A Harrowing Journey Through South Africa: Lessons in Safety from 3 Foreign Travelers’ Dangerous Encounter

Reflecting upon the past, we, three vulnerable foreigners, engaged in negotiations with a sizable group of locals and imprudently entered the ebony vehicle. Our audacity, in truth, embodied the adage “A newborn calf is not afraid of tigers.”

The absence of an automobile renders mobility in South Africa nearly insurmountable. In my youthful exuberance, I steadfastly disbelieved in malevolence, striving to substantiate through my actions and valor that I could traverse South Africa sans the employment of a chauffeur or guide. Alas, my conviction proved fallacious. Deprived of a VISA card, car rental eluded us, compounded by suboptimal mobile phone signals thwarting Uber’s locating capabilities. Consequently, we were compelled to acquiesce and seek a chauffeur.

Inquiring of several conventional taxi drivers adorned in verdant vests outside Johannesburg Airport, the price spectrum quoted ranged from 400 to 600 rand (approximately 150 to 250 yuan), while my psychological threshold rested at 200 rand. Regrettably, few were amenable to such terms. Yet, after protracted negotiations, a driver eventually acceded to a pact at R250.

However, this submarket rate did not redound to our advantage. Unbeknownst to us, we, the three feeble foreigners, found ourselves “transferred” from a green-vested driver to a black-hued one. In hindsight, our naive bargaining ensued as we embarked upon the black vehicle. Our courage inadvertently substantiated the aphorism “A newborn calf is not afraid of tigers.”

Fortuitously, our journey transpired uneventfully. As we neared our destination, however, we discovered the gates to the pre-booked youth hostel were sealed, and iron barriers obstructed certain areas. Anticipating a semblance of disquietude, the driver, appearing perturbed, opined the locale’s lack of safety and implored us to relocate to a familiar hotel. Skepticism enveloped me, considering the slightly dilapidated appearance of the area, juxtaposed with the driver’s disconcerting countenance.

Refusing the proposition, primarily due to the non-refundable nature of the youth hostel, I proffered a 300 rand note. Lamentably, South Africans are unaccustomed to carrying cash, and the driver, lacking change, escorted us out of the vehicle, intending to exchange currency with the hostel owner. Exiting the car with heightened trepidation post-conversation, I pondered the veracity of the safety concerns.

The youth hostel’s diminutive, iron-locked entrance necessitated the front desk clerk’s intervention for access. Post-currency exchange, the departing driver imparted a cautionary directive: “Please attend to your safety! Endeavor to stay indoors, particularly during nocturnal hours. Should you require transportation, do not hesitate to summon me!” A series of handshakes concluded his admonition. Subsequent to completing the check-in formalities, the hostel’s proprietor validated the driver’s counsel—mandatory return before dusk, minimal outdoor excursions, and solitary endeavors were advised.

Perambulating through the city, police accompaniment ushered my return to the youth hostel.

Chicken Licken, akin to KFC and McDonald’s, denotes a local South African brand prevalent in major cities and airports. However, the establishment we patronized featured ostentatious embellishments—iron railings and bulletproof glass adorned the entrance counter.

Our sojourn in South Africa commenced in a state of nescience and perplexity.

Johannesburg marked our initiation, with the South African Apartheid Museum as the primary destination. A museum visit serves as the most immediate and impactful conduit for comprehending a nation, its metropolis, politics, economy, culture, and history.

Stepping into the Apartheid Museum’s passage, an oppressive sense of despondency enveloped me. The museum’s copious historical depictions, videos, and documents laid bare scenes of appalling historical atrocities. Photography, proscribed within the premises, coupled with tangible artifacts, underscored the extensive damage wrought by racial discrimination upon the world and humanity.

Exiting the passage, the ambiance metamorphosed. Azure skies and billowing clouds framed crimson walls and alabaster bricks. Figures of diverse ages ambled leisurely on the slope.

Post-museum exploration, our trio sought sustenance in proximity. Nearby eateries predominantly proffered fried chicken, burgers, pizza, and bread. The Chicken Licken fast food outlet, resembling KFC and McDonald’s, exhibited an exaggerated decorum—with iron barricades and bulletproof glass at the ordering station. It dawned upon us that such fortifications were a ubiquitous sight in the vicinity. Momentarily, anxiety gripped me anew. Was the locale genuinely unsafe?

Besides our trio, a conspicuous dearth of Asian countenances pervaded the streets. We became focal points, intermittently accosted by beggars. In the absence of alms, they trailed persistently. Countless eyes scrutinized us, and provocative whistles echoed from men. Gradually, a nightmarish amalgamation of despondency, tension, and fear gripped us. Averse to turning back, our singular desire was a swift return to the youth hostel.

Concurrently, benevolent locals, some adept in Chinese salutations, approached us. A few even cautioned against laxity regarding cameras and backpacks. One gentleman initiated a unique fist bump—an amalgamation of a thumbs-up, a lateral and frontal fist bump, culminating in the touching of two fists. A thumb and a seal.

After strolling through the market and exploring Johannesburg City Hall, we opted to return to the hostel. A vehicle trailed us along the path, inquiring about our destination and urging us to embark upon the vehicle. Devoid of any discernible markings on the car’s exterior, we hesitated to accord it our attention. Subsequently, at an intersection, two armed law enforcement officers, a gentleman and a lady, obstructed our route. They gestured towards their attire, reassuring us of their status as policemen and alleviating any apprehensions. Moreover, they apprised us that post four o’clock in the afternoon, the vicinity became markedly perilous, and the clock already struck half-past five.

Under police escort, we safely reached our residence, only to unveil that the ostensibly ominous vehicle was, in fact, a police car.

