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East Africa driving tips

As soon as you get behind the wheel in any part of the world, you are taking your life into your own hands. In England, traffic is heavy and moves bewilderingly fast, in East Africa there are other hazards, such as donkeys, cows, goats, crazy cyclists and matatus (mini buses). Here are my top ten tips to bear in mind when driving in East Africa:

  1. Indicating whilst driving does not necessarily mean that the driver intends to make a turn. Vehicles will happily speed along with indicator blinking for no apparent reason. When behind a vehicle which is indicating, you may find that the driver is helpfully informing you that it is not safe to overtake. They will stop indicating when the road is clear of oncoming traffic. Conversely, if a vehicle is pulling out of a side road, off a main road or making a turn, it may well not indicate at all. Do not panic if you see a car suddenly apply its’ hazard lights, it may just be signalling that it intends to cross straight over a junction. Join in and feel free to indicate at any time, it need not have any bearing on your direction!

The highway etiquette can also get bewildering when cars stop on busy main roads, in order to inexplicably let you out of side roads, when there is absolutely no traffic behind them. Just pull out, wave and smile. It's not worth arguing. An oncoming vehicle flashing its lights might a) be a bus touting for business or b) a vehicle warning you of a nearby police road block. If the latter is the case, start saying your prayers. (I've been arrested twice).

Be advised that when a vehicle has broken down or been in an accident, it is common practice to cut leafy branches and strew them along the road at various distances leading up to the stricken vehicle. So when you see branches in the road, slow down, it's not just over zealous roadside pruning!

The pedestrians have a hard time. Generally there are no allocated pavements at all. As a consequence they are an unpredictable lot. They may be looking the wrong way then stepping out into the road, or perhaps not looking at all. Most pedestrians will walk along the road when rain is falling, to avoid muddy, slippery, puddle filled verges. Be careful not to spray water 50 meters in your flashy 4x4. Watch out for drunken pedestrians on weekends and public holidays. During dry spells, be aware of creating huge red powdery dust clouds whilst speed along dirt roads, it might be airtight and air-conditioned in your car but nobody likes a lungful of dust.

School children are generally walking home at 1pm and 3pm, they are usually unaccompanied and may lurch into the middle of the road at any given time. Go slow – look out for little school uniforms and skittish dashing about.

Night driving holds many hidden dangers. Most roads are not lit. You may well happen upon people walking along the road at night, without seeing them until the last minute. In addition, many vehicles have only one or no operational headlights. What might first appear to be a small motorbike could turn out to be a 16 wheeler truck when bearing down on you. Once, we saw a dead body lying in the verge. Nice!

Beware of cyclists. They are often carrying heavy or wide loads (see photo). These can include crates of distracting live chickens or a couple of waving children. A classic manoeuvre is for a cyclist to hear a vehicle drawing up behind, glance over his shoulder, then swerve into the centre of the road causing a near accident. There are no cycle lanes either. Seasoned Kenya drivers disregard cyclists and feel there is always room to overtake, whatever traffic is in the oncoming lane. Many a poor cyclist is driven off the road.

Buses and mini buses have their own rules. Don’t give in to road rage as so many of us are tempted to. You may wind up facing the wrath of the driver, ticket tout and a load of passengers in a road dispute. Buses will always ease out into traffic, without indicating, no matter how fast you are passing or how heavy a traffic jam seems. They will also drive up the inside verge or outside lane, regardless of oncoming traffic and obstacles. Just turn up your radio and thank God you are not a passenger on that bus. If you are unfortunate enough to get involved in an accident with a matatu, expect lengthy claims and court cases to follow, as all recently injured Nairobi residents from far and wide will say that they were on that particular bus.

Keep alert for animals grazing on verges when driving at speed. Goats, sheep, cows and donkeys are commonplace, often wandering with broken tethering ropes around their necks. Helpfully, Masai herdsmen are usually wearing red robes, so see them as a warning alert as they may be planning to shepherd a large herd to cross a busy city road without a bye-your-leave. Also, keep in mind, that there are always four legged stragglers at the back that could leap out of the bush at any point.

Finally, a hand pulled two wheeled cart (or mali cart) may take you by surprise when you have to slow down to walking speed when speeding along a highway. They are too wide to overtake like a bicycle and they can be unpredictable whilst heading down hill getting into a speed wobble.

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