Diary of Escaping The Jungle in the Coronavirus Crisis
Saturday 14th March
Without the pandemic, I’d be on a flight to Shanghai, not to Johannesburg. In January, I naively hoped everything would blow over and I’d still be able to see the Great Wall. I switched to Africa because it was meant to be the safest place right?
The itinerary was the stuff of dreams. The plan was to start in Johannesburg before driving through Botswana with multiple safaris before ending in Victoria Falls.
Everything had been changing rapidly in the week leading up to the trip. Yet the UK Government said it was still safe to go. There had only been 11 deaths in a month since the first case. It seemed unlikely deaths would erupt in the next week. I wouldn’t give in to fear and worst-case scenarios.
The day ran smoothly, I managed to sneak in a trip to the Nelson Mandela Museum and saw Soweto with a lovely Canadian couple who would be on my tour. I allowed myself to relax.
Around 7 pm, the relaxation ended abruptly. Some people on the tour planned to do another tour after ours was finished. Those plans were ruined. We were the last tour the company was doing until everything calmed down. I dodged a bullet here but the anxiety in others who needed to rebook their flights home was infectious.
Spain and France had entered lockdown. While I am pretty good at deluding myself, the thought of jumping ship did cross my mind. All the messaging from the UK government at this point was to stay calm. I was comfortable enough to put off the decision another day.
Sunday 15th March
Those lovely Canadians I met yesterday? They are the first to call it quits. The woman’s mother rang her in the night and demanded she returns home.
Nineteen people signed up. Three didn’t arrive and two left on the first official morning. The rest of us got on board our converted safari coach for the long drive to the border. 5 down. 14 to go.
It was a long drive to the border. Luckily, I have an incredible ability to nap on demand.
The time had come for our first Coronavirus temperature checks. I don’t think I’ve ever been so paranoid about being sick despite feeling fine. The full force of the Botswanian sun beating down me did nothing to reassure me. What happens to someone who fails a temperature check here? I didn’t want to find out.
Somehow my temperature came out as 35.2 C. If true it would mean I had hypothermia at the time. My best guess was the temperature gun wasn’t accurate but I certainly wasn’t going to complain.
Eventually, we made it to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary Camp. We had a beautiful meal (a theme of this trip) then a chilled out campfire chat. No WiFi means no bad news tonight.
Monday 16th March
In the morning, Coronavirus was the last thing anyone thought about. Instead, our eyes feasted on a dozen wild rhinos and countless zebras, giraffes, and antelopes. A particular highlight was two curious warthogs. One panicked and ran straight into the other by accident!
Another long journey led us to Maun in the evening. We were staying in tents on the grounds of a hotel. This meant one thing. WiFi.
The world had been busy while we were off-grid. Too busy.
Cyril Ramphosa, the South African President, had issued a statement.
We are imposing a travel ban on foreign nationals from high-risk countries such as Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and China as from 18 March 2020.
We have cancelled visas to visitors from those countries from today and previously granted visas are hereby revoked.
All of us were flying home through Johannesburg airport and none of us could find any proof transit wasn’t affected. Several people on the trip were on longer pan-African trips and had left belongings back in South Africa!
This shook us all and we tried in vain to clarify our situations. A couple from New Zealand who had left valuables with extended family in Johannesburg decided not to take the risk. New Zealand wasn’t even on the banned list but the situation was fluid. Their flights were booked but they would still be joining us tomorrow for our retreat in the Okavango Delta.
Maun airport had 2 flights per day to Johannesburg and prices had soared. The remaining travelers thought the path forward may be easier than the path back now. Victoria Falls is a major hub and we would have more options by sticking it out.
Tuesday 17th March
The best day of the trip by far for me. We took a safari jeep through the jungle into the delta in the morning. The sun was shining and it was glorious. No WiFi, no problems.
When we reached the delta, we had a surprise. Local volunteers would be taking us on traditional boats, mekoro, through hippo and crocodile-infested waters. Imagine Venetian gondolas but where the stick is pushing off the waterbed itself!
I knew hippos were the most deadly of the large African animals but kept this to myself. Others did not which meant it took a while for some of us to appreciate the serenity of gliding through the delta.
We relaxed in our new camp with the local people. They took us for a wildlife walk where we got amazingly close to some of the animals (and didn’t get eaten!). In the evening, we had another incredible meal followed by song and dance by the campfire. The night sky was perfect and even the groans of nearby hippos couldn’t spoil our mood.
Wednesday 18th March
Today everything went crazy. We got back to Maun and the global situation had shifted. Australia was ordering its citizens to get back as soon as possible and rumors of borders shutting were deafening. The 4 Australians decided not to challenge this decree for obvious reasons.
A family member of one of the Northern Irish girls had booked them flights home. They weren’t given a choice.
We had gone from 12 to 6 within minutes.
This is before even hearing Botswana and Zimbabwe had announced national emergencies. Botswana had issued a similar statement to South Africa but effective immediately.
Were we even legally allowed to be in Botswana anymore?
