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Myself and my girlfriend are travelling in South Africa for three and a half weeks in June and have a car rented. I love visiting random places off the tourist route and get more of a kick travelling up a dirt road in the middle of nowhere than standing behind a barrier at a tourist attraction (not that I don't enjoy that too).

I want to get a good idea of how safe it is in general, outside of the cities. I know all the standard precautions about not carrying/wearing valuables, leaving nothing visible in the car, always locking the doors while driving, only carrying what cash we need etc. Do the same rules apply outside of the cities? For example, lets say we stop in a random small town in rural South Africa (how about here ) to refuel and we are the only tourists there, should I feel okay about locking the car and walking around the town on foot for a look?

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    When it comes to south africa your safety is not about being the only tourist but being the only visible minority (link removed by @JonathanReez) – easymoden00b May 4 '17 at 20:35
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    @easymoden00b the document you link to contains extremely disturbing images. You should not post things like that without a warning. – phoog May 4 '17 at 20:37
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    People are downvoting, and voting to close as opinion based, but nobody has explained what they find wrong with the question. Please comment. Surely there is some objective information available in answer to this question. – phoog May 4 '17 at 21:11
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    The way some people negatively react to safety questions on this site is shocking. This question is specific, important, on topic and shows some good research. I've tried making the title more specific, hopefully that'll appease the mob for long enough to write an answer – user568458 May 4 '17 at 21:19
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Yes, quiet rural spots in South Africa are absolutely the places you should most be careful, and more so than other countries. Several guidebooks recommend avoiding such places completely although it depends somewhat on area. I think that advice is a little out of date, crime in South Africa is much lower than it was, but those safety warnings definitely do apply outside the cities. One book even advised against stopping at roadside picnic tables. I'll add some quotes when I have these books to hand, I'm having trouble finding the right sections online.

It's not just a racial thing as one comment suggests, although if you stand out that obviously doesn't help. Plenty of Basotho people I met in Lesotho complained about how on-their-guard they felt they needed to be in South Africa compared to Lesotho. Some places people will be extremely welcoming to outsiders, other places outsiders are seen by many as fair game (and some places have a mix of both), the problem is you can't easily tell which is which.

Some tips for how to do this kind of independent exploration more safely:

  • Each area you visit, get up to date local advice. People like guesthouse owners will usually be able and happy to advise on where is safe to visit and where is best to avoid, even literally marking safe and dangerous districts and areas on your maps.
  • Lesotho and Swaziland have much lower crime rates and, importantly, different patterns of crime (more towards petty crime, very low rates of things like ambushes or carjackings), and are generally considered reasonably safe for this sort of thing in rural areas, particularly Lesotho. If you're exploring the North East of South Africa and enjoy this kind of spontaneous off the beaten track travel, I'd strongly recommend taking a route through either, especially Lesotho (with the caveat that you may need to check your vehicle is capable of any particular road before setting out - you can pick up a free "Visit Lesotho" map in many places which have all the country's roads graded including "4x4 only" clearly marked)
  • South Africa's national parks and wildlife reserves are huge, well developed, and generally very safe. Most you can drive and explore at your leisure, and while many are very touristy some are reasonably off the beaten track. Some you can't leave the car due to dangerous wildlife except in designated spots like lodges and lookouts, but it's still great to just explore.
  • Try to avoid driving at night if you can (though this one is more for the much higher risk of accidents than the also real and higher than usual risk of crime)
  • Three tips lifted straight from Lonely Planet's website. There's much more in their physical book but I don't have my copy to hand:
  • Leave your car in secure parking at night and avoid parking in secluded areas during the day.
  • Don't leave anything valuable in your car, or give the impression that you are on a road trip with bags in the boot.
  • One of the greatest dangers during muggings or carjackings (most common in Jo'burg) is that your assailants will assume that you are armed and will kill them if you get a chance. Stay calm, and don't resist or give them any reason to think you will fight back.

While that last point is especially true for quiet city streets, it's also the sort of thing that could happen if you pull up in the wrong town, village or township. Get local advice and take care, but don't let it stop you enjoying the many great places in South Africa that are safe.

  • Thank you, very helpful. I've traveled in "dangerous" countries before without incidents, taking precautions when necessary. It's important to know when it is necessary to take precautions, and when it's okay to relax – Neil May 4 '17 at 21:55
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    Keep a lookout for being followed (happened to us in Jo'burg at night). In that case, they were probably going to try to catch us when we opened the gate to the house. – mkennedy May 4 '17 at 22:18
  • @neil I think one of the things to keep in mind with South Africa is it's one of the countries where it's not uncommon for outsiders to be specifically targeted by determined people who know what they're doing, and for some cut off communities to have something like an "us against the world" or "anything goes if it brings money to this place" attitude that helps enable this - which is different to, say, a tense but recovering former warzone where the problems don't involve outsiders. It's a great place to visit but don't underestimate the potential dangers in remote spots – user568458 May 5 '17 at 20:16
  • ...and of course it's not just tourists targeted. I wouldn't want to be, say, a Xhosa or migrant Nigerian whose car breaks down in the wrong corner of, say, KZN after dark (but also, KZN is beautiful and mostly a great place to travel, and most places they'll get help etc - it's just the worst case scenario is very bad!) – user568458 May 5 '17 at 20:21
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Just thought I'dd add a few useful tips. I went back home recently for seven weeks and I felt uncomfortable in my own country... The following is just a few things I noted while I was there.

  • Try not to look or act like a tourist, people take advantage of this really easily. You'll quickly realise nothing has a price on it at some souvenir shops and they will charge you based on what they think you can pay (make sure you haggle).
  • Do not travel with visible suitcases in the car, you get picked as a target instantly.
  • Do not open your windows when someone knocks and don't get out of the car if people by the side of the road point at your tyres or do something similar.
  • Be vigilant at all times, it doesn't take much to stay a bit more on your toes and it could save you some trouble. Read the situation as best you can.
  • If you feel unsafe, drive to the nearest police station, although don't expect any help. It might just deter the people following you.
  • Don't rely too heavily on google maps since a phone in your front window is asking for trouble.
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As with most African countries, a lot of people when they see a foreigner will have dollar signs in their eyes. Don't give any beggars money. Generally, don't carry any cash at all on you. Do not fiddle with your cell phone while you are out in the open, that is just asking to be mugged.

When people walk past them have a certain amount of strength in your demeanor. If someone walks past you, you look them in the eye. Subtle shows of strength go a long way in preventing altercations.

Stay away from the townships, these are the places of lower socioeconomic standings and if you are foreign to this country these really are not the places you should visit.

I know some may want to visit it to get a glimpse of the 'real' Africa, just don't. It is a fool's errand.

South Africa just like any other country has crime in relation to poverty and because there is real poverty the crime is a real concern. If you just keep calm and don't go to the places that are clearly the bad parts of town, you can have a fine holiday.

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    Not sure about "don't carry any cash at all". I have heard stories about people beaten and humiliated then robbers found out they are not getting anything. Having $20 and loosing it to bandits is likely to smooth criminal minds. – Val Aug 16 '17 at 9:42
  • "Don't carry any cash at all" sounds much more dangerous than carrying a sensible amount of cash. Muggers are likely to get angry and not believe you (if you're really worried, carry a decoy wallet to give away with a few plastic cards like expired credit cards or supermarket cards and a realistic mix of smallish notes), and you also risk creating silly but serious problems like not being able to buy a bottle of water or flag a lift or help. And strong confident demeanor, yes, but "if someone walks past you, you look them in the eye" sounds like a very fast way to create trouble... – user568458 Aug 16 '17 at 15:12

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