So, one burning question on everyone’s mind in the past six months has been, “When will it be safe for me to travel and where can I go”. I had done a couple of car trips with a few hotel stays of a night or two, so I knew that I felt comfortable staying in hotels with the new protocols that were being enforced. The question really was how would I feel on an airplane and how would I feel if I left the country.
In August, I followed along as Craig Beal, owner of Travel Beyond and the safari operator with whom I work, embarked on his own adventure to Kenya and Tanzania as soon as the borders opened. While there were some minor hiccups with the borders and the necessary Covid testing, it was a huge success. So, following his return, when he offered me the chance to travel with some of his colleagues to Tanzania, I jumped.
There would be seven of us traveling from five different cities in the US, meeting up in Kilimanjaro to embark on a 10-day safari trip through the northern part of the country. It was an opportunity to visit more than a dozen lodges, connect with staff on the ground and learn about Tanzania as a destination. But more, importantly, it would allow me to experience what it is like to travel during a pandemic.
Even though Tanzania does not require a negative Covid test for entry, we all decided that we would get a test before departure, and that we would quarantine as much as possible for the 14 days before the trip. In the Washington, DC area, I have found several resources for Covid testing, including a clinic in Germantown that does rapid testing with same day results, my doctor’s office in Bethesda, which will guarantee the results in 72 hours and Passport Health, which will guarantee results in 72 hours. Since I needed to go get a consult and a malaria prescription, I decided to try out Passport Health, and I had my results the next day. They provided the results by email with a downloadable pdf that indicated that it was a PCR test, and it was in fact negative.
With my bags packed and Covid test in hand, the biggest hurdle to me, and what I hear from most of you, is the flight. The destination seems safe and wide open, but how do you survive hours on an airplane? My flight on the way over was Washington Dulles -> Amsterdam -> Kilimanjaro on KLM in business class. I arrived at Dulles at 3:00pm on a Wednesday afternoon, and it was a complete ghost town. There were very few people checking in at any of the desks, and I felt like it was very easy to keep my distance from others. I checked in, dropped my bags and headed for security. Everyone was masked up, and there were hand sanitizing stations everywhere. I breezed through security, and hopped the train to terminal A. Again, it was empty, and there was nothing open except for one sundry store. Not a single restaurant appeared to be open for service. I spent an hour in the lounge, which had grab and go service for food, and then boarded the plane.
There were only four people in business class and around 50 in economy – this was for an aircraft that can hold 292. The flight attendant said that it seems that things are picking up, and she was hopeful that more would be flying soon. She let me know that the service on the flight would be less frequent, and that we could take our masks off when eating. The flight was comfortable and uneventful, and we arrived in Amsterdam early the next morning. While the EU is not open to US visitors currently, Amsterdam is open to transit to other locations. There were no additional security screenings in Amsterdam, and it was just like a normal domestic transfer requiring moving from one gate to another.
Amsterdam was so different from Dulles. The airport was packed, and all the shopping and dining venues were open. The flight attendant on my last flight explained that KLM returned to the skies early during the pandemic with strict safety procedures in effect, so although the schedule was not as robust as before, there was still a lot of traffic going through Amsterdam – with its European network at virtually pre-Covid levels. Everyone in the airport was wearing a mask, some with the addition of face shields and hazmat suits. Again, there were hand sanitizing stations everywhere.
The flight from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro was about half full, which seemed much more crowded than the first flight. There was a mix of Americans and Europeans, and it was clear that it was a lot of leisure travel and not just essential travel. Upon arrival in Tanzania, we were required to sanitize our hands and have our temperatures taken before proceeding to immigration. I had obtained my visa in advance, but you can also purchase it upon arrival. The airport is small, and there were a lot of people in a small space, but everyone had masks on. We were met by our guide outside of the baggage area, and we loaded up our jeep to head to Legendary Lodge in Arusha about 90 minutes away.
At this point, I took off my mask - just about 24 hours from the time I had arrived at Dulles the previous day. I was very aware of it for about the first three hours, and then it just became another piece of clothing. Upon arrival at every single lodge, whether we were staying or just visiting the property, we were greeted by masked employees, hand washing stations and temperature checks, and in some cases, forms that needed to be completed to contact trace should someone fall ill.
