So you’re keen to travel, but not sure if now is the right time (lockdowns withstanding). What about the logistics of border crossings? And what about all the Covid-19 tests that will be required? And, is it safe to even travel? So many questions…
A group of 10 media from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana recently put this to the test on a whistle-stop pre-current lockdown trip organised by Africa’s Eden. We were to travel through the KAZA region (Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) to put these questions to the test and to showcase this exceptional region.
I was flying into Victoria Falls and Zimbabwe regulations required a negative Covid-19 PCR test no more than 48-hours old – so working back from my flight arrival time that meant no earlier than 2pm on the 15th of June. And as old Murphey would have it, the 16th, when I would need to collect my results was a public holiday here in South Africa. One of the Covid-testing facilities I phoned wasn’t sure that they could deliver the results in time, so with some trepidation as to whether I would even get this done in time I called Ampath Laboratories. ‘No problem’, the wonderfully helpful lady said, just pop into their local testing site and tell them to mark it ‘urgent – for travel’ and you should easily have it in time.
Nose primed, I headed to the testing site… the paperwork and payment was easy – they accept credit card, and the procedure better than I expected. I won’t lie; it wasn’t pleasant, but not as invasive or as painful as I thought it would be either – certainly not the uncomfortable ‘scraping of the brain’ feeling that some have described. My eyes watered for a while, but that was about it.
So, what does the testing procedure for a Covid-19 PCR test entail?
After sanitising, a medical professional will confirm that you are the person whose details they have and show you the unopened swab packaging before proceeding with the test. Once the swab package is opened, you will then be asked to tilt your head back slightly so the long nasopharyngeal swab can be inserted into your nose so as to reach the back of the nose at the point where nose and throat meet. This is to collect a clinical sample of nasal secretions from the back of your nose and throat, and the reason for tearing up is that the collection process triggers a nasal lacrimal reflex.
The sample then makes its way to the laboratory for processing. The test uses a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) that detects if viral genetic material if it is present. This material is detectable when a person is actively infected, but will also detect material from the breakdown of the virus for a period of time after an acute Covid-19 infection.
So test done, it was now just a case of wait for the negative notification via the Ampath Patients Results App, which ‘yay’ came by 09h00 the next morning giving me plenty of time to collect the officially stamped results from the lab – I subsequently found out that a printed copy of my results would have been adequate. But hey, I’d rather be safe than sorry as the thought of being sent back home on arrival in Zimbabwe was not a pleasant one.
With official paperwork in hand entry into Zimbabwe at the Victoria Falls International Airport was a breeze, as was the subsequent entry into Zambia – the biggest delay here was the long queue of heavy vehicles crossing into Zambia. But, no worries, we took the opportunity to walk across the bridge and get our first glimpse of the spectacular Victoria Falls.
After one night in Zambia, a quick explore of Destination Livingstone – including a quick stop in #SelfieStreet for the obligatory pics and then a local Mosi beer to quench the thirst, we made our way towards the border post at the Kazungula Bridge which opened on the 10 May 2021.
It crosses the Zambezi River and connects Zambia and Botswana by both road and rail and is part of the Trans-African Highway Network and the North-South corridor link between the SADC and COMESA free trade areas enabling trucks from South Africa to bypass Zimbabwe (and the huge delays at Beit Bridge) entirely.
On entry into Botswana we first needed to have our health check which consisted of checking that we had a negative Covid-19 PCR test result and our temperature, and then after sanitising another Covid-19 test, this time a Rapid Antigen Test which looks for proteins from the virus as opposed to the PCR which looks for genetic material.
Once again the nose was subjected to a spot of violation… this time less pleasant than the previous one. But this time around the results were ready in less than 20 minutes. With negative test results in hand we entered the new one-stop border crossing facility to first get stamped out of Zambia and then a short walk across the spacious building stamped into Botswana. A far cry from the complicated affair from a previous visit three years before when I visited Chobe Game Lodge! A quick luggage search and a walk through a disinfectant solution (a precaution against spreading foot and mouth disease) saw us back in the vehicle on route to lunch at The Old House in Kasane.
