You could have FUN driving in South Africa in the 70s! These were the most up-to-date and beautiful highways you would ever drive on.But, they drove on the wrong side of the road.
Taking into consideration that I needed to learn how to drive this way … it was a little daunting.
You Could Have Fun Driving In South Africa in the 70s!
We had to drive from Durban on the coast to Pretoria, 500 miles away and 35 miles north of Johannesburg, and get settled into our new life.
Two weeks later, we drove to Pretoria in a car that was loaned to us. We were grateful, but it had no air conditioning! … It had black leather seats!
The windows were down and the hot wind whipped around us – a sauna-on-wheels. I shed two pounds on that trip and didn’t even break into a sweat!
The countryside was beautiful and relaxing; there were no power lines or billboards. It was so peaceful one would think I could forget the heat.
The journey was memorable: African children played around their rondavel – this is what the Africans call their “little round hut”.
In the typical African rondavel, the floors are shiny and bright and gleaming – and made from fresh cow dung...
you read that right… nothing is wasted.
It is odor-free, shiny, and easy to maintain – it lasts for years!
They don’t need linoleum – and it’s organic!
You Can’t Buy Cars Like This
We imported a Pontiac Firebird when we moved from Canada to South Africa.
When we moved was dependent on when we had the car.
As soon as we ordered the car, GM employees began a strike lasting 67 days! It was the longest and most expensive strike in American automotive history.
400,000 workers did a massive walkout, which affected 145 GM plants in the US and Canada. GM lost more than one billion dollars in profit – this was in 1972!
But when the strike started, we did not know how long it would last.
Could be over in a week – or even less! … I was young and always in a hurry.
The car arrived after 7 months, a process that should have taken 4 to 6 weeks… We had to use it in Canada for one year before it could be exported tax-free.
This gave us time to work on the said vehicle before our move.
Not satisfied with Original Equipment, we were at the “street racing” age, our Firebird had to be “modified” so we could “blow the doors off” of any competition on the road.
We lived 15 minutes from the Canada/US border, across the Detroit River, and there could not be a better place than Detroit City, to find high-grade mechanics for heavy metal driving.
You met such people at the Detroit Auto Show at Cobo Hall on Detroit’s Riverside.
(Link-Is South Of Detroit Still in Canada?)
This is where we met George who was in the business of making “door-blowing” engines. He enhanced our car’s performance from a bit of muscle to 485 horsepower!
Just before we left Canada, we put our Firebird on a ship to South Africa to arrive in 6 weeks.
This Is How The Fun Begins:
It was my job to be ready to drive left soon and I had to be confident enough to drive the Firebird when it arrived.
In Pretoria, we discussed this driving on the wrong side of the road… no big deal!
I had been cringing next to left-side drivers for some weeks now!
Easy-peasy… Really – how naive was I?
I had never driven left before and I was fearless about it…
Common sense says that I should have had some trepidation!
We fetched our company car at a dealership, and I was to follow behind my husband who drove the loaner – the automatic car with no air-conditioner.
I drove the company car for three miles with the emergency brake on!
I’d never used an emergency brake before… Emergency brakes should not be overheated … they say… Who knew?…
So what was the problem?
Oh, I see … “You nearly-burned-out-the-brake-line-on-a-brand-new-car”. Okay…So..o.
On the plus side, I had to be a GOOD driver to pull that off!
Picture it: I was sitting on the right side of the car, changing a gear shift lever with my non-dominant left hand, and driving on the left side of the road – for the very first time!
… WITH the emergency brake on for three miles!
I don’t know anyone else who has even tried this! … I feel kind of special.
Fun Fact: I grew up with four brothers – It was a right of passage to learn to drive and I had to learn on a manual transmission, as long as they were alive. At least I knew how to do that.
Still – this driving on the left thing was an experience that tested my skill and coordination. By the end of the trip, I was laughing hysterically… how did I not get myself killed that day? The memory puts lead in my stomach.
At Last – He Has Arrived!
Four weeks after my first solo drive-left experience, our Firebird arrived by ship and was berthed in Durban. We flew to Durban, showed off the spiffy new car, and drove back to our residential hotel in Pretoria.
