So you want to take a trip alone, throw caution to the wind and get away from the rat-race? The reality of this whimsical notion is that we are no longer living in the age of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll or free-love; we live in times where it’s important to be safe.
A friend who works hard and takes pleasure in spoiling herself with solo vacations recently posted pictures of her vacation to Ibiza and France, giving us all small doses of travel envy and leaving the rest of us who are broke and crunching on carrot sticks midmonth wondering how one manages to get to the level where going to Europe is as simple and affordable as booking a flight to Durban. Or where one gets the chutzpah to travel alone.
My personal concern was more about her safety and why anyone would opt to travel unaccompanied. Is it not slightly irresponsible or have I just become boring? Or maybe the South African in me is uber cautious. There was a time that backpacking through small, arid European towns was seen as brave or even exciting.
South Africans love to pretend that only Africa has crime and the rest of the world is heaven with angels who wouldn’t hurt a fly …but it isn’t. Sorry to scare you, but crime is everywhere, perhaps in smaller doses and not as brutal or blatant.
One of the biggest crimes for solo travellers has to be pickpocketing.
The Hague, The Netherlands – March 12, 2016: Sign with a warning against pickpockets and people sitting in outdoor cafe on the Plein townsquare in The Hague, The Netherlands on March 12, 2016
Groups of thieves who are smartly dressed but seem to have the skills of Oliver Twist’s Fagan descend on many an open tourist area like Piccadilly Circus in London, which is often so tightly packed that you’d never feel a hand digging into your back-pack or bag. The skill that these thieves are armed with is masterful and could even fool an expert eye, which they often do when the crime is reported and the police look at the footage to break-down the method of object removal.
Then there’s the brazen act of mugging. When travelling, most tourists are warned about having too many shopping bags or going into dodgy areas. But in every group of travellers, there’s always one who likes to tempt fate. That’s usually the person who will walk down a dark alley in parts of New York and get mugged. Or follow a salesman who wants to show them where they can find brand names at a bargain. Criminals love to party and they enjoy partying with lone travellers who are desperate to make friends. They also enjoy offering these travellers “party packs”, some of which involve drugs or getting their drinks spiked.
So many South Africans get caught up and become drug mules because they couldn’t contain themselves and wanted to make friends with strangers, some with the promise of a job that will help them extend their stay in a country. Convicted drug mule Nolubabalo “Babsie” Nobanda arrived back on SA shores a few months ago with a highly questionable explanation of how she ended up with packets of cocaine in her faux dreadlocks. Nobanda had been serving a sentence of 30 years in a Thai prison when her sentence was reduced and she was deported back home.
She described how she’d left local shores and gone to Brazil, got the drugs and somehow ended up in Thailand, where she was arrested and served eight years in jail.
Such stories are warning enough to any South African looking to take a trip alone to another country that you always need a back-up plan because anything can happen. I researched some well-known tips on how to stay safe when travelling alone and came up with a shortlist:
1. Do thorough research about where you’re going. There are huge differences between hidden gems and going into the unknown blindly. This requires carrying maps, diaries, city guides.
2. Don’t always depend on the electronic safety net, because some areas are off the grid and don’t accommodate any sort of technology. If the country still accommodates phone cards, buy one and have it stacked with enough airtime that won’t run out.
3. Find out more than what’s offered on the website about your lodgings. Read all reviews. Stay away from places that have no reviews, they probably aren’t tourist-friendly.
4. Always have emergency contacts in your luggage and hand luggage. Have a contact back home who you speak to regularly.
5. Don’t eat or drink everything you are offered. It sounds silly but only drink sealed bottled water you buy yourself.
6. Don’t accept all invitations to parties and to explore strange places from strangers. The world is a beautiful place to explore, but it’s best to do so while keeping your wits about you.
For more news your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.