Is South Africa safe for solo travel?

When I made the decision to backpack solo through South Africa, my safety seemed to be the topic on everybody’s lips. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that I have friends, family members and old acquaintances concerned for my well-being, but what I didn’t find nice, was the fact that many of these concerns and opinions about the dangerousness of South Africa seemed inherently racist and dare I say, ignorant.

It’s a sad fact that before my departure, a girl I hadn’t spoken to or seen in years, contacted me through Facebook Messenger and told me that not only was I stupid for travelling to South Africa alone, but also that I was going to get myself raped and murdered, and when I did, it would be my own fault.

That was a message that I found confronting, upsetting and disturbing. It frustrated me so much that I simply deleted it and set out to prove her wrong. Which I did. My travels through the gorgeous South Africa were safe, unforgettable and like nothing I’d expected in the very best way.

Despite me having an incredible trip, I am aware that South Africa has a bit of a bad reputation. The apartheid inflicted wounds on the country are still healing, and over the past few decades the country has had more than its fair share of problems. But what many people don’t know is that despite these problems, during the past several years the country has been busy undergoing an incredible transformation.

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So, is South Africa safe for solo travel? If so, what can you do to keep yourself as safe as possible?

The answer to the first question is yes, within reason. South Africa is a big country and some parts are safer than others. Cape Town is very much a safe and cosmopolitan city, whilst places such as Johannesburg and Pretoria are less so. However, regardless of where you are, there are always going to be nooks and pockets of the city or town that are less safe than others. So do research before you depart, and ask locals and hostel employees what areas of the city are safe, and which ones should be visited with caution.

So then what can you do to keep yourself as safe as possible?

Where avoidable, do not carry anything that you cannot afford to lose.
This tip is pretty basic and is sound advice no matter where in the world you are travelling through. It’s pretty simple, things like your passport, significant sums of cash, expensive phones, jewellery, cameras and credit cards should only be carried if you absolutely need to use them. Leave everything that isn’t necessary for your days outing locked in a locker back in your hostel or hotel. Yes, robberies of hostels, hotels and hotel safes do happen, but robberies such as these are much less common than robberies by pickpocketing or mugging. When I would go out for my adventures, I would take my phone OR my GoPro (only occasionally did I use them both in the same day), plus a small sum of money. My passport and credit cards would only be taken out when I moved from one hostel to another or if I needed to withdraw cash.

Be crafty with packing.
This is one that is optional, but I always leave an emergency sum of cash hidden. When I stay in a hostel, my 70L backpack is kept in a locker then locked with combination locks. But even if a robber were to slit open my backpack looking to take valuables, I doubt many would look inside packets of tampons or inside tubes of lip balm, so these make for good hiding places.

Make sure your hostel is secure.
Make sure the hostel has lockable lockers and strong security before you book. In most places this is a given, but it’s worth being sure and double checking.

Do not walk alone at night.
I admit, I hate this tip. I love walking around at night, and would happily do so in most European cities. I hated feeling unable to safely walk wherever, whenever I wanted. But it is a fact of life that in some places, extra precautions are absolutely necessary and South Africa is one such place.

If using a taxi, only hail one from a taxi rank.
Unlicensed cabs have been known to take people to townships where they are then robbed. It’s upsetting and it’s disturbing, but it does happen. Also, make sure the driver has a meter and make sure he uses it, otherwise you do risk being ripped off.

Do not visit a township alone.
Townships are the enormous villages on the outskirts of town where people live in third world conditions. Crime IS extremely prevalent in these areas. Only visit a township with a trustworthy local or if you must, a tour group. For moral reasons, I don’t agree with these ‘Township Tours’; as personally, I believe that touring poverty seems insensitive and reinforces negative stereotypes about those that live in less fortunate conditions, but that is another blog post for another day.

Ignore beggars.
I must admit, I find this one especially tough. No matter where I am in the world, I struggle to say no to beggars. But in South Africa it is vital that you do, as in the short second it takes you to pull out your purse or wallet, you become an easy target for a ‘snatch and run’ robbery.

