Friday, October 16, 2015

Is South Africa Safe?

I was apprehensive. When I told folks I was going camping in a motorhome for three weeks in South Africa, the first question they asked--always--was do you think that's safe? It made such an impression on me that I actually broke my rule about being totally ignorant of the place and did a bit of research. After all, I'm not the biggest of fan of being knifed and robbed in my sleep.

How dangerous is South Africa? I'm not going to pretend to be able to answer this question for the entire country, but I can give you a good picture of how safe I felt--as well as how paranoid I felt due to the reading I'd done beforehand.

At the beginning of our trip we traveled in a motorhome during low season in and around Kruger National Park. We were a spectacle to be sure. We got stares. When we pulled up to traffic lights we made sure our doors were locked. I'd read about carjackings at traffic lights, where you'll find young guys trying to sell anything from USB sticks to oranges. They're not criminals; they're salesmen who work all day in the hot sun. There's probably a mafia behind it; the Koch Brothers probably have a stake in them. If you don't need a USB stick or a bag of oranges, keep your windows up and your doors locked.

(What you should do, even though it has nothing to do with safety: stop and buy some avocados from the women on the side of the street. The avocados are better and cheaper than the ones in the store--at least around Kruger National Park and Grasskop. For 25 rand (3euros) we got a net of 7 avocados, and they were all great. We had worse luck with roadside avocados in the South.)

In terms of safety, you're more likely to fall and break your ankle than to be robbed.

Beware of the vendors selling what looks like figures made from various types of wood. It's all cheap wood stained with shoe polish. They'll tell you their uncle hand-sculpted the elephant, but you'll find that exact elephant in the next village. That uncle is busy. We made the mistake of buying a foldable table that this uncle had made. By the time we were ready to fly home, it had mold all over it and its coat of shoe polish was rubbing off. Even if the quality of the knick-knacks was questionable, I still felt these people were trying to make a living the best way they could. If you buy something from them just make sure you know what you're buying, which is basically crap.

Kruger National Park

The most dangerous animal in Kruger National Park is apparently the African Buffalo, although I didn't feel very threatened. Of course, I also hadn't read anything about the beast before the trip. These animals are so ornery that, though they look like cows with wacky horns, they've never been domesticated. They're one of The Big Five in the Africa because of how dangerous they are to hunt. They gang up on hunters, which is odd since they look so dumb. Stay away from the cows with the goofy horns.

Elephants can also become aggressive. The speed limit in the park is very low, and there are police giving tickets. You could drive around a corner and find yourself up an elephant's behind. As long as you drive slowly, you'll probably be safe. Elephants are used to cars.

Although hippos are considered extremely dangerous, you probably won't get close enough to one to worry about it. If you have a camera like mine, you probably won't even get close enough to get a good picture of one. The same is true for lions.

All campsites in Kruger National Park have Jurassic Park-style fences, so you're safe from large animals. Your breakfast, though, is not safe from the pesky birds. If you leave your breakfast to go into your motorhome for just two seconds, your breakfast table will be all aflurry with three or four lovely species of African birds. I'd have my camera ready If I were you.

Cape Town

The moment we arrived in Cape Town we headed for the Table Mountain with the intention of climbing up that puppy. There are a couple of options. You can take the longer 5-hour route or the shorter, much much steeper 2.5-hour route. We took the shorter route because we didn't really know how steep it was going to be. It's a very steep walk. We nearly died. Seriously. I kept waiting for the laggers (I was always in front because I'm so damn fit) to keel over from a heart attack, effectively ruining everyone's day, but by some miracle no one died).

Before the trip, I read that you need to be vigilant while hiking, that there are robbers on the trails. The guy who was parking cars on the street corroborated this by warning us not to park too far away from the other cars he was parking. "There are robbers up here," he said.

"And so you'll protect our motorhome for a few rand?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"Are you going to stay close to our motorhome?" I asked.

"Yes," he lied.

There are robbers in Cape Town, and most of them are parking your cars.

The second we started up the mountain I spotted three teenagers fall in behind us. I worried the whole 3 hours (it took us 3 hours instead of 2.5) that we'd be robbed and left for dead since none of the other panting, worn-out hikers would be able to carry us off that mountain. In the end, we had nothing to worry about. They were just three teenagers going for a very steep walk. Still, stay in a group when you hike.

We felt safe in Cape Town, but then we didn't go out at night or go traipsing through townships. We were too spooked by what we'd read before the trip. Actually, travel guides say an organized township tour should be a rewarding experience. I understand that this brings badly needed funds to the residents of these communities, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. If you've done this, we'd all appreciate hearing about your experience.

The Western Cape in general is an affluent wine-growing region dappled with quaint tourist-friendly villages, wineries and shanty towns. Yes, shanty towns. There is still very much a racial divide here. It seems to me black people harvest what white people drink. 

Johannesburg

Is Johannesburg safe? No. That's the simple answer. We'd planned to have a walk around the center of Joburg on the Sunday before we flew back to Germany. We didn't get out of the car.

The center of Joburg has been destroyed by the turbulent end of Apartheid. The businesses have deserted this area, leaving it to the masses of people who flooded in from the surrounding townships.  Prostitutes linger in the doorways. Garbage is everywhere. Laundry hangs out of windows on the 20th floor of a building that was once the headquarters for a bank.

Yet if you drive just a few minutes outside the center of Joburg, you'll find a fairly normal city. There are beautiful gardens, nice restaurants and shops, churches and sports facilities--everything you'd expect in a functioning society. Then if you drive a few more miles, you come to Sandton, where all the businesses escaped to. These places seemed relatively normal and safe to me. But then there are also security guards everywhere you look.

Camping in South Africa

I worried a lot about leaving our passports in the motorhome. Usually, we kept our valuables in our backpacks, but it's also not smart to keep all your valuables in one place. Maybe we were stupid, but we often parked our motorhome at the edge of a town and spent hours browsing through shops selling the same malachite bracelets. We always returned to a motorhome unmolested, but maybe we were just lucky. When we returned our motorhome on the last day, the employee who checked us in asked us if the motorhome's safe had worked properly. "Safe?" we said. "What safe?" Yeah, we were just lucky.

We stayed in more than ten caravan parks around South Africa and felt safe in all of them. Most of them had security guards walking or riding bikes around the sites all night. All of them had secure gates at the entrances--except our first campsite. We arrived very late at night because we had trouble finding the caravan park. We had to stop and ask for directions. I even had to speak to someone, which was an awful experience. Opening my mouth and asking for directions: just awful. When we finally arrived, there was no one at the gate and the gate was open. The next morning, there was no one at the gate and the gate was open. Suckers!

Have you traveled through South Africa in a motorhome? I'd love to hear about your own experiences, whether you felt it was safe.

I must be off,
Christopher

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Christopher Allen is the 2015 recipient of the Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction. His work appears in Indiana Review, Eclectica Magazine, Night Train, Camroc Press Review, Contrary and over 100 other journals. Read his book reviews in [PANK), The Lit Pub, Necessary Fiction and more. A former finalist at Glimmer Train, Allen is also a multiple nominee for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Originally from Tennessee, Allen now splits his time between Munich and Dublin.