Most travelers who visit game reserves will most liking come into Johannesburg first. This tip mainly concerns visiting game reserves. Malaria is quite prevalent and you can take some easy steps for malaria prophylaxis. See the CDC's website on which medications are recommended for the area you are visiting.
The Nedile Lodge located at the Welgevonden Game Reserve where we were going advertizes they are in a malaria free zone.
- National/State Park
Keep an eye on your luggage and make sure you place a lock on your checkin luggage. If you don't you will regret it! Also this airport is huge and confusing when looking for your gate. Be careful with the porters around the airport they will try to take you around and then ask for money. Go the security gate and ask if you are in the right area for your gate.
Be careful when and watchful when you place your wallet, purse on the x-ray machines if you are not keeping an eye you might find a credit card or wallet missing from the belt. Some of the employees at these locations are looking for someone to not be paying attention to their purses or wallets in order to pretend to be searching for 'dangerous items' and take away your money or credit cards. Always have your luggage in lock down checking in. Also do not bring large liquids treat this as the way the US TSA strict rules because this airport will remove for some and others they will let pass. Don't take that chance.
- Family Travel
- Women's Travel
As a general rule, it's pretty safe parking anywhere that there is an established parking area. If there is no pay parking, there are always self appointed parking attendants who will appear from nowhere and offer their services to look after your car - my advice is to accept the offer, but tell them that you'll only pay them on your return, and then only if they've kept your car safe. Usually a R5 tip is sufficient (R10 if you're feeling generous).
Just pulling off the road to park is a little more problematic, but probably more in terms of road safety than personal security. With the exception of suburban areas, parking is only allowed in designated parking areas (not along hard shoulders of the road) and I personally wouldn't want to risk a truck or a minibus taxi ploughing into my parked car. If you decide to do this, then make sure that there's good, uninterrupted visibility for good distance in either direction to minimise this risk and check your mirrors before opening the driver's side doors.
Wherever you park, take sensible precautions, particularly if you're parking at night (for example, if you're going to a restaurant). Try to park in a well lit area and away from trees, bushes or other things that could conceal a would be attacker. Aim to park as close to where you're intending to visit, rather than having to trek to the end of a large, poorly lit underground parking area, and keep your eye out for suspicious characters who may be hanging around. Most parking areas for shopping centres and entertainment complexes employ private security guards, so if you feel unsafe, ask them politely if they'll accompany you to your car (and then tip them afterwards).
I would also suggest that you 'reverse park' so that you are able to drive straight out of the parking space - drivers are generally more vulnerable when they are reversing, as they are concentrating so hard on not hitting another vehicle that they tend not to focus on other possible risks. Always drive with your doors locked (and your windows closed) and keep valuables out of sight to minimise the temptation for a 'smash and grab', particularly at traffic lights (somewhat confusingly known as 'robots' here).
Lastly, when you leave your car, make absolutely sure that it's locked by testing the door handles - thieves are increasingly 'jamming' the remote signal that operates the central locking system, so although the car sounds like it's locking, actually it isn't. I fell foul to this last trick at a local shopping centre on my way home a few months ago, and lost my laptop as a result.
This may all sound pretty intimidating, but it's really all about being sensible and not creating an opportunity for thieves. It's not rocket science, and provided that you bear these basics in mind, you should be absolutely fine.
I have mentioned several times that it can get very cold in Johannesburg during the winter - and just in case you still don't quite believe me, here's a picture of it snowing in Jo'burg!
This photo was taken from my office window this morning, when it snowed for the first time in about a decade. I think that I have seen it twice in my 25 years of living here, and I am reliably informed that it snowed on the day that Prince Charles and Diana Spencer got married (29 July 1982).
Snow does funny things to people, especially when they only get to see it a few times in their lives. Even sober professionals revert to childhood and can't resist the temptation to take giggly, shivery photos of each other amid the snow flurries.
