I booked my trip to Cape Town a mere 48 hours before getting on the plane. I had no time to buy a Rough Guide and hastily Googled essentials such as currency and time zone (I know, sorry) as I threw my sunhat in the suitcase. I also gave not one single thought to how I was going to stay safe upon arrival.
With a stark disparity between rich and poor, South Africa (and that includes Cape Town) has high rates of assault, rape and murder. If you don’t believe me, check out this graphic of the World’s Most Violent Cities. Gulp. And gulp again.
So here’s a ‘how to stay safe’ list I compiled along with the (local) owner of the guest house I stayed in. Perhaps it will be useful for you?
- Latch on to groups
Whether you’re on the beach (see Man with six-inch blade) or at the top of Table Mountain, attach yourself to a group. If they look at you as if you’re a weirdo, politely explain that you’ve been advised to look less ‘alone’ to avoid being a ‘target’. If you smile nicely, and you’re not actually a weirdo, people are really very nice and accommodating. You might even make some new friends.
- Nationality solidarity
Connected to (1), I found that the strangers most likely to adopt you and keep an eye out for you are from your own country. For some reason a Brit abroad greets another Brit abroad like a long-lost pal (regardless of the fact they’ve never met) and will get your back like a sense of national duty.
- Look like a local
This is a pretty obvious one, and a strategy you should employ from the Ramblas of Barcelona to Charles Bridge in Prague, don’t look like a flippin’ tourist. If you’re clutching a camera and wearing a bum bag, you’re screaming “I am distracted, I have lots of cash zipped to my nether regions, and I am richer than you so I probably have a nice watch or necklace”.
- Minimal cash
Provided your hotel/guest house has safety boxes and/or is definitely to be trusted, leave most of your valuables at ‘home’. Best to be relieved of 40 euros in your back pocket than a wallet containing your credit cards, driving licence, passport, life savings and priceless photos of your precious children. Just take out what you need.
- Get local knowledge
Ask someone who lives there (maybe your hotel receptionist) where is a no-go area and heed their advice. If he/she feels nervous entering ‘x’ township or going to ‘y’ district after dark, you should too.
- In fact, after dark, don’t
You can tell me I am being hyper uber cautious (and you’re right, I am not known for my risk taking) but many many many forums (featuring tourists and locals alike) advise against going ANYWHERE in Cape Town alone after dark. And even to exercise caution in a group. Definitely don’t stop if anyone accosts you, however innocent they look.
- Careful where you park
If you’ve got a car, park in a well-lit street and befriend one of the many hi-vis-vest-wearing parking attendants. They are official and they will take care of your car, not least because you’re expected to tip them.
- Careful how you drive
Again, common sense. Doors locked. Handbag hidden (not on the seat, not on the floor, but actually hidden, under the seat) to avoid creating any form of temptation. Don’t stop and get out if you get a) gesticulated at through the window or b) bumped gently from behind – their motives may not be so innocent. Oh, and if possible, drive a car with no ‘hire car’ sticker in the back window (see (3)).
- Cash point etiquette
Don’t use a cash point alone. Definitely don’t use a cash point alone after dark. Get someone to watch your back (see (1) and (2)).
- Don’t let fear hold you back
Cape Town welcomes well over 1.5 million foreign visitors each year. Almost all of them will encounter zero safety issues. So don’t be put off by anything I have to say. In the words of Saint Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”