Spot Fines & Border Control: A Disastrous Day on the Road in South Africa

Crossing the border to Swaziland from South Africa

Our Eventful Day on the Road in South Africa

We’ve been on two epic road trips in South Africa. In total, we’ve spent just over 6 weeks exploring it. Before going, locals and friends alike warned us of car-jacking, corrupt police, and overall poor road conditions. However, we’ve had nearly 46 days of uneventful drives (except for a few roads that were more pothole than pavement).

That’s 46 uneventful days on the road, except for one. On our recent two weeks in South Africa, while driving from St. Lucia to Swaziland, everything that could go wrong did. Some of it was my own fault. Some of it was beyond my control. Here’s the story of our very bad, no good, disaster of a day on the road. Laugh at our pain and learn from our mistakes.



Corrupt Police & Spot Fines

We started our day early and optimistic. We’d been to Swaziland before and driven this exact route. But my confidence sunk deep into the pit of my stomach when a police officer walked into the highway ahead of us, waving at me to pull over. Before slowing down, I quickly glancing at the speedometer. I wasn’t speeding. I hadn’t even changed lanes without a blinker.

So when the police officer came to my window, I was already fairly confident that I’d done nothing wrong. This confidence in my innocence only made me nervous about what he wanted. He quickly claimed there had been cameras that had caught me following dangerously close behind the car in front of me. (There were no cameras).

south africa road trip mistakes

My NOnexistent Mistake

Even though I had doubts that “following too closely” was a high crime or misdemeanor anywhere in the world, I profusely apologized and handed over my documents. This is when his sub par acting performance really geared up. “Oh no! You’re foreign?! I can’t believe I have to ruin your vacation this way! I really don’t want to ruin your day…”. He trailed off.

But if he wanted a bribe (that I was not going to pay), I was going to make him work for it. I played along and agreed it would indeed be awful to ruin our vacation.

Now he directed his attention to my husband. “Sir, let’s avoid this drama and reach a gentleman’s agreement.” My husband, following the same line of attack as I had, asked him to be more clear on his definition of a “gentleman’s agreement.”

“Give me 300 Rand”

He explained that if he were to write me a ticket, that I would have to go all the way back to Richard’s Bay and spend my entire day dealing with it. That I could forget about paying the fine at a later date. To avoid that we should just give him 300 and forget it all happened. 300 what, I asked? 300. “300..what?” Finally he spit it out, 300 rand, give me 300 rand.

south africa road trip mistakes

We shrugged him off. I innocently told him we didn’t feel comfortable doing something that seemed so illegal. Please just write me the fine (for your imaginary mistake). He kept pushing, obviously not having any ticket to write. I brought out my phone and typed his name into my notes app. I should have taken his picture but I was nervous about putting the phone up so high, maybe he would try to snatch it or break it.

He panicked and immediately changed course. Begging me to delete his name, he promised there was no problem, no fine, and no ticket. I deleted it and that was the end of it.

How to Report Corrupt Police in South Africa

No matter what, stay respectful. We never raised our voices or disagreed with this police officer, because at the end of the day, he’s still a police officer (don’t poke the bear). If you find yourself in this situation, call them on their bluff. The only thing they can steal from you is time. If you prove that you don’t mind, and offer to accompany them to the police station to handle the fine, you take away their leverage.

If you can, take their picture or note down their name and let them see you doing it. That’s what got him to let us go. There is a government hotline to report corruption like this, read about it here. If they know you’re going to report them, they’ll likely send you on your way.

Crossing the border into Swaziland from South Africa

Crossing the border into Swaziland from South Africa

How Not to Cross the Border in a Rental Car

From here we made it to the border without any more drama. To the border, TO, not through. This problem was of my own making and is easily avoided. I’d also like to argue that it also could have been easily fixed within minutes, but Hertz wasn’t on my side.

Whenever you cross a border with a rental car, you need to let your rental car agency know. It’s common sense. Most often, and as is the case in South Africa, they’ll issue you a letter authorizing you to take the car across the border. But after 36 hours of travel, I had no common sense left. We got our rental car and took off, completely forgetting to get the letter from Hertz.

Something similar had happened on our first trip to South Africa. I told our Avis agent we needed the letter, but he forgot to give it to us with our documents. I called him a few days later, before crossing the border, and he emailed me the letter. And in the end, border control in Swaziland didn’t even ask for it!

I thought it would be the same this time around and didn’t really stress about it. But this time, the border control agent immediately asked for the letter and I immediately knew we were, well, f*<£ed.

Stuck at the Border

She said to call Hertz. She said it happens all the time and that Hertz will email me the letter. I won’t bore you were the minute by minute play-by-play, but Hertz wasn’t having it.

They made me wait for 45 minutes before calling me back to say that actually, no, it is against their policy to email such documentation. They insisted that there is no way to prove I am who I say I am. Now, I know carjackings and safety issues are a reality in South Africa. However, there are absolutely ways to confirm I am who I say I am. But, I don’t make the rules.

Crossing the border to Swaziland from South Africa

Saved by Fellow Fools

After a lot of back and forth, and Hertz demanding that I drive 5 hours to my nearest Hertz location to “easily” pick up the letter in person, I was in tears on the Swazi border (a VERY proud moment for me). Just when I accepting the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to stay at the cool Swazi mountain camp, a Dutch couple pulled up next to the agent (and conveniently myself, since I was right next to her, trying to wear her down).

They hand over their paperwork, and don’t you know it, they also rented from Hertz and didn’t get their border-crossing permission! I can only imagine what was going through the officer’s mind. I like to think it was something along the lines of “Well shit, now I’m going to have four annoying foreigners bothering me all day. F*<& that!” So, she let them right through, then turned to me and said, “Go.” And we did.

That Dutch couple has no idea the trouble they were spared! But I will be forever grateful to them for being as forgetful as I am.

How to Cross the Border with a Rental Car

If you also plan to cross an international border in rental car, let them know when you check in. This was a horrible situation that I created completely on my own and should have been avoided.

But if, like me, you forget and decide to cross the border without your rental car agency’s letter of permission, you do so at your own risk. Rental insurance will no longer cover you while you’re in the new country, so drive extremely carefully!

A Successful South African Road Trip

This was one of those days that you look back on and laugh. It may have been incredibly stressful at the time, but that’s what happens when you travel. Things go wrong. You have to learn to go with the punches, and did we ever that day. 1 crazy day, 45 easy days. I’d still say road tripping in South Africa is the way to go!


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