My Scary Highway Robbery Experience in Cape Town, South Africa
I almost don't want to tell anybody about this experience, because prior to having it I spent two absolutely wonderful weeks in South Africa. At home I had heard about the country's reputation for being unsafe, but one hears similar things about the United States but rarely experiences them. Right now I am writing this from my friends home in the beautiful tree filled Rondebosch Cape Town neighborhood nestled beside the mountains. Her home is surrounded by an electronic gate, and the front door is gated as well. The house has a security alarm system, and every window has bars on it. Within the house are gates between the living room and kitchen, and living room and bedrooms that we lock whenever we leave and every night when we go to bed. This is how people live in Cape Town, because they say break-ins and theft are very common here. This is what we learned, so Alex and I were cautious when we went out on our own, we didn't leave anything in sight when we parked our cars, and we avoided certain areas when the sun went down. I was sure I would return home and tell everybody that South Africa and Cape Town have an undeserved bad reputation, that I would say that you just have to exercise the same common sense and caution that you do in any major city or unfamiliar country. Unfortunately I can't say those things, because I experienced firsthand how unsafe South Africa can be.
Alex and I took a side trip from Cape Town to fly to Johannesburg. Once in Joburg we spent a day in Soweto, then rented a car and drove for 7 hours to Kruger National Park for a 4 day safari. Our safari was the highlight of our trip; we saw every animal, and I took a thousand photos. On our last morning in the bush we finally saw a cheetah, then after breakfast we bid farewell and started the journey back to Cape Town. We drove the 7 long hours back to Johannesburg, and went directly to the airport for our evening flight back to Cape Town.
We arrived at the Cape Town Airport late, at 11:30 at night. We rented a car once again, and left to return to our friend Victoria's house, a 20 minute drive away. Maybe we were a bit exhausted from the long day, long drive, and evening flight, but overall we were fine and had become familiar with driving in South Africa and the roads in Cape Town. I was behind the wheel and we were on the highway leaving the airport, making an interchange from Airport Approach Road to the N2 freeway. As I crossed over the bridge and was turning to merge on to the N2 freeway, I suddenly in the headlights saw approaching debris in the road. The speed limit was on the fast side and the road on the dark side, so I couldn't make out what the debris was, but one bit was approaching too quickly to avoid so I set it between the wheels and hoped to just run it straight under the car. It was a rock. Not an enormous rock, but a rock large enough that it went under the car, slammed hard into the undercarriage, and set off the airbags.
We were ok, the rock just sort of lodged itself under the car and caused us to stop abruptly without swerving, although I don't really remember anything except the airbag exploding into my chest and then not being able to breathe because the punch in the chest followed by the gas and dust that instantaneously filled the car and my throat and lungs. This was both Alex's and my first airbag experience, and it really shook us up. Alex and I rolled down the windows to get some air and eventually stepped out of the car to check what the fuck had happened and what the fuck we were going to do with this car that we had rented just 10 minutes prior. We had noticed the trail of oil behind the car and were trying to assess whether the car was even still drivable when two men came running out from the side of the road. My first thought was that they saw what happened and were coming over to help, but this thought was quickly squashed when I realized their body language was hostile and they were shouting "Phone, phone, give me your phone!".
It was a very dark and desperate moment that I realized exactly what was happening, and the rock in the road had been deliberately placed there. As Alex struggled to not give up her phone with one or both of the men (they weren't very old or very large, but we clearly had the disadvantage in the situation), I ran out into the road to attempt to flag down one of the few passing cars about to merge on to the freeway. It was one of those situations you wonder what you would do, and you think of how you can best handle it. When it actually happens you can't think at all, your brain goes in to fight or flight mode and you just react. I was waving my arms and screaming for help, and I absolutely did not expect that 3 or 4 cars would zoom by without so much as slowing down. A passing car would clearly have seen our rental car on the side of the road with its hazards on, and two men struggling with the two of us women (obviously tourists), me with my blue hair and white sweatshirt waving and screaming, but each car made a conscious decision to do nothing and continue full speed ahead. My only thoughts were to get help, and to stay away from those guys, because I didn't know all of what they wanted from us and what they were willing to do to get it.
When I realized nobody was going to help us, I ran back to the drivers side of the car just in time to see one of the men open the back door and grab my fully packed 50L backpack. My heart dropped knowing that among other things, a $2000 lens I was borrowing from my boyfriend Jason was in that bag. I had been so careful with that lens on the trip and never let it out of my sight. There it went running across the road and back into the dark tall grass. I returned to the drivers seat and Alex returned from out of nowhere with mud splattered all over her face and clothes. She had been fighting with the other man to keep her iPhone and they struggled all the way to the grassy embankment where the two men had originally been hiding and he pushed her into the mud during the struggle. They were gone with my bag and we were back in the car, with powdery deflated airbags hanging from the steering wheel and dash, seatbelts stretched out hanging limp, and the car expressing its dissatisfaction with its current state through a series of blinking indicator lights.