This time we drove with air conditioning, but stopping somewhere created a major spectacle. There were very few rest and petrol stops on the highways. Most were privately owned local eateries and gas bars.
When we stopped for fuel, people spilled from the little roadside plazas and made a tour of the vehicle. They pointed and commented… “left-hand drive”.
Around there, your license plate indicated your province:
T for Transvaal, N for Natal, C for Cape Province, and OF for Orange Free State.
Our license plate from Ontario, Canada, said AMK, which meant nothing in that country. We were often asked, “Where is this AMK? Where are you from?… Are you from over the water?”
I Was Ready For This!
I had some driving practice under my belt; I was ready. Now I would be driving the Firebird with the steering wheel on the left and driving on the left side of the road. Does it get any more complicated than this? (Wiki: beautiful highways in SA)
Children in the cars around me shouted, “Mummy, that driver is sitting on the wrong side!” Mummy’s head swiveled… and the little ones pointed for emphasis – “Look Mummy, no driver!”
These people loved to race! At red lights, I looked straight ahead and made sure not to catch the eye of some guy in a souped-up vehicle next to me.
Who was I kidding – I loved to race too and I screeched off the line to an easy victory.
South Africa was a car lovers’ paradise…
Men waited patiently in parking lots and asked if I would please show them the engine. I would attempt to pop the hood
and they said, “Let me get that for you”.
South African men have beautiful manners. From 6 years old to 80, they open your door and hold your coat. I thought they wanted to raise the hood out of chivalry – not so!
They wanted to touch the car and feel it. They were thrilled to have this opportunity.
“W-o-w,” they said reverently as they lifted the bonnet and took it all in. “Wow”.
Lindsey was my best friend, born and raised in Michigan. We had known each other for six years now. Thirteen months after my move, Lindsey was in our home in Verwoerdburg, South Africa.
It was early December and she was soaking up some rays she said in her De-troit twang. I loved Lindsey’s accent, and I wanted my friend to see everything!
So, predictably, we took a trip.
We started in Pretoria and visited Olwen and Neville in Umkomass, south of Durban on the coast. Auntie Olwen, asked, “Will you be driving through the Transkei on your way down the coast?”
Oh sure, Auntie Olwen, we’ll drive through the Independent Homeland Of Transkei alright! You know me, always in a hurry. (Read about visiting Mandella’s homeland )
I knew nothing about the place – I only had a paper map and the open Transkei border was not far away.
I will never forget Olwen’s wise words after that: “Be careful as the lands aren’t fenced and the consequences are severe if you hit an animal on the road. They prize their livestock. Put the animal in your boot – don’t leave without it”.
The Transkei Penal Code applied in the Transkei to anyone charged with a crime.
If you are at fault you are prosecuted under the code.
BTW, it’s always your fault. It is like being arrested in a foreign country, like Mexico, or China.
So, no road kill today… and, since I didn’t have any other route planned, we made sure to drive through the Transkei, without incident.
Three things stood out for me on that part of the trip:
1. I wanted to drive fast on these beautiful highways but progress was slow,
because of the livestock on the road.
2. Because of our slow crawl, we were forced to take in the scenery and enjoy the ride!
3. It is called “The Wild Coast” not for nothing.
The Independent Homeland of Transkei runs from the Great Kei River near East London to the Umtamvuna River at the Natal/Eastern Cape border.
Leaving the Transkei region, and driving south along the magnificent Indian Ocean we entered the Eastern Cape: “The Garden Route”.
Near Knysna, I saw my first “Elephant Crossing” sign! This can be compared to bear and deer crossing signs in Canada.
Knysna is the “Jewel of the Garden Route” and it is known for its oysters and wooden furniture!
You can see the famous “Heads” from an elevated outcrop.
I have heard it described as one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. I don’t know about that but it ranks up there with the French Riviera and the
Driving merrily along in the “bird”, that US vehicle could turn heads. Lindsey, who grew up in Motor City Detroit was surprised to see an ordinary GM-mer elicit so much attention.
