I Went on a Zambian Safari During COVID-19 — Here's What It Was Like
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, I had already been itching to get back to Africa for some time — to be in the bush, cruising around in a Land Rover, watching for game and enjoying long campfires under the African stars. Even as a person whose literal job is to write words about places I've been, I still find it challenging to capture what I love so much about that continent. When describing Kenyan mornings in "Out of Africa," Karen Blixen (under the pen name Isak Dinesen) called it this sensation of waking up with a feeling of, "Here I am, where I ought to be." In "The Green Hills of Africa," Ernest Hemingway described Africa as being so beautiful and exhilarating, it kept him up at night: "We had not left [Africa], yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already."
Some people waited all pandemic long to get back to Vegas. Others couldn't get to the Amalfi Coast soon enough. But for me, it was Africa.
Southern Africa is a personal favorite, and Zambia was the last major safari destination in that region which I hadn't yet visited, so as soon as it became possible, I began weighing the risks and plotting how, if at all, I could make it back. After a year of lockdown and staying put at home in Boston, I would've been happy to fly anywhere — but Zambia was calling.
Personally speaking, I feel quite strongly that travel these days — international or otherwise — is complicated. Obviously there are the ever-changing rules and regulations of both where you're going and how you can return home. But then there are the deeper questions: what is your personal risk tolerance, are you willing to risk having to quarantine somewhere before returning home, what is your plan should you fall ill abroad, and so forth. For Africa, in particular, I was concerned about exposing vulnerable, likely unvaccinated communities to unnecessary risk. Did I really want to be the travel writer that sparked a super-spreader event in Mfuwe because I really wanted to go see some elephants? After a lot of research, a lot of thought, and consulting with my family and my doctor, I felt that there would, in fact, be a way for me to make this trip happen. Here's how I did it.
Testing isn't as difficult as you think
Proof of vaccination and a pre-departure PCR test within 72 hours of departure from the U.S. appears to be more or less the norm when traveling internationally these days, and the same went for Zambia. I carried a hard copy print out of my negative test results with my passport, and it was checked before airport security, before boarding, and then at customs in Zambia. Easy peasy.
It was the return journey home which worried me. Where was I going to get a COVID-19 test in South Luangwa National Park? Luckily, my safari hosts at The Bushcamp Company sorted everything out and made all the logistics a breeze. To facilitate a pre-departure PCR test so guests can return home, the company has forged a relationship with a local doctor (Dr. Nellie!), who, for a nominal fee, will literally come meet you at your camp to administer a nasal swab. In my case, that meant Dr. Nellie drove three hours each way — each way! — into the bush so I could get my test in time for the flight home. It just so happened that my PCR test was administered during a signature The Bushcamp Company experience: sundowners in the Kapamba River, which is shallow enough to set up camp chairs and enjoy the setting sun as it reflects off the swirling river water and your toes dig into the silt. Who said COVID-19 tests can't be glamorous?
My results were promptly delivered two nights later, just in time for my departing flight. The Bushcamp Company's coordination of the entire affair was exemplary — so when planning a safari of your own, make sure to ask the company you're traveling with how they handle COVID testing. While I can't promise anyone else administers their tests in the middle of a literal river, the answers might surprise you.
The airline situation is still, admittedly, fluid
A month before my trip, I was shocked to hear that because of COVID, the original airline I planned to fly had halted all passenger departures from Zambia — which meant I could fly from Boston to Lusaka, but that I wouldn't be able to get home. Lucky for me, Qatar Airways would let me fly from Boston to Lusaka and back again!
I didn't think much of the flight situation again until I was on the ground in Africa. On my last day, an American couple from Chicago were just arriving, and seemed rather distressed. They had flown another airline into Zambia, but had no idea whether or not they would be able to fly home — despite allowing them to fly Chicago to Lusaka on a ticket booked earlier this year, the couple alleged that the airline had provided no notice of exactly how long that ban would be in effect. This couple's stress was only compounded by the fact that they were now going for a week to a part of South Luangwa National Park which had absolutely zero cell service or Wi-Fi — ultimately, they left the situation in the very capable hands of The Bushcamp Company's operations manager, as well as their travel agents from back home.
These days, with variants looming, I think it's equally worth noting that long-haul travelers still need to prepare themselves for ongoing fluid situations. For a trip of this magnitude, you need to be OK with plans fluctuating, sometimes at the last minute.
The very concept of safari involves a lot of social distancing
The very concept of safari is socially distant: cruising around in open-air vehicles, individual tents, enjoying the great outdoors. Once you arrive at your camp, it's entirely possible to keep six feet (or more) of distance from all people at all times. The Bushcamp Company founder Andy Hogg shared with me that business these days is still a fraction of what it was pre-pandemic, which on the bright side means you'll be sharing your safari camps with very few companions, if any.
These days, it is entirely acceptable to inquire with your safari company about their COVID-19 protocols. I was very impressed with The Bushcamp Company's adherence to the rules: staff and guides were masked pretty much around the clock; all guest-facing staff I encountered were vaccinated; I was told that over 90% of all staff were vaccinated; hand sanitizing stations were set up in both the main lodge and the outlying camps; game drives were limited to a maximum of 4 guests (unless your group is traveling together); common and dining areas were spread out, and in-room dining was available upon request; and all guests were subject to temperature checks both upon arrival and every three nights during their stay.
In the end, getting to Africa has never been "easy"— but it's more worth it now than ever.
This isn't a weekend in Miami where your only job is to show up for your Spirit Airlines flight on time — an African safari is a big deal. It's a long journey, you need to pack a specific way, there are often special visas involved, you sometimes have to pick up malaria pills or other medications before you go, and it can be pretty expensive. Let's not forget the word "safari" is Swahili for "journey."
That being said, I didn't find the additional COVID-19 protocols for traveling to Africa that onerous — we've basically been living with them here at home for well over a year now. Having just completed the journey myself, my best advice is to ask your safari company for their perspective and guidance about how to navigate the requisite testing. They're ready to start welcoming guests back, and are willing to make this as seamless an experience as possible.
After all, tourism dollars provide vital support to many communities in Africa. In the case of the The Bushcamp Company, the flow of visitors has innumerable impacts on the town of Mfuwe, as demonstrated by the company's numerous projects in that community: over 140 clean water boreholes dug; over 34 classrooms built for the local school; over 1,000 students have completed their education through The Bushcamp Company's scholarship programs; and over 2,900 meals are provided to students each day. Yes, safari is about witnessing wildlife and getting that epic Instagram picture with a giraffe — but traveling with the right company can also mean that your dollars are creating a measurable impact on the lives of others. And after nearly two years of COVID decimating the safari business, the need has never been greater. There simply has never been a better time to go.