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What is it like to travel internationally during the Covid pandemic?

Nicola Shepherd By Nicola Shepherd
14 Apr 2021
Kenya Matthews Range Kalepo Camp Maasai culture - NS edu.jpg

Having recently returned to the UK from an (unexpectedly long) stay in Africa, I wanted to share my personal experiences of travelling in Africa during a pandemic and to reassure you that if you can legally travel, you absolutely should!

I thought long and hard about writing this article. The opinions are mine, rather than a purely corporate line, and I hope that those who know me well will see and understand “me” in this update. I apologise to any who may not agree with some of my views but half the reason we do what we do is to be very straightforward about facts, as opposed to walking any party or politically-correct line.

We all want to travel and there’s a pandemic going on. That’s a frustration for us all. If this sounds flippant, it is absolutely not meant to be. I am being deadly serious about sharing my recent experience so that a factual account of travelling at this time, together with the challenges and the rewards thereof, can be weighed up in equal proportion to assist the hopefully-soon-to-be-released (depending on one’s current domicile) traveler in making decisions.

 

My experience on safari in Africa in 2021

Well, yes, I have just been travelling during the UK lockdown. I was in South Africa and I also travelled on business to Kenya and Uganda, and I’ve only just made it back to Britain. I have also received reports from a number of clients for whom I arranged African safaris over the past year.

Their experiences mirror my own: they were delighted that they were able to travel on holiday, thrilled to be out of their own countries with (whatever one’s point of view) their inherent suffocating stipulations and, crucially, grateful to positively contribute to a local/emerging economy that is desperate for tourism.

 


I did not travel purely for work; My family are in Africa. I travelled there just after Christmas as my mother became suddenly unwell and then passed away. I spent a lot of time dealing with bureaucracy after she passed and, refusing to spend useless time locked up at Heathrow and paying for the privilege, returned to the UK through Kenya and Uganda (neither of which were on the UK “Red List” at the time of my return).

I used the time in East Africa wisely, catching up on some local developments, and doing some positive work regarding our philanthropic initiatives, determining the most critical needs of various projects. I can say, absolutely, that travelling was simply wonderful. It was like being released, the shackles removed and was entirely liberating!

 


I had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow travelers of a similar mindset who imparted their own most recent experiences on “travel in a time of Covid”. I had some illuminating and vibrant conversations with intrepid, inspirational people who were determined to overcome the hurdles of travel if it was legally possible to do so.

Some of these people had experienced stunning, extraordinary wildlife encounters mixed with wine tasting, relaxation on empty beaches, walking, horse riding, life-changing shared moments with top wildlife researchers (one of my own projects) and incredible island escapes. One couple was just escaping the northern hemisphere winter!

 


Why should you travel on safari to Africa in 2021?

Travelling now (or as soon as possible) has many real positives. One visits countries, regions and establishments which are relatively devoid of tourists which means - and this is just a realism - you can enjoy the most pristine places in virtual exclusivity with no crowds and the finest of service.

One could argue that one is far safer in Africa; everyone working in our sector, even out in the bush, is working to very strict procedural Covid protocols. Guests are temperature-checked regularly as part of a ritual and being in far flung places with strict procedures means, in effect, one is far safer in the unlimited space and very low population density of the African bush. Everyone I spoke to felt a lot safer being in Africa, with its ridiculously low case numbers and enormous wide open spaces, than in their own respective countries.

 


I felt exactly the same so this is not just my feeling but is first-hand comment from a number of (very) well-travelled Americans, Germans and others who I met, all of whom were “of a certain age” and none of whom was being offhand. Please do check the numbers, too: you will notice that Covid case and death rates in Africa do not remotely compare to the US or Europe. 

Your travel makes a real and positive difference to the lives of Africans

Then there is another positive: Crucially, one is demonstrably assisting third world countries and, usually, locations and places where every job supports at least another ten people! This is a good argument for anyone feeling guilty about travelling during this period.

 


Supporting communities and wildlife is a massive bonus which costs nothing extra and, in case one forgets, also allows one to gets out of one’s own introspective country and be reminded what normality actually looks like! So, if one can legally escape, why not do so?

Africa (and any other “third world” location) has been seriously damaged by visitors not travelling. This is a real “cost” when, ironically, in-country Covid numbers are often relatively low and responses to initial cases are often very swift when compared to “the West”. Safari destination countries are paying for often tardy and vote-driven policy making in travelers’ home countries which has had an exponential effect.

 


I also want to mention the damage done by misinformation, evidenced by the example of the so-called ‘South African variant’ which, whilst it was first identified by two extremely bright South African scientists, still hasn’t yet been pinned down to originating in South Africa. But, then, facts and statements these days seem to be vague and nebulous entities as much driven by the need for a result, rather than to prove a concept. 

Health measures are taken very seriously to ensure safety

Form filling and PCR testing are strictly adhered to in-country. Who knows if these will become a thing of the future? Everyone resists change yet we are now all accustomed to donning masks, hand sanitizing and so on as if that has always been normal.

It may well be that increased travel bureaucracy is with us for the foreseeable future however, of course, once bedded in all these requirements will become so much better streamlined and…normal.

