey Nicole, thanks so much for reading. Notes From Africa is great — I must thank her for sending you over! I’ve lived here for 10 months, which is really hard to believe. I love it here though and I’m feeling so much better after crossing this hurdle.

      I’ll be sure to check out your blog!

  • Reply janeyfromjoburg June 8, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Go Girl! Now you really are independent. Returning home to Joburg after a sabbatical in South America I rented a wreck for about 3 months. It was very economical and when the wreck broke down and it did, they immediately sent me another. I loved my wreck but my friends unashamedly hated it!

    • Reply 2summers June 8, 2011 at 10:02 am

      Ha!

      I’m a little worried about this Wreck — it’s having trouble with the cold. I hope it survives the week.

  • Reply Tilly Bud June 8, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Fasten your seatbelt: never mind no airbags – isn’t it the law?!

    • Reply 2summers June 8, 2011 at 11:32 am

      Oh, yes. I always wear my seatbelt, airbags or no. I was just trying to be funny 🙂

  • Reply Lisa June 8, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Freedom at last! I didn’t drive for almost a year (was over in Europe where they drive on the wrong side of the road – at least as far as I’m concerned! 😉 ) and I can remember getting into the driver’s seat for the first time. It was wonderful to be independent again. Have a fun week with your Rent-a-Wreck!

  • Reply Patricia June 8, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    OMG! This is genius! Why did I never come up with Rent-a-Wreck?!?! I owned wrecks all my life and could have been making money off of them. Congrats on hitting the road and conquering the roads of Joburg!!

    • Reply 2summers June 8, 2011 at 8:51 pm

      I know that there used to be a Rent-A-Wreck in DC (not affiliated with the South Africa company, I don’t think). If it’s still around, maybe you could start a franchise!

      Hope you’re well, Patty. I miss you! Tell Jay I said hi 🙂

  • Reply Kevin Ryan June 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    If you think driving is difficult here -try India – almost no observation of road rules, everything from trucks to camel carts and bicycles share the same lane, signs in Hindi where they exist, but the consolation is that there is no road rage there and they speeds are a lot less.

    Good luck on our South African roads – the newly found freedom will be worth it

    • Reply 2summers June 9, 2011 at 6:13 pm

      Yes, I have been to India. I once saw an entire herd of buffalo walking down a busy road in the middle of the city! There is no way I would ever be brave enough to drive there. I wasn’t even brave enough to cross the street on my own. The best thing about traffic in India is the horns (hooters) — I love the ones that play actual songs.

  • Reply Djamgbakie June 9, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    I told you this in LA exactly a year ago. Its the only way to go in Jozi.

    • Reply 2summers June 9, 2011 at 6:10 pm

      Yes, I remember! Although today I met an American woman who’s been living in Yeoville for three years, doesn’t have a car, and takes minibus taxis everywhere. She might be a lot braver than me though 🙂

  • Reply Enivea June 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Next thing we know, you’ll be doing car rallies! Ha! 🙂

  • Reply chris green June 12, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Go Heather! Hey, that looks like it may be a close relative of my car! Mine’s white but actually I had another one in the same colour, ‘understated but classic’ – aka ‘DULL GREY”! Hehehe!. The reason the rental guys use them is that they are well nigh indestructable, very cheap to run and easy to repair. The Australian term is ‘it’s a tank, mate’ ! Not really, but they sure do last. Mine has a floor shift and has chugged past 220 000 kms, it has survived a theft and was recovered by the SAP after two years and many extra kilos, how does the expression go? ” Drive it like you stole it?” And two accidents-the thieves either had two or one double-ended one, dodgy panel beaters, crappy respray jobs, and better quality ones and still I get offers to buy it every week whenever I put fuel in!

    I was stopped by a traffic cop this week for a check out for registration, licence etc (they do this, be prepared!) It turns out he has one himself and ,” Oh, by the way, would I be interested in selling him my car?” Could Jozi be another retro Cuban car mecca? Have fun!
    Chris

    • Reply 2summers June 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm

      Hi Chris, your Mazda was recovered 2 YEARS after it was stolen? That’s remarkable. I though they were normally torn apart and gone within 15 minutes. Thanks for the tip on the traffic stops. I just realized I think I’ve been forgetting to carry my international driver’s license!

  • Reply chris green June 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    yup they got it back! No chop shop for this classy tjorrie, it’s worth too much for that treatment! That’s why I call it my JHB car! It looks a lot different than when it left on its adventure…more “experienced” lets say! It even came home with tinted windows and a Jonny Walker sticker on the back window, rebadged as a Ford, with mag wheels and bald tyres – the” glitter-as-yyou-cccorner” kind! These things are all important to the hoodlums who take cars and resell them to unsuspecting nurses. Only these guys were bust in a sting operation that put corrupt officials AND the gangsters in the slammer. So yeah! My Joburg car!

    The licence…..that’s a big oops and a world of hassle for a foreign sounding driver.
    chris

    • Reply 2summers June 13, 2011 at 4:54 pm

      I remember you saying that the car was stolen and recovered but I had no idea it was so long in between, It’s a 323 miracle.

  • Reply tomorrowslices June 16, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Well done for braving the SA road system – how did you cope with the minivan taxis?
    I definitely won’t be trying out my driving skills in Shanghai – cars, buses, motorbikes, bicycles – electric and standard, all sharing roads and pavements with pedestrians – I think someone needs to send some of the SA taxi drivers here for lessons – I think it would shock them into driving more carefully!

    • Reply 2summers June 19, 2011 at 7:47 pm

      Ha! SA taxi drivers in Shanghai. That could make an interesting documentary.

  • Reply Slowvelder December 14, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Well done Heather! I know how scary it can be (I had to drive in Europe the day after I arrived there and I bashed my mirror a few times and touched the curb – yikes). Changing sides of the road is hard. It took me about 2 weeks to feel comfortable driving there. I love your wreck – she has so much character 🙂 – Good luck and happy driving.

    • Reply 2summers December 14, 2011 at 10:00 pm

      Thanks, Jackie. This is actually an old post — I wrote it six months ago, the first time I hired a car from Rent-A-Wreck. I just hired a car from them again today, and they brought me the same wreck!

  • Reply Lorrie November 7, 2012 at 5:04 am

    Hi! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply 2summers November 7, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. This is also one of my all-time favorite posts.

  • Reply daltonkadams April 28, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    This is too cute 🙂 From one nervous driver to another – I am with you. Though I took a month of driver’s lessons about 4 months after I moved here, and they really helped (and yes, so does having an automatic. I can drive stick shift but I would hate to have to do it here). There are 3 things about driving here that I hate:

    1) Maxi-taxis. My god. Where did they get their licenses? Out of a cereal box?
    2) The lanes and parking spots in this city are SO small. I guess I got too used to the big open roads in Texas and South Carolina.
    3) Apparently Sunday is electricity conservation day (at least on this side of town): in other words, “let’s turn off all the traffic lights and see what happens” day. Oh, sorry, not traffic lights- robots.

    • Reply 2summers April 28, 2016 at 2:56 pm

      Haha, yes I’m with you on all of that. Although I did eventually learn to drive stick, and strangely I seem to like driving more now. Here’s my post about that. http://2summers.net/2012/08/23/a-major-shift/

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