How to cross the road.

It is my sincerest hope that reading my blog has made at least one or two people out there think of visiting South Africa. Should such a wonderful thing come to pass, I feel that I have a bit of a responsibility. 23thorns is not a travel brochure. It is not here to create some utopian wonderland full of bunnies and people who say “Have a nice day” like they mean it.

One out of two isn't bad.

One out of two isn’t bad.

No. 23thorns is gritty. Hard-edged. We don’t shy away from ugly truths round here. We tell it like it is.

So if you’re thinking of visiting, there is one thing I feel I have to let you know. You’re going to have to learn to cross the road. Or you will die.

Mrs 23thorns recently visited Sydney, in Australia, and was rather taken aback to find these painted on the roads;

They were going to add ", not down here, dumbass", but they ran out of paint.

They were going to add “, not down here, dumbass!”, but they ran out of paint.

There is not a soul in South Africa who doesn’t already know that, not as a result of any sort of educational campaign, but through a process of elimination. Because of these;

The vehicle, not the passengers.

The vehicle, not the passengers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the very beginning. This is a typical traffic light setup where two four-lane roads cross;

I rule at Microsoft Paint!

I rule at Microsoft Paint!

The first thing that you will notice is that we drive on the left hand side of the road, unlike less sophisticated foreigners. In most of the cities I have visited, the system seems to work like this; pedestrians will walk up to the edge of the pavement (point A on the illustration below), where they will wait for a sign on the traffic light to show a little green man. Then they cross over to point B.

How dull and predictable their lives must be!

How dull and predictable their lives must be!

More often than not, an alarming beeping sound will accompany the little green man in order to induce panic in the herd in order to keep them moving. And move they do. In an orderly fashion. Between two white lines painted on the road. Hah.

In South Africa, this would be a very foolhardy thing to do. For a start, the only pedestrians allowed between those lines are beggars and street performers. In the recent past, there have been jugglers and mimes, but of late there seems to have been a bit of an invasion by pantsulas. These are pantsulas;

That, I’m sure you will agree, is a pretty damn irresponsible thing to do with your feet in the privacy of your own home, let alone in heavy traffic, and is not the sort of thing that an innocent bystander should wander into unprepared.

But that’s not all. Back to these;

Still the vehicle, not the passengers.

Still the vehicle, not the passengers.

That, good people, is a minibus taxi. It’s not a metered taxi like you would find overseas; it’s more like a privatised bus. And it is the reason that this lesson is necessary. Minibus taxi drivers get paid according to how many passengers they deliver on any given day, which means that wherever they are going, they need to get there first.

Add to that the fact that for some reason (most likely to do with weekend spending money) our traffic police cannot see them unless they burst into flames, and you have a bit of a minefield for the uninitiated. We’ll go back to them a couple of times, but for now let’s deal with those white lines.

In most countries, vehicles stop before those lines in an orderly fashion, like this;

Those blue rectangles are cars. Why does anyone bother with photoshop?

Those blue rectangles are cars. Why does anyone bother with Photoshop?

Which seems rather sensible. But the taxi’s overwhelming need to be everywhere first means that they need to get a bit of a head start. This is where the taxis stop;

Taxis are orange. Microsoft Paint has an almost infinite range of fine, fine colours.

Taxis are orange. Microsoft Paint has an almost infinite range of fine, fine colours.

Or rather don’t stop. Should you feel tempted to walk around the taxi to rejoin those white lines, bear in mind that no taxi ever comes to a complete halt unless it is loading up or offloading passengers, in which case it will stop anywhere, including the middle of a busy intersection. The taxis will keep edging forward until they are in the middle of the road in order to avoid losing precious milliseconds to their eternal enemy, inertia.

Don’t get ahead of yourself by looking at the traffic lights, either. It will end in tears. Taxis are allowed, by law, to start driving 1,5 seconds before the light turns green.