 


As far as PCR tests are concerned, it is possible to ensure that all the required tests (in destination) are seamlessly arranged for you. By the way none of The Explorations Company’s clients have tested positive whilst travelling and neither have I. In fact, PCR testing – whilst something of a chore - has been all pretty effortless and is now part of normal itinerary planning. Worth mentioning that I found social distancing to be rigorously maintained in airline lounges.

Happily, for those who feel more sanguine about travelling post-vaccination, these are now rolling out, albeit at differing speeds depending on where you live and I’m delighted that the discussion about donating vaccine to poorer nations is fast gathering pace. But at least it is happening and many of you will have already received your first jab at least. (I will here skip the discussion about vaccine passports but we may return to this subject shortly and please know that we will do everything we can to smooth whatever bureaucracy is required when we do organise your travel).

 


A bounceback is on the cards

Let me also address the issue of apparent “Cheap Deals”. This is not in the slightest bit appropriate when applied to serious travel as I’m sure everyone has by now realised. Nevertheless I should perhaps expand a little: when the pandemic hit in 2020; 2021 was already nearly fully-booked everywhere.

Then came postponements and roll overs from 2020 and early this year. The effect of COVID has therefore simply been to exacerbate this already high demand in 2021 and extend it into 2022, so that some destinations are almost bulging at the seams, providing travelers can actually visit!

 


There’s no incentive for anywhere that’s not mass market to lower rates. Properties have also had to endure keeping staff employed to provide maintenance, anti-poaching and other essential duties as well as supporting their local communities to prevent the return of the vicious low-income cycles that feeds poaching and the degradation of years of hard positive work (although this is already a factor in some areas).

Having said that, Uganda has taken a business decision to reduce gorilla trekking permit fees by $350.00 (so a saving of $700 per person for two people taking two treks as we recommend) which is certainly something to take advantage of!

 


My 2021 journey through Kenya and Uganda

I came across a fabulous new luxury camp in the Matthews Mountains, Kalepo Camp. It has the most stunning views and is simply a place to be savoured after one has ticked off wildlife elsewhere. The accent in the Matthews is on walking, mountain biking, spending authentic time with the local Samburu tribes or witnessing a “Maasai Olympics” ceremony – as well as just making the most of a truly unique, gorgeous, location that has to be on everyone’s list! The Matthews area is one of my absolute favourite places in Africa!

The “Maasai Olympics” ceremony has, in the new Maasai culture, replaced the spearing of a lion as an initiation ceremony to mark a warriors’ coming of age. In the past, a lion had to be slain to demonstrate strength, power and prowess. To achieve the same end there is now a “mini Olympics” to test each warriors’ mettle. Not only is this an excellent adrenaline-fuelled replacement to making a kill but the participants are rewarded accordingly with money, cows and goats.

 


I visited some wonderful villas throughout Kenya, such as Mukima in Nanyuki and Kifaru in Lewa, as well as some superb exclusive-use properties; all are perfect for family gatherings, something we are increasingly being asked for to reinstate lost family “together time”.

In Uganda I went gorilla tracking again, something I never tire of! It is the most fabulous experience anywhere on the planet, although chimp tracking, for me, is equally interesting and I managed to get a day with the chimps as well as some stunning birding in Kyambura Gorge.

 


Building relationships with charitable projects

I also spent a lot of time looking at philanthropic projects to bring into our Foundation’s scope. There is a wonderful project in the Masai Mara which pays local landowners to reduce cattle numbers and correspondingly increases the value of each beast on the proviso that best-practice grassland management is introduced. This means healthier, fatter cows which have correspondingly greater value whilst hugely also reducing land degradation.

I found several bee keeping projects which are something of a passion for me; these are brilliant as they help keep elephants off crops and promote pollinator populations, as well as providing income and sustenance for communities.

The highlight of my entire journey was to spend two days with Dr Ludwig Siefert who runs the Uganda Carnivore Program which we’ve supported for some time. UCP is one of the most incredible charities and is absolutely desperate for help. It operates in several locations but I was with Ludwig in Queen Elizabeth National Park, one of the most beautiful and productive parks of Uganda.

 


You could spend time with Dr Siefert and also perhaps have the opportunity to take part in collaring/recollaring either leopard or lion should there be a need for it. This is the most extraordinary, enlightening and exciting opportunity but, to add to the experience, you are spending one-on-one time with one of the two most prominent lion experts in the world; a very real bonus that The Explorations Company can through years of building partnerships; this is not something that can be “just bought”!

And thus, dear friends, I conclude. I hope that I may have helped to encourage you to travel to Africa as soon as you can. The images I’ve included throughout are designed to lend you some inspiration, such as:

 


 


My recent experiences are not just my own but are also echoed by others who have recently travelled. So, whether in the short term or as soon as your government lifts travel barriers, I do urge you to take the plunge - not only to save your own sanity but, frankly, to save lives, wildlife, communities and hope in so many countries, not only in Africa. From our side we will do everything we can to help and, as always, we remain completely at your service.

Please do feel free to get in touch with me to discuss any element of this account, or to discuss your own unique requirements in detail. Or, if you would just like to dream for now, you can do so at our Video Library.

 

Images by kind courtesy of:

Cottar's Safari Camps, Segera Retreat, North Island, Kichaka Expeditions, Sand Rivers Selous, Volcanoes Safaris, Ride 4a Woman, Tusk and Mane, Green Safaris.

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