Back in the 1990s, when the family were small and finances were tight, the holiday of choice (or necessity) was often Durban.
Kids love beaches and we had an accommodation base with granny and grandpa, so one major expense was taken care of.
More of a problem were the toll charges along the N3 route to Durban. Even in those days, they were substantial and accounted for a significant chunk of a holiday budget. Fortunately I learned early on from my father-in-law (once the government’s Chief Director: Toll Roads) about how to save money.
He explained that the toll charges relied on the fact that people will not count the cost when it comes to saving time… even when the overall saving is less than an hour out of a seven or eight-hour trip.
For many years, he himself used the alternative routes, because he didn’t think paying was good value at all. And that was in the days before the toll operators squeezed even more money from motorists by “adjusting” the formula for toll calculations in their favour.
However, over the years, the government cynically downgraded maintenance on all alternatives to toll roads, to force people to pay. So, eventually, trips to Durban were often done on the toll highways.
However, on a recent trip down to the coast, I decided to revisit the “road less tolled”. It is possible to get from Joburg to Durbs without paying one toll … but it won’t be fun.
You can get on to the N3 via the R59 and Vereeniging but that adds time because the roads are slow. So we got on the N3 and went through the first toll at De Hoek, outside Heidelberg. It’s a steep R47 but the road is good.
We then got off the highway at Villiers, to take the alternative route on the R103. In years gone by, this was a real “beat the system” hack – because the difference between the toll road and the other is just 9km, for which you now pay R65.
However, getting to the alternative road takes you across a kilometre of some of the worst road in the country, where there is some tar in the pothole. Once on the R103, you have to watch out for potholes, which means keeping to about 110km/h maximum, but it works because there is very little other traffic and the open roads and rolling hills of the Free State take you back decades.
Back on the N3 at Warden, we continued on to Harrismith, then through the town on the R74 towards Sterkfontein Dam. This beautiful piece of road remained closed for a number of years because a rehabilitation project had stalled after the provincial government failed to pay the contractors. That is all now sorted and the road is spectacular. However, make sure there are no undesirables hanging around if you stop to take a pic. There have been incidents of crime in that area in the past.
From Sterkfontein, the awesome Oliviershoek Pass winds down into the much warmer temperatures of KwaZulu-Natal, and through the towns of Bergville and Winterton (You’ll save R70 on this stretch).
You can get back on the N3 and head towards Mooi River. If you don’t fancy paying that R49 toll, take the turnoff towards Hidcote, just outside, and then drive through Mooi River in the direction of Nottingham Road. Just beware, though, that the KZN traffic cops are using “average” speed camera trapping on this road – and the speed limit is only 80km/h.
If you want, you can get back (via a 14km detour) on to the N3 for Durban, but we often take the R103 through the Midlands Meander, which is another gorgeous drive and brings you out in Howick, where you can get back on the N3.
Just outside Durban, you can take the alternative route instead of the Marianhill toll and save another R11.50.
We saved just under R200, which would have been enough to buy us a decent takeaway supper. We were not in a hurry and could afford the 45 minutes or so extra. Not getting involved in the hectic rat-race was also a bonus … although dodging potholes after Villiers on the R103 was a bit nerve wracking.
If you are, like me, someone who doesn’t follow the herd, then give it a try. It might not be long before there are no viable toll road alternatives at all.