10 Tips on How to Survive South Africa

After spending three weeks in South Africa, this nomad's preconceived notions of the country being unsafe were totally shattered.


Photo © iStock/fabio lamanna

Vibrant, exciting, safe, secure, developing, progressing, charming, peaceful and promising are all words I could use to describe South Africa. 

Over the three weeks I was there back in 2010 for the FIFA World Cup, I experienced a South Africa that has positively shattered every preconceived notion I had about it being an unsafe travel destination. But, the question has to be asked: was this a reality, or did South Africa stage the World’s greatest show in more ways than one?

If you're considering travelng to South Africa, my immediate response is “GO!” However, you must still maintain a healthy level of caution. After the World Cup in 2010, the world saw a glimpse of a new South Africa moving forward, but here's my list of ways to survive South Africa.

1. Research where not to go

Like most destinations, South Africa has safe places to visit, as well as its fair share of absolute NO-GO areas. If you are the type of traveler who can’t stand touristy stuff, and are more interested in getting off the beaten path – you just need to be smart about it. Take more precaution, and do more research then you usually would.

Having said this, in recent times, many of South Africa’s most notoriously dangerous places have now, actually, become safe tourist attractions. One of the best things I did was spend the day in the infamous Soweto (near Johannesburg) where I went to a shebeen (party). A few years ago, this was not nearly as accessible to the average tourist.

2. Ask a local for insider tips

I've found South Africans to be some of the most amazing people in the world – they have a certain character and spirit that can't really be defined.

It’s always beneficial to hang with a local to get some insider tips on all the coolest places and non-tourist traps. South Africans are really approachable, so feel free to ask locals questions (without making yourself a tourist target).

The colorful streets of Bo Kaap, Cape Town. Photo credit: iStock

3. Wear protection

Just because you got lucky, doesn’t mean you should ride your luck! No matter where you are traveling, this is a good piece of advice, but it is even more important when getting amorous in South Africa.

Researchers estimate that 10.9% of all South Africans over two years old are living with HIV. I’ll spare you the sex-ed lecture (and by all means go nuts in a country filled with some of the most beautiful people in the world) but please… Wrap it up!

4. Don’t anger an elephant

Africa boasts what is arguably the most magnificent wildlife on earth, so heading to a game park is a necessity. “Everything exists together in a delicate balance in the great Circle of Life”, to quote Mustafa from The Lion King. However, if you aren't ready to step into the African food chain, you might want to take on board the following two points:

  • Never get out the truck - there could be anything hiding in the grass.
  • Don't taunt or try to feed the animals. It’s simple – you’d rather not anger an elephant.

5. Surf among locals (not the sharks)

South Africa has great surf breaks, it also has great white sharks. Whether you're hitting up J-Bay or some other break, make sure you surf where the locals do. This can be dangerous in itself, but I’d rather take my chances with a territorial surfer than with a territorial shark.

If you're really keen for a shark adventure, check out the cage diving in Cape Town for a truly pant-wetting experience!

6. Pay attention when partying

Coming from Australia, I found drinks to be quite cheap in South Africa. Even the cheapest of Brokepackers can feel like an absolute king when going out. Just don’t overdo it – drunken travelers make for easy targets.

Take out only what you need – just a little bit of cash and one credit card (I also found that carrying ID isn't all that necessary).

7. Avoid becoming road kill

If you’re planning on hiring a car in South Africa – I wish you good luck. For your sake, I hope that you're a confident driver. Although police are present, it's complete anarchy on the roads. You'll see minivans, trucks and utes with up to 20 people packed into the back.

Also, stay alert as car-jackings are a concern. Many locals follow an unwritten rule when driving at night – yield at red traffic lights but don’t actually come to a complete stop, to mitigate the risk of being held up.

The Drakensberg - Dragon Mountains, South Africa. Photo credit: Pixabay

8. Don’t be a hero

I can't offer bulletproof (pardon the pun) advice on how to handle a hostile situation if you're ever held up (thankfully I don't have a first-hand experience to report). However, I have been recommended the following 2 pointers from locals:

  • If confronted, just cooperate, don’t try anything tricky – especially for the sake of saving a material possession.
  • When walking the streets, keep alert and carry as little as possible on you, except for a bit of cash so that you essentially "have something from them to take."

9. Never cross the touch(y) line

Never tell a South African that you hate Rugby. Ever.

10. Always carry a pair of earplugs for the vuvuzelas!

Especially if you're heading to a rugby match, you'll need something to block out the sound of the vuvuzelas (plastic horns). Unless, of course, you love the sound of "Bbbbbbbuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!"

Behind the Backpack

Kevin Lippy and Dean Ginsberg are broke backpackers who decided to start a website called Brokepacker.com which is all about discovering the best ways for backpackers to maximize their experiences within the limits of their budgets! They live and travel by the principle that every single dollar saved is a dollar that can contribute to another experience, another adventure and ultimately another day.

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