Talking about getting ahead of yourself, you may notice that none of the locals are waiting on the pavement. They are edging forward just like the taxis. Ignore them. They know what they are doing and you don’t. You don’t know about the secret lane, for a start. This is the secret lane;

Have you ever noticed how well blue and orange complement each other? And that black background really makes the colours pop.

Have you ever noticed how well blue and orange complement each other? And that black background really makes the colours pop.

If a taxi comes up to a traffic light and notices that he is not coming first, he will pull over into the emergency lane in order to remedy that situation. This does not appear to be illegal unless one actively hits a policeman. Even then, it’s a grey area if the taxi driver has enough cash on him.

Think you’re getting it yet? You’re not. Not even close. I will take a deep breath and try to cover this all in one go. Bikers tend to be the sort of alpha males who don’t like other people to come first. They will weave through traffic until they are in the front, and then they will try to out-edge and out-anticipate the taxis.

Lilac. Bikes are lilac. There was no other option.

Lilac. Bikes are lilac. There was no other option.

Which is fun because they can take off at 120km/h. There’s also another ultra-secret lane which entails the taxis driving into oncoming traffic when they notice that the secret lane is full, and then trying to merge with the stationary bumper-to-bumper traffic in the middle lane.

South African drivers would rather swim naked with pirhanas than let the taxi back in at this point.

South African drivers would rather swim naked with piranhas than let the taxi back in at this point.

There are also secret rules and customs to driving here that you will not be party to. One of them, for example, is that a traffic light turning red does not necessarily mean stop. In rush hour traffic, it means that five more cars can go through if the drivers pretend that they simply can’t stop and are really very sorry.

If you have not found all of this confusing enough, we also have those little green men. Do not be fooled. The little green man does not signal to pedestrians that it is safe to cross. It indicates to traffic that it is safe to turn across the path of the pedestrians.

If you see this, freeze. Looking both ways will do you no good. Cars could now be coming from anywhere.

If you see this, freeze. Looking both ways will do you no good. Cars could now be coming from anywhere.

We don’t have that alarming beeping sound, however. I understand that that is there for the benefit of blind people, and in South Africa, most of the blind people are begging at the intersections anyway, and can feel their way through traffic like bats.

I wish I was joking.

I wish I was joking.

When all is said and done, the only safe way for a visitor to cross the road in South Africa is to catch a taxi on one side and get him to drop you off on the other. This will also give you an opportunity to learn some of the more colourful local language from other drivers.

No. Don't even think about it.

No. Don’t even think about it.

Just for the sake of completion, I will explain how locals cross the road. The traditional places to cross are here;

The green blocks are the people, crossing the road in an orderly fashion.

The green blocks are the people, crossing the road in an orderly fashion. It’s a lovely green, isn’t it? Do they have that green on Photoshop? No? Didn’t think so.

Do not allow yourself to be confused by the lights. Rather wait until the traffic has stopped moving because a taxi has stopped in the middle of the intersection to drop off passengers. Look both ways not just before crossing, but also several times while crossing. Be careful not to touch anyone’s car, or they will think that you’re a hijacker and either give you their keys or try to fight back. Pay special attention to those alpha males on their bikes and the ultra-secret taxi lane.

With a couple of years practice, crossing the road becomes second nature. You will develop the reactions of a cobra, and learn some very fancy footwork. Those pantsulas didn’t get their dance moves from nowhere.

They aren't dancing, they're dodging a motorbike.

They aren’t dancing, they’re dodging a motorbike.

50 thoughts on “How to cross the road.

  1. sisteranan says:

    Here’s the solution – stay at home. Here’s a tasty new design for your garden:

  2. Having grown up in and mastered the beautifully choreographed chaos that is traffic in Boston — considered to have the worst, most aggressive drivers (and pedestrians) in the US — I was surprised to be so confused and nervous trying to cross streets in Joburg. I thought it was just due to drivers on the left side of the road — but evidently there’s more to it.

