On safari in the Coronavirus era

Updated on 12 April, 2021
The Serengeti Plains and Ngorongoro Crater, normally almost overrun with visitors at this time of year, are now quiet.  Few people are considering traveling abroad. Many parts of Europe and North America are sadly enduring another wave of the corona-virus epidemic. Most people will not consider travel due to the complexity of moving around, their own health considerations or due to government advice. The result is that travel is at an all-time low.

Currently the CDC site shows the whole world, except Greenland, four countries in West Africa, China, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand as a high risk zone (January 2021), and strongly discourages travel. If nobody moves, neither can the virus. They consider most countries in Africa to be high risk due to Covid-19, despite the puzzling fact that it seems that rates of severe Covid-19 are much lower in Africa. This may simply be due to poor diagnosis and data collection. The most developed country in sub-Saharan Africa, with perhaps the best data collection and analysis, is South Africa. It currently has a slightly lower infection and mortality rate than Germany and the USA.

What are some of the issues we should be aware of when planning a safari to Africa since the rise of Covid-19? Here are some considerations that we think may interest anyone itching to escape to the wilderness.

Many people may be uncertain about the risk of travel. Both the CDC and the British Government publish up-to-date travel advice and risk assessments. These are always general assessments. They must take into consideration many different kinds of travel, including backpackers or volunteers who will be using crowded public transport, eating in local restaurants, and enjoying night life in the big cities. Visitors also include Kilimanjaro climbers, who spend frosty evenings huddled in a mess tent to stay warm, as well as various folks going on all kinds of safaris. Guests staying in small bespoke camps, with spacious, en-suite tents far in the African bush, away from villages and concentrations of people, would be significantly less exposed than the average visitor.

What about travel or health insurance? When state organizations such as the CDC class countries as unsafe for travel, most travel insurance policies became invalid. Recently some insurance providers have included cover for Covid-19 when buying a travel health and evacuation policy. This means that if you test positive for Covid-19 and cannot board an aircraft, you would contact your insurer.  If you were sick and a health concern, they would arrange an evacuation to your home country. If you had few symptoms but still tested positive they may pay for your accommodation in the departure city while you wait to be able to produce a negative test and depart (depending on the insurance policy).

What do we know about the exposure to the virus while being in an airplane for many hours? It appears that this risk is not as high as initially supposed, provided passengers wear masks.

In September 2020 a report on the infection rate and the efficacy of face masks was published in the Journal of Travel Medicine. It compared Covid-19 transmission outcomes on flights where wearing masks was compulsory with those where it was not. Some of the flights were evacuation flights returning citizens to their home country, which included passengers who had tested positive for Covid-19 before departure. Transmission was evident on flights where the wearing of masks was optional, and interestingly the infection rate seemed to almost be nil on flights when wearing masks was obligatory, even though meals were served. The CDC states that “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.” It does add that there is more risk on long flights and ones at near full capacity.

Another study was done in the summer of 2020 by the U.S. Department of Defense. This involved United Airlines and Boeing. They carried out 300 aerosol release tests in simulations with mannequins in Boeing aircraft. Of course mannequins do not move around the cabin like passengers and crew. They concluded that “when a passenger is seated with a mask on, only 0.003 percent of infected air particles can enter that passenger’s breathing zone—even when the plane is completely full,” and thatThe benefit of commercial airframes, and the validity of these recommendations relies on the combination of a HEPA-filtration (High Efficiency Particulate Air) recirculation system and the high air-exchange rate, which is not matched by other indoor venues, including most hospital and biosafety-level 3 laboratories.

What is the exposure risk when I am in an airport?
It seems that the time spent in lines in the airports could be a more significant factor than flying. Most airport authorities have become aware of this, and some have speeded up security and health checks. Currently, the low numbers of passengers helps to increase social distances in airports that were designed to service higher numbers of passengers. New research indicates that you can better protect yourself by using a KN95 or KF94 mask. These are preferable to cloth masks when inside enclosed spaces. Since there are some counterfeit or untested KN95 masks for sale, the CDC has published a web page to help you check the quality of various breathing protection devices that are available.

What considerations are there to take before purchasing an airline ticket?
Since the corona-virus pandemic airlines have altered their terms of travel. These are mostly more favorable than before. It is generally easier to change departures dates and flights, and some of these changes can almost be made last minute. However we suggest you read the terms before purchasing any ticket.

Be aware that airlines now have different requirements for boarding related to Covid-19. Some require a negative PCR / NAAT test, or other kind of test (rapid antigen test), and others do not. If you do require proof of a test at your destination or on your return, getting a test can be complicated. You might find that it will be a lot easier to fly a different airline that does not require a test, and avoid having to line up in a health clinic, pay a substantial fee and wait for a result. If you would prefer to make sure you are not positive when you fly, but also would rather not waste time getting a test in a health clinic, you could purchase some rapid antigen tests before you leave and do your own testing just to be sure.  Another aspect to consider is if you will be making any connections (transfers). If so, check the transit requirements of that airport, because it may be necessary to carry proof of a negative test result before boarding the flight to the airport hub.

