By Matthew Lightfoot
“You’re reckless and irresponsible and will put the lives of your travel companions in danger”. So read the response to my question on an internet travel forum. A donkey trek through the Swat valley? A Yachting holiday off the coast of Somalia? No. I was asking for fellow travellers opinions on renting a self drive car in Sri Lanka. I’ve found this to be a typical response when the subject of self driving in a developing country is raised on a western Internet forum, to the point that I no longer ask the question. I can predict the fevered abuse I’ll generate from the ‘You can’t drive yourself’ lobby.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally averse to using public transport when travelling. I’ve had some memorable river trips using passenger ferries in South East Asia, and I love overnight trains. Waking with a jolt as you lurch into the station of some obscure Eastern European town in the early hours, and poking your head out of the window to find yourself transported back to the Cold War era is one of my favourite travel experiences. Watching the dawn break, sat with legs poking from an open train door as you chug through the Indian countryside is a never to be forgotten memory.
Road travel however is a totally different matter. Make that road travel when I’m not driving. I’ve endured a bus cum-mobile sauna between Moldova and Ukraine , feeling I’d lost a stone in weight as I perspired for ten long hours as we bumped and lurched through the night. On another occasion, I crossed the Andes during a transport strike, smuggled onto a school bus full of Chilean teenagers, the only transport allowed over the Los Libertadores border crossing that day. Cunningly disguised in the same red caps as the kids , my partner Kirsty and I endured a nine hour journey on an old US school bus more suited to short hops along the freeways of California. One of the most unpleasant bus journeys I endured was on the winding roads of Northern Thailand. There, a double act of teenage bus drivers indulged in a bizarre challenge to see who could induce travel sickness in the most passengers, throwing their vehicle round the hairpins at breakneck speed. Very good they were too, achieving a high success rate by the time we stumbled off in Chiang Mai.
Discomfort is one thing but outright danger is another, and I’ve experienced my share of white knuckle rides over the years. All too often, bus and taxi drivers in developing countries have a fatalistic attitude towards road safety, placing their trust in a plastic Madonna, Buddah, Ganesh or, that greatest icon of hope of all, a Statue of Liberty, they overtake on the brow of a hill and play chicken with oncoming trucks. Safely protected by a spectacular horn blast and good karma, they ignore the odds that one day, there will actually be an oncoming vehicle as they tear round that blind bend on the wrong side of the road. Maybe the good Karma is what drives the risk taking? Maybe that Laotian bus driver thinks whatever the next life brings, its bound to be better than driving for 18 hours a day on dirt roads with no shock absorbers?.
So after these experiences, I began planning my trip to Sri Lanka. A route using mainly trains and local buses seemed feasible, but weighing up the options to get from Kandy to the Ancient Cities, with limited time available, and having experienced the ‘safe’ option of hiring a driver in India, I kept coming back to the self drive option.”You can’t do it. You need to hire a driver” I was confidentally told by a colleague who had visited the country. Internet forums, were equally dismissive, citing lethal road conditions and a total lack of self drive vehicles. I persevered and eventually located one local ‘fixer’ who would rent me a car. I must admit to being nervous as we approached his somewhat unofficial ‘office’ in an old cargo container, and viewed the battered Toyota we would be renting, but he drew me a map on the back of a cigarette packet, pointed me in the right direction, and off we went. And there began my self drive odyssey which has covered 6 continents to date, with, touch wood, no serious catastrophes. No serious catastrophes apart from Texas…
Texas is in America and as everyone rents a car there I class that as inadmissible evidence in the ‘self drive debate’, It wasn’t actually a catastrophe either. I misjudged the clearance of my car as I approached a small landslide and caused some minor damage. Okay, so I ripped the whole undercarriage out of the car. And it was in the desert. In the desert, 5 hours drive from the nearest town and next to a sign saying ‘Beware of Mountain Lions’. Everything turned out okay in the end though, thanks to a four car hitchhike marathon and a very understanding Rental company!
That incident was the only time I’ve actually managed to seriously damage a car, though I suppose you could say I’ve had a few close shaves, the encounter with the elephant being one. We had opted for a self drive safari in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. Maybe a VW Polo wasn’t the best choice of vehicle, but it was cheap. Cheap and white. Maybe it was the bright colour which attracted the young bull elephant as we watched him drinking at a water hole? Camera in hand, I observed through the viewfinder as he ambled towards us. Its hard to say when the amble turned into a charge but within seconds, I was verifying VW’s claims on the 0-60 capability of the Polo as we screeched away in a cloud of dust, closely followed by a ton of bellowing pachyderm. I couldn’t fault the VW’s performance. We even used it to traverse the eerie sand roads of the skeleton coast, a nervous journey given that I’d earlier blown a tyre on the rough gravel roads, and we had to undertake the drive through some of the worlds most inhospitable and remote terrain with no spare!
