Johannesburg, South Africa is often talked about as a pretty unsafe city for travelers. The most common crimes are petty, such as having valuables stolen from your person or your car. But that's the kind of hassle you don't want when you're having a good time on your trip.
Most places in the world are safer than you assume. But realistically, some places are going to be less safe than others. When the facts point to unsafe conditions where you're traveling, you don't necessarily need to avoid the place entirely. You just need to enact some precautions based on local recommendations.
In this post, I describe one night I spent in Johannesburg and my tips for staying safe. I only had to make small edits to my behavior. I chose to stay in a better neighborhood, I walked around with a friend, and I didn't carry my phone with me at night.
The result was an easy going night of listening to local music with a new friend. No issues. No sweat!
Ordering An Uber
I traveled into Johannesburg from Pretoria by train. This placed me at the Park Station only a few blocks from my hostel.
I arrived in the early evening. In a different city, I may have walked to my hostel from the station. The sun hadn't gone down yet, it was only a short distance away, and I felt comfortable. But I still didn't want to risk it. Local friends and other travelers through my own research warned not to try to walk to my hostel destination alone.
When people back home who rarely travel tell me not to do something abroad, I don't usually worry about it. I often find that bias and misinformation clouds people's judgment about what travel is actually like in certain places. But when enough research turns up the same advice over and over again, and especially when locals confirm that information, I listen. This is how you stay safe as a traveler before making unnecessary compromises to the experience.
I knew I had to get a taxi. But people warned me about the hostility between Johannesburg Uber drivers and cab companies. People said Uber drivers don't like to stop for too long. And they don't like to get too close to where the cabs park. Regardless, Uber is still the company people recommended for cab service around Johannesburg.
I ordered an Uber through the app on my phone. But this first attempt backfired on me because the Uber driver couldn't call me. I had my SIM card in, and my Uber app had my US phone number on it rather than my South African number. Rookie mistake! I had to switch my SIM cards and connect to WiFi to request and meet a different driver.
This was not an ideal situation to be in. As I switched SIM cards, I was flashing my phone around in public appearing distracted and vulnerable. This also meant I ended up hanging around the train station longer than I would have liked to. But I made the best of the situation. I made sure to stand out in the open near other travelers waiting for cabs and in plain view of a police officer.
While I didn't drive on my own in Johannesburg (or anywhere in Africa, for that matter), I did hear some tips in case I did. And I suppose these tips can apply to riding passenger in an Uber, too! The following are the two major tips I received:
Lock Doors, Roll Up Windows
If you drive anywhere in Africa, keep your doors locked and windows rolled up at all times. In particular, when you stop your vehicle for any reason, make sure to keep things locked and closed up.
The reason? People will steal things out of your car.
Keep Valuables Out Of Sight
People have smashed windows to get at items considered valuable enough. So locked doors and rolled windows are not always enough.
It then follows that you want to keep all bags and valuables out of sight in your car. Keep your phone and wallet on you and put away when you are navigating cities and townships. Put all luggage and handbags into the trunk or boot of the car.
If the trunk area is open to view, cover whatever is in there with a blanket or tarp. Don't allow anybody can see in and identify your valuables.
Choosing A Hostel - Once In Joburg
I picked Once in Joburg on De Korte street based on some research I did on different neighborhoods around Johannesburg. Most maps, guides, and blogs said to avoid certain areas entirely. But Once in Joburg was in a neighborhood deemed safe relative to other areas.
It also happened to be in my price range! At $28 a night, I actually splurged an extra $13 or so to ensure I was going to be in a safer area. There were hostels available for $15 a night but it wasn't worth the risk for me!
Once in Joburg was really cool anyway. It has awesome decor and was super clean and comfortable. In fact, when Puleng, Peace, and I stumbled on the place the day before, Puleng was super surprised. She didn't have a very positive perception of hostels before she saw this place.
Hostels are definitely not at all like you imagine or have seen them to be in the movies. Hollywood usually depicts them as dirty, dilapidated frat houses. While some may still be a bit rough and filled with 20-something partiers, that has not been my experience 9 times out of 10. Once in Joburg is nowhere near that category. It felt like staying in a swank, artsy little bed and breakfast. I'm sure staying in one of their single rooms feels like that even more so.
I chose a 4-bed dorm because I figured it would be fun to meet and hang out with some other travelers. And that's exactly what happened!
When On Foot
At some point, you're probably going to need to leave your hostel for something. Maybe you'll venture out for food or a SIM card or just to explore a little. No matter the reason, you will find yourself on foot.
Ideally, try to avoid walking around at night. But that's not always possible. So here are my tips, especially for women who plan to do any walking around Johannesburg at any time of day.
Safety in Numbers
Go with a friend. I met an awesome, Zimbabwean woman around my age in my room at the hostel. We decided to venture out together.
We both wanted to get food and to visit a nearby venue for some live music. But we both knew that it would be better to do this together. So we were natural and immediate friends conjoined at the hip!
Don't Carry Valuables
I knew not to carry a bag with me outside the hostel. That bag could make me become an immediate target, even if there was nothing inside!
I decided to only carry a few South African dollars, my ID, room key, and one credit card shoved deep into my pocket. You couldn't even tell I had anything on me.
I asked my new friend about carrying my phone on me. Was it worth it? She said that carrying any technology, even an old flip phone, was game for getting stolen. People will steal or sell almost any technology, old or new. So it's best not to carry it with you if you can live without it for a short while.
For me, I'd actually rather take it with me but keep it hidden in my bra or something. All you need to do is keep it out of sight until you get indoors. And having it may actually be good for safety purposes. That would be my only means of communication if stuck in a bad situation. But my new friend had her phone, so it made sense for us to stick together and bring only one.
Trust Your Gut
Our first stop on our venture out was to a gas station. I wanted to pick up some snacks for my long ride out to Kruger National Park the next day.
On our walk there, we both saw a few men standing on a street corner. One of them started walking suspiciously toward us from across the street. It wasn't worth giving this situation the benefit of the doubt. Instead of walking by them, we both silently crossed the street early to avoid an interaction.
Neither one of us even said anything to each other to avoid them until we had already crossed. It was instinct to us both. When we made it to the other side of the street, she immediately said to me "You saw that right?" And I confirmed. "He was sketchy." "Yup." And that was that.
Go with your gut no matter what!
Keep Your Head Held High
One behavior I always practice anywhere I am in the world, but especially in big cities, is staying confident. The second I appear distracted, confused, new to the area, or vulnerable, I am putting myself at risk.
So hold your head high and walk with determination even if you have no idea where you're going! I'm telling you, it just signals to people that you're probably not the easiest target.
It also just makes you feel better rather than acting like a scared deer in headlights. Hold your body confidently and you will feel confident as a result.
Finally, Enjoy The Benefits Of Your Safety
After we finished at the gas station, we stole away into The Orbit. The Orbit has food and drink and free open mic night on Sunday nights. We plopped down at a table and were able to relax in the safety of the indoors around other patrons.
I ate and drank and cider in peace as we listened to the amazing vocals and instruments of local musical artists. I had an awesome time chilling in this venue for the night.
After a couple of hours, we both walked briskly and confidently back to the safety of our hostel for a cozy night of sleep.
With just a few precautions, I managed to spend one night in Johannesburg free of any problems. Apply my tips above and I'm sure you'll have an easy and safe time, too!