Unfortunately South Africa's reputation is such that it's necessary to explicitly address the issue of whether it's safe for visitors. And Jo'burg seems to get particularly bad press on the security front, which - interestingly enough - is not a risk borne out by official statistics, which show that Cape Town is as vulnerable to violent crime as Big Bad Jo'burg
If you want an answer in a nutshell, security concerns are real but hugely overstated, and this is an area where media sensationalism has unfortunately coloured public perception in an irresponsible and unrealistic manner. There's no avoiding the fact that our society can be violent, but the vast majority of violence is perpetrated by South Africans on their families, neighbours and fellow countrymen, and tourists are seldom singled out to be the victims of violent crime. The biggest problem that tourists will encounter - in common with most big cities - is petty theft.
So here are a few simple pointers that will hopefully help you keep safe and allow you to enjoy your holiday without risk to your person or your property.
1. Don't create temptation. South Africa is a society characterised by a huge divide between the 'haves' and the 'have nots', and if tourists flaunt their wealth and take scant care of their possessions, it's little wonder if people who have very little will seize the opportunity to relieve them of these items. So, don't walk around with your wallet and/or passport hanging out of your back pocket, don't flash expensive jewellery or watches and don't leave valuables lying around in your hotel room.
2. Stay on the beaten tourist track. Most areas of Jo'burg are safe, particularly during the day, but there are a couple of areas - such as notorious Hillbrow (pictured above) - where it simply isn't sensible to venture as a tourist. Wandering around after dark outside the major tourist areas isn't sensible in any big city and similarly, venturing unaccompanied into a squatter camp or a shanty town is very rarely a good idea anywhere in the world - especially if you have expensive camera equipment hanging around your neck.
3. Respect people's dignity and ask people's permission before photographing them. 'Township tourism' presents both the tourist and the community with benefits and downsides, so if this is something that you'd like to do, then please go as part of a tour coordinated by a responsible operator registered with the South African Tourism Authority (SATA). If you decide to go into one of the townships, please remember that these are place where people live (not a zoo) and act accordingly. I have a particular problem with tourists who visit deprived areas in search of 'photogenic poverty', which I think is both demeaning and exploitative.
4. Don't give money to beggars. You may feel guilt ridden that people have so little when you have so much, but giving money exacerbates the problem rather than solving it and simply encourages beggars to be more demanding and aggressive. Many of the beggars you'll see are not genuine: for instance, there is rock solid evidence of rings that rent out drugged-up babies by the day to women who then pose as 'destitute mothers' at robots/traffic lights.
5. Take sensible precautions when driving. Lock your doors once you're inside, don't leave your windows completely open when the car is stationary and don't leave valuables in full view as this simply makes you a target for a 'smash and grab'. Also try not to drive after dark, particularly in unlit areas: here, the risk is not so much one of violence, but rather that you may hit livestock, wildlife or pedestrians on the road.
6. You are at your most vulnerable when you're lost, so plan your route before you set off and either hire a GPS or bring yours with you from home (with the relevant maps already uploaded) as South African road signage - particularly of street names - isn't the greatest. If you do get lost, don't pull over in a badly lit or secluded area and ask for assistance from complete strangers: rather drive to the nearest petrol station where it's well lit and there are other people around and seek assistance there.
7. Don't have sex with locals, regardless of their colour, gender or sexual persuasion. There's no sugarcoating the fact that South Africa has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world, and this virus is not a souvenir that you want to take home with you. Even if you intend to use a condom, remember that your intended partner may not be equally enthusiastic at the prospect, and could cut up nasty if you try to insist. Which brings me to my next point: disappearing off to a secluded spot with a stranger also leaves you vulnerable to rape, theft and/or murder and is simply not a sensible thing to do.
8. Travel with your mobile/cell phone so that you can raise the alarm or call for help should you need it. But of course this strategy only works if you know who to call for help in the first place! At a minimum, I would recommend that you programme in the number of your hotel(s), car rental company and maybe also your national embassy (bearing in mind that it is almost impossible to call an embassy and get past the automated number menus to talk to a real, live person). Many South Africans - myslef included - also programme in a number for ICE (to be used 'in case of emergency') which is usually a next of kin who can be contacted if you're involved in an accident and are rendered unconscious (or worse).
9. Above all, be sensible and temper your actions with caution and forethought. If something wouldn't be a sensible thing to do in your home environment, then chances are that it's an even worse idea to do it in a strange town.
As a general rule of thumb, if you exercise the same caution you'd use in one of the developed world's larger cities that you don't know well, then you'll be on the right track.