An element of planning is essential when considering a road trip in a developing country and an internet search for a good road map before you leave home usually pays dividends. Just don’t assume that the map will be totally correct! Rivers can be seasonal, bridges can collapse and ferries can sink, rendering your well planned schedule irrelevant. I’ve spent hours sat gazing across a wide Uruguyan river, willing a ferry moored on the far bank to sail in our direction. A sleepy eyed boatman eventually stirred from his prolonged afternoon nap as the light was fading and I was beginning to wonder whether our map’s description of ‘Irregular Ferry’ was referring to a period of weeks or months rather than hours.
Rickety ferries, with the rear wheels of your car touching the water, are one test of nerve, driving into a flooded river are quite something else, and a situation I encountered in Costa Rica. Luckily, on this occasion we had the foresight to rent a 4 wheel drive vehicle, but our roadmap seemed strangely light on certain detail. Such as rivers. Wide fast flowing rivers. Local people had developed a novel cottage industry in directing drivers toward the least hazardous crossing points. At first, I nervously insisted on wading across to test out their route. Trusting a wizened, 80 year old lady in a shawl to know the shallowest point of a riverbed seemed like a leap of faith too far, but they never got it wrong. The most hair raising crossing consisted of two ten year old boys trying to explain the complex crossing procedure for a 40 metre wide torrent. Unable to understand their quickfire Spanish instructions,I got them to climb aboard and they guided me across with a combination of shouts, squeals and flailing arms. They looked less than impressed when they realised they had to get back to the other side…
Roadside shake-downs by corrupt African cops, getting lost and rescued by shepherds in the Bosnian mountains, an accidental detour through a Brazilian Favella- I’ve found the opportunities for adventure and incident are endless with a self drive car. For me though, its the freedom which is the real draw of going it alone. Travel agents will upsell the benefits of using a local driver – “He’ll stop anywhere, take you wherever you want to go”, will be the sales pitch. In reality though, by the tenth time you’ve asked him to stop at that great photo opportunity, you’ll notice his eyes rolling in the rear view mirror. To you, a group of kids trying to shift a stubborn mule by the roadside in Mozambique represents a chance of a great shot of local life,to your driver, it’s the motoring equivalent of a pensioner changing a wheel on the hard shoulder of the M40, and he’ll make sure you soon get the message.
Its these roadside interactions which are the real joy of self driving for me. In many countries, particularly in Africa, the pot holed roads between towns and villages are a colourful procession of everyday life. Away from the tourist centres, villagers are only likely to have seen a white face as a fleeting glimpse in a passing vehicle. To stop and speak to people on the road usually elicits a delighted response, particularly from children. Taking a photo of a grinning gaggle of barefoot kids, then showing them the display screen usually results in initial puzzlement, followed by a realisation that they’re looking at themselves, which dissolves into a shrieking melee of excited hands grabbing the camera for a closer look.
Having taken into account the benefits of renting a car to drive yourself, particularly in a developing country, it’s important to ask if it’s right for you. If you’re nervous on the M25 at rush hour, or avoid the one way system in your hometown, it’s unlikely you’d want to negotiate a 5 lane highway in a city centre where all the signs are written in Cyrillic lettering. It’s also best to have at least some experience of driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Have a test run in Mallorca before tackling Mogadishu!
Another key point is to forget all the rules of the road as you know them. In many countries the only rule is … there are no rules. The biggest vehicle has right of way, and you have to accept that. Driving with the mindset that everyone else is a homicidal maniac who will be out to get you is no bad thing. When approaching a blind bend, or brow of a hill, always assume there will be another vehicle speeding towards you on the wrong side of the road. If you see a vehicle approaching on your side of the road, don’t be tempted to play chicken. The best result you can hope for is draw. That means neither of you moved , in which case you both lost! Drive defensively but confidently. Don’t hesitate or change direction at the last minute. If you take a wrong turn it’s not the end of the world, and most accidents are caused by indecision.
Driving yourself is certainly not for everyone, but if you’re a fairly confident driver who’s willing to accept that driving standards and etiquette varies greatly by country, it can open up a whole new world of travel possibilities and experiences.
If, however, you decide to stick with public transport and one day find yourself on a local bus on a potholed road, your driver leaning on his horn, foot down on the wrong side of the road, hurtling towards a battered Toyota , ask him to slow down, that could be me driving!
Matthew Lightfoot is the author of The Two Week Traveller, detailing his adventures in 150 countries. Available in ebook and paperback from all Amazon stores.