I think right about now, many of us are feeling the pull of wanderlust stirring in our hearts. I know I am. As countries are gradually re-opening their skies to international travelers, so are the questions about how we will travel? As well as where we will go? The safety of travel? What will travel be like? What will I want out of my experience? For me, in particular, I am looking for answers to these questions in one specific part of the world, Africa.
Africa has long held a special place in my heart. I was meant to spend the better part of last May traveling through South Africa, Botswana, and ending in Zimbabwe. So I have been waiting for the moment to reclaim this trip. Going on safari in Africa is unlike any other experience you will have elsewhere in the world. Indeed it is life-changing, life-affirming.
These days, there is much talk about the post-COVID era of travel leaning more toward transformational journeys, regenerative sojourns. That travel will become more about immersing oneself in the environments and communities that people travel through, which ultimately, I think, will lead to a deeper engagement with themselves. Travel will be more about disconnecting to reconnect, to reset, to redefine how we view ourselves and the world we live in today. People will look to seek more time in nature, want to go to less crowded places. Maybe even travel fewer times per year, though for more extended periods. They may also opt to stay in fewer places while traveling to really soak in their locale more profoundly. Africa offers all of this and so much more.
I recall the first time I went to Africa many years ago. The person that stepped foot on that continent and the one that left was one hundred and eighty degrees different. I arrived being terrified of anything that could bite, sting, or chew me. The thought of getting out of a vehicle in the bush was not even a consideration.
Cut to: eleven weeks later when I was jumping out of our Land Rover to chase after something (of course, with our guide’s permission.) I was there to do wildlife stories for a television show I was working on as a producer. At some point, I needed to get out of the vehicle to do my job. When I finally found the nerve, it changed me forever. Since, then I have made many journeys back to Africa, including today, when I now take guests on private transformational trips that I curate and guide. Few things give me more joy than bringing travelers to see their first lion, elephant, or giraffe. Through them, I get to re-experience those initial, breath-taking moments of being in the bush. It is intoxicating to share this experience.
As of this writing, for those wanting to travel to the Eastern or Southern part of the continent, Kenya restarted international flights on August 1st. Tanzania had already been open for a while. And then there is South Africa, the hardest hit by the coronavirus. They may not resume regular international flights before next year. This is tough because they are the gateway to places like Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, which are on the lower range of reported coronavirus cases. As you can imagine, it has had a significant economic impact on companies that support experiences in the bush and beyond that as well. With international flights not bringing in safari-goers, funds to keep people on staff are quickly evaporating — the same for maintaining wildlife conservation projects. As a result, poaching is on the rise.
Warren Green, the owner of WGA, a sustainable tourism marketing company, and host of The Green Piece podcast, talks about the emotional roller coaster that many safari companies in his portfolio are facing.
“Obviously, profitability is central to supporting any sustainable endeavor, and without tourism, this throws the entire process out of kilter. The people managing these companies are connected to their staff beyond the traditional work environment roles. These companies spend time and resources developing educational programs, uplifting amenities in villages, providing services, and so much more to the staff, which has made the hard decisions of furlough, retrenchment for these companies incredibly difficult.”
Fortunately, there are safari companies in Africa who have been able to be proactive and keep most of their staff during these last months of shutdown. In Tanzania, Lemala Authentic Camps and Lodges were among the first to consider both the wellbeing of future guests’ experiences as well as the needs of their staff. They have efforted to keep their team in tack, using the time to create new ways to interact with and take care of everyone coming to their bush sanctuaries.
Lemala spokesperson Fiona Antrobus shared that “Both financially and emotionally all Lemala staff have had to process the overwhelming reality of the effect of reduced revenue on personal salaries. Fortunately, the company is sufficiently strong to maintain staff salaries at their original levels for several months. We are fortunate that all Lemala staff have been very supportive of each other in these circumstances.”
As safari camps and lodges reconsider their Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), many are guided by the World Health Organization (WHO). So, when you are finally able to go on safari, here is a good idea of what to expect in terms of COVID safety. Most of the following was provided by Lemala Authentic Camps and Lodges. Though in my research, this seems to be more or less the new normal for guest relations.
On arrival, guests are provided with hand sanitizer and have their temperature checked. Welcome drinks and fresh towels are served from a tray without contact.
Check-in will some form of contactless. Guest passport details will usually be requested before arrival.
Guest luggage is disinfected and taken to the room by staff wearing gloves.
Hand-washing facilities are available throughout camps and lodges, with single-use paper towels provided.