Now we've got this negative stuff out of the way, you can get on with the serious business of enjoying your holiday!
Let me introduce you to the rascal who will pose the greatest threat to your early morning sleep whilst in Johannesburg!
The hadeda ibis - which is only ever known by its first name - is a fairly new arrival from the rural areas which has colonised Johannesburg in increasing numbers over the last few decades. It uses its long, curved beak to probe beneath the ground for tasty morsels and is particularly attracted to lawns (hence its move into suburbia).
It is a surprisingly big bird - a bit bigger than a large chicken - and is extremely habituated to people. Its vicious looking beak - used for probing beneath suburban lawns for grubs and other tasty morsels - mean that it is more than a match for domestic pets such as dogs and cats, and has no real predators to speak of, hence its apparently unchecked proliferation. On first glance, it is a drab shade of brown, but in direct light, you suddenly notice that its wings have flashes of irridiscent pink which shimmer in the sun.
By far the hadeda's most unattractive feature is its call, which is a earsplitting, strangulated croak. Worse still, they generally occur in pairs or small groups, which squawk raucously back and forth in hadeda conversation, usually as they fly to and from their roosts just before dawn and towards sunset. Urban legend has it that they squawk as they fly because they're scared of heights, but this is just an old wives' tale, and the truth of the matter is that they are simply sadistic little sods who thoroughly enjoy disturbing the slumber of insomniacs and light sleepers.
When I was a sleep deprived new mother, the hadeda racket used to regularly wake me up, resulting in me being even more grumpy than I might otherwise have been. I used to console myself with pre-dawn fantasies of rushing outside and blasting the squadrons of hadedas to pieces with a shotgun as they flew overhead (not a very appropriate thought for someone who's made a career in environmental management, and not very practical either, as we don't have a gun). I believe that Sir Percy Fitzpatrick (who wrote the South African classic 'Jock of the Bushveld') actually published a recipe for roast hadeda, and so I would also conjur with the appealing thought of collecting what remained of the fallen carcasses, plucking them and ramming them into an oven as apt punishment for destroying the little sleep that I was able to snatch. I am firmly of the belief that the appropriate collective noun for a group of hadedas should be a 'cacophony'. It's no wonder that the United Nations have recognised sleep deprivation as one of the most effective forms of torture!
So, if you're a light sleeper and don't want to risk being woken by a dawntime hadeda chorus, be sure to bring some earplugs!
The hadeda's only redeeming feature is that it loves to eat the pupae of Parktown Prawns, and about the only time I have felt well disposed towards them has been when I've seen a wriggly white grub impaled on the end of that curved beak as it emerges from my lawn!
P.S. Just in case you think I'm overstating the case, the wonderful Ingrid (trekki) recently found me a web link to a site where you can hear a hadeda call for yourself (see below): you have been warned!
You may be surprised to know that Johannesburg is unexpectedly high (with an elevation of about 1700m, or over a mile in old money), even if it doesn't trade on this in the same way as, say, Denver which actively bills itself as being the Mile High City.
Our elevated location is a fact much beloved by partisan rugby commentators who eagerly anticipate the exhaustion of visiting teams from lower altitudes who haven't had time to acclimatise. Jo'burg isn't high enough to give you altitude sickness, but it can take a day or two to get used to the fact that there is slightly less oxygen the in atmosphere: however, if you've just fallen off an intercontinental flight, you'll probably just think that this is just part and parcel of jetlag.
However, the altitude can have other less anticipated effects. For instance, when you're baking in South Africa, you may need to take the altitude difference into account, as atmospheric pressure is slightly less in Johannesburg than it would be in Cape Town or Durban. For this reason, on the Highveld, some cakes are baked at an oven temperature 10 degrees centigrade higher than you'd use at the coast in order to prevent the risen mix collapsing under its own weight. Useful to know just in case you feel an insatiable urge to whip up a Victoria sponge ... :)
For the same reason, water also boils at a slightly lower temperature (and thus, a few seconds faster) on the Highveld, although if you're using your holiday to time kettles boiling, you're clearly doing something wrong!