    And by comparison, when my SA friend was visiting Boston this summer, he seemed to have no problem mastering our free-for-all pedestrian mindset. It must have seemed easy compared to SA, despite traffic being on the right — and correct – side.

  3. Spy Garden says:

    I mostly prefer plants to people. I don’t find traffic of any sort a thrilling subject. And I have little time to read now that I’ve committed to actually write on my blog so I didn’t really pour over your syntax as in days of yore. HOWEVER: spending time in Microsoft paint designing little diagrams is basically my idea of heaven HAhahahahAHahahah. And it is art. If you call it art. So basically you’re the next Piet Mondrian. Hahahhahaah

  4. I never thought I could Learn Laugh and Cry all at the same time. This is great blogging and the first I’ve seen and that is EVER. I will be following your blog closely.

  5. loved it well as all the replies

  6. Terry Cramer says:

    This was very educational. living in New York City, I could tell a tale or two as well. But this beautiful description, with such fine illustrations, made me feel that I was not alone. Frequently people ask me “WHY do you live in New York”? Often the crazy traffic and driving are brought up. Seeing that other places, yea, even other countries, have their own brand of lunacy somehow made me feel that all was right with the world. Wait a second, what did I just say?


  7. Sounds exactly like my experience in Jo-burg, did you set all that up for my visit?? Gotta love the SA hospitality! LOL

  8. sounds a bit like crossing the road in Asia… no pedestrian crossings, no traffic lights…. just walk out into the traffic…. hesitate and you are a gonner. I am experienced at this, so may fare well in Sth Africa?

  9. erickuns says:

    Impressed indeed with your Microsoft Paint technique. Eye popping colors and whatnot.

  10. KokkieH says:

    Reblogged this on if all else fails…use a hammer and commented:
    This is too funny not to reblog. It’s funny, mostly because it is true. Oh, so very true…

  11. KokkieH says:

    I’m laughing so hard now I have trouble typing. You forgot to mention that taxis, and all other motorists for that matter, are also prone to turn left from the right-hand lane and right from the left-hand lane and right of way belongs to whoever manages to get moving first.

    I’m one of the few who still use the pedestrian crossings AND wait for the little green man. I always get very puzzled looks both from fellow pedestrians and from motorists. What can I say. I’m a rebel.

    On another subject, what will you fee be to design me some new graphics for my blog? You have some serious talent and a real eye for colours 😉

  12. When we were in Macau we hired a motorbike and like all the locals, pulled up to the traffic lights. Lights turn green adn 50 motorbikes, all around 250cc all head forwards. The different is that not all of them are facing exactly the same direction. Each is a degree or 2 off true forwards. We discovered that you just have to go and ride like a local. Trying to ride with the common sense we both inherited from learning to drive in Australia and London was most definitely going to get us killed.
    As for red lights meaning sneak 5 more through, you should see the traffic lights in Phuket Thailand. They have lights that count down how many seconds until it turns red/green and to my utter amazement they actually obey and stop once it changes colour! For real!
    Another brilliant post that makes South Africa seem far more real and exciting than any travel brochure. If we visit can we hire you for a travel guide?

    • 23thorns says:

      Sometimes doing the right thing can be dangerous and inflammatory. Travelling at the speed limit in the fast lane here can drive other road users into a rage.
      S for being your guide, I’d be happy to. There would, however, be rather a lot of indemnity forms….

  13. Ike Jakson says:

    Brilliant my man. Somebody had to say it and nobody could have put it better. I like the graphics and the beautiful illustrations.

    Sefricans will survive. Its our JSE that worries me.


  14. Judy says:

    Very cute post. I have found a few countries where it is every man for himself pretty much even in intersections. That was one of the most amazing things about when Hurricane Wilma took out 98% of our power grid a few years ago. No traffic lights and yet everyone was very orderly, yielded and behaved with surprising grace and courtesy at the intersections. Yes, in South Florida!! I know…hard to believe.