Are African countries open and do we need to quarantine? There are 54 sovereign countries in Africa and most are open to visitors.  However the entry requirements vary considerably and are apt to change depending on the situation there, and in the country where you live.  Furthermore as developments in technology and health evolve we hope that the entry and exit requirements become easier facilitating travel.  For instance as vaccines become more widespread we hope that a vaccine passport or health card will allow those who are vaccinated to not require PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) or NAAT tests (called Nucleic acid amplification tests in the USA). However this is not guaranteed. It appears that some vaccines may not be so effective against some strains. We will not really know if this is the case until some time has passed when a vaccinated population has been exposed to a variant.

In any case the pandemic has hit the world by storm, and reactions have varied considerably. Our knowledge of the virus is constantly improving, and so it the virus evolving and changing. It seems likely that the virus will be around for a while if not indefinitely. It is also likely that travel requirements become easier to comply with and more standardized. We hope that the vaccines work for all the strains. If they do not, at the very least we anticipate PCR testing to become quicker, cheaper and more efficient. It would be better still if cheaper rapid antigen tests become more reliable and acceptable and replaced PCR testing where possible.

Here are details on some African countries that are welcoming travelers in February 2021.

Country Covid-19 test requirements Other arrival procedures
Botswana Yes.
1st test – must have proof of negative Covid-19 within 72 hours of departure, produced upon entry.2nd compulsory PCR test done on arrival at no extra cost.
ARRIVING -Travelers will go through health screening including another Covid-19 test. Self-monitoring required in the camps. Passengers without a negative PCR test result, or showing symptoms will have to quarantine for 14 days at own cost.

DEPARTING – PCR may be required if airline or destination requires it.
Anyone flying to South Africa, including transiting through there, WILL require a paper proof of a negative PCR test conducted no more than 72 hours before departure.

Kenya Yes.  Negative PCR COVID-19 test certificate obtained no later than 96 hours prior to departure. ARRIVING & TRANSITING – Must complete the Travellers Health Surveillance Form before departure for Kenya even if only transiting. You will receive a QR code which needs to be presented to Health Officials, upon arrival. All travelers must register for a Trusted Travel Code prior to arriving in Kenya. This is an online process to verify PCR test results. Arriving passengers also undergo health screening including temperature check. Passengers without a negative PCR test result, showing symptoms, or from HIGH risk countries will have to quarantine for 14 days at own cost. If there is a reported case of COVID-19 on your flight into Kenya or if the above symptoms are detected, all passengers within two rows of the passenger with the symptoms will be quarantined for testing at designated airport hotels. If the test results are negative, they will be allowed to leave the facility.

DEPARTING – PCR may be required if airline or destination requires it.  If so, it must be digitally verified using the Trusted Travel system.

Namibia Yes. On arrival must present a negative PCR test no older than 7 days. This INCLUDES people who have been vaccinated against Covid-19. ARRIVING – Must present a full itinerary and undergo health screening. If the PCR test is older than 7 days you will be tested and placed in quarantine for 14 days at your own cost. If positive, you will be isolated at your own cost according to Namibia’s isolation protocols.

DEPARTING – PCR must be conducted. A certificate of the result will be given if airline or destination requires it.
Anyone flying to South Africa, including transiting through there, WILL require a paper proof of a negative PCR test conducted no more than 72 hours before departure.

Rwanda Yes.
1st test – must have proof of negative Covid-19 within 72 hours of departure.2nd compulsory PCR test done on arrival at your first hotel (costs about $60).3rd compulsory PCR test done within 72 hours of departure.
ARRIVING & TRANSITING Must complete a Passenger Locator Form online. You are then provided with a Unique Health Code, which you will need to present on arrival. Must present proof of negative Covid-19 done within 72 hours of departure. Must undergo health screening (including temperature check) and complete a short questionnaire.

ARRIVING ONLY  – All arrivals will be tested on arrival then taken to a designated hotel for 24 hours whilst awaiting the results. The test costs US$50 plus US$10 medical service fee. The test will take 8 hours to return for tourists. Once results are received, travels are free to travel for a 3 day period. For travelers staying more than 3 days, a further test will need to be carried out (which is then applicable for 3 days).

DEPARTING – Must present proof of negative Covid-19 done within 72 hours of departure.

South Africa Yes.
Arriving & Transit passengers must have proof of negative Covid-19 within 72 hours of departure, produced upon entry.
TRANSITING & ARRIVING – Complete an on-line health questionnaire before arrival. Must present certificate showing negative COVID-19 PCR test result. Undergo health screening by Port Health Officials, which includes a temperature check. Passengers without a negative certificate or with symptoms will be placed in in quarantine until a negative COVID-19 test is conducted (all at their own cost).

DEPARTING – Complete an on-line health questionnaire before departure. Undergo health screening by Port Health Officials, which includes a temperature check.

Tanzania Arriving & Transit passengers must have proof of negative Covid-19 within 72 hours of departure, produced upon entry. The last official Covid-19 data was published in April 2020. Nobody knows what the Covid-19 situation is in Tanzania. The President John Magufuli and several of his ministers have succumbed to pulmonary illness, most likely Covid. His successor Samia Suluhu Hassan has recently implement changes.

