Is it safe to self-drive in South Africa? The short answer is yes. There is little to beat the thrill of the open road, exploring the space and beauty of this extraordinary country at your own pace, with no one but your favourite travelling companion intruding on your thoughts. But as evidenced by the Foreign Office’s recent update advising that tourist drivers be especially vigilant of “smash and grab” attacks, there are caveats, so it’s important to be prepared (though the advice does also reiterate that that the risk of violent crime to visitors in South Africa’s main tourist cities is “generally low”, and “most violent crimes occur in townships on the outskirts of major cities, or remote areas”).
Here are some pointers to consider before booking your self-drive holiday, and what to bear in mind if you do.
Organise your trip with a tour operator
While it’s perfectly possible to arrange your own self-drive trip in South Africa, the best way to make sure you have good safety guidance and support is by travelling with a trusted tour company. As the co-founder of Cedarberg Travel Kate Bergh says, “We’ve been planning adventurous self-drive tours in South Africa since we started more than 25 years ago, so we are keen, but we also know who it suits, what kind of car to book and when to use a mix, combining self-drive with transfers and flights.”
Avoid self-driving to and from the airport
Treat yourself to a prearranged airport transfer (shuttlecapetown.co.za or airportshuttlecapetown.co.za are both good bets), and pick up your vehicle at a later stage. Arriving after a long-haul flight to find someone waiting with your name on a board is not only wonderful but takes care of concerns around navigation maps directing you through dodgy areas. If you are returning your vehicle to the airport, check your route before you depart with your host or concierge, and don’t deviate from this.
Load up on mobile data
Pick up a local SIM card loaded with data in the airport on arrival (Vodacom has the best range). This sorts you for online maps, e-hailing services and sending and receiving Whatsapps on the hop. For peace of mind Cape Town visitors can also download the Namola app, allowing users to request quick emergency assistance using their GPS location. Most car hire companies also offer an optional mobile Wi-Fi router with the car (1GB/day). It’s worth packing in a mounted smartphone holder (not usually on offer as optional extra) so you can navigate hands-free.
Be a passenger when exploring the city
So it’s not crime stats so much as enjoyment that should drive the decision to explore South Africa’s cities as a passenger: this way, you’ll avoid parking hassles and the tedium of traffic, plus you’ll be able to engage in carefree quaffing. Uber is, generally speaking, the most efficient way to get around (pick Uber X, never Uber Go – the latter is too unreliable). For full-day explorations in Cape Town, consider hiring a car and driver for a day or two. Andiamo Tours is a great option, with reliable drivers and competitive pricing (contact 074 263 4266 or firstname.lastname@example.org to book in advance).
Don’t leave your valuables in plain sight
The “smash and grab attacks” referenced in the Foreign Office advice typically happen at intersections in crime hotspots which are not in tourist areas. Regardless, it is worth taking simple precautions while driving: never leave anything of value in plain sight (e.g. on a passenger seat, or on the dashboard). Keep handbags tucked in the footwell and smaller valuables in the cubby hole. Another option is to put valuables in the boot, but if you do this in a public place, make sure to physically check the handle to ensure the car is locked before you walk away.
Be conscious of your surroundings
Extreme income disparity is clearly visible in South Africa. Do not explore insecure areas without a good guide. Whether in a car or on foot, pay attention and read the physical streetscape as carefully as you do your online map. If you feel uncomfortable, turn back and retrace your footsteps. Keep moving, even contravening – with caution – traffic laws. Try not to drive at night. Do not stop on city freeways to take calls or check a map: stop at a safe place like a fuel station instead. Never accept “assistance” while using an ATM.
Do not place all your trust in GPS-type navigation aids
In the wake of the tragic shooting of a tourist directed by his navigation app into one of the most crime-ridden areas in Cape Town – due to a gridlocked N2 – city officials met with Google SA to discuss clearly flagging dangerous hotspots on their mapping platform, or avoid routing through them altogether.
Regardless, relying solely on online navigation can easily get you lost in some of South Africa’s more remote areas, as the mapping platforms are unable to differentiate between gravel track and tarmac road. In essence: the shortest route is not always the fastest, easiest or safest. Plan routes ahead, and have written instructions as a back-up guide in remote areas.
Keep emergency numbers handy
These numbers were set up as part of a Tourism Safety Programme in the Western Cape, and can be found at safetravels.capetown. They include, for example, Cape Town’s 24/7 “Band-Aid” number – 021 487 6552 – which you can call if you need to replace lost documents, require counselling, assistance with finding emergency accommodation, laying charges, or contacting your bank.