Staying Safe on South African Roads

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

Have you ever changed a car tyre? 

Will you find your spare wheel, and do you know how to get it into the open?

And the tools, the jack and everything – any idea where they are in your car, no doubt cleverly hidden by some nerdy automobile engineer?

In my car, you have to dig the tools out from the plastic side panels in the boot, manage to assemble various parts into a crank, remove a little rubber cover from a cup holder at the front, put your crank in the hole that is hidden underneath, wind until there is nothing to wind anymore, and then use your crank to pull the extra wheel from underneath your car.

Why do I know all of this, in such detail, you ask? 

Because getting the spare wheel is my job in the business of changing a tyre. While my better half is busy unscrewing the screws on the wheel, setting up the jack, and lifting the car.

The thing is, we have considerable experience with changing tyres, my hubby and I.

In Limpopo we had to try and get our tyre fixed before we entered a game reserve, not wanting to run the risk of being stranded in the wild if yet another tyre popped. In KwaZulu-Natalwe had to hurry like crazy as we had to be in town before nightfall, before the hippos start roaming the streets. In Mpumalangaour car alarm went off in the middle of the night when the tyre went flat, waking us up. In the Northwest Province our friends, who were driving behind us, were frantically hooting and waving when our tyre went up in smoke. We never went to Cape Town by car. I don’t dare to think of what might have happened.

You see, in our first few years of living in South Africa, we managed to get a puncture fairly regularly whenever we travelled. The problem, apparently, lies in a car with a heavy back and a very soft suspension (so I am told, I don’t know much about cars), combined with potholes in the road.

These potholes, they are like mushrooms: As soon as the rains start in this country, they appear. And join the ones from last year and the years before. And like mushrooms, they are really juicy. You could comfortably give a bath to a Mini in some of them.

In Joburg I manage to do surprisingly well, slaloming around the potholes. But when we travel, it’s a different story. These potholes, they like to lurk in the shade, so that they are difficult to see because your eyes have yet to adjust from the blinding sunlight. And then it’s too late. Boom, you hit one, and you can only hope your tyre survives.

When on a road you don’t know, it pays to drive a bit more slowly. Or follow a local, he will most probably know where to swerve or go slow.

But not only potholes are responsible for punctures. You might have noticed that there is usually quite a bit of debris on Joburg’s roads. Pebbles and little pieces of rock that have been swept onto the street by the torrential rains, bits of wire, as well as old screws and nails. 

Photo: Barbara Bruhwiler

I don’t know how it is that these screws and nails invariably end up in your tyre. One would think that your car squashes them flat to the ground, but nope, into your tyre they go.

Thankfully this is not a huge problem, normally, because they only cause a slow puncture. And help for this situation is easy to find: Just visit the next petrol station, and the attendants there are more than happy to squash a piece of rubber into the hole, pump up your tyre, and you’re good to go again. You pay something between 50 and 100 Rand, and it leaves them and you smiling. I mean, hey: where else can you get a car problem fixed for less than 10 Dollars?!

The dirt and debris on the road cause another car problem that was previously unknown to me: chips and cracks in the windscreen. If it is cracked, you have to replace your windscreen because it is dangerous to drive around with it as it can burst into a million pieces at any given moment. For instance when you hit a –  you guessed it – pothole. But chips can be fixed, if they are smaller than a coin, and it is wise to do it. PG Glass repairs them for a very reasonable price, and having it done will prevent the windscreen from cracking. Your car insurance might even pay for it, and the PG Glass mobile squat will come to your house or office and do the job right there. Very convenient. 

I would also recommend you become a member of the AA of South Africa. For less than 900 Rand per year you get the peace of mind knowing that they will come and sort you out if you’re ever stuck on the side of the road. [Note by editor: a towing service might also be included in your car insurance, so make sure you check and if so, keep the number handy in your car.]

When it comes to changing tyres, my better half and I reckon we are quicker doing it ourselves instead of waiting for the AA squad to come and help us. But we don’t get as much practice anymore because we have a different car now. 

Do you want to know how we came to have a different car? 

As it happened, one sunny day we were once again busy changing a tyre after hitting a pothole on a road in Mpumalanga when the jack slipped on the gravel under our vehicle and got stuck in the car’s body. We had to flag down the next car and ask the driver if we could please use his jack to lift our vehicle and retrieve our jack, as silly as this sounds. The people who helped us handed us over a brand new, untouched jack, still wrapped in plastic. Seeing that they had obviously never had to change a tyre, my husband instantly knew he wanted the car they were driving. 

For those of you who want to know: it was a Land Rover Discovery. [Note by editor: there is an even split among our South African friends: Some swear by the Land Rover Discovery, and some swear by anything made by Toyota, like the Fortuner; it is safe to say that no one swears by an Audi Q7, and I think I know why.]

Many of you will be traveling during the festive season. Before you are leaving, you might want to become a member of the AA and find out where the spare wheel and jack are hidden in your car. And maybe pack some wet wipes. Just to be on the safe side… 

Have a safe journey, and lots of fun in your holidays!


Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburgwith her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.infoGuide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.

[Another note by editor: I’m very grateful for these tips. Please take them seriously. I can so relate to this story, because, as you might know, I’ve had my fair share of tire adventures while living here in South Africa, some of which I haven’t even told yet. Like the time in Namibia when we had four – I am NOT lying – tire punctures in just a few hours. On a deserted road with no other cars coming by the entire time. I will share it with you some day. For the stories I did write about, see Expat Tip: Always Keep Tire Lock Nut in Your Car and Joburg, Capital of Crime. Excuse me, Kindness.]

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