Here’s what I found out from heading to Kenya and Tanzania, bouncing between the two, and just about back home today.
Note to Dear Reader: As always I do not have a financial agreement with the companies noted here, I am a happy client. Please do your own due diligence.
The other day I saw an article about whether or not it’s safe to do a road trip in America.
For my travel dollar, I would sooner book another trip back to Africa than risk a road trip in my own country, for reasons too vast to name here. But I do want to give you an idea of what’s involved if you do decide, and I hope you do soon, to take advantage of the smaller crowds that are out and about in the world even in high season.
First, I work with Ben Jennings of ETrip Africa, whom you have seen me mention often. Ben’s been my East Africa planner since 2013, and this was my sixth trip. We’ve been in touch regularly, and the moment the borders were open we started to plan.
The first thing to know is that you really need to be working with a heavily customer-centric operation. Ben’s is, and by that I mean whoever is planning your trip, in this case to Africa, needs to have their finger squarely on the pulse not only of all the changing Covid requirements in African nations where they travel but also where you are. Ben did, and he knew the places that provided the specific tests I was required to have. Wherever his clients originate, he knows where they can get tested.
That is a whole education in and of itself. There are all kinds of tests, the availability is all over the board, the costs are too, and part of what Ben does is backtrack your departure to the test requirements. By this I mean that for example, Kenya required a negative Covid PCR test 72 hours prior to arrival. He does the math and tells you by what day/time you have to get your test done in order to meet those requirements. You can’t even check in for your flight without those results in hand. The test I was forced to take in Eugene was a gouging $300 because my site was closed on Sundays.
Yeah, that pissed me off, but, America.
Airlines right now, and mine was United, are notoriously uninformed, with one person barking hard at me that I HAD TO UPLOAD MY COVID TEST INFORMATION ONLINE SATURDAY AUGUST 22ND OR NOT BE ALLOWED TO BOARD.
Not only was he a damned fool, but he was operating under the assumption that my trip terminated in Frankfurt, which was where United handed me off to Ethiopian for the rest of my journey. He wasn’t looking at my destination; only where United’s piece ended.
This is very common. No amount of discussion could dissuade the man, but Ben had already boarded another family who had gotten their test results the day before and had no issue. United’s people were clueless.
Right now that’s to be expected. Not only are our rules changing constantly but so are other countries’ requirements, which is why having a savvy operator is a life saver. The airline’s people are doing the best they can with what they know and what they know is often wrong.
Again, my testing site was closed on Sunday, which would have saved me $150 in Covid fees. The number of issues that I ran into at that site could fill several pages. Their website was down, I was told to show up and get an appointment, I did, waited an hour and a half in line only to be told to go back on line, you get it. I nearly wept with frustration, and at that point Ben and I were close to moving the departure date despite the trouble involved. But we made it, not without extreme frustration with the ineptitude, poor organization and lousy delivery and extreme costs of my Eugene Covid testing facilities.
Your operator HAS to be familiar with what’s in your state, what’s happening with your airlines and all the messes in between, or else the sheer annoyance can submerge your enthusiasm. Having Ben’s calm good humor get me through the first arc of my own handling of the additional layers of Covid testing was critical, or I’d have bloody well cancelled the whole thing. He reported that had I still been living in Denver, the ease of getting a test, and the cost, would have been completely different.
Then you have all the new health paperwork driven by the local governments. Both Kenya and Tanzania have their own forms, which generate QR codes, which you have to have along with your Covid tests. When you arrive in Kenya, you line up with your paperwork and get your temperature taken. That can cause a very long backlog due to folks who didn’t get the proper testing done. If you did, you breeze through.
I had made a simple mistake on my Kenyan visa application which had held it up, and Ben had to go in and “fix” (read, pay someone) to expedite my visa so that I had it in time. That’s why you want someone with local knowledge, local connections, and ways to grease the skids when you and I screw up.
On more than one occasion, my attempts to fill out and complete the required paperwork for these countries was stymied by my tech. Ben would swoop in, finalize a payment, and the completed document would land in my email. You cannot put a value on that, for it ensured that no matter what, when the authorities wanted my paperwork, I had it. Sometimes it was because I tried to do it on my phone. Others, the website would refuse my payment.
