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Navigating the journey of multiple flights, transfers and accommodations from North America to Kenya to join a safari as a solo traveler has never been for the faint of heart. Add in a pandemic, the necessity to take health safety precautions, and the ever-evolving regulatory requirements of various countries along the way, and it could be enough to put off all but the most seasoned, not to mention determined, travelers.
But according to Wayne Steinberg, Senior Legal Counsel at ICBC and experienced global adventurer, now is a great time to experience more challenging destinations, such as an Africa safari, simply because so many others are put off by the prospect.
Travel advisors are critical
I met Wayne, a client of travel consultant Kate Weiss, after his recent return from a three-week adventure in Kenya. While the first 10 days were spent on a photo tour safari hosted by professional nature photographer Steve Gettle the balance of his time was a series of excursions to the south, booked, organized and coordinated largely by Kate.
“We were on the phone daily. She was likely tired of hearing from me! The rules kept changing, but this was an important trip for me, and after having to cancel several earlier bookings to Tanzania, I think Kate was amazed that I was still keen,” notes Wayne.
“Everyone’s response and ability to deal with the pandemic is different. I have one friend who hasn’t left their home to go to the grocery store for 1.5 years. That’s one extreme. But even those who have been more social, including one of my travel companions who had planned to take this trip, in the end just couldn’t commit. So I went solo and joined a group for the first part of the journey. It was amazing.”
When asked about doing this type of travel without an agent, Wayne dismissed it as pretty much impossible. And since the pre-planning is an enjoyable part of a trip, he likened working with an agent to having a trusted advisor and partner on his side.
“The internet put the booking of travel in the hands of the people. That might have worked for short haul or non-complex trips in the past. But now things are more complicated with different types of Covid-19 tests, timelines and requirements, in addition to vaccine passports, and flight delays or changes as airlines ramp up capacity – which seem to be quite common these days.” Add to that an industry plagued (perhaps an unfortunate word choice?) by labor shortages as destinations reopen and experience fluctuating demand, and travelers can be left with a boiling cauldron of uncertainty.
A glimpse into a travel consultants job these days
“I have long since given up trying to guess which clients are willing to travel right now, notes Kate Weiss. I’ve got some clients going to Europe this fall, people like Wayne doing safaris in Kenya, and others who won’t even think about travel until 2023.” For complex itineraries, she notes below how a travel agents services have expanded:
- Hours of research – often reconfirming information when a client has been told or found something else
- Customized timeline with steps to follow and links – may not sound like much on the face of things, but factor in return Covid-19 testing, sometimes in remote locations, with ends of tours and flights and making sure a later flight is available in case the test isn’t returned on time!
- Customized quotes for private tours and making sure everything lines up with balance of plans
- Flights with multiple schedule changes and confirming flights meet Covid-19 test requirement and transit restrictions. Time limits on testing, from 72hr to 96hrs vary almost as much as the type of testing required – PCR, rapid test, antigen test, etc.
- Guiding a client through how to use the various apps that need to be installed
- Usually more phone calls and emails than can be counted
- Checklists to make sure clients have everything completed and printed
- Ensuring clients understand destination requirements
- Talking through the options in case something goes sideways and what to do
- Insurance options
- Follow up email to make sure they arrived safely
living life despite the pandemic
Wayne’s choice to travel during the pandemic was intentional. “I don’t think Covid-19 is a year or two disease. It could go on, and we’ll likely be dealing with variants forever. But the good news is, past horrific diseases were controlled by vaccines. This is now largely a pandemic of the unvaccinated. There are a lot of people who will be afraid forever. I just realized it was time for me to live my life.” Of course he was quick to punctuate that with the need to be prudent while abroad, take precautions, and not put yourself in a position where you clearly have heightened the risk.
