I fell in love with South Africa the first day I was there, but it was a process: a process of tearing down misconceptions. In all honesty, I can’t remember the specific moment I fell in love with South Africa, but it was when I started to relax.
In order to explain, I need to rewind a little bit to the back story.
My trip to South Africa was an impulse purchase on Christmas Eve, 2014. Etihad Airways had an error fare, my Facebook notification said, for US$197 from New York to Abu Dhabi. “Why not?” I thought, and quickly called my travel partner and asked if he wanted to go. A little more research showed that you could do a stopover in Abu Dhabi and continue on to another destination for an additional $100. I had thought about going to South East Asia, but I go there a lot, and wanted to try somewhere new. (Plus, I’d be arranging my own flights from Las Vegas to New York. Las Vegas to New York to Abu Dhabi to Bangkok would be incredibly longer than the typical transpacific flights I take.)
I had always been curious about South Africa, but apprehensive. I worked with a couple of guys who left South Africa in the 90’s that said it was too dangerous and they’d never go back. (This, I’ve noticed on various travel forums and blogs, seems to be a recurring theme – but more on this later.) Anyway, I ponied up my $297, selected Johannesburg as my destination, with 8 days there and 8 in Abu Dhabi & Dubai. I picked a time in September 2015 that I thought would be easy to get off work – I knew my window in booking this error fare was getting smaller and smaller, and actually kept my fingers crossed as I navigated from page to page that it wouldn’t disappear altogether.
Even though I had 9 months to plan, I immediately started doing as much research as I could, a lot online, but also from the library and my occasional interactions with South Africans visiting Las Vegas (who probably got sick of me asking questions about my vacation in the middle of theirs!)
All of the blogs I read were favorable – talking about beautiful places, friendly people, and, due to the exchange rate, the affordability of it all! Safety was always mentioned, with good advice.
And then, the comments. I’ve noticed that in every comment section, someone will invariably say that the country is too dangerous to visit. Sometimes these are people who live there, but many are from people who left the country during the turbulent 90s. Now, before we go any further, I’m not trying to dismiss the crime problem of South Africa, nor insult anyone who has been a victim. Crime IS a big problem, and I understand the concerns of the people who live there. Search Google or YouTube for “crime in South Africa” and you might be a little scared about visiting too.
BUT!!! This does NOT mean that one can’t have a great trip to South Africa, and, with proper planning, minimize the risks involved. Research does not prevent you from being a victim, but it can help you steer clear of known trouble spots. I’ll discuss safety in a later post.
I arrived at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport at the same time as a local sports team returning from some international meet. I never found out who they were, but when I left customs and entered the arrival landside area of the airport, I was overwhelmed with hundreds of people cheering on the returning team. To be honest, it was the most chaotic and most intimidating airport arrival I’ve ever had! I found the ATM, didn’t get mugged there, and made it to check in for my domestic flight on Fly Safair. Checked in my bags no problem, went through airport security, and wasn’t robbed there either. I enjoyed the short flight to Port Elizabeth, landing at 9 pm, and picked up my rental car. Nope, no attacks at the PE airport either. I hadn’t eaten, and I knew there was a Nando’s on the way to my hotel, so I stopped there to pick up some dinner. (I knew this because I “drove” the entire route from the airport to my hotel on Google Maps once or twice before I arrived.) It was sprinkling, and I remember thinking, “good, I hope the rain keeps the carjackers away.” Sure enough, nobody attacked me at Nando’s either. I got to the hotel around 10 pm and settled in for the night. So far, I had survived.
The next morning I looked out the window of my hotel room and saw the beach, and a little cafe (Something Good Roadhouse) that, according to the internet, had good breakfast. I could see it from my room – but I still asked at the front desk if it was safe to walk. The lady kind of chuckled and said “of course it’s okay,” and looking over my shoulder 98 times a minute, I braved the 5 minute walk, and survived!
After breakfast I set out on a 3 hour drive to Knysna, and I knew along the highway many dangers would await me. I had read about the carjackings – don’t make eye contact with your attacker, and you might survive, the warnings said. I read that sometimes from overpasses carjackers will drop eggs onto your windshield, and when you use your wipers the yolk will smear all over, and then when you’ll pull over, that’s when they’ll get you. Or look for stones or other things in the road that you’ll hit and get a flat tire, which are used to make you pull over, and have your car/valuables stolen. Luckily, I thought, the rain might protect me. But it only rained for the first 5 minutes of my drive.So I got on the N2 heading west with the mentality of driving through a war zone. “What’s that guy walking on the side of the road doing?” “Is that…is that something in the road up there?” “Is that car slowing down on the overpass up ahead? Why?” I wasn’t terrified, but I was paranoid and HYPER alert! And after about 20 minutes of driving without being attacked, I blinked for the first time. Hmm, I thought, maybe this doesn’t happen as much as I think it does.
As I continued along the drive, I started to feel much more comfortable. I didn’t let my guard down, but I dialed back the paranoia a little bit. I moved over to let a car pass; the driver flashed his hazard lights 2 or 3 times as a “thank you.” Nice touch.
After the rain let up, and after driving for about an hour and a half, I decided to pull off the N2 and stretch my legs in a deserted stretch of road. (I know! That’s where the criminals hide! But no, not here…)
I think this spot might be where I had my first of many “where the heck am I?” moments. I really felt like I was in California more than Africa.
About half an hour later I arrived in the beautiful town of Plettenberg Bay, and decided to drive towards “The Lookout Deck,” which I thought was a public viewpoint. It turned out to be a nice restaurant, with beautiful views of the ocean. This was my first encounter with the “parking guards,” people who watch your car for a tip. I mistakenly pre-tipped, rather than paying upon return. Still, 5-10 rand is a small price to pay for peace of mind. I enjoyed the views with a small beer and a few snacks before continuing on. My car was still there, with all the belongings securely stored in the trunk.
Shortly before sundown I arrived in the picturesque city of Knysna.
It was on this day, my first full day in this new and beautiful country, that I realized I had screwed up. I was only staying 7 nights in South Africa, and I knew this wouldn’t be enough.This entry was posted in Africa, South Africa