One of the biggest barriers for many people to experience their bucket list safari adventure in Africa is safety concerns. Many are worried about their general personal safety in terms of being robbed, mugged or even kidnapped and others are worried about the safety from a wildlife perspective – eg. getting mauled by a lion or trampled by an elephant. Some people are worried about both of those things! So here I am to answer the key question – is it safe to go on safari in South Africa?
The very short answer is yes, however there are a few things that need qualifying. So here are some safety FAQs to help you feel more comfortable.
1. Isn’t the crime in South Africa much worse than most Western countries?
Yes, crime rates in South Africa are typically worse than those of Australia, UK, Europe and the USA. However if you’re heading over to go on a safari and maybe spend a few days in touristy Cape Town, there is very, very little chance you will be exposed to any crime (other than perhaps some speeding on the roads). I certainly wouldn’t recommend wandering around the streets of shady Johannesburg areas at night – but if all you’re doing is staying overnight in a Johannesburg hotel, driving or flying to/from a game reserve and perhaps spending some time in Cape Town you have nothing to worry about.
As an Australian the first time I visited Cape Town was with my sister and we were in our early 20s and told by our hostel not to walk around at night (advice by the way that I have been given in many other cities of the world). We ignored that advice a couple of times and never had any issues. The second time I visited South Africa about 4 years later with my whole family and we hired a car at JHB airport, drove to a nearby B&B for the night then drove up to Blyde River Canyon, onto Timbavati Game Reserve and then through Kruger and on to Swaziland. Again, no issues whatsoever.
I have since visited South Africa many times and even lived there for seven months and never had anything so much as stolen, let alone witnessed any violent crimes. The game reserves or national parks where you would be going on safari are probably safer than your home towns given they are all fenced with rigorous security to get in and out given all the issues with poaching that sadly exist in today’s world. It also costs quite a bit of money to get in, so you are surrounded by tourists (both domestic and international).
2. Is it safe to drive yourself in South Africa? What about driving at night time?
It is safe to drive in South Africa, particularly if you are driving predominantly on highways. Again, I wouldn’t advise driving around dodgy areas at night but the drive from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park, Sabi Sands, Timbavati, Madikwe or any other number of safari destinations is safe. Highways in South Africa are well maintained and most people are pleasantly surprised by how first world their road infrastructure is. Remember that South Africa is really considered first world when it comes to many things – including infrastructure like roads, it’s just other issues like poverty that classify them as developing. Of course you can have a car accident on any road in the world, so you still need to be careful about driving and keep in mind that in South Africa many people drive significantly under the speed limit (and other significantly over), which has its own associated risks. But for the most part driving around in South Africa is very similar to driving around in Western countries in terms of the infrastructure.
Driving at night is also fine, but I would recommend to do most of your driving in the day when possible. Typically when we arrive in Johannesburg from Sydney (a flight that arrives at dusk), we hire a car and drive straight to Nelspruit which is about three hours away, arriving at around 9-10pm. This means we are only 1-2 hours from Kruger park so we can arrive as the gate opens and maximise our few days in the park! That being said, my husband is South African and also relatively impervious to jet lag or lack of sleep, so that makes it easier for us. If I didn’t have him I would stay overnight in Johannesburg and drive early the next morning. I have never felt unsafe driving in South Africa at night, but it’s best to avoid dodgy areas and also keep your doors locked and windows up just in case. In fact it’s best to keep your doors locked during the day as well, just in case! Lastly there can be more animals (including usual domestic animals like cows) on the roads, which is another reason that driving in Africa at night is best avoided if possible.
If you don’t want the hassle of driving yourself then there are plenty of other options like transfers or flights to get to your safari destination. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like more information about this!
3. What about the animals? What are the chances a lion, leopard or elephant will kill me?
If you abide by the rules of the game reserve or national park you are visiting there is almost zero chance that any animal will hurt you while on safari. The one thing I will qualify here is that 95%+ of any tourist injuries caused by lions or wildlife in South Africa relate to lion parks (or small controlled animal parks), not private game reserves or national parks. I strongly recommend that you do not visit lion parks – click through the link to find out why. Lions who have been brought up in lion parks are socialised to humans and as a result they are more dangerous. Those in the proper wild (like Kruger National Park or game reserves) are not habituated to us and would be more likely to run away from a human than attack. However the point is that we don’t give them the option because we stay in our vehicle, which the animals recognise as being non-threatening and generally just ignore.
Elephants and hippos are probably the most dangerous animals in contrast to what many people would think. Even so I have only heard of locals being killed or hurt by elephants and hippos, because as a tourist we should never be wandering around in areas where these guys exist without trained professionals around to take charge if they do appear. Trails guides (like Van) are well trained in these situations so even going for a bush walk in South Africa is safe so long as you listen and obey all instructions your guide gives you!
4. What about diseases and Malaria?
It’s always advisable to consult a doctor when travelling overseas and South Africa is no different. Doctors tend to err on the side of caution and so they may advise you to get relevant shots and also take malaria medication depending on where you are visiting. These things are good to do to protect you but South Africa is generally not a high risk country for most typical third-world diseases. For example you can even drink the tap water in South Africa without getting sick as from an infrastructure perspective they are first world. I generally don’t drink tap water when travelling overseas but I now do so in South Africa!
If you are travelling in the Kruger region it is advisable to take malaria tablets just to be safe. Malaria exists but the risks are (in my experience) relatively low. Risks can be reduced even further if you travel in the dry, winter months (June to September) and if you use insect repellent. That being said it is still worth taking the tablets just to be absolutely safe!
So the short story? Will I survive a safari in South Africa?
Of course I need to include a disclaimer here that no place in the world is 100% safe, and you can never guarantee anything. I have written the above based on my many, many, many safari adventures in South Africa and the many days-worth of driving I have done across the country. I can’t promise anything. But I will say that in my personal opinion, going on safari in South Africa is probably safer than your commute into work. Just way, way more enjoyable 🙂
If safety is what is holding you back from an adventure of a lifetime please reconsider. South Africa is a beautiful country and the people are typically extremely friendly. There are few things in this world that can take your breath away like being within metres of an elephant or watching lion cubs play. We don’t know how long these gorgeous creatures will be around, nor for how long we will have the opportunity to observe them in their natural habitat. So hurry up and book your safari now!
Oh and if you want help creating the perfect, safe and stress-free itinerary – get in touch with us. We only recommend and book lodges, tour operators and transfer companies that we know. We can sort out every detail for you so you feel as comfortable as possible – even if that means flying you directly to the door of a five star lodge!