The bad news kept flooding in. The Botswanan government had demanded another tour group quarantine itself in the hotel for 14 days. Someone had complained of respiratory problems and the government doctor reasonably was not going to take chances. The rest of their trip and their flights were in tatters.
All this information overwhelmed me but there was no chance I was going to stay now. I tried and probably failed to seem calm to not scare others. Inside I was in full freakout. I could not imagine being locked in a hotel room whilst the borders shut around me. 90% of my airline’s flights had been canceled.
Some of the group tried to go through their insurance and get flights booked back. I was in a privileged position and too afraid to care anymore. I would sort out all of the details with insurance once I was home. Right now, I needed to get back.
I had never booked a flight at such late notice before when flights were constantly getting canceled. I was paranoid about getting the details wrong and being stuck because of a stupid mistake. We weren’t even sure if we could transfer through Johannesburg airport.
Of course, my credit card didn’t seem to like me spending over £1000 from a small town in Botswana. I’m surprised I didn’t hit anything in frustration when the error message popped up after I had painstakingly checked every word.
I rung home and managed to get the flights booked. I am ashamed I got annoyed when trying to rush the flights to be booked. I was aware it was the height of privilege.
Everyone went through the same trials as me. There was a late-night panic as the Australian’s bookings were all canceled. They managed to rebook but the incident had sowed the idea our flights were not guaranteed.
We talked long into the evening but Coronavirus has an annoying tendency to keep weaving itself into the conversation.
Thursday 19th March
The plan today was simple but had many points of failure. Take the 2 pm flight from Maun to Johannesburg and the 9 pm flight from Johannesburg to London. Beggars cannot be choosers and the 2 pm flight had a technical stop in Gaborone so it would be 4 hours.
In the morning, I had a mental list of what could go wrong:
- Our whole hotel goes into quarantine because of the other group
- The airline sees I’m from the UK and doesn’t let me get on the flight at Maun
- I fail temperature check in Maun airport
- My flight to Johannesburg is canceled
- South African border officials refuse to let UK citizens off the plane
- I fail to get through transit security
- I fail temperature check in Johannesburg
- My flight to London is canceled
I was calm.
Maun airport is about the size of a bus station. I got there 4 hours in case anything went wrong.
Checking in was no problem at all and nor was security.
Oddly after security, there was no airport staff by the boarding gate. Boarding time came and went without any official word. A few passengers went to ask security and were told to go away.
The departure time passed. This was it. I would be stuck in Botswana.
I think everyone was in shock and pretending everything was ok. Nobody wanted to get into an argument with the airport staff.
Finally, half an hour after the planned departure time, boarding started. One more hurdle overcome.
But there was an unexpected scare. We got into our seats but a man had the same ticket number as a friend. Had they overbooked the flight? The man was happy to sit elsewhere if a seat was free.
The others and I played it cool to not panic the girl in the double-booked seat. The same thing was going through all our heads though. What happens if someone comes for our seats too?
Everyone boarded and there was luckily a spare seat.
By the time we got to the airport terminal in Johannesburg, there was only an hour until my next flight.
I passed the dreaded temperature gun and believed I would make it.
I connected to the airport WiFi for another bombshell. An email with the subject heading ‘Your flight has been canceled.’
My heart attack was short-lived, it was my original flight next week that was canceled. My brain was rotating so fast I just went blank.
My next challenge was the boarding pass for the next flight. People at other desks came and went in under a minute. For some cruel reason, my lady took over 10 minutes. When I asked if anything was wrong I was dismissed with a flick of the hand.
The panic had stopped now. My mind was exhausted. I daydreamed about a new life in Africa while I waited.
Once I got the boarding pass, I had only a few minutes to make it to the gate. I used it wisely. I got myself a big bar of comforting chocolate.
Friday 20th March
Touchdown back in London. No temperature checks at the airport. It was as if everything I had read was overblown.
3 days later the UK entered lockdown.
My experience is probably typical of the average tourist in that week. It was stressful but many of us came back to pretty comfortable homes.
It’s not the same for all of the amazing people who showed me some of their life. The tour company I used, Gadventures, focuses on using only locally owned businesses. There was warmth in their goodbyes but a sense of sadness in their hopes we and our friends would come again soon.
The travel bans and isolation mean these people won’t be able to create an income in the job they enjoy. It could be years before the tourist industry is back on its feet. I’ve seen my peers complain about fewer vacations but for the Okavango guides, it could mean their children go hungry. Many western governments are injecting money into their economies and providing support yet not everyone is so privileged.
I can relate to the boredom of self-isolation. Yet I try not to forget I am in a far better situation than many people from poorer countries. I don’t believe it is any fault of theirs, it is the luck of where we are born. The necessary measures to contain Coronavirus are difficult for many of us and it transcends borders.
When it is officially safe to travel again, please think of the people who have struggled in the travel ban and help them rebuild their lives.
If you take anything from this story let it be a reminder to count your blessings. If your loved ones are healthy and safe then cherish them.
Have a wonderful day.