Despite having lived in Johannesburg for a quarter of a century, one aspect of daily life that I have never been able to adjust to is the ubiquitous presence of firearms. Having been brought up in Britain in the 60s and 70s where gun ownership was very rare and even the police force was unarmed, I still find it very unnerving to come across people wandering around the supermarket with a revolver casually suspended from their belt.
Most white South Africans believe strongly in their right to bear arms in self defence. Guns are a part of everyday life for the farming community and military service was compulsory for white males until the early 1990s, so firearms are regarded as an integral part of society. Obtaining a gun licence is very straightforward - I would venture far too easy - and although there are regulations about the safe storage of firearms, these are routinely flouted, and tales of kids getting hold of their parents guns and accidentally shooting themselves or others are depressingly common. Places such as casinos will sensibly not allow you to bring your firearm in and provide dedicated gun safe facilities - such as the one above at Gold Reef City - where you can safely store your firearm until you leave.
However, by far the biggest threat to civil safety is the number of unlicenced firearms in the country, which have originated from the Bush War in Rhodesia and armed conflicts in Namibia, Mozambique and Angola. These illegal firearms (along with guns that are stolen during domestic robberies) are used by criminals in the hijackings and armed robberies for which South Africa is sadly notorious.
Should you be so unfortunate as to find yourself in a situation where you are confronted by armed robbers, the cardinal rule is not to do anything that would surprise or panic them into using their weapons. Try to keep calm, move slowly, avoid eye contact and above all, do what you are told - this is not the time for misguided acts of heroism, and sadly there is ample evidence that armed robbers will not hesitate to use their firearms.
On the face of it, Parktown Prawns sound like an attractive prospect: Parktown is an upmarket inner northern suburb of Johannesburg, and prawns in Southern Africa are usually excellent ...
However (fortunately) you won't find a Parktown Prawn on any menu - or, if you do, you should leave the restaurant without further ado - although you might find yourself unexpectedly sharing your room with one.
The Parktown Prawn (Libanasidus vittatus) is a king cricket that grows to gigantic proportions - up to 10cm (4") in length. They thrive in suburban garden environments, and unlike other crickets, they tend to be active at night and are attracted to light, which is why they are often encountered indoors.
They are particularly fierce looking beasties because they have well developed mandibles (jaw parts) and are formidable predators of other insects. To add to their (lack of) charm, they have an unhappy tendency to defecate when distressed, resulting in a malodorous black liquid which stains anything it comes into contact with - including cheap floor tiles!
Should you find yourself sharing a room with a Parktown prawn, the best thing is to usher them gently towards the door - just be aware that they jump well, which can be startling if you're not expecting it. If this isn't practical, then place your hand in a thick plastic bag, grit your teeth and use the bag as a glove to pick up the prawn firmly and remove it as quickly as possible before it has time to perform its party trick and spray fecal liquid everywhere.
Predictably the Parktown Prawn has few natural enemies, and about the only time I am well disposed to otherwise pesky hadedas are when I see them extracting a large white Parktown Prawn grub from beneath the lawn with their long curved beaks.
Anyone who has seen the brilliant South African sci fi movie 'District 9' will instantly recognise the Parktown Prawn as the prototype for the alien 'Prawns'!
On this website and elsewhere, there is a great deal written about South Africa that refers to what you should (or should not) do 'after dark'. However, it strikes me that I have yet to see anyone define how long the days actually are, which is obviously important for those planning their itinerary and trying to make the most of their time here.
The Tropic of Capricorn lies only a couple of hundred kilometres north of Johannesburg - as a result, we have relatively little difference between the length of days in summer and winter compared to more temperate latitudes. The other thing that often take people by surprise is that the closer you get to the Equator, the faster the sun rises and sets: thus, the dawn and twilight periods here are fairly brief.
As an indicator, at the winter solstice (21 June), the sun only rises at about 06:55 and sets about 17:20. Conversely, at the summer solstice (21 December), the sun rises at about 05:00 and sets about 18:45.
If you are travelling south (for example, to the Cape) the summer days are much longer, but the winter days are corespondingly shorter.
I would suggest that you bear these considerations in mind when you are planning your road journeys, as driving after dark is not advisable, as much due to the risk of hitting wildlife/livestock in rural areas as for concerns over security (see my transport tips).