We were heading across the Chobe River into Namibia the next morning which entailed yet another Covid-19 PCR test! This time around the tests (both nose and throat) were administered by Botswana’s first ISO accredited medical laboratory, Diagnofirm Medical Laboratories. They came to us at The Old House and we each had our turn in a private room, in between sipping on local Okavango craft beer or icy Ginoholics, an elderflower, cucumber and rose G&T – one of us even had the test done with G&T in hand. ‘G&Ts making Covid tests great again’ says Linda Balme, Senior Commercial Manager of Travelstart, raising a toast with a cheerful laugh. But jokes aside, it really was a pleasant experience, well as pleasant as a nasal swab up your nose could be.
One afternoon Chobe Game Reserve game drive and spectacular sunset later we checked in at the newly renovated Chobe River Lodge (previously Chobe Garden Lodge). The next morning we exited Botswana and popped across the Chobe to Impalila Island for our entry into Namibia. There again with the appropriate paperwork completed and negative Covid-19 test in hand the border crossing was a breeze.
One day on the river and a night at the luxurious Chobe Water Villas was never going to be enough, but it at least gives me reason to return again. So the next morning it was the same again, just in reverse. We were all expecting another Covid-19 Rapid test on entry to Botswana, but our one-nighter did have its advantages as the PCR test from the day before was still valid. Yay!!
A photographic safari with Pangolin Photo Safaris and a night at the relatively new Pangolin Chobe Hotel had us appreciating the elephants of this spectacular destination, both on the edge of the Chobe River and from the hotel deck, as a couple of the night owls in our group enjoying a night cap experienced. We were told that the elephants often come up to visit the small waterhole near at the underground photographic hide or to make the most of the water-on-tap in the raised swimming pool.
There was time for a wee bit more ‘safari’ the next morning before transferring to Kasane International Airport. Again, with the correct paperwork in hand, the process was a breeze and soon we were climbing aboard the 12-seater Mack Air Cessna for our 20-minute flight to Victoria Falls. Which after completing more paperwork (by this point I’d memorised my passport number and made sure my pen was always close at hand) and showing our negative Covid-19 test results, we entered Zimbabwe for the last leg of our trip.
Thankfully we were here for a few days, which enabled us to experience the delights that this wonderful destination has to offer – from a tour of Vic Falls, a bit of adrenalin on the High Wire with Wild Horizons, a helicopter flip over the Falls, and a spectacular sunset boat cruise aboard the Zambezi Explorer with Pure Africa. Experiencing the Zambezi National Park on foot was a highlight, as was getting up close with some of the incredible conservation initiatives in the area such as vulture conservation, anti-poaching and the rehabilitating of orphan elephants to name just a few.
As they say, all good things must come to an end and this entailed another Covid-19 PCR test. We were travelling home on two different days; the first group to have their PCR tests were subjected to a spot of ‘scraping of the brain’ which I was told was a dreadful and lengthy experience. Being forewarned, the rest of us opted for Lancet Laboratories to administer our tests which they did at the pool deck at the Victoria Falls Safari Club and which was a most pleasant experience – as was our stay in this well-known and much loved Victoria Falls establishment.
And, the final outcome to the questions… we were all pleasantly surprised at the ease of travel and that a wonderful time and fabulous experiences can still be had ‘in the times of Covid-19′.
And as to the ‘is it safe’ question… I’ll say yes absolutely. All these regions, with their wide open spaces and commitment to sanitising and masking up in public spaces, made for a great sense of personal health safety. We were also delighted to learn from Shelley Cox of We are Victoria Falls, an independent, public-private partnership initiative representing the tourism community of Victoria Falls, that 76% of its adult population has been vaccinated and that the city (yes, Victoria Falls has city status) is considered to have herd immunity – which is when a person is infected there are too few susceptible hosts to maintain transmission.
As for us, most of our travels were in our own group bubble which meant that we could relax with the mask wearing, especially when out in the abundant open spaces and fresh air, and additionally with the knowledge that we all had numerous negative Covid tests under our belts. Nevertheless, in respect for the safety of ourselves and of others we always sanitised regularly and masked up in public.
There were a number of foreign tourists in the region, especially vaccinated Americans, which really bodes well for the recovery of travel. So if they can do it, so can the rest of us, just remember to travel safe, adhere to all the regulations and requirements, and start planning those travels so that you can once again make fabulous travel memories.