Here is what you need to know about traveling to Africa and going on an African safari during the coronavirus pandemic, according to someone who recently traveled there – me. I recently went to South Africa and Botswana, and here are some of my experiences.
Whether you are planning to travel now or just pulling ideas out of your bucket list, these once-in-a-lifetime trips present the opportunity to witness the exotic wildlife, the welcoming people, and all the majesty that Africa offers minus one important aspect if you travel soon: the crowds.
With its vast open spaces, affording you the ability to spread out, Africa is the ideal destination to travel to now.
The countries of Africa, airlines, hotels and safari companies are all taking the necessary steps to keep travelers safe, including testing, mask-wearing mandates, sanitation, and vaccination rollouts.
Starting, we had to take a PCR test less than 72 hours before boarding our flight from Chicago to Johannesburg. This is the new normal for international travel. You will be asked at the airline check-in counter to submit a copy of the negative test prior to issuing you your boarding pass. Once aboard the aircraft, you will need to wear the mask the entirety of the trip, even while sleeping or transiting through a connection point like Doha, Amsterdam, Dubai, etc.
Upon arrival in Johannesburg, it was jarring how few people were in the terminal. Normally a hustling, bustling hub teeming with travelers from all over the world, it was almost empty. For those who have transited through JNB before, you will understand how unusual this is. We got through immigration, baggage claim, and customs in a matter of a few minutes.
It is important to note that the immigration officer in Johannesburg intensely scrutinized our negative tests we took prior to departure. Because we had to have a negative test within 72 hours of boarding our flight, that timeline had lapsed by the time we landed because it took a while to get there. With timelines dropping to 24 hours in some cases, testing centers near or onsite at airports will be an increasingly popular option.
For covid testing on this 24-day trip, we took 4 in total:
- One prior to departing the US
- 1 in South Africa – to get into Botswana
- 1 in Botswana – to get back into South Africa (this one was helicoptered into the Okavanga Delta)
- one in Johannesburg the night before boarding our flight back to the United States.
Throughout our entire trip, every transfer driver was courteous, wearing a mask, and offered hand sanitizer and bottled water every time. Staff at all properties were wearing masks and kept their distance when they were going about their duties – yet still took the time to wave or say hi. When you came off a safari vehicle after a morning or afternoon drive, there was always a staff member there working a mobile hand-washing station and more hand sanitizer.
Most of the properties we stayed at on this trip were nearly empty. In one instance, it was just two of us guests – along with over 150 staff on site. Why so many staff? These safari lodges need a lot of people behind the scenes to keep things running – from drivers, trackers, chefs, butlers, dishwashers, housekeeping, vehicle mechanics, landscapers, carpenters, electricians, property maintenance, laundry, security, water purification…it’s a small city behind the scenes, often hidden away behind the main areas of the camp. While in camp, you’ll likely never see any of these people who make the magic happen, but they’re there – making your experience better than you can imagine. I’m happy to report that every single back-of-house staff member I saw in South Africa and Botswana was wearing masks, as a show of support that we are all in this together and trying to make it out the other side.
There is no better activity suited for social distancing than an African safari. You are alone in the vehicle with your party and guides out in the open plains. It was a wonderful experience to get out of the city and into such remote expansiveness of nature with the wildlife. And enjoy the sundowners.
All images were taken by Douglas Herbert and Corinne Goodman.