This was our first stop, and I wish that we had more time at this lovely destination. It is a common jumping off point for safari, located in Arusha, the largest city closest to the airport. Large open rooms, delicious food and welcoming common areas, make this a great one-night stay. It is just a few minutes from the local Arusha airstrip, from which we headed to Tarangire National Park.
Tarangire is the sixth largest national park in Tanzania and part of the northern Tanzania safari circuit. It is known for the presence of large herds of wildebeests, elephants, gazelles, zebras, hartebeest and buffalos and its beautiful baobab and acacia trees. It is also the home to more than 545 species of birds including the beautiful lilac breasted roller. We spent two nights at Lemala Mpingo Ridge with sweeping views across the Tarangire River and the valley below.
What I loved about it: huge spacious tent with a lovely daybed on the terrace, outdoor shower and outdoor bath to maximize your feeling of being one with nature.
Other lodges visited
Kuro Tarangire - Lots of opportunities for walking safaris, near the Silale Swamp where loads of wildlife congregate
Sanctuary Swala Camp - Water comes up to the camp allowing Makoro (dugout canoe) experiences and walking safaris
Chem Chem - Large common areas, full gym, swimming pool and spa, in a private wildlife concession
Little Chem Chem - Overlooking Lake Burunge, this small camp is family friendly. There are family tents, children’s activities, a kitchen garden and of course lots of animals
From Tarangire we headed to the Ngorongoro crater, a world heritage site consisting of a large volcanic caldera formed two to three million years ago when a volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself. The crater is home to elephants, leopards, buffalos, zebras, warthogs, lions, hippos as well as local Masai people and their livestock. The wildlife dense crater, whose floor has a surface area of 100 square miles can be visited in a day. A highlight was the large flocks of flamingos who congregate in the crater’s lakes. We spent one night at Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp.
What I loved about it: beautiful setting on the crater among the Acacia trees and easy access to the crater by a private road that can only be used by two camps, which allows you to get to the crater floor earlier than other visitors.
Then we headed to Entamanu Private, which is a private camp, usually reserved for exclusive use, but now available for individual bookings. It had a cottage feel with whitewashed wood walls, local artwork and beautiful views of the Ngorongoro Crater to one side and the Serengeti to the other. Most cultural exchanges have been prohibited as a precaution, but we were fortunate to participate in a late afternoon walk through the grounds culminating in a sundowner with a lovely performance by the local Masai. The most interesting part of the evening was a question and answer session with one of the elders in which he explained the local way of life and how they were working to preserve their culture in a modern world.
What I loved about it: authentic, lots of human interaction, luxurious accommodations, lots of walking safari options
Other lodges visited
Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp - Shares the private access road with Sanctuary for easy access into the park
After a lovely evening in the Entamanu library, we headed back towards Lake Manyara and the local airstrip the next morning for a short flight to the Serengeti. The vastness of the region and the size of the herds was already apparent upon descent into the Serengeti airstrip. We were there to witness the Great Migration which follows 2.5 million wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, gazelles and other animals as they work their way around the Serengeti in a clockwise movement every year. The draw to this location in September was to see the herds cross the Mara River.
The wildebeest use their instincts to search for phosphorus rich grasses that they need to survive. Where one decides to go, the herds will follow, often in a single file column in search of food. We were fortunate to see multiple large crossings. The build up to the event consists of thousands of wildebeest and zebras amassing on one side of the river. We watched as they jumped down to the banks, looked around and jumped back up several times. Tentatively, they stuck a hoof in the water, and as soon as one got up the nerve to go, it was like a faucet was turned on, and for more than an hour we watched as they crossed the river. We could see more arriving to cross from all sides, and our guide estimated more than 10,000 at each crossing. It was a sight to behold, punctuated by crocodiles lying in wait and hippos watching the show.
The following morning, we were treated to the sunrise by balloon over the Serengeti. What a magical way to spot the herds from above. Flying at just 30 feet above the ground, it was a chance to get off road and spot elephants, giraffes, buffalos, wildebeest, zebras, cheetahs and more.
