In South Africa we have a well developed infrastructure and very high standards of water treatment and such. Our medical facilities are equal to the best in the world and, over most of the country, we have a very healthy climate. However, there are a few health issues you should be aware of when travelling to any destination.
Like every other country in the world, we do have a criminal element in South Africa but you can avoid becoming a victim by following some common sense rules.
Know where you’re going before you set off, particularly at night, watch your possessions, don’t walk alone in dodgy areas, and lock your doors at night. The usual stuff you probably do at home.
The most common kind of crime you’re likely to come across will be opportunistic bag snatching so keep your eye on your possessions. Outdoor cafes and such are favourite places for bags to just “get up and walk away”, so don’t leave them on a chair next to you or on the floor behind you. A good habit to get into (anywhere) is to clip your bag onto your chair, or to loop your leg through the strap. That way it should stay put.
Keep your car windows closed, or just open a crack when driving anywhere, and always lock the doors. Never leave anything desirable (e.g. sunglasses, mobile phones, handbags) visible in the car when parked.
Other sensible advice is not to hitchhike or accept, or carry, items for strangers. Our airport security is quite strict so, to avoid delays in checking in, remove all sharp objects (even nail files and hairclips) from your hand luggage.
Like many places in the world, many of our cities have embarked on an anti-crime drive with closed circuit cameras set up in the busier parts of major cities, such as Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. We have also realised that one of the major problems associated with crime against tourists is that, if things go through the normal channels, the witnesses are back home and far away by the time the trial gets to court. So, in order to address this problem, and also assist in issues like contacting embassies, replacing passports, traveller’s cheques and airline tickets – all of which can be extremely frustrating if you have lost your bag – the South African Police Services has set up a special Tourist Assistance Unit. So, in the unlikely event that you become a victim of crime, we are geared up to minimise the associated red tape and trauma.
And, while on the subject of crime, do bear in mind that committing a criminal offence in any foreign country is always more of a problem than doing so at home. You’re probably not planning to, but there are a few actions that could land you in one of our not-too-luxurious jails. These include smuggling, bilking, and trading in, or using, recreational drugs – with the exception of tobacco and alcohol. Poaching is probably far from your mind but, just in case you’re tempted to “harvest” a rhino horn as a souvenir, remember our game scouts are armed.
As a rule, tap water in South Africa is safe to drink as it is treated and so is free of harmful micro organisms. You will also find that in almost every establishment you would consider staying in, the standard of hygiene and food preparation is absolutely fine, and your chances of picking up something nasty are very slim indeed. So you don’t need to forego the pleasures of eating our fresh fruit and munching away on salads for fear of nasties. And you can safely put as much ice as you like in your drinks – a good thing, too, after all day on the beach or in the bush.
Our mountainous areas are absolutely beautiful and you are bound to enjoy a hike, or even a short day walk. But please be sensible and follow some simple rules that are standard procedure in most of the world. Always let someone know where you’re going, travel in a group of preferably at least three, take plenty of water and warm clothing. Table Mountain, particularly, is quite dangerously misleading. Many people reckon that, as it’s in the middle of a city, it’s the equivalent of a city park. Not so. This is a very real mountain with all the attendant risks, so be careful.
South Africa is a politically stable country with a constitution that guarantees human rights and freedom of expression so the chances of your having any contact with any kind of political action are extremely slim. If, however, you do find yourself in or near some kind of demonstration or strike – be sensible and resist the temptation to spectate.
Our transport infrastructure is excellent and our roads are in good condition. However, you may find the distances between towns greater than you are used to, so it is a good idea to plan your trip to ensure you don’t drive long distances, as fatigue is a major cause of road accidents. Always try to travel in daylight, as it is inherently so much safer. Also, in some of the more remote rural areas the roads are not fenced so you may find stray animals on the road – which could be very dangerous at night. We have very strict drinking and driving laws – with a maximum allowable alcohol blood content of 0.5%. Translated that means about one glass of wine for the average woman and perhaps 1.5 or two for the average or large man.
Please adhere to our speed limits – for your own safety and ours. It is 120kph on the open road, 100kph on smaller roads and between 60 and 80kph in towns. Be aware that even major national roads cut through residential areas so you may find a speed limit of 80 kph on a road that looks like an autobahn. This is to protect pedestrians, especially children, so please comply.
Our road infrastructure is excellent, so driving is a viable option but South Africa is a huge country, which is not easily traversed in a day, so plan your journeys carefully. If you’re not used to driving long distances, rather break the journey, as fatigue is a major contributing factor in motor vehicle accidents.
We drive on the left-hand side of the road, and rental cars are right-hand drive. All distances and speed limits are given in kilometres. The speed limit is 120km/h on the open road, 100km/h on smaller roads and 80 or 60km/h in urban areas. Be aware that the roads in some rural areas are not fenced so you could find dogs, chickens, sheep and even horses or cows on the road, so it may be dangerous to drive at night. All the major car rental agencies have offices at the airports and in the cities.
If you’re not used to driving long distances, a bus may be a better idea than a rental car. Luxury buses ply the routes between the major cities and a special backpackers bus offers a hop-on, hop-off door-to-door service between hostels. Minibuses serve the more unusual routes but do think carefully before you consider one. As a rule, they are fast and efficient and it is actually quite a lot of fun. You get to meet the local people and see a side of South Africa not often seen by the average tourist. There is one down side, however. Many minibuses are not properly maintained, and some are severely overloaded, which does present a significant accident risk.