Don’t carry valuables on Long Street.
This is one area of Cape Town where violent crime is down but pickpocketing rates are soaring.

If you are going to catch minibus cabs, check first to see which routes are safe.
I loved the minibus cabs for their affordability and speed, but I only used them for a few specific routes that I knew were usually quite safe, not all routes have a good reputation, so check with hostel employees before you ride.

If you are driving, always keep your doors locked.
Carjacking is still somewhat common in some parts of SA (I’m looking at you Jo-Burg) so always be alert when driving. Also, it isn’t uncommon for drivers to run red lights in dodgy areas, so if you don’t feel safe and you are sure running a red light won’t cause a hideous car accident, it’s something you may want to consider doing. That being said, SA has high rates of motor vehicle accidents, so proceed with caution.

If you are going to hitch-hike, only do so if there are women or children present in the vehicle.
I’ll be honest, hitch-hiking isn’t exactly a way of getting around that is inherently safe. But this won’t always stop people. Having women and children in a car does not ensure safety, but it’s something that always makes me feel more comfortable.

Lastly, don’t let fear dissuade you from the adventure of a lifetime.
While I was in South Africa I abseiled from Table Mountain, did a 216m bungee jump, I skydived in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. I paraglided, I fed elephants, I cage dived with Great White sharks. I swam in the open ocean with seals, I hiked my butt off in deserted forests, I went canyoning in empty rivers and each one of those experiences I will remember for the rest of my life. Not only that, I did it on a shoestring.

South Africa is an absolutely incredible country, filled with some of the friendliest and most welcoming people you will ever meet. Though it has a bad reputation, with a little bit of extra caution and alertness, you would most likely be able to have a very safe and incredibly memorable trip. South Africa is one of the greatest countries I have ever visited and I can guarantee that I will go back in the (not so distant) future.

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20-something year old Australian backpacker writing her way around the world.

162 thoughts on “Is South Africa safe for solo travel?

  1. Love your post! Having gone to SA myself, I found your post to be fair and reflect the situation completely. The security of houses in Johannesburg is creepy though with so many (statistically) robbery happening. The issue is less about security to me when travelling there, but more about the health issue with more than 10% of the population having AIDS, I’m afraid that sharp object cut through my skin. But of course, the beauty of the landscape of Knysna and Oudtshoorn worth the risk! Not to mention the amazing Sun City resort near Johannesburg. Keep up the good work.

    Kevin

  2. As you say, safety is relative and all about being aware, prepared, and reasonably cautious, not about avoiding doing anything! We can all stay home and die of loneliness and old age alone, or for that matter, get hit by a bus right in front of home or robbed and murdered in it. Even incredibly safe countries, cities, and neighborhoods have crimes, and even relatively dangerous places have people who live unscathed their whole lives, because they pay attention and know the rhythms and risks of the place.

    All of that said, what is far more terrifying to me is the ignorant, insular, racist, and/or xenophobic attitude so many people have that feeds rather than lessens distrust and danger. That girl who wrote you! What on earth happened to her that she feels compelled to say such fearful, hateful stuff to anybody? Poor excuse for a life, to feel that way. You are far better off than she is, no question.

    Cheers to you, and blissful travels!
    Kathryn

  3. Good for you for going on with travelling to Africa despite what people were saying to you! You would’ve missed out on a great experience if you would’ve let them talk you out of going the way you wanted!

  4. Dear Wellend,
    Welcome to the club! Whenever I try to travel alone to unexplored destinations, I used to receive lots of concerns and worries from my near and dear regarding my safety. The blog has got lots of information and pointers on how to handle your travel all alone.

  5. Brave of you. Good of you to put a positive spin on it all. Yes, you are right… it is indeed a beautiful place. Rich, diverse, great outdoors! Yet violent… hence your long list of don’ts!!

    Yes, I can venture an opinion… I’m South African. Your’s is a good story… many have been less fortunate than you but indeed, if you plan well and only travel with company and in daylight in designated areas you’ll be just grand! 😉

  6. Thank you for this tips and tricks. You gave me the courage to go solo in Africa. I was having some thoughts about it, but I’ll really give it a shot. Great blog you have here!