  15. sisteranan says:

    In Rome, the motto is: Look both ways before getting run over.

    Nice Microsoft Paint diagram. I’m sure if you tweak it a little, it could become a fine plaid. For the pantsulas, of course.

  16. billgncs says:

    I once was in England, then in France, then back to England. By then crossing the street was enough to give one a nervous breakdown.

    Cool dancers — wish I had pants like that, but alas no place to wear them? Do you favor that style ?

  17. This reminds me of Frogger. Did the game originate in South Africa? Oh-wait. Nevermind. According to Wikipedia, it originated in Japan, which also makes sense…

  18. Buzzwordz says:

    It’s quite easy to say “look in both directions” but as the friend of someone who’s father had both legs broken by looking in the WRONG direction…I think you need to be a little more specific. When coming from North America, where we drive on the proper side of the road, one must remember to look right first and then left, or you will be run over. Thats all.

    • 23thorns says:

      The majority of the world is right handed. Logic thus decrees that the more sensible nations will drive on the left so that we can keep our good eye on the traffic.
      Your theory of looking right and then left (or left, and then right in the better looking and more popular nations) used to be absolutely true, but since the taxis started driving up roads the wrong way (into oncoming traffic) it’s difficult to know what to do. teaching the kids all this is not easy.

  19. The Rider says:

    I think I shall now visit South Africa after reading your blog! 🙂

  20. Ashana M says:

    I have to differ with you. I think orderly traffic is actually the exception rather than the rule. My strategy for coping with traffic elsewhere (we have mostly orderly traffic here, except that no one looks for pedestrians ever) is to follow close in the footsteps of someone who appears to know how to cross a street for a while until I get the hang of it again. This is getting more difficult as the cars in developing nations are growing larger and more powerful. It was a lot easier to cope 20 years ago, when most people were still riding bicycles and low-powered, tiny little cars that had no pickup at all. I dread to think of what would happen in a country where people drive Land Rovers.

    • 23thorns says:

      All traffic has some form of order, it’s just that sometimes it’s harder for outsiders to see. I’ve seen footage of an intersection in Cairo that makes my eyes bleed. there don’t seem to be any rules at all. But everyone seems to know what they are doing and the system seems to work.

  21. javaj240 says:

    Thanks for including the pantsulas! As if the whole post wasn’t educational enough!

    Very, very funny!

  22. narf77 says:

    You are absolutely correct about that beeping noise inducing panic. When we walk the dogs in the city Bezial and Earl hear that beeping and run for it. It’s just a pity that they tend to run for it whichever beep they hear and we have occasionally had to leap on them bodily to prevent them from causing major traffic jams at the wrong set of lights…We have courier delivery vans that perform the same service as your minivans. Our couriers spend their days getting there first. Whether or not they have a load to be delivered, they MUST get their first using whatever means they can. You can’t just expect to be driving along minding your own business and following the road rules, you need to keep your eyes on both sides of the road even when you are driving because they careen out of nowhere and demand to be given the right of way and traffic lights are challenges, not set in concrete (after the courier van hits them, most of them aren’t still set in concrete…).

    You are the king of paint Mr 23Thorns. When you get that book written, I wouldn’t bother with paying someone to illustrate it, you’ve got it nailed. I see what you mean about “No. Don’t even think about it” in that pedestrian crossing shot…that yellow stain doesn’t bear thinking about…methinks a street performing paint gargling rainbow fountain spitting clown bit the dust…right there…and the poor sod had only gotten to yellow! R.I.P. clown :(.

    • 23thorns says:

      Our worst culprits are actually the towtrucks. they listen in on the police channels and then race through heavy traffic to try to get to accident scenes first. They do a pretty good job of drumming up their own trade.

  23. Oh the “secret lane”! I’m giggling and giggling. There really is no place like home. I just love Johannesburg.

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