Cape Town Views, South Africa

Covid-safe travel is possible

Natural World Safaris

Angie Cosey

23 Sep 2021

Covid Safe Travel is Possible

Read the first-hand account from one of our US clients who recently returned from South Africa and her experience of travel during a pandemic.

Like most people, I hadn't stepped foot on a plane since before the world shut down in March 2020. But there was a brief window in May/June when it seemed like, for those of us who were vaccinated, the pandemic was effectively "over." Restaurants, concerts, even travel – for a minute, things were opening back up.

Then came the delta variant, and we were almost back at square one. 

During that brief and shining window, however, my boyfriend and I had optimistically, and on short notice, booked a safari trip to South Africa.

It was not long after we booked the trip that delta became A Thing and restrictions started going into place again. We weren't sure if borders were going to close, if our flights would be canceled, if one of us would get sick and not be able to board the plane . . . etc etc. So many things could go wrong. I didn't even tell anyone I was going because I didn't think it was going to work out. 

As our departure grew closer and closer, I was obsessively checking our flights for cancellations, and the CDC website for any mention of border closures. While the CDC had raised its travel advisory to Level 4 (do not travel) for South Africa, those advisories don't actually mean anything unless one or both countries close its borders to each other. You can still travel to a Level 4 country if flights are going in and out.

Wild flowers, South Africa

The CDC also has a website reporting daily Covid case counts. A few days before our departure, South Africa had spiked to around 10,000 daily cases. Not good. Just for comparison, I checked the U.S.: we had 150,000 daily cases. Wait, that's worse! It was looking like I might actually be safer in South Africa. Certainly it was safer than being in Florida. (Yes, I know that doesn't take into account percentage of population, testing rates, etc. But still.)

Of course to go to South Africa I had to get on a plane -- how risky was that? It turns out that it's pretty low-risk. Planes have a very efficient air filtration system and, after searching medical journals for abstracts regarding in-flight Covid transmission, the only thing I found was one article about a flight in spring of 2020 where several people were infected by one Covid-positive passenger. Before mask rules had been enforced. Since then it seems, there were no (peer-reviewed) reports of people getting Covid on a plane. 

I took two PCR Covid tests before I left, just to be sure I had all my bases covered with the timing window because our flights were so long and we had connections. I did a test at about 60 hours before departure and another one at about 36 hours before departure. (The requirement is a test within 72 hours of departure.) Both negative, of course.

In retrospect, the time that felt like the highest risk of Covid was on the Amtrak train from Philly to Newark where our flights departed. That train was packed full and, while everyone was wearing masks, many people had them off to eat or drink or weren't wearing them properly. 

I wore a KN95 mask on the train and in the airport and for most of the flight. When I went to sleep I changed to a regular mask for slightly more comfort. Most people on the flight were good about their masks although I did see a couple people who were slow to put them back on after the meal, etc. At least I knew all of them had a negative Covid test to board.

Landscape, South Africa

In South Africa, I was pleasantly surprised at how seriously they were taking the Covid situation. The drivers who transferred us from airport to lodge and back, etc, were always masked up without being asked or prompted (both drivers volunteered the info that they were vaccinated as well). 

At the safari lodges, all the staff were masked when interacting with the guests, except sometimes on the game drives. The game drives were all outside in open-air Land Rovers. In fact everything at the lodges (we stayed at 2 different ones) was outdoors: the meals were served on a veranda under a roof but no walls. There are a number of articles which report that there have been no major super-spreader events from large outdoor gatherings, so transmission outside is very unlikely. 

At the first lodge -- a small place which only has three rooms -- we were the only ones there. Tourism is still struggling very hard right now over there. At the second lodge, they had room for more guests and it was busier. Every morning before breakfast they checked our temperature with a scanner. 

Pro tip: if you want to have the safari experience without a crowd, go NOW. And avoid the weekends; the only time the lodge was max full was on Friday/Saturday. The rest of the time we were in the vehicle with only one or two other couples.

Female lion, South Africa

After leaving the safari lodges, we spent several days in Cape Town. Again I was impressed with the Covid protocols; our hotel checked our temp every morning at breakfast, and all the restaurants and indoor attractions (like the aquarium) scanned our temp on entry as well. Literally every commercial space has a bottle of hand sanitizer with a foot lever (so you don't have to touch it) at the entrance. The hotel staff and other business staff were always masked. 

Before leaving Cape Town, we got a PCR test about 60 hours before departure at a cost of around $56pp. We had the results back in under 12 hours.

Just to be on the safe side, I had another Covid test about 2 days after I got back, just to reassure everyone that I did not, indeed, get Covid at any point on this trip. It was negative.

Leopard, South Africa

Want to travel now?

If you'd like to talk about travelling now, speak to one of our Destination Specialists.

Contact Us

Add Your Comment

By submitting this form, you confirm that you agree to our privacy policy. Please note our safaris are for a minimum of five days; we do not offer day tours.