    1. That is the best kind of feedback I could get! I love to hear that I’ve helped people decide to travel solo 😊 thank you! You will love South Africa if you visit!!

  7. For a moment I felt like I would never go to South Africa but the last paragraph made me consider SA for my 2016 travel plans. Great description, I enjoyed reading to the point that I couldn’t quit and wished you wrote more about your journey in SA.

    1. These are my absolute favourite comments to get! I hope you do include SA in your travels next year! And I’ll write more eventually as I know I’ll be back before too long 😊

  8. Love this this post! I’ve been in South-Africa twice and I’m going back in January backpacking down the coast. Cape Town is my favorite city!

  9. Such an inspiring blog! I’ve just started travelling solo and although I find it so freeing, I am quite worried sometimes and the reaction from family about travelling alone as a woman certainly doesn’t help..

    1. I used to feel worried about what my family would say, but now I don’t let that bother me. Well done for travelling solo! You are amazing 😊 nothing can hold you back now x

  10. Well said coming from someone who is from Durban ! Glad you had an amazing time, unfortunately those of us who are from South Africa can’t afford to experience our own country this way!

  11. I love this post so much. I studied in Cape Town for a summer and had an amazing time. I completely agree about the negative stereotypes people have and the safety concerns, and felt the same way you did while traveling the country. The people, food, and experiences I had were truly amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Often as Americans (I’m American not sure if you are I haven’t read that far yet) we forget that we live in one of the most racist countries in the world. Crime is prevalent in many of our cities, yet when we travel anywhere that isn’t London or Paris it’s like we’re setting off on our death march (at least to many of our friends and family). I’m so glad you loved South Africa, I hope to get back there again soon.

  12. I’m having the most amazing time reading all of your posts! So sad I have to be going to school now, but I’ll definitely be reading more. All your adventures sound so amazing!!! I can’t wait to have some of the same travel experiences

  13. Beautiful post, I enjoyed reading it, thank you for visiting SA, I’m glad you enjoyed it and I hope you visit again.

    I’m a South African, living in South Africa, and I can safely confirm that the crime is exaggerated by the media & you are correct, most negative reviews about our country are based on ignorance and largely, racism.

    There’s a comment I read, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, the gentleman says he has always wanted to visit SA, but he’s scared of contracting AIDS, he goes on to say something about 10% of the population being infected, he’s scared that someone might stab him with a sharp object bla bla … What? Really? Like, seriously ??? 😂😂😂😂 I can’t !!

    Anyway .. South Africa is amazing, rich culture, friendly people, our humanity and compassion makes us South African.

    Johannesburg and Pretoria are not as bad as people assume, I stay in Midrand (which is between Johannesburg and Pretoria) .. I’ve never experience crime, I’ve never been raped .. many many many other also have not. So trust me, we don’t walk around dodging bullets and sharp objects with HIV! Hahaha

    I highly recommend that you visit the Kruger National Park, Maboneng, Vilakazi Street in Soweto, Mpumalanga oh my goodness, there’s so much, there’s so much to see and experience here, solo!

    So, if anyone comes to SA and needs a friend, advice, do’s and don’t .. Don’t just rely on the Internet, I’m an email address away and I will be very happy to host you, entertain you and give you an honest and genuine perspective of SA, it’s people and everything else that it has to offer. The township, now that’s where it’s at!!! The culture, the diversity, the history, the love, the unity, the people, amazing street art, music, dance, happiness!!!!!

    Seriously … My offer stands .. Let me be your source, not Google .. 😅
    I don’t have a criminal record 😂😂 you’re totally safe with me 🙂

    See you soon 🙂

  14. Well written and balanced. I liked what you said about township tours. Having worked in many I know that a lot of the residents there feel that they are living in a quasi zoo when tours come round and take photos out of the windows.

  15. I’ll be stopping off in Cape Town for a week in February and I’m struggling to decide on which hostel to book. I’m trying to pre-book for peace of mind. Can I ask where you stayed in Cape Town? Your post made me very excited!

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