Despite the many sensational horror stories about war, disease, political upheaval, and armed rebellions in Africa that appear in the media every day, travel in Africa is no more dangerous than say, wandering about in the inner-city areas of the USA, Europe, and Asia. In fact, if tourists had to decide how safe a destination is based purely on the number of media reports about violent crimes in all of the major cities of the First World, nobody would ever visit places like New York, London, Paris, Berlin, or the great cities of Asia and the Orient, like Tokyo, Bangkok, or Beijing.
The most enduring misconception about Africa is that the continent is positively disease-ridden. While there might be a grain of truth in this, the fact is that it is just as easy to contract a serious disease in any other part of the world. Almost all African countries require proof of vaccination against diseases like yellow fever, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, and is prevalent in South- and Central America. Similarly, tourists to Africa require inoculations against hepatitis A, meningococcal meningitis, rabies, and typhoid- all of which are diseases that occur all over the world. The only real difference between the diseases found in Africa and those found elsewhere, is the fact the poorly developed infrastructure of Africa makes it more difficult to treat outbreaks of serious epidemics like for instance, Ebola effectively, which can make it seem like all of Africa is about to be depopulated by the disease.
However, consulting a travel clinic, and obtaining the required inoculations before travelling into Africa is an almost fool proof method of not getting sick, and by simply avoiding areas afflicted by an epidemic, like all prudent persons would do in their home countries, the possibility of contracting the disease is eliminated. Much of the world is also still affected by malaria, but by following a course of prophylactics, using insect repellents and sleeping under a mosquito net, the likelihood of contracting malaria is also reduced to virtually zero. Overall, you have a better chance of getting severe sunburn than contracting a serious disease in Africa.
Petty crimes like pick pocketing, getting ripped off by taxi drivers, or being sold counterfeit goods occurs all over the world, and Africa is not immune to this. However, traditional African culture takes an exceedingly dim view of criminals, and especially of thieves, but while tourists in African cities can have their pockets picked as easily as they could in almost any other city in the world, they have a far smaller chance of being violently robbed than they would have in for instance, any big city in South Africa, where violent robberies have become a survival mechanism for those who indulge in the practice.
The good news however, is that during an overland expedition through Africa, you will out in the bush for most of the time and nowhere near the big cities, where most criminal activity takes place. Nevertheless, from time to time it might be necessary to visit one or more of the larger centres for any number of reasons, but by following a few simple rules and using a measure of common sense, you can avoid the predations of con artists, petty criminals, and opportunists of all persuasions and skill levels.
Never carry large amounts of cash on your person if you can help it, but if cannot be avoided, divide the cash between all available pockets, which makes it difficult for pick pockets since they cannot pick all your pockets at the same time. Alternatively, wear a money belt under your clothes, and preferably one that fastens around your body with a proper belt-type buckle to make it difficult for pick pockets the rip the entire belt from under your shirt or jacket.
• Travel documents:
Make sets of copies of all your travel documents, including your passport, and keep a set in different places in your vehicles and luggage. Also make copies of travellers cheques, credit cards (and their numbers), carnets, and the registration documents of your vehicles. If you are robbed, and you lose the originals, you will then have all the relevant details and information on hand for the purpose of replacement and insurance claims.
Wearing flashy or shiny jewellery and watches in crowded places is the same as asking to be robbed: if you have to use a camera, don’t hang it around your neck, and make sure you are not surrounded by locals when you do use it- you will lose it in the crush. In addition, do not use an expensive cell phone in public or while you are surrounded by locals; stolen cell phones have a ready market in countries that have no fixed line telecommunications, and if you have your cell phone stolen, you’ll never get it back.
• Safe storage in hotels:
If you have to overnight in a hotel, keep as much of your valuables with you as you can at all times. Hotel safes in Africa are notoriously “unsafe”, and some insurance companies will not replace items that went missing from hotel safes. If you have to store valuables for some time, the better option is to rent a safe deposit box at one of the international banks.
• Don’t look lost:
Don’t wander around holding a map, and don’t stand around while you are consulting a map; these are clear signals that you are a tourist, and thus easy prey for “guides”, who can lead you even further astray before extorting a huge “fee” to lead you back to your accommodation. If you are going sightseeing, never venture out alone, and get proper directions before you leave your accommodation.
If you do get lost however, look for a police official, or other officials such as military personnel, bank receptionists, or other hotels to obtain directions. If all else fails, contact your hotel to arrange to be picked up. There is usually a fee for this service, but this fee is vastly preferable to being lost in a place where nobody or hardly anybody speaks English.