ARRIVING – Passengers (including children) are required to complete a Traveller´s Surveillance Form, to be submitted within 24 hours before arrival. They will receive a unique code which will be requested during primary health screening on arrival. All arriving passengers must present a negative COVID-19 PCR test certificate done within 72 hours before arrival, and will be subject to a rapid test on arrival at a cost of USD $25. Arrivals transiting through or from India will also be subject to 14 days mandatory quarantine at their own expense.

DEPARTING – If required by airline or destination country, Covid-19 tests are currently only possible at certain approved government hospitals or clinics.

Zambia Yes. On arrival must present a negative PCR test no older than 7 days. ARRIVING – Must complete the Travellers Health Questionnaire on board to be presented along with negative PCR test result as indicated upon arrival. Also subject to temperature & symptom screening. If temperature is 38 Celsius or above the traveler will require another PCR test. Passengers who have a positive PCR test after failing arrival screening will be subject to quarantine and treatment at their own expense in a government facility.

DEPARTING – PCR may be required if airline or destination requires it, in which case departing travelers must obtain a Travel Certificate from the Zambian Ministry of Health.

Zimbabwe Yes. On arrival must present a negative PCR test carried out no later than 48 hours before departure for Zimbabwe. ARRIVING – Must have negative PCR result as indicated, and complete a health questionnaire including details of places where they have recently traveled. Also subject to temperature & symptom screening. If temperature is 38 Celsius or above or they have other symptoms, they will undergo another PCR test at their own expense ($60). Passengers who have a positive PCR test after failing arrival screening will be subject to mandatory 7 day quarantine at their own expense.

DEPARTING – May be required by airline or destination country.

Are there any requirements we need to do before returning home? In most cases, YES, but this depends on your any transit airport and home country (return destination). Regulations are also apt to change due to Covid-19 developments.
Returning to the USAFrom April 2, 2021,  all travelers to the USA who have not been vaccinated (including U.S. citizens and Legal Permanent Residents) must present a negative COVID-19 test (which can be either a PCR or a rapid antigen test) taken within three calendar days of departure, or proof of recovery from the virus within the previous 90 days​. This must be presented at check-in, before departure. Travelers will also need to complete and sign a CDC attestation before departure. Here is a link to the US Department of State Travel page. It is recommended that all travelers get tested 3-5 days after arrival and self-quarantine for 7 days. There may be other additional state and local recommendations.
Returning to CanadaAll travelers going to Canada must present a negative molecular COVID-19 test upon check-in, taken no more than 72 hours before departure. All travelers will undergo health screening on arrival in Canada. They must also quarantine for 14 days. Soon (February 2021), it will be mandatory to take another molecular COVID-19 test upon arrival, stay in an approved hotel for 3 days while awaiting results from the test and pay for the costs of the hotel.
Other countries – We will check requirements upon booking and again at various points before departure.

What about the risk once we arrive in Africa? Our African safaris are really the most perfectly positioned style of travel in view of this pandemic. All our safaris are totally custom designed for private groups.

We will be staying in small camps and lodges. Many camps we stay in have as few as 6 tents accommodating a maximum of 16 guests. Because they are small it is possible to pay a supplement to book the entire camp to ourselves. Even if there are other groups staying in the camp, we will have meals at our own table, maintaining our own bubble. We will move around in our own safari vehicle which does not normally seat more than 6 guests. Most safari vehicles are open style, allowing the air to pass freely. When we fly from camp to camp, we will be in small aircraft usually seating only 10 passengers. The safari camps that we stay in have introduced strict Covid-19 protocols. Examples of these are available here (Nomad Tanzania), here (Asilia) and here (Wilderness Safaris). Crews stay in these remote camps for a month or more at a time. When they come back from leave they either are tested before arrival, or spend two weeks doing tasks at the back of house where it is easy to be isolated, before continuing with their normal tasks. Daily temperature checks are carried out. Hand sanitizers are now widespread in the reception area, dining area, tents, and safari vehicles. Hand washing facilities with soap and water are also located in the dining and lounge areas. We are allocated a personal butler who attends to our needs and serves our meals, which minimizes the number of people we are in contact with. Compared to almost any other journey our exposure to other people is extremely low.

If you are under 65 years old, are in good health, adventurous, love the outdoors, and enjoy being around few other tourists, this may be a fantastic opportunity. If you book a safari for June 2021 or later, it seems highly likely that you will be able to be vaccinated before your trip. You may get to travel through quiet airports and enjoy the most wildlife rich and popular parts of the African bush in a fashion that has not been possible for twenty years.

If you do join us, both Dave or I would be delighted to host you on your adventure. If you prefer to wait, we understand, and will be equally looking forward to accompanying you at a later date. At some point in the near future, and once vaccines are more readily available, it is likely entry requirements will include proof of vaccination.

While Dave has spent a considerable amount of time during these hard times in the Zimbabwean bush, I have been hiking and enjoying life in the Spanish Pyrenees. However, I miss those evenings listening to a roar or a lion, the whoop of a hyena, or the rhythmic trill of a night-jar! There is nothing that can match being in the African bush.

Justin

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