With his typical good humor Ben would write that he had “worked his magic,” and boom, there would be the necessary pdf. Without it I’d be stranded.
Perhaps the best story was that I was in the storied Maasai Mara at Mara Eden Resort when I had to get yet another Covid test to travel to Tanzania. The Kenyan authorities, ever determined to make sure that their tourists get what they needed, have organized clinics in the tiny communities that surround this great game viewing area. My driver Simon and I were met by a mobile clinic.
With our vehicles side-by-side, located on a vast savannah with all manner of wildlife looking on, I was seated on a chair next to our car. The young man donned a green lab coat, a hair net, brought out his testing equipment and commenced to swab my nose while all the resident wildlife watched from a distance.
For my health dollar, that was worth every bit of the $130 it cost.
That got me through the airport, and en route to Tanzania. Upon arriving in Kilimanjaro airport, I had to undergo yet another quick Covid test before I was allowed to get my baggage. That wasn’t $130, but still, Ben had sent me a detailed account of precisely what to expect the moment we landed, where I’d be going, how long to expect to be there.
I wrote Ben recently that as much as I like to think I am an experienced international traveler, and I am, with eleven years in this game, the new Covid requirements reduced me to a rookie in seconds. If you’ve never done this at all, I guarantee you it can be daunting if you don’t have competent help.
From the Kili airport, two weeks later I headed back to Nairobi for which I had to get another test to re-enter Kenya. Finally, the day before I headed home, my driver took me to a testing site that cost me $70 and the results were in my inbox by the next morning. Those results I had to show no less than seven times from the moment I dragged my luggage into the line to the departure gate. It’s endless, and it does get irritating, but it is what it is.
In all, I got six tests in five weeks, and that added a layer of cost of around $600–700 to my trip to say nothing of the time and trouble involved, much of which Ben reduced considerably.
While I was impressed with what I saw in both Kenya and Tanzania in terms of the testing and the swiftness with which you receive the results, the process for a beginner was decidedly clumsy, as to be expected.
However. This much I can tell you. First, it’s nowhere near as bad as I expected.
Second, I strongly advise you to get competent help, and by that I mean someone with extraordinary attention to detail who is absolutely on top of all the requirements from your home state to your destinations. It is a highly fluid environment and you could be caught out with disastrous results. Ben has had clients stuck in Kenya when the government closed the border last year without warning. At that point, you and I have to have the right folks who can get us to the right places, in front of the right authorities, with the right paperwork. This is why I book with Ben; when I go to Africa, this is one place I do not wish to have to rely on wits alone. I likely could, but I would prefer not to.
Third, Even in the best of times it’s good to have a trusted guide where the local rules can be challenging. East Africa is in fact the only place I use one except for Mongolia. Everywhere else I plan my own itineraries, and manage just fine. If you are new to international travel, you might revel, as I did, in the emotional, intellectual and physical challenges that such travel presents. However over time I’ve learned when and where to do that. There are places in the world where my lack of knowledge was a real issue, others where I could find my way. For my part, the older I get, the more I learn about the world, I make better strategic choices about when to invest in an outfit which can help me make my way through what can be very messy local requirements.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the additional burden that this places on your planner is unbelievable. As you can tell from the above, not only do they now have to manage a plethora of additional, constantly changing details, but for my part, just the demands that I placed on Ben during my time in Africa was well beyond anything he’d had to deal with before. Then multiply that times however many clients he’s got on the ground, and you can see my point. Mediocre operators will not make it in this environment, and Covid is here to stay.
Should you risk it? Well, for my part, hell yeah. I had friends who tried hard to talk me out of it and boy am I glad I went.
Right now high season in East Africa is winding down. I am going to do another story on that alone, and what to know about when to go. However, my guides all said, and I saw it first hand, that the tourist traffic is WAY down. What that means to us is vastly better viewing, better access to the animals and places we dreamed of seeing, and access to the best of all the available guides.
Travel is forever changed. However, those who depend on tourist income are taking this very seriously. You and I need to be prepared for a learning curve, but as so many folks shiver in place and are fearful enough to put off their plans, I can report as a VERY happy and tired traveler that this was in every way the right decision to make. I can’t speak for you but if Kenya and Tanzania have been a pipe dream, go now.
For the crowds will return, they are already heading back to Kilimanjaro.
It’s time to travel.