When driving around Jozi (either in a hire car or in a taxi) take note of these simple tips:
- lock all valuables in the boot including your handbag
- keep windows closed
- when approaching crossroads if driving and the lights are red, slow down on approach and aim to reach the lights as they turn green so you don't have to stop
- if you do have to stop leave good distance between you and the car in front of you in case you need to get away quickly
- never leave any valuables on the passenger seat or in the back
- if driving at night and you see something suspicious at a crossroad, continue through without stopping as a reasonable speed
- if you are on a highway eg on way to OR Tambo Airport do not stop to pick up hitchhikers
- if someone is flashing you in a bid to have you pull over, continue to the nearest police station and seek assistance
- do not stop to help motorists who appear to have broken down, if you feel they are in distress call the police
- pay attention to objects in the road that may be placed in an attempt to get you to stop
keep your wits about you and ask hotel staff or locals about trouble hot spots
- Road Trip
Couple of things to note on arrival at OR TAMBO International Airport
1) Whether you are an independant traveller, travelling with a group or visiting friends be extra careful when filling in your landing cards (if you have to fill them in). OR Tambo has had a bad rep for tourists being followed and robbed on arrival at their hotel. This seems to not happen so much anymore, but as a precaution best not to write the name of your hotel on your landing card as requested, as some airport officials may be involved in relaying this info to gangs. I always write 'staying with family' to throw them off the scent.
2) Same goes for arranging a driver to collect you from the airport. There have been reports of gangs receiving copies of the international flight lists and standing in arrivals with tourists name cards pretending to be their driver. If you are arranging a driver (I can provide you with names of reputable drivers that i use) I would do so in a different name to that on your passport and tickets. For example, I always book taxis from OR Tambo in my married name, as all my tickets and passports will be in my maiden name.
3) When you get into arrivals people will approach you to offer taxi. Here, it is best to look as if you know where you are going. Have your driver meet you at domestic arrivals instead - on exiting from baggage reclaim to international arrivals turn left and proceed to domestic arrivals which is a 1 minute walk away, better safe than sorry
4) If you are going to Sandton you can rather get the Gautrain which is super safe and heavily guarded, for 100 rand i think
Further to my earlier warning about fake R200 notes in circulation, the Reserve Bank has issued new R200 notes. However, these are very similar in design to the old notes, and I'm not going to bother running through the subtle changes that have been made as it is unlikely that a tourist would be able to pick up the differences.
Banks claim that because the new notes have been issued and their systems have been used to eliminate fakes from their system ("trust us, we're a bank ..."), customers have no right to refuse being issued with legal tender. Thus, my previous suggestion that you refuse to accept R200 notes because you are afraid of being issued with fakes will probably not work. I would therefore suggest that a better way to avoid being given R200 notes would be to ask that you be issued with smaller denomination notes (R100 for example) because they are more convenient to use - this is true, as R200 is the biggest denomination we have, and smaller operators (such as artists at markets) will often struggle to provide change for a large note.
At the time of writing (May 2010), there has been a big problem with forged R200 notes entering circulation recently, to the point where many shops and banks refuse pointblank to accept them. These are orange/red notes with a leopard on them - and as it's difficult for even locals to spot the fakes, a tourist is simply not going to be able to identify a counterfeit.
I would therefore caution you to make sure that you don't accept any R200 notes. If you are given them by a bank or bureau de change or in your change, state politely (but firmly) that you have been informed that there has been a problem with fake notes of this denomination and are therefore sure that the other person will appreciate why you would prefer to have R100 or R50 notes instead.
Better to risk offending someone than to be landed with a lot of money that nobody else will accept (and it never hurts to show that you're an informed traveller)!
Everyones heard of Jo'burgs violence and at times when youre walking around(all be it in a safe neighbourhood), its easy to slip into a false sense of security and believe it isnt true...IT IS!
In the hostel, I was chatting to a guy who'd just been down by the train station in broad daylight with people all around him when 4 guys jumped him with a knife and sliced his backpack off his back and emptied his pockets! I also heard other similar stories from fellow travellers further along in South Africa...so be sensible!
The media really hyped it up for the world cup, as the bstards love to. BEst thing to do is take local advice - stay clear of downtown at night and only go during the day if essential or with someone who knows what they are doing, otherwise stick to the areas people say and you should be fine.