One of the biggest eye-openers for overlanders travelling outside their own country is, surprisingly for many, the driving style in different countries. I don’t mean necessarily that the driving standards are in any way worse – just – different!
Adjusting to them is one of the biggest changes of mindset for a traveller, and especially retaining clarity and common sense when driving whilst tired (for example on the big multi-hundred mile legs through Europe). I still recall with a grin arriving in northern Spain on a late ferry from Britain, and emerging into the back streets of Santander in the wee small hours, too bleary after a rough sleepless ferry crossing to remember to drive on the right. All was uneventful until an hour or so into the drive when a lone car, a small Renault, appeared in my lane ahead of me – heading nose-to-nose on a collision course. I was too zonked to realise that I was on the wrong side, but my then-girlfriend pointed through the Defender windscreen in wordless shock – she too was tired out, and all she could manage was ‘Car! Car! Car!’. Cue mad swerve, screech of tyres, Watson looking sheepish. The signs are right – tiredness kills.
Equally, it’s an inescapable fact that the driving standards abroad are sometimes rather different from that which we are used to at home, wherever that is. As a teenager I was amused when I saw Athenians routinely driving on the pavement to get round traffic jams, but Athens pales into sanity when compared to places like Cairo and Nairobi. In both cities indicator lights, reversing lights and brake lights are treated as optional extras, to add to the entirely decorative illuminations provided by those pretty red-amber-green things one sometimes sees at road junctions. To be honest this isn’t unusual, and in much of Africa the brake lights are wired into the indicator circuit, or the fog lights likewise, and so on. If venturing into developing counties for the first time you need to give local drivers a lot of space!
Living in Cairo we joked that car hazard lights were actually a cloaking device – they rendered the driver apparently completely invisible – so much so that they felt able to indulge in any cretinous idiocy they fancied, safe in the knowledge that with hazards flashing away they could not be seen by other road users. CDs were hung up inside the windscreen – I was assured they reflect police radar traps – and every driver has a copy of the Q’uran on the dashboard – this makes the car completely safe from collision as Allah would not allow harm to come to his holy word. Driving in Cairo concentrates the mind.
Nairobi is much the same, apart from a less easygoing attitude. The cut and thrust of traffic in this pulsing modern city resembles a fast game of rugby sevens, with the local minibuses (called matatus) regularly changing lanes, mounting the kerb and charging along the pavement if there isn’t room on the roads. Night driving in Kenya can be lethal, and it’s extremely tiring.
Night driving in the desert countries of north Africa is another trying experience – and one best avoided if you can. This is where decent lights come into their own, including roof bars and spots (illegal for road use in many countries – do your research or be prepared to pay ‘fines’. Covering them with bin bags seems ok). It’s all too common to encounter an unlit tuktuk, tractor, aged taxi or farm vehicle pottering along at 20mph miles from anywhere, when you are behind schedule and trying to use the big spaces between cities to get some miles done, thundering along with three tons of Defender at 70mph. By the end of a night drive along battered tarmac in Saharan countries you will have eyes out on stalks and be jittery as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
It’s an unhappy fact that foreign-plated vehicles are also draws for opportunists – not just thieves, touts and carjackers but also predatory cops. Avoid the tendency to travel in a glitzy new vehicle (these dreamers who travel in huge shiny Unimogs and similar, let alone the American monsters, are asking for trouble) – big shiny vehicle equals big shiny dollars equals hassle from everyone who feels lucky. Battered, manky and travelstained looks like you have no cash left, so you will get less bother.
Police officers are traditionally said to be ‘on the take’ wherever you go, and are the topic of many a campfire story. I’ve actually found them to be very amenable and friendly throughout Africa – from the cop in Tanzania who flagged me down and insisted that I take a strong line with any corrupt officials and report them to headquarters, to the cops in Egypt who arrested me as a suspected spy and ended up swapping jokes and grins and handshakes. Be friendly. Be normal and self-deprecating. Laugh at yourself. They expect foreigners to be arrogant and patronising, and when we aren’t, we make friends. That’s not to say there aren’t some corrupt, unpleasant cops and officials on your route – inevitably there are. But treat everyone as an individual, as a human being, and a potential useful source of information and help. Much of the time you will not be let down.