Our adventures took a personal turn when I noticed wildflowers growing on the side of the road. They are called Proteas and are so beautiful.
I had to have one of each kind!
I picked 18 Proteas before I stopped. Wow – how nice.
Wow indeed! I did not know they are a protected species and the
country’s national flower.
A 900-rand fine went with each bloom. R16,200.00?
In the language of today, it would be equal to a $1500 fine! The evidence was there on the floor behind my seat.
That was a fortune and we kept a low profile after that. We didn’t pay a fine, because we didn’t pick any more flowers and we didn’t get caught! Did we, Lindsey?
Lindsey didn’t cut a single flower – just so you know.
A Great Place To Ride A Motorcycle!
I have always enjoyed motorcycle riding; there is something about the freedom with the wind whipping around you. There’s the thrum of the motor and the element of danger.
Back in 1979, some bikers started a breakfast run on Sunday morning from Fourways, in the center of Johannesburg, to Hartbeespoort Dam – 56 km away.
When they reached their destination they had breakfast – hence the name,
“The Breakfast Run”.
Not everyone took the direct route and you could add 300 to 500 km, at warp speed, before breakfast. By lunchtime, there could be beer accompaniment and mimosas for the ladies.
It all sounds like a nice way to have fun, however, I knew some rogue riders from the early days who did “the Harties run’’ as it was sometimes called.
The route to Harties was chosen because there was a lack of traffic on those roads and no speed traps, so the bikers could ride crazy fast!
The roads were not great in the 70s and occasionally you would be confronted by a farmer turning in front of you with a pick-up or a tractor. There were potholes.
… This would lead to a lot of excitement and swearing. This was for the hard-tack riders. They were fearless!
When we went on these runs, we slid out of bed in the early morning and as motorcycles accumulated, we joined in.
By the time they came together from every direction, there were several thousand motorbikes parked outside the restaurants at Hartbeespoort Dam.
Remembering the sanctions in South Africa, there were no Harleys over there. Motorcycles were more refined.
They rode Kawasaki, Honda, BMW, Ducati, Yamaha, and Suzuki, – these were machines that whispered their strength. I was so impressed.
What a scene – it was like a Las Vegas strip where everyone went to strut their stuff. We loved to walk around and ogle these super machines… They were so shiny and strong-looking in a Ninja sort of way.
There was nothing like the sound of all those beautiful fine-tuned machines the growl of the engines thrumming in your body the camaraderie sharing breakfast on the water with perfect weather and peace as the lump in my throat got bigger I had goosebumps… it made me so proud to be a part of it!
South Africa was always the finest place to ride. The people had a huge respect for motorcycles and in a hot country with great weather, there were lots of them on the road.
My friend, Lollie, drove her own motorcycle – and I don’t think there is anything sexier than a girl who can handle her own ride. She was so cool – we all wanted to be like her.
Lollie broke the news to me gently that I needed to be more fearless before I drove my own motorcycle. I didn’t make the grade as the driver.
But, I was told that I am an excellent passenger... And that’s important…Too.
Learning to drive “left” is not as bad as it sounds. It’s a little traumatic, but you CAN do it.
On many occasions, I took a bit of time to “think left” until I felt my mind switch to the left. Kind of like sticking out your hip.
Just remember, you will forever get into the wrong side of the car, from time to time. It has been 12 years since the last time I drove left – and it still happens.
I try to catch it in my head before I actually open the passenger door – by mistake – with the keys clutched in my hand.
You can remedy this a little by pretending you are looking for something, but that excuse wears thin quickly. Especially if your friend has learned to drive left too.
I emphasize: The highways are beautiful and up to the minute in technology.
This is a trip on the wild side!
Please tell me… Did you ever learn to drive on the opposite side of the road from what you were used to? … How did it work for you?
Did you ever change left and right twice in 24 hours?
Do you find yourself staring at your vehicle, wondering, “Which side? which side?”
I would love to hear about your experiences.
Please leave a comment in the box below and I will get back to you within 24 hours.
Next week, we are going on an African Safari!
Regards, Corinne :-)))