“It’s dangerous there.” “Watch out for car hijackers.” “Don’t leave your tent at night – you’ll be drowned by a hippo!”
After landing in Johannesburg, my brother and I rented a small car and traveled 6000 km through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and part of Zimbabwe. Did I have some mishaps and adventures along the way? For sure. Did I feel safe? Absolutely. Here are some of the precautions I took and things I learned while traveling through Southern Africa.
Note: Before I get into the details, I want to point out that this article deals with the countries I visited in Southern Africa, a region with relatively few people. Consider this: Namibia is even larger than France, but it has the second-lowest population density in the world. This affects the nature of travel and safety in the region. My experiences and advice may not be directly applicable to other parts of Africa.
1) Facing Man
Poverty, social imbalance, and turbulent politics have left Southern Africa with one of the worst criminal records in the world. Nowhere is that more the case than South Africa, a country that still struggles to break the confines of her apartheid past.
- Violence and Murder: In 2010, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that South Africa had a murder rate of 31.8 (per 100 000 people), which was almost on par with that of Colombia.
- The good news is that this rate has been steadily decreasing every year. Still, compare this to the United States’ rate of 4.8, or Canada’s of 1.6, and you’ll understand why many people are afraid to visit the continent. But, while these statistics should not be taken lightly, take them a warning as opposed to a barrier in planning your visit. Look at the statistics in context: the majority of these murders are geographically and demographically restricted within South Africa. For example, Johannesburg is known to be dangerous, so you should take extra precautions when visiting the city, especially if it is your first contact with South Africa. While touring some of the townships in Cape Town, I learned that most of the murders in the city are targeted, either related to gang violence or cases of vengeance (you-killed-my-brother-so-I’ll-kill-yours). If you stay in the more touristy districts and don’t go out alone at night, you more than likely be fine. To visit some of the rougher neighbourhoods, find a guide or a trusted local to accompany you, and be on your guard.
- Theft: Because we rented a car, we always had all of our valuables with us, including passports, a laptop, and an SLR camera. This initially made me nervous, but once I arrived in South Africa, I relaxed. Outside of the cities, we saw so few people that theft was of little concern. When we parked in populated areas, we kept most of our luggage in the trunk, and carried our valuables with us in a (sometimes locked) daypack. Locals showed no interest in our vehicle, even though our trunk was so small that some of our camping gear was piled on the back seats. Regardless, to be safe, always secure your valuables. Don’t wear flashy jewelry, or unnecessarily expose your camera when you are out exploring. Keep a stash of money and a photocopy of your credit cards and passport hidden somewhere apart from your luggage (such as under the car seat) in case you do experience a break-in.
- Roadblocks: Southern African highways are dotted with police roadblocks. Before my trip, I’d heard stories about fake roadblocks and carjacking, but everything we encountered was either a legitimate toll road, identity check, or a disease control gate. (There is an imaginary line splitting Namibia horizontally in half. Beef from above that line is at a risk for Foot and Mouth Disease, and cannot be transported to the south). To avoid problems, be courteous and patient with these policemen. Keep a copy of your rental agreement ready, and when they ask to see your driver’s license, show them your paper international license instead of your own national one.
- Traffic: If there’s one thing you do need to be wary of on a road trip through the southern continent, it’s the traffic. Drunk driving is commonplace, and accident mortality rates are some of the highest in the world. I met numerous people in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Namibia who had lost loved ones to road fatalities. Drivers here speed and pass recklessly. If you see someone approaching behind you on a two-way road, it is customary to inch over to the left to give them space to pass. Only do this if you’re in a safe position to do so. Leave lots of buffer room between vehicles on the highways. If possible, begin your days early to avoid rush hour. Do not drive at night if it is not necessary as most highways aren’t lit and you’ll be more likely to meet drunk drivers.
2) Facing Animals
Unless you spend a lot of time in the major cities in Southern Africa, you’ll be more likely to interact with animals than humans on your road trip. Wildlife encounters can be exhilarating, but being on safari is nothing like visiting a zoo. Here are some important reminders for dealing with animals:
- In the Parks: Many national parks (like Pilanesberg in South Africa and Etosha in Namibia) allow you to conduct self-guided safaris. Not only is this more cost-effective, it also allows for some intimate animal sightings. To get the most of your experience and stay safe, always remain in your vehicle unless you’re at a designated bathroom or picnic site. (My brother and I broke this rule when we had to change a flat tire in the middle of a game drive, but that’s a story on its own!) It’s fine to drive through the parks with your window rolled down, since most animals cannot distinguish cars from the passengers they carry. Never extend more than your head and shoulders outside the vehicle. Finally, respect the animals’ space. Take care in approaching them, and leave extra room if they are with their young.
- While Camping: Campsites in Southern Africa are similar to those in Europe: close quarters, electric hookups, and lots caravans. The main difference is that here you may end up sharing your campsite with some wildlife. We woke up one morning to discover four elephants tramping around our campsite. To minimize problems, keep all of your food in secure, animal-proof containers. Do not feed or approach any animals that enter the complex, and if you go for a walk, stay on the main trails or within the campground boundaries.
- On the Roads: As I already mentioned, traffic is the main hazard you’ll experience in Southern Africa. This also refers to animal traffic. It’s common to spot goats, cows, warthogs, giraffes, and even elephants either alongside or on the highways. Maintain a safe speed, and be prepared for rapid stops. In regards to taking breaks at roadside rest stops, travel photographer Hannie de Vries passed on warning: “Because rain tends to gather in the ditches along the highways, there are many large snakes that live near the rest stops. Watch out where you go to pee!”
3) Facing Nature
Southern Africa offers everything from towering waterfalls to arid deserts to rocky canyons to grassy bushvelds. In order to tackle such a variety of landscapes and climates, you need to be well prepared.
- Supplies to Bring: If you’re camping through Southern Africa, sunscreen is a must. However, so is a good pair of fuzzy gloves. During the winter months (June to August), Namibia and Botswana can be hot and dry during the day but close to freezing at night. In contrast, the west coast of South Africa experiences a lot of rain at this time of year. If you are visiting more than one country or traveling extensively, you should bring suitable clothes for different climates. Don’t forget to pack the following:
- Lotion (a must for the Namib desert, where harsh winds and dry air will leave your skin cracked and stinging)
- Warm Layers (In Botswana I slept in a shirt and shorts, but in some parts of Namibia I had five layers on!)
- A hat and gloves (for winter nights)
- A Headlamp
- A Raincoat or Umbrella
- Dealing with Isolation on the Road: Once you leave the main cities, you face long, empty stretches of highways: no stores, no people, and no gas stations. Always prepare for the worst; gas up at every opportunity, even if your tank is half full. Bring an extra spare tire, and ensure you have the supplies to change it on your own. If you own an unlocked cell phone, buy a local SIM card and put a few minutes on it. This is inexpensive (a SIM Card in Namibia costs around $1 USD) and could save you in a roadside emergency. Keep copies of emergency contacts and your rental company number in more than one place.
The truth about travel in any developing nation is that things seldom run as smoothly as they do in the so-called “First World.” Different economic, social, and political circumstances affect the behavior of locals and the way they interact with you. However, by using common sense, caution, and by remembering the above pointers, you’ll find that an independent trip through Southern Africa can be as safe and enjoyable as any guided tour.