High accident zone, high fatality rates, car jacking, mugging. These words stabbed articles in books and on the internet about a place we were choosing to travel: South Africa. As I researched our trip, searching the internet became a scary endeavor. I found myself stumbling on blogs and forums where random stories grabbed me by surprise.
- Dress inconspicuously. We left the skinny jeans and stylish clothes at home, much to my teenage daughter’s dismay. She and I wore no jewelry. We dressed simply in layers, in earth tones and blue jeans, in t-shirts and fleece, in long shorts and capris.
- Keep the money minimal and out of sight. We carried our passports, extra money, and memory cards in money belts under our clothes. We carried a $50 bill in our shoes. We divvied up the credit cards among the four of us, only carrying small bills in our pockets or change purse.
- Hide the valuables. If you can’t leave them at home, keep them hidden whenever possible, even while driving in the car. I stowed my camera and other personal items in a large purse-looking camera bag. The rest of my family hid their compact cameras in their pockets and used small backpacks to carry their water bottles, books or jackets. As we drove through small towns, my camera was hidden beneath my feet.
- Consider the cameras. Although I wanted a telephoto lens to capture animals on safari, I was leery of traveling with a big camera and wanted to be as incognito as possible. I chose to purchase a lens with a zoom from 18 to 270 mm giving me zoom options in a relatively compact lens.
- Travel with a cell phone. We bought an inexpensive cell phone in Cape Town and used it to communicate with our friends in Durban and our future lodging hosts. Carrying a cell phone also acted as a security blanket.
- Travel during the day. Friends and books told us not to travel at night. Animals and people edge the big highways and small rural roads during the day as well as at night. Lights may or may not warn of erratic drunken drivers zigzagging across the roads. So we didn’t. We planned our trips accordingly.
- Stay inside at night. Although a challenge in the winter, when daylight hours end at 6 p.m., we chose to rise with the sun, getting an early start to each day. We ate dinner early too, often cooking for ourselves or bringing takeout back to our lodging.
- Keep the gas tank full. We fueled up whenever possible and traveled with emergency phone numbers and a GPS.
- Know where you’re going. Travel with maps, research your trip before you set out, avoid looking unsure and vulnerable. If you become lost, know that people may be happy to help you but will likely not know the way themselves.
- Keep things in perspective. Be prepared to walk away and not try to fight or to hold onto anything. Give up your camera, your car, your purse. Remember nothing is more valuable than your life.
- Know what to do if something should happen. We each carried a laminated card with emergency phone numbers: our friends’ in Durban, the Automobile Association, the American Consulate, a relative in the U.S.
During our trip, we saw high accident zone signs and crazy drivers. We heard stories of car jackings, drunk drivers, and mauling hyenas. We half listened, changing the subject as quickly as possible, and throughout our trip, from airport to airport, we were ever vigilant: aware of our surroundings and our belongings, taking nothing for granted, watching each other and others. After 4 weeks of travel to a land half way across the world, we arrived home safe and sound.