The following is an interview with Sarah Giese about solo female travel in Southern Africa.
Why did you decide to travel to southern Africa by yourself?
I have always dreamed of visiting Africa. When I was a child I wanted to get lost in the savanna and survive by my wits and the help of animal friends. As I grew up, the continent held a special place in my imagination. It never seemed like the right time to visit, because of school, work and then children. My spouse turned to me one evening and said, I think you should go to Africa, and I think you should stay at least a month. I decided to go by myself to save money and allow myself maximum freedom of exploration.
Did you have any trouble traveling solo there?
On the first morning of my trip, my cellphone was pickpocketed at Park Station in Johannesburg. That caused a bit of a hassle, because I was getting on a long distance train and didn’t have a chance to get a new one for two days (the train was very delayed). Once I had a replacement I was able to stay organized and communicate. And once I was on safari in Namibia and Botswana, the company I booked through shuttled me around like a princess and I didn’t have to worry about anything.
>>Check out the these packing essentials for Etosha National Park, Namibia.
Did you ever feel unsafe?
Having my phone stolen made me feel unsafe for a couple of days. I was hyper vigilant after that which is probably a good thing. Each place I went in South Africa (Johannesburg, Beaufort West, Cape Town) I was told by locals not walk alone at night. I followed that advice and made sure to take a cab unless I had a walking buddy. I was also advised to only use cabs that had lettering on the sides, not just lights on the roof. Another girl I met who was also traveling solo in Cape Town had the Uber app and used it exclusively when she needed a ride.
Occasionally, panhandlers would follow me down the block and that made me feel uncomfortable but not exactly unsafe. In Northern Namibia, a lion prowled around our camp roaring for his pride to come pick him up, and it really freaked out one of the other guests, but I was fascinated and then annoyed after a while because he made it hard to sleep with all his racket. Go home Lion, you’re drunk!
>>Going on a safari? See our packing list for a South Africa safari in winter.
Tell us about one of your favorite experiences from traveling solo in southern Africa.
I rented a car (Left Hand manual stick!) in Beaufort West to travel 280 kilometers to a very small town called Nieu Bethesda and visit a house there that has been made a museum of sorts. It is called the Owl House and it was the home of Helen Martin, an artist, free spirit and outsider in her tiny Dutch Lutheran community. After the death of her father in 1945, she spent the next 20 years turning her home and garden into a beautiful world of owls, maidens, mermaids, camels and pilgrims, fantastical beasts and South African Mona Lisas. Almost every surface inside the house is covered with crushed colored glass and bold paints.
Her story was told by Athol Fugard in his play, The Road to Mecca. It has been one of my favorite plays since I was a teenager and when I discovered that her home was preserved as it was at her death by suicide in 1976, I resolved that my trip couldn’t be successful without a trip there. It was a wonderful experience. I reread the play before I left on my journey and it was surreal to have my imagination manifested in the physical world.
I was also surprised to find a prehistoric museum dedicated to local fossils from the Permian Period. It was a very immersive museum where they teach you how to identify fossils in the rock and take you on a fossil hunt in the local riverbed. As a paleontology buff it was very rewarding.
While I was in the village enjoying coffee at the Sacred Ibis Bakery, I met Anne Graaf, an author and Owl House enthusiast. We had a long conversation about Miss Helen, her art and individuality, and I walked away with a new friend and a place to stay when I return to Nieu Bethesda, which I undoubtedly will.
Were there any special precautions you took to feel safer while traveling solo?
I booked my accommodations in advance, which wasn’t always easy as most didn’t accept credit card, but I felt safer always knowing where I was going every night. I had a money belt for my cash and passport, but I honestly stopped wearing it because it was too hot and I felt like I didn’t need it once I was out of Johannesburg. I stayed in Backpackers in populated areas and didn’t walk alone at night. I took my malaria pills once I got to Botswana and used my water purifier whenever I was drinking unfiltered water.
Did you meet any other solo female travelers while you were there?
I booked a tourist class ticket on the Shosholoza Meyl from Jo-burg to Beaufort West, which is theoretically a 16 hour trip. The tourist class puts you in a compartment designed for four travelers and they segregate by gender unless you are traveling in a group. I shared my compartment with another solo female traveler from the US, though she is now living in Lesotho as a Peace Corps volunteer.
She was friendly and smart and we hit it off. She was also incredibly kind and I’m very thankful that she was there for me on that train, to support me as I wrapped my head around having my smartphone stolen and figured out how to recover my confidence and get on with enjoying my trip. We made plans to meet up in Cape Town in a few days and we hung out, took a peninsula tour, hiked on Table Mountain, and enjoyed the city together. I don’t think it was a relationship I would have made if I’d been traveling with my family or spouse and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to travel solo!
What luggage did you bring with you to southern Africa?
I brought a small plain black duffle bag 10in x 12in x 24in and a backpack. Both were borrowed from a friend. I wish the duffle bag had had a shoulder strap, or that I had found the time or wherewithal to rig one up. I avoided wheeled luggage because my safari company warned me that the bush planes have very small, cramped baggage holds and that bags with hard frames and wheels, or larger than 10in x 12in x 24in wouldn’t be permitted. It seemed to me that I was the ONLY person who followed this rule. Seriously, the only one.
>>Find the perfect travel backpack here.
Were there any items you were glad you brought with you or that you wished you had brought?
I’m very glad I brought my Kindle because it has ALL the books and such a long battery life. Also, my little lock and key so I could secure my expensive belongings in the lockers provided at the Backpackers. I wish I had brought the charging cable for my laptop. I was a bit bitter carrying around that extra weight once it was dead.
What’s your number 1 tip for females traveling solo to southern Africa?
People will constantly ask you why you are doing this. Why are you here, in Africa, alone? The continual questioning, from shopkeepers, innkeepers, rental agents, train conductors, safari guides, other travelers, can start to sound like a condemnation. Like they are saying, “why are you doing something you shouldn’t do?” I found it helpful to come up with a stock response.
“Why are you in Namibia (Botswana, SA, wherever)?”
“I’m fulfilling a lifelong dream of intrepid exploration!”
“Okay, but why alone?”
“My family would only slow me down!”
And if I showed the confidence of a person who knows what she wants and how to get it, they accepted it and stopped bugging me about my crazy choice to travel solo around the world.
And don’t put your smartphone in the pocket of your baggy pants in the most pickpocket-ridden spot in Johannesburg.
About the author: My name is Sarah Giese. I’m a 35 year old woman, married with children, not employed outside the home. I have been a nanny, a stage manager, a project coordinator, a barista, and a librarian. Mostly I’ve traveled to European cities like London, Paris, Cologne, Venice, Rome and Athens. I’ve taken a Mediterranean Cruise with all the obligatory blue and white stops. I’ve road tripped across the US many times, stopping in 44 of the 50 states (well, Hawaii wasn’t a road trip) and greatly appreciate the natural scenery our national parks have to offer, especially in the West.