The uninitiated expedition encountered adversity, where life and death hung in the balance within the blink of an eye.

Abruptly, around ten individuals materialized on either side, encircling us – “Flee!” I instinctively sensed the ominous nature of the situation and vociferated urgently. On the fourth day in South Africa, my apprehensions materialized.

It being a Sunday and the confectionery being shuttered, we procured breakfast from a nearby supermarket, consuming it while standing at the entrance. At this juncture, a group of indigent individuals seemed to target us, gesturing towards our repast intermittently, hatching some scheme. Fortuitously, security personnel stationed at the entrance dissuaded any concerns of a potential incursion.

After years of globetrotting and exploring numerous countries, this marked the first instance of such profound trepidation. Post-dinner, our intention was to walk to Carlton Center and subsequently hail a taxi to Constitution Hill.

Yiduo remained exceptionally vigilant. She discerned a group of destitute individuals approaching from across the thoroughfare and shadowing our every move. As we hastened our pace, they mirrored our swiftness. A sense of impending peril pervaded; were they contemplating robbery? Unease gripped everyone, and the ambiance grew increasingly tense. At the intersection, a clothing emporium had just commenced operations, prompting our impulsive entry. Unexpectedly, the group persisted in stationing themselves at the entrance, impervious to entreaties.

The ordeal was far from over; it marked merely the inception.

Proceeding towards Carlton Center, traversing a timeworn alleyway, we found ourselves surrounded by around ten individuals – “Flee!” I instantaneously grasped the precariousness of the situation and vociferated urgently.

Alas, it was too late. Three assailants caught up with Axiang, causing him to stumble. The mirrorless camera and gimbal stabilizer plummeted to the ground. Yiduo, bereft of valuables, was forcibly pushed aside. My movements were impeded as the backpack was firmly tugged. Witnessing this tableau, Yiduo valiantly brandished a coat, warding off the assailants.

Perhaps owing to the resonance of our clamorous appeals, drawing onlookers from both ends of the street, the assailants relented. We fled precipitously. Despite reaching safety beyond the alley, a benevolent passerby urgently admonished, “Flee! Flee! Flee!” Fearing our failure to comprehend, he gestured the action. Discerning the situation, we continued our flight, sprinting into Carlton Center.

Thankfully, the assailants were unarmed, sparing us severe injuries. The dropped camera sustained no damage to its imaging capabilities. Nevertheless, my fingers bore scratches, tinted slightly purple, and Axiang suffered an arm injury.

The genesis of this ordeal lay in our lackadaisical approach and disregard for counsel. We naively dismissed news as embellished narratives, presuming danger to be an improbable occurrence. Subsequent to sharing my harrowing encounter online, I received copious comments from netizens and Chinese South Africans, including:

“How audacious to dwell in the old city and traverse the streets with a backpack! Your misfortune wasn’t an accident; it was a high-probability event!”
“The equipment endures! In Johannesburg, I was a victim of robbery, losing my backpack, camera, mobile phone, and cash. Thankfully, I safeguarded my passport. You are incredibly fortunate!”
“I’ve resided in Joburg for almost two decades and wouldn’t dare venture into the city as you did. Your naivety is palpable. Return promptly!”

Following a harrowing morning, we abandoned our afternoon and next day’s itinerary. Sequestered in our hostel room, we grappled with the shock, merely awaiting the flight to Mandela City (formerly known as Port Elizabeth). The trio lay inert on the bed, confronting time’s relentless difficulty for the first time.

The haze dissipated, revealing the world’s beauty once more.

Upon landing in Mandela City, beholding the azure sky, drifting white clouds, and basking in the sunshine, we experienced a modicum of relaxation.

The tickets to Mandela City were procured half a month in advance via South Africa’s “Mango Airlines,” a low-cost carrier. Surprisingly, our Boeing 738 offered expansive seating. A distinctive feature, diverging from other airlines, was the South African captain’s commanding ascent, evoking the sensation of a rocket launch. Ascending swiftly at an angle of approximately 70 degrees, the plane attained a normal and secure cruising altitude in about five minutes. Throughout this phase, the plane encountered occasional turbulence, eliciting a semblance of disquiet.

Upon landing in Mandela City, as we gazed at the clear blue sky, lazily drifting white clouds, and sauntered in the sunshine, our hearts lightened. Mandela City, renowned as the “Detroit of Africa,” stands out as one of South Africa’s pristine urban centers.

It is noteworthy that the thoroughfare from Mandera City to Cape Town encompasses the renowned “Garden Route,” also known as the N2 highway. Encompassing an approximate distance of 750 kilometers, it has ascended to global acclaim as a self-driven expedition owing to the picturesque landscapes that unfold along its course. In addition to the resplendent coastline, the route meanders through numerous parks, river valleys, and quaint hamlets. Whether indulging in bird watching, whale sightings, water pursuits, hiking, camping, wine appreciation, or relishing oysters, the avenue offers a comprehensive array of experiences.

Our lodgings grace the seaside in Xincheng District. The environs exude an air of safety, cleanliness, and order, with occasional joggers tracing the shoreline. The expansive azure sky harmoniously converges with the crystalline sea, delineating a horizon at the distant periphery. A distinctive ambiance of leisure and exotic splendor pervades, rekindling our hearts with serenity and elation, prompting involuntary sighs. The world’s beauty manifests itself once more.

Adjacent to the hotel, several establishments beckon, including fastidious restaurants and bars. Intrigued, we entered an establishment specializing in rice cuisine. A serving of rice commanded a price of 40 rand (approximately 15 yuan). Despite its slightly unfamiliar taste and firm texture, the moment it graced our palates, a profound sense of joy enveloped us.