Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Africa Overland - security and safety

Africa is fantastic continent for the overlander to travel and explore!   However, the question everyone asks: Is Africa safe for an overland expedition?   The quick and easy answer is absolutely yes!
The UK FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) provides a good overview of various threats related to each country – however, and this is the big point: It is very generic and covers areas that sometimes independent overlanders don’t travel to.

Here’s my thoughts on security and safety in Africa.  

Personal Safety First…

Personal Safety realistically comes down to the roads you are travelling on.  The roads in Africa vary considerably and can often lead to accidents occurring.  Driving, were reasonably possible, should be confined to daylight hours only.  This is not always possible but as the verbal roadbook for Africa states ‘Don’t drive at night’.  Here's a short video clip showing the various roads the BigSky Adventures team drove...

Additional elements of personal safety include the usual anti-malarial advice, health & hygiene and safety when working on vehicle.  Each of the last few points can lead to severe consequences and sometimes in a repatriation service back to your home country for treatment.  Examples of this are severe cases of malaria, dysentery and major injuries related to vehicle accidents.

Security whilst travelling…

Security on an overland trip extends the personal safety element to the next level – being aware of the country you are travelling in and the security risks associated with it.  Africa is a country made up of major cities and many small villages.  The big cities understand the concept that travellers (and esp. the weekly tourists) have money, camera equipment and are easily duped into handing them over – usually via theft related to distraction i.e. one person distracts you, whilst the other thief grabs what he wants.  Overlanders can all relate to how one member of the party stays with the vehicle and whilst the rest of the team are doing chores, someone knocks on the window to distract whilst another person attempts to pinch something via an open window or from the rear of the vehicle.

On the positive side, the more time you spend travelling, the more your in-built security radar will begin to alert you of uneasy situations – i.e. driving through a part of town where you know you don’t want to stop ; buying food in market when people are giving you threatening looks.

Small villages:
In my opinion, human beings are generally friendly and more curious about who you are, where you have come from and where you are going.  As a result, the security element in villages is relatively low, and if an incident occurs, local justice is swift.  In the late 1990’s a friend was travelling and his portable radio was pinched.  The village chief arranged a thorough search – they found the culprit and then gave him a good lashing.  My friend was asked to watch the punishment, which made him feel rather guilty that his radio had caused such harsh punishment.  A tough call to make if something like that is stolen and the culprit caught.

In summary, personal safety and security are two different topics – look after your personal safety in all you do, especially whilst driving.  Accidents occur very quickly and often lead to severe injuries.
Security is different – be aware of your surroundings and be willing to take advice from locals, other overlanders and your inner voice.  I have been actively reading overland websites and can only state a handful of times where overlanders have been harshly treated with violence. 

Look after your safety and tread lightly…

Suggested Reading:
Expedition Medicine

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