The staff wears face masks and gloves. Interaction with guests is from a safe distance.
In common areas, guests are asked to wear masks and gloves and to keep a safe distance from other guests. Face masks will often be offered to those who do not have appropriate or clean masks with them.
Throughout a camp or lodge, touchpoints that could transmit the virus have been minimized.
In the rooms, all linen is removed and treated to a hot wash. High touchpoints are cleaned with bleach. Then, as an added measure, the rooms are not used for seventy-two hours.
Those taking care of the laundry wear face masks and gloves when they handle anything. Bed sheets will not be replaced every day unless specifically requested. The wash is done with strong disinfectant soap and in some places sun-dried. Each guest’s laundry is washed separately from the other.
Game drives, the core of any safari. After every outing, all surfaces are wiped down, including the seats and floor, with a disinfectant and bleach.
Typically, there will be a maximum of four guests per vehicle except for groups that are traveling together. Some safari companies are offering private use of vehicles at no additional charge. Wearing face masks while on a game drive will be optional. Game drives are in open-air vehicles with hand sanitizer available for guests and guides. Guests are asked to sensibly practice social distancing throughout the game drive.
No safari is complete unless you have one or two sundowner evenings. Sundowner locations are limited to the number of guests allowed with chairs spaced at a safe distance. Hand sanitizer is always available. The staff has minimal contact with guests, wearing a face mask and gloves to serve food and drinks.
For meals, you will likely not see huge buffets. Instead, food is served seated at scheduled times.
In Tanzania, the government has mandated that every company has a liaison officer who keeps camp and lodge managers up to date on any new operating measures. In turn, the manager reports to this officer anyone thought to have COVID-19, which gets handled according to the country’s latest health procedures.
If you are concerned about getting into a smaller-sized bush plane with other guests, you can book a private charter to the camps. Some safari companies offer helicopter flights between their camps.
While this is not an exhaustive list of what to expect, it gives you an idea of the lengths safari companies are going to ensure their guests’ safety.
Some safari companies, like Great Plain Conservation, offer guests the opportunity to book sole use of an entire camp in Kenya, Botswana, or Zimbabwe. Or, you can really be like an explorer and take your camp with you. I foresee private mobile safaris becoming increasingly popular.
I think these safety measures coming into place will go miles to help travelers feel comfortable crossing international borders again. For those brave enough the venture out, some safari companies are offering incredibly flexible booking and cancellation terms with payment due just thirty days before arrival instead of sixty or forty-five. Many are willing to reschedule dates with no penalty if there are new official travel restrictions.
Several companies are getting creative in ways to entice travelers as well. Desert & Delta Safaris in Botswana is offering totally flexible travel vouchers that guarantee 2020 pricing through 2022. Plus, a portion of their revenues will go toward Elephants Without Borders, a conservation project in the country’s elephant-rich Chobe area. Lemala Authentic Camps and Lodges offer a twenty-five percent discount on stays of four nights or more for August and September.
In late November 2020, Great Plains Conservation, in partnership with Kenya Airways, has booked an entire Business Class cabin on direct flights from New York to Nairobi. They will have their own executive chef on board to ensure the safari company’s first-class service. Also, while traveling, they have an exclusive lounge to take care of health, customs and immigration formalities, calling this their Wingtip to Wingtip transfer to their camps. An announcement I received from Great Plains Conservation, mentioned that their “highest-end camps have been pre-certified from a health and safety standard, and qualify as self-quarantine camps that you can move between with this safari designed around Safety, Experience, and Minimal Fuss as our three priorities.”
Fantastic deals are out there for the willing and able. Though one word of advisement is that you stay on top of COVID testing requirements, which will vary depending on the airlines you are traveling on. Also, the countries you are going in and out of before arrival. Your travel designer can help you with this.
One of the other advantages of this time is with fewer tourists, more wildlife is coming around. At one of the Lemala Camps in Tanzania, they had a lioness and her cub move into a nearby area. Guests were witness to a pair of elephants mating in front of their tent. In Botswana, at a Great Plains Conservation camp, there is a new painted dog den. Meanwhile, in Kenya, a leopard that had not been seen in a while, is coming around again. These sightings happen when the environment has less human pressure and is well managed.
My point here is that I am encouraging you to keep your dreams of travel alive. Pay attention to what the travel industry is doing to keep guests safe. And venture out into the world when you feel comfortable.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by
the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.”
~ Mark Twain
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