Dirt roads, either you love the bumpy ride or you avoid it all cost.
South Africa has thousands upon thousands of unpaved kilometers, and in the Eastern Cape alone there are *26 391 km of gravel roads (excluding unproclaimed roads serving rural communities) while only 3608 km is paved or surfaced.
Knowing that only an eight of the roads in the Eastern Cape are paved really makes me curious about the rest and sitting back and avoiding it is not an option. I’m not about to miss out on the views, possibilities and unexpected places one might find on these roads just because it is bumpy and a bit dusty.
A thousand times no.
Growing up, dirt roads were always considered as a good and exciting alternative and when I eventually started driving I just carried on with that sentiment. To this day I can’t understand why dirt roads are so often avoided (especially when our smartphones and constant connection can tell us everything we want to know).
Rule of thumb for any dirt road is – and I probably sound like a broken record – AS SLOW AS POSSIBLE AS FAST AS NECESSARY.
When a road is ONLY suitable for 4×4 vehicles, you will know it. There are signs, some literal and some not so literal. Most of these 4×4-only roads are not just an easy and typical turn-off, you might have to go over a pass first (like Gamkaskloof) or you might have to go through a controlled gate (like entering the reserve section of Baviaanskloof). While road-tripping in South Africa, it is very rare to “just stumble upon” a 4×4-only road and get caught between a rock and a hard place with no way forward. And while some dirt roads are not suitable for vehicles with a low ground clearance, the majority is still accessible. If you look past the tourists with their 4x4s on the dirt roads along the Wild Coast you’ll see locals with cars and taxis, driving on the very same roads. Same goes for the notoriously dangerous Sani Pass (unfortunately these the taxis on the pass often practice the principle of ‘as fast as possible, as slow as necessary).
I once went bird watching with Paul Nkhumane from Kurisa Moya; he drove a small car, Magoebaskloof was rainy and muddy and he said, “It’s not about the car, it is the driver” as he turned into a road that said “4x4s only” on the sign. But he knew the road like the back of his hand.
Ordinary cars can have extraordinary adventures too. Your lack of a 4×4 should not be the reason why you are saying no to exploring a dirt road.
I’m not telling you go onto 4×4-only roads or to take your car up Sani Pass (maybe a 2×4 and something with a high clearance), but what I am saying is: do not avoid dirt roads just because there are dirt roads.
Numerous passes have INCREDIBLE views, some are paved and others are gravel. It is worth a try. Always ask ahead and keep an eye on the weather conditions; if the area had heavy rain it might be best to skip some roads.
Let your logic tag along for the ride.
Dirt roads can be short detours, a 5 km road here and a 20 km road there. Use Google. Use Google Maps. Do a distance calculation by looking at the number scale (that thing that looks like a square bracket that got drunk and landed on its back). Also, learn how to read a map without relying on entering your starting point and finishing point into the GPS. Know the road between A and B, be aware of distances and other roads.
The number of dirt roads suitable for all types of vehicles far outweighs the number of dirt roads suitable for only 4x4s. So why not give it a try? I can promise you it is worth the bumps.
Tips for Driving on Dirt Roads
1. Keep your eyes on the road ahead and on the road in front of you to spot ditches and potholes.
2. Drive slow. When you are driving fast the tyres are kicking up more than just dust, it kicks up stones as well and you can hit another vehicle or even person.
3. Expect the unexpected. Always assume that there is something around the every corner, don’t go full speed into it as another vehicle or even livestock might be on the road as well.
4. Brake gradually and gently (heavy breaking on a dirt road is a big no-no).
5. On a dirt road, a safe following distance means enough space between you and the vehicle in front of you so that you can see more than just dust (also, oncoming traffic won’t see you).
6. Keep your headlights on. Make yourself visible.
7. When you are going downhill, instead of ‘driving on the brakes’ the whole time, get into a lower gear.
8. Do not assume that a water crossing is safe. Get out and inspect.
9. If the road is narrow, always be on the look-out for wider spots so that if there is oncoming traffic you’ll know where to pull over.
10. If you are driving at a slow speed and there is no sight of other cars, it is best to drive more towards the middle of the road, than on the far left. When you spot an oncoming car, gently get back to your side.
11. Keep your hands firmly on the steering wheel; a big bump can make the vehicle take an unexpected turn if you don’t have a firm grip on the steering wheel.
12. Whenever and wherever you are going, make sure that everything is okay with your spare tyre and that you have the necessary equipment to change it (and that you know how to change it).
13. Take note of the weather conditions; dirt roads tend to become a muddy mess during heavy rain and muddy equals slippery. Light rain and small patches of mud is perfectly okay, but when it becomes one slippery slide, it is best to avoid it unless you have the knowledge and a 4×4 vehicle. Ask around and call ahead if it is possible.
14. If you’re vehicle starts to skid, take your foot off the accelerator and control the vehicle (with minimum to zero braking) and slowly steer your vehicle in the desired direction (no sudden swerves) to get control over it. Stay in control even when it doesn’t feel like you are in control. The slower you go the lesser the chance of skidding.
15. If a road sign clearly says, “4x4s only” it is your best bet to listen to that sign.
In the end: DON’T DO STUPID THINGS.
*Total road distances were taken from a 2015 report and is possibly more by now.