Extra time needed at airports
In relaying the story of his return through the Nairobi airport, Wayne did however liken it to a third world (if not fourth world) experience with crazy lines sometimes leading to nowhere, mobs of people, and the processing of Covid-19 test result documents and airport security chaotic, at best. It added easily three hours to the check in process. But as Wayne also mused, some of these issues were likely present even before the pandemic. He also noted on his inbound route through Amsterdam and Paris, how internal security was often disorganized, likely because of staffing shortages. So it goes, with the uneven restart and fluctuating demand curve for the industry, as travelers begin moving more freely again, and companies struggle to meet increased loads. But fortunately his travel advisor, had prepared him to expect and plan for the extra time now required at airports. They had built that into his itinerary, as well as the timing of PCR tests, where a negative result within 72hrs of boarding a flight back to Canada, in addition to proving full vaccination, was required.
It is far beyond the scope of this article to outline insurance policies that cover Covid-19, other than to say several now include medical coverage for Covid while abroad. Locally in British Columbia, BCAA offers travel insurance with $2 million Covid coverage, but there are exclusions for different levels of travel advisories, and pre-existing conditions. So as with anything, you need to check the details. For example, Canada has deemed international travel at a stage three warning right now, making the current BCAA policy valid. However, at the time of this writing, taking a cruise was still deemed a stage four warning, which the BCAA policy excludes coverage for. The good news is, a travel advisor can help navigate policies and exclusions, to find what will work best for the planned trip. Beyond medical coverage, there are also trip cancellation policies – some with Covid restrictions, and others written exclusively with that coverage in mind. A cancel for any reason policy, while more expensive, can certainly set an anxious mind at ease. For those who may have had a simple “one size fits all” insurance policy on past trips, or taken the risk to travel without insurance, the pandemic has changed the landscape. But it all comes down to risk levels, and often how much financially is at stake. Given the fluid nature of regulations these days, you would be well advised to get advice from a licensed insurance agent.
On safari in Kenya
Wayne spend the first 10 days of the trip on a small group safari geared for photographers. After that, Kate arranged multiple day trips in Nairobi, and an additional three-day trip through the southern parks in Kenya. Accommodations when not on tour, and transfers knit the package together for his three-week vacation. I’ve included some photos and accompanying stories from Wayne about his time there below. While he’s still downloading and editing the 1500+ images captured on his Canon 7D digital camera with Tamron 150-600mm zoom lens, and his back up Canon 5D-MK 11 full frame camera, we settled on a few from his Samsung cell phone to share the initial experience. Photo credit for all images in this post by Wayne Steinberg. Shared here with permission.
The photographer’s safari, “Kenya, The Great Migration”, was organized through Steve Gettle who works with local partners – people who know how to get around, spot wildlife, and who were thinking like photographers for setting up shots, and avoiding other groups. Accommodations were in remote lodges, essentially permanent tents on foundations, with hot water & plumbing, beds and generator driven power. There were night patrols at camps, and electric fences ensured large animals could not enter. And since there was no lighting outside, a guide would accompany guests by flashlight, if they ventured outside their tent, to ensure they did not trip a fence guarding the area.
A clear morning in Amboseli National Park, with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background and a solo giraffe that stepped in at the last moment.
On the way back to the lodge after a long day of photography, a typical African sunset.
This was one of a number of orphaned baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Elephant and Rhino Orphanage in Nairobi – post mud bath! Unfortunately poaching still takes the lives of some adult elephants, leaving younger ones to survive on their own. The David Sheldrick orphanage helps young elephants mature, with the goal of returning them to the wild. I loved the story Wayne shared about how they enlisted “foster parent” elephants to help integrate these orphans back into the wild once they are ready for it. And especially how original orphans often go on to pay it forward by fostering as parents themselves later in life. I just love everything about these majestic animals, and that story made me love them even more.
The majestic leopard, an incredibly beautiful and powerful animal, at rest.
Cheetahs tend to be very curious animals and this one came right up to the safari vehicle to investigate
This was a captive chameleon. Wayne’s group was introduced to its owner at Thomson Falls – and watched keenly as it proceeded to take on the colour of wherever it was placed.
This is an endangered Rothschild Giraffe, only commonly seen now at Giraffe Manor, in Nairobi. According to Wayne, you can hand feed them, but you need to be careful – they have the world’s longest tongue!
