I made the really stupid decision to read some forum postings on “Warnings, Dangers, and Scams” on one of my forums before we left India to fly to South Africa.
“I was car jacked in broad daylight!”
“I don’t know anyone who’s been to South Africa who hasn’t gotten mugged.”
“You can’t park your car on the street with anything in it, or people will break into it. They’ll break in for an old pair of shoes.”
“Robbers down there shoot first and rob later.”
As I was on the plane flight from Mumbai to Johannesburg, my heart started racing as all of the warnings and quotes of borderline hysteria rang in my ears. I was starting to regret going to South Africa – and we weren’t even there, yet.
I am so happy to report that we had ZERO problems in South Africa. We were there twelve days, and somehow managed to not get carjacked, mugged, raped, or killed.
Actually, despite the hysterics of people who post of their unfortunate times in South Africa, it’s pretty darn easy to stay safe there, and to have a fantastic time, as well. Here’s how:
TIP #1: If a local tells you not to go into a certain part of town, DON’T GO INTO THAT CERTAIN PART OF TOWN.
It’s not brain surgery here, folks. Yet, 95% of the complaints I heard or read about South Africa started with some variation of, “I heard this part of town was really dangerous, but I decided to go anyway, because…”
And, lo and behold, something bad happens to those people.
If someone tells you not to go into a bad part of town, they’re not doing it because of a cross-town rivalry. They’re telling you that because violent crime is prevalent in that area, and they don’t want any more tourist horror stories circling the internet.
That being said, there are plenty of cities in America that have those same exact rules (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia – oh wait, every single major city). South Africa just gets a particularly bad rap as the bad areas in their major cities really do have extremely high crime rates, and they do tend to be very violent crimes.
I researched online what are the current worst areas in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Click on the links to see where you’re currently advised to stay away from.
Another good idea is to ask at the front desk of your hotel/hostel/B&B what areas to stay away from. They’ll know what areas are safe and unsafe. (Many neighborhoods are gentrifying quickly, while others fall into disrepair.)
But, since I know so many of us don’t like being told what to do, and we all think we’re invincible, I’ll go ahead and segue right into Tip #2…
TIP #2: If you just have to go to a dangerous part of town, go with an organized tour.
You know you’re going to, anyway.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why is it that when someone tells us, “Don’t do <fill-in-the-blank>,” all we can think about doing is <fill-in-the-blank>?
Here’s the deal: If you’re smart, you will avoid the areas locals tell you to avoid. If you were too voracious of a nose-picker as a child and left some mild scarring on the underside of your brain, then at least take an organized tour with a well-established (and reviewed) tour company.
I was, and continue to be an unabashed, voracious nose-picker, and I therefore scheduled tours all around Johannesburg and Cape Town, regardless of the truly terrible neighborhoods they were in, or that we had to drive through to get to our destination.
We never had any problems, because people realize that these tours bring much needed revenue into their areas. Why scare off tourists? Panicky, first-world, college students are already doing that for them.
TIP #3: Don’t look rich.
Do you really need to be trekking around town with your $500+ Gucci backpack filled with all of your clothes, money, and jewelry? Does Gucci even make a backpack?
Why are you even bringing jewelry on an around the world trip? I left my wedding rings at home, and bought a $20 knock-off just to ward off groping hands, and uncomfortable glances from judging-eyed hotel owners asking, “One bed or two?”
Sure, it turned my finger green. But, at least no one tried to steal it. (Plus, I seriously forgot my fake ring three times before I finally lost it for good a fourth time in London. Horrifying meltdown crisis averted!)
In fact, the only time anyone ever even tried to pull something over on us was when Scott and I were in Cape Town, walking with our completely filled backpacks down to a post office to ship some of our souvenirs back home.
Of course, some guy approached us, saying, “Hey! Hey you two, come here! I have something I want to show you.”
Because we have brains (albeit one of them being significantly scarred on the underside from overzealous nose-pickery), and we were able to put two and two together, we said, “No, we’re busy,” and walked away. But, it just proves that you are a walking target when you have a huge backpack full of “stuff”.
Now, the $500 the shipping company tried to charge us to ship our $300 worth of souvenirs back to the States, with NO tracking information provided – THAT was highway robbery. (We ended up waiting until we got to Amsterdam, and were able to ship it back for just over $100, including door-to-door tracking. I’ll include that story on a future blog RE: “Shipping”.)
TIP #4: Leave the credit and debit cards in the safe in your room.
Unless you’re going to the ATM to take out more cash, you don’t need them.
And, for that matter, don’t be carrying around huge wads of cash, anyway. Think about it: How much money do you walk around with on a daily basis at home? I would say anywhere from $50-$100 is the right amount, depending on what activities you have planned.
And, I mean it when I say leave it in your safe in your room. USE YOUR SAFE, PEOPLE! The hostels and hotels put them there for a reason.
That’s not just in South Africa, either. The only place we saw any crime (that didn’t involve ignored public beat downs, thank you India) on our whole trip was in Dublin. A group of college kids had their dorm room robbed by a fellow hostel mate. That’s by far the most common story of theft we heard of on our whole trip, too.
TIP #5: Don’t get drunk beyond all recognition.
Do I really have to say this? Apparently, yes, because it happens in every dang city. People go out drinking, then either get in fights, or find themselves alone with people they shouldn’t be alone with, and the horror stories just multiply from there.
Are you a drunken, belligerent horse’s patoot when you’re at home? Well, leave it there, then. Violent crime aside, you’re in a foreign country, and you’re representing your entire nation while you’re there, like it or not.
Save the money you’d spend on booze for something you can’t do at home – like illicit drugs and hookers. (Kidding, NSA, and any current or future employers! CIA, clearly you don’t care. See ya at Cartagena Spring Break 2013!)
TIP #6: Use taxis at night.
And, only metered ones. Lots of cities have unmetered cabs. If you’re traveling around the world, you may have gotten used to having to bargain for cabs.
Don’t do that in South Africa. There are so many safe, metered cabs now, there is seriously no point in bargaining.
TIP #7: Car Driving Safety
We never rented a car on our trip, and we had a lovely time being driven around on buses, subways, and trains. Public transportation is so much cheaper, and it’s better for the environment.
Plus, I’m an admitted stupid American, and I would never quite “get” which side of the road I’m supposed to be on in any given country. I just know this about myself.
But, hey, I’m from Southern California, so I know how addicting a car can be. If you’ve got to have a car to drive while in South Africa, make sure you:
A.) Keep your windows rolled up.
B.) Put your purses & all valuables in the trunk/boot.
C.) Make sure you have a GPS; and,
D.) Drive safely!
As a side note, far more tourists are killed in South Africa in traffic accidents than in violent crime. So, don’t drink and drive, stay under the speed limit, and be aware of your surroundings – and the crazy drivers around you!
Basically, when you’re in South Africa, act like you would if you were at home. See? That’s not so hard!
I found the violence hype in South Africa to be very similar to the hype about Los Angeles’s crime rate in the 1990’s from people who were horrified that I lived there. There are really bad parts of LA, and there are really beautiful parts. It’s all about common sense, and knowing where you are.
If I have one piece of advice to sum this all up, it’s this: Don’t let the hype of South Africa’s crime rate keep you from going! South Africa was Scott’s and my biggest surprise country of the trip. We only went because it was a free stop included on our “Around the World” airline ticket, and we ended up falling in love with it. We definitely will go back!
If you let other people’s fear mongering and negativity keep you from going, you’ll miss out on amazing scenery like this:
Or petting baby lions…
Or getting serious attitude from a giraffe because you tried to pet it before it was ready. (I call it “Giraffitude”.)