We didn't know what we were going to do, but we knew that if we stayed there and waited for help we would be a target for those men or for others to return. I attempted to drive forward but the rock was lodged. I had to reverse over the rock to get it dislodged, and then we continued driving. I was probably driving 20 miles under the speed limit, with the hazards on, in total shock about everything that had just happened, and in total fear that the car would stop driving at any moment.
This was when I noticed that the guy who ran off with my backpack also ran off with my other smaller backpack. So he had my brand new Macbook with the entire trips digital photos and video footage, the Canon 70d camera I bought for the trip, 2 more lenses, a new GoPro Hero 4, another GoPro Hero 3, a Contax T3 black film camera (just a $900 film camera), all the film I shot in Soweto, on the road trip, and on safari, all of my clothes, my passport, credit cards, drivers license, cash... $8000 total worth of stuff gone.
I sort of lost track what I was doing or where I should be going and missed the next freeway exit. As I kept driving I looked around at where we were and we were not in a good part of the city to stop. Knowing that the car was likely to run out of oil and stop driving, I made a snap decision to U turn off the freeway and drive the wrong way up a freeway on ramp so we could get back on going the opposite direction. I was very nervous that we could collide with an oncoming car (drivers drive very fast in South Africa, and the speed limit on freeways is 120kph or 75mph), but I had to get the fuck off the freeway as soon as possible. We got back on going the opposite direction and limped the car back to the airport, and back to the rental car return.
Eventually Victoria and her boyfriend met us at the rental car place where they comforted us and did what they could to help. The people at Europcar were pretty unhelpful, but let me use the phone to call the US to cancel my cards and call Jason at home to change all of my passwords (I had a master list on my computer, not very smart in this situation). Victoria brought us to the airport police where we filed our police report, but not before arguing with several officers who tried to claim it wasn't within their jurisdiction to deal with our case because of where it happened. Almost everyone we dealt with was unhelpful and unsympathetic, and the South African police department overall seemed worthless, so much so that I wished I was dealing with the American police.
So this is how my trip to South Africa ended. I was to fly out two days later on a Sunday night, but I had to change my flight because I no longer had a passport, and I could only replace it on Monday when the US Embassy was open next. Alex had to lend me her credit card to make all of my purchases for the next few days, and when she left on Sunday, I reluctantly rented another car and without a phone had to rent and rely on GPS in the car to get around.
On Monday I had no trouble getting a replacement passport, which set me back $130. Then I decided to make the most of my sunny extra day in Cape Town, and I drove out to Muizenberg beach to see the colorfully painted Victorian beach houses. At Muizenberg I came across surfboard rentals and lots of people in the water swimming and surfing, so I rented a surfboard and wetsuit for super cheap and surfed the mellow waves for a couple of hours and got myself a sunburn. Then I paid another visit to the penguins of Boulder Beach before returning to Victoria's to pack up and make my 24+ hour journey (back to back 12 hour flights through London) to be home at last. When I got to the airport, I didn't think I would make it out of Cape Town. I was put in a room and made to feel like a criminal for having a temporary passport, because the passport didn't have the entrance stamp I received in my stolen passport upon my arrival in South Africa. When I made it though to the terminal, I filled my sad empty suitcase with South African snacks, half of which were confiscated when I got in to Los Angeles because they were packaged meat products (biltong is amazing South African meat jerky, I brought back like 5 packages).
Over a month later I am still dealing with the aftermath of this incident. I just paid $800 for damages to Europcar for the car we were driving when this happened. We had damage coverage, but the coverage was that we would pay up to, but not more than $1200 for whatever happened to the car. I just got the bad news from my credit card that they were not going to cover the rental car damages, because I had failed to DECLINE the rental car company's damage coverage, a small detail that made me ineligible for CapitalOne's rental car coverage.
I had an Allianz travel insurance policy I purchased when I bought my airline ticket, and in total they have paid me $200 for my stolen baggage, and $300 which just covered the fee to change my flight. American Express covered part of my laptop which I had just bought with the card through their purchase protection coverage, but $1000 is the maximum of their purchase protection plan so that's what I got. I still have another claim to file for a few smaller items stolen that I had recently bought with the card, but I'm questioning whether it's worth all of the paperwork. I mailed away for my permanent passport which was sent back once because the Cape Town embassy gave me the wrong address.
Despite all of this I am eager to travel again. I would go back to South Africa to go on a safari again, and I hope to sooner than later. I still would recommend Cape Town to visit because it's such a unique place with an insanely beautiful coastline and really cool wildlife... I just would absolutely recommend against doing any freeway night driving, especially around the airport. Read all of the travel advisories about South Africa, and don't take them lightly, because unfortunately crime is the only source of income for a large percentage of the population there, and the police are inadequate to deal with it.