• Be aware of your surroundings:
Markets, bazaars, airports, bus-, and train stations are favourite haunts of petty criminals, and if you have to visit such a place for whatever reason, always be vigilant and keep a sharp lookout for people who might be following you around, and keep your valuables as well hidden as you can. Most petty thefts occur in these places because the crowds offer perfect cover and escape opportunities, so be particularly vigilant in these areas.
• Armed robberies:
Although this type of crime does occur in Africa, it is exceedingly rare, except in South Africa, and to a lesser extent, in Zimbabwe, where hundreds of cases in both countries are reported every year. However, if it does happen to you, no matter where, never offer resistance; give them what they want, especially if they want your vehicle. Car-jackers in Southern Africa often kill their victims without compunction, and no car or valuable article is worth dying for.
• Cons and Scams:
Africa is not immune to conmen running cams of all descriptions, and the best way to avoid being scammed is to follow the same rules you apply at home. Swindles the world over are remarkably similar, and if you can avoid them at home you can avoid them in Africa as well, simply by not doing or buying anything you would not do or buy at home.
• If You Are a Victim of Crime:
If the unthinkable happens and you are mugged, robbed, or swindled out of your possessions anywhere in Africa, your first priority must be to report it to the local police. However, dealing with the local cops can be as harrowing and trying as being robbed, but without the police report, you have no chance of having your possessions replaced by your insurance company. Dealing with African police forces requires extreme tact, politeness, and the willingness to pay an “administrative fee” should it be demanded. Refusal to pay a “fee” can result in your case getting “lost”, “misfiled”, or even your arrest on some trumped-up charge, especially in smaller towns where the local police station may have no direct supervision, or where the police officers may not have received their salaries for months, or even years, in some cases.
Local police stations will also not assist you if your credit cards or passport was lost in the crime; in these cases, you must contact your credit card issuer and/or embassy directly.
• Special Note:
Resist the temptation to shout “STOP THIEF!”, if you are the victim of a petty crime: mob justice is a feature of daily life in Africa where the police are not always as responsive as they might have been. Thievery is despised by most traditional Africa cultures, and the last thing you want to see is a youngster being beaten to death by a mob because he stole your watch or camera.
Angry mobs can form in seconds, and will swiftly carry out summary justice on suspected thieves without the benefit of a trail; therefore, unless you are absolutely, 110% sure about who stole from you, do not accuse anyone since the mere accusation could very well result in the death of an innocent person at the hands of a mob.
Acts of terror are relatively rare in Africa, but countries such as Tanzania, Mali, Kenya, Egypt, Sudan, and lately Nigeria, have suffered fatal terrorist attacks in recent years. For this reason, the Governments of America, Canada, Britain, and Australia regularly issue travel warnings to their citizens who are already in Africa, or who may be planning a trip to Africa.
Travel warnings may be issued for a variety of reasons, but the most common ones are issues related to political stability, outbreaks of disease, or impending elections. Elections, or more accurately, the refusal by parties to accept election results have ignited more civil wars in the last twenty years or so, than any other cause, and millions of people are killed, displaced, or otherwise inconvenienced by political shenanigans, so before you plan your trip through Africa, be sure to check a resource such as: http://goafrica.about.com/od/healthandsafety/a/travelwarnings.htm for news of new travel warnings, upcoming elections, and most importantly, border closures due to wars in progress.
Touring Africa is no more dangerous than touring any other place, with perhaps the Ukraine being the only exception to this. Nevertheless, the off-road traveller need hardly ever venture into the larger centres, except by passing through them on the way to somewhere else. This being the case, off-road tourists are spared the risks of tourism that are attendant on being in any large city anywhere in the world.
The only real crime related problem off-road tourists have to deal with are corrupt border control officers, and undisciplined military and police personnel at irregular roadblocks. However, while the issue of irregular roadblocks may still occur in some isolated spots, this practice has largely been brought under control, and these days it is possible to travel the length and breadth of Africa without ever coming across an irregular roadblock manned by drunken soldiers or police officers. The population of Africa consists largely of friendly, helpful, honest people, and while there may be a few exceptions to this, these exceptions are not representative of the African population as a whole. The off-road tourist in Africa is more likely to encounter more, unhelpful, rude dishonest, and downright uncivil people during a single day at home than during an entire year in Africa.