The Reticulated Giraffe is common to Samburu National Park. But they are less common than the ones seen elsewhere and are identifiable by their distinctive pattern – darker than the common giraffes in Kenya.
This photo was taken at the Rhino sanctuary at Solio Ranch. Rhinos have been moved from the parks to sanctuaries largely, to protect them from poaching.
Samburu villager, sounding the onset of a meeting of the elders
The Weaver, a small yellow bird in the Lake Bogoria area, makes its nests hanging from trees. In this picture, you can actually witness the nest building. I loved the story that Wayne relayed about the roles played by male and female Weavers. The male birds were the “hunter/gatherers” while the females took care of the young. The males constructed the new nests, but in a curious parallel to human behavior, females supervised the construction, and if they were not happy with the outcome, the males had to abandon the effort and start all over again! While he had yet to download the additional images of flamingos attracted to the high acid content of water in the area, Wayne noted that Lake Bogaria in Kenya is subject to flooding, so they had to take a boat for this part of the adventure.
In the Masai Mara in August, wildebeest congregate in the millions before and after crossing the Mara River
The bottom line
So, was the extra hassle of navigating travel during a pandemic worth it? I think the photos and stories speak for themselves. But it needs to be noted that some tours and lodges are functioning only at 50% capacity, and smaller group limits have been placed on visiting places like the Sheldrick Orphanage. Safari excursions and activities may also be temporarily cancelled or modified in the future to keep the virus at bay.
Wayne is scheduled to travel to Italy in October 2021, and Tanzania in February 2022. I also might add, he did Costa Rica in October 2020, at the height of the pandemic’s second wave, and prior to vaccines! Clearly, he is living his life, free of fear, guided by caution. And of course, with a travel advisor always on his team.
Kate Weiss, noted in this post, is a travel consultant at Expedia Cruises, 110 West Esplanade, North Vancouver. She is available for pre-booked appointments on Thursdays, by Zoom and always by phone or email. Office: 604-980-8301 Cell: 778-321-1930 Email: email@example.com
Is Kenya safe to visit during the pandemic?
As with any trip planning process, it’s important to check for travel advisories, but also bear in mind that notices will always have a cautionary tone during a pandemic. On July 1 domestic airlines resumed flights, and international flights were instituted August 1, 2021. The country is open to international travelers with safety measures in place. All passengers arriving in Kenya must take a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) Covid-19 test, and have proof of their negative result 96 hours prior to arrival. Currently there are no immunizations required to enter Kenya if you are from Canada, the US or the EU. But being vaccinated is obviously recommended. Health surveillance forms and visa requirements are part of the process as well, in addition to health precautions you would take regardless of a pandemic, such as antimalaria medications. The use of apps and QR codes to navigate new regulations pretty much necessitates traveling with a smart phone these days too. Be sure your device can handle an upgrade to the current operating system, which is what many of these new digital health regulation tools will require.
Planning & inspiration
I pandemic travel is not in the cards for you, perhaps it’s time to lock in a plan for future travel? G Adventures, a company that “helps you connect to the world with small group adventure travel” has some safari trips worth checking out. Ever since meeting Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of G Adventures at a Capilano University Travel and Tourism event several years ago, I’ve been intrigued with the companies approach to sustainable travel, and supporting local communities wherever they venture, in meaningful ways. A search under Africa Safari lists 80 possible options. You can select your travel style (classic tours, NationalGeographic Journeys, 18-30 somethings tours, Wellness Tours, Marine Tours, and NationalGeographic Family Tours. There’s also the Jane Goodall collection, and “bubble private tours” introduced in 2020/21 to meet concerns of some pandemic travelers.
I have to admit I got lost in the South Africa and Tanzania safari tour options. Their 40 day Serengeti, Falls and Cape Town overland tour looks epic, although I might be pushing the 30-something upper ranges for this tour. There are of course much shorter trips, and tours for a broad range of ages, but all with an emphasis on small groups. But if 2022 or beyond is calling for something epic, why mess around with a short tour? Go big and make it memorable! G Adventures is not cheap, but sometimes you get what you pay for – with many folks raving about the small group emphasis, sustainability component and authentic experiences. Worth checking out!