For those seeking vibrant cities, unique wildlife and beautiful coast lines, South Africa can be a perfectly safe place to travel to - as long as you're properly prepared.
South Africa has a reputation for being a dangerous place filled with political and racial tension but travellers who are daring enough to give the country a go will find so much more, including wildlife encounters on safari, cultural immersion, breathtaking mountain vistas and sun-soaked coasts.
However, just like any developing country, you’ll need to take some precautions and be aware that, while it is safe for tourists, you need to take a high degree of caution.
Safety considerations for South Africa
If you're planning any adventurous activities like diving with sharks and bungee jumping or considering getting into the local street food make sure you have emergency medical expenses in your travel insurance.
Is South Africa safe in 2019?
South Africa is an exciting, vibrant and dynamic country but it also has socio-economic problems, which have left the country with a high crime rate. The good news is South Africa is safe if you are sensible, do your homework and go prepared.
Most areas that tourists venture to are safe and the likelihood of a tourist becoming a victim of a violent crime in South Africa is low. South Africa overall has a travel advisory with a recommendation to exercise a high degree of caution due to the level of serious crime.
Robberies are often reported on roads and at shopping centres and for the most part, public transport should be avoided. Crime rates are higher after dark, particularly in major city centres, isolated beaches, lookouts and township areas.
ATM scams also occur and it’s important to avoid using ATMs that open onto a street. Find a bank if possible and keep your withdrawals to a minimum.
Depending on your level of cover with your travel insurance, you might be covered for petty theft and for your medical expenses.
Is the food and drink safe in South Africa?
Is it safe to eat in South Africa?
South African food is at the same high standard you’d expect at home and the country is actually one of the world’s biggest wine-producing countries.
Follow the same health precautions that you do at home and you should avoid any nasty illnesses.
Public medical facilities are generally considered low by Australian standards and waits can be long so if you have the option, seek out private hospitals that are generally better equipped.
A few things you can do to keep safe while in South Africa:
- If you’re ever unsure, stay away from fresh salads, unpeeled fruit and don’t brush your teeth with the tap water.
- Make sure your food is cooked thoroughly and avoid rare meats or sushi if the restaurant doesn’t specialise in these foods.
- Don’t eat food that looks like it’s been kept at room temperature for several hours, like buffet food and food from street vendors.
Is the water safe to drink?
Tap water in major towns and cities is generally safe to drink but it’s a good idea to check with locals before drinking. Bottled water can be found everywhere so there is no need to bring water purification tablets.
Is South Africa safe to travel alone?
The short answer is yes. You’ll find many solo travellers, solo female travellers among them, having a blast in South Africa.
You will still need to take some precautions to make sure you’re not taking any risks:
- Stick to places where there are lots of people.
- Don’t hike alone – try to find a partner or group to go with.
- Don’t walk around alone after dark and avoid carrying anything of value.
- Solo females should wear a cross-body bag or purse to deter bag snatchers.
Is it safe to travel to South Africa when pregnant?
One of the biggest concerns for pregnant women travelling to South Africa is malaria. Malaria can be more severe during pregnancy and you might be limited from taking certain medications to prevent it.
If you are pregnant, you should avoid travel to any at-risk areas and make sure you talk to your doctor about your medical options regarding vaccinations.
Travel insurance is also important to get before you travel. However, your policy will only provide you with cover if you’re not travelling against the advice of your doctor and you’re not past its limit for maximum weeks pregnant, which can range from 18 to 32 weeks.
Do you need a vaccination before going to South Africa?
It’s a good idea to speak with a doctor about travel vaccinations and make sure routine vaccinations are up to date before travelling to South Africa.
Smartraveller.gov.au and a doctor can advise the risks of any other diseases/viruses, which can include:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
Malaria is not found in all parts of South Africa but is endemic in some popular travel spots, like Kruger National Park and the Panorama Route.
Keep in mind that travel insurance may not cover you if you do not get the recommended vaccines and fall ill while abroad, which could leave you with some expensive medical bills.
Is it safe to drive in South Africa?
One of the most common and pleasant ways to get around the country is to do a self-drive road trip but there are a few things you’ll need to know to adjust to the South African way of life.
You must have a valid Australian driver's licence and be at least 18 years of age to drive there. South Africans drive on the left side of the road, just like in Australia.
If you plan to hire a motorcycle, check that your travel insurance policy covers you for motorcycle riding. Keep in mind that many companies limit the engine size of motorbikes hired while overseas to as low as 50cc.
Carjacking is a serious issue in Johannesburg and in high-risk areas you will find signs warning you to avoid stopping at a red light. Also, while South Africa isn’t the most deadly country to be on the road, the chance of being involved in a fatal accident is almost 5 times higher than in Australia, with 25.1 road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants in South Africa versus Australia with 5.4.
Here are some general tips to keep you safe while driving in South Africa:
- Don’t leave anything visible in the car when leaving it in unsecured areas as “smash and grab” thefts from vehicles are common.
- Drive with doors locked and windows up, especially at intersections.
- Don’t drive at night as animals wandering into the road is common, especially in rural areas and incidents of drunk driving increase at night.
- Make use of areas with a “car guard” – self-employed individuals that look after your car for a nominal fee.
- Don’t pick up hitchhikers or stop to help drivers in need. Major incidents can be reported at the next town.
- A “robot” is the term for a traffic light.
- Petrol stations are usually manned by attendants who may also wash your windows or check your oil for a tip.
- Four-way-stops are common at quieter intersections and the first vehicle to arrive has priority. This system also applies for any electricity blackouts when traffic lights are not in service.
Is transport safe in South Africa?
Uber, Taxify and other driving apps offer a low-cost way of getting around major cities. Not all local cabs use meters, so be sure to negotiate a price before you jump in to avoid getting ripped off. The Gautrain in Johannesburg is a safe way to get to the north of the city from the airport but other than this, Uber is the safest and most-affordable way to get around the city.
You might spot locals using a minibus taxi in the form of a Toyota minibus. While certainly an option for the intrepid traveller, it is not usually a recommended form of travel due to the fact that there are no official routes or timetables, no space for luggage and accidents are common.
Local public transport can be complicated for first-time visitors and is best avoided, though Cape Town is an exception.
Flying with one of the local air carriers can also be a quick and affordable option to get from one city to another. Mango, Kulula, British Airways and Safair are the most highly recommended.
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