In this destination, we stayed at Lamai Serengeti, built into the rocks of Kogakuria Kopje. There are 12 large rooms, consisting of a blend of canvas, plaster and rocks, as well as a smaller private camp adjacent.
What I loved about it: panoramic views of the Serengeti, great family accommodations under one tent, saw leopards and cheetahs from this location
Other lodges visited
Serengeti Bushtops Camp - Large tents with lots of outdoor living space, most raised above the ground, private hot tub on each terrace. Large welcoming common areas with bar, infinity pool and delicious food
Lemala Kuria Hills - Large modern tents with floor to ceiling glass with spectacular views. Indoor/outdoor showers and baths with views. Private plunge pool on each deck. Healthy and delicious food.
Our last stop on the trip was the Grumeti game reserve, a concession created to protect the path of the wildebeest migration and the indigenous biodiversity of the ecosystem. In 2006 Singita took over management of the area, pledged to provide low impact, luxury tourism, and has continued to oversee and ensure the long-term sustainability of the reserve through conservation and community partnerships. We began with a short 15-minute flight on Grumeti Air, a private charter company in the Serengeti. While the Lamai region was hilly and dotted with rock formations, the Grumeti region was expansive and mostly flat. We would have three nights to explore the area and visit all of the Singita properties.
After six days of game drives, we were ready to add in some time to relax and enjoy the camps. We saw animals pass through all of the camps in which we stayed, but nowhere as prevalent as at Singita. Large herds of zebras, giraffes and impala spent the days by the watering holes at Sabora, and there was even a lion making his way between the tents one night. I was sure I heard it softly grunting outside my tent, and it was confirmed by claw marks on the cushions on my terrace the following morning.
Our first night was spent at Singita Faru Faru Lodge where contemporary one- and two-bedroom suites dot the ridge above the Grumeti River. The two subsequent nights were spent at Singita Sabora Tented Camp. Designed to allow guests to enjoy time in their room, each suite includes a private pantry, dining, outdoor fitness/meditation deck, and comfortable outdoor spaces for game viewing from “home”.
What I loved about it: all accommodations had beautifully designed interiors, sumptuous linens and textiles, and impeccable attention to detail. Grab and go concept at the “deli” allowed us to graze like the animals 😊, compact bites of deliciousness that could be enjoyed by the pool, at the bar or in your room - just pack up your leather picnic basket and enjoy. Relaxing spa with expert massage and body services. Animals everywhere!
Other lodges visited
Singita Sasakwa Lodge - Perched on a hill above the Serengeti, each private cottage and villa has a private infinity pool. Interiors that feel like old style hunting lodges with amazing art throughout
Singita Serengeti House - Private home within the reserve with four bedrooms available with a full staff, including a chef. Full gym, large infinity pool, media room, and gorgeous outdoor space. A real home away from home.
Singita Explore Camp - Private use tented camp, including Field Guide, chef and host, consisting of six tents bathed in Singita style.
Twelve days after this magical trip began, we embarked on our trip out of the bush and home. Flights from the Serengeti to the Arusha area are early in the day, and most flights onward are late at night. I often book my clients a day room so that they can relax and shower before the long journey home, and the newly opened Hamerkop House is just minutes from the Dolly airstrip, just east of Arusha. Its four en-suite bedrooms can be reserved individually or as a full home rental, and the home comes with a private staff, private pool and golf course access. It was lovely to end the trip with a home cooked meal, a dip in the pool, and a leisurely shower before heading to Kilimanjaro airport.
We left that evening at 6pm for our 9:20pm flight out. The route this time was a bit more circuitous due to the available flight schedule with JRO ->DAR->AMS->ATL->IAD in business class. The first flight was noticeably more crowded than the flight over, and it seemed that almost all seats were full. It made a short stop in Dar es Salaam en route to Amsterdam, and we remained on the plane as some departed and others arrived. The ground crew entered the plane and sanitized all empty seats and common areas. The nonstop activity of the trip caught up with me, and I slept the entire way to Amsterdam. Upon arriving at Amsterdam in this direction, we were required to go back through security to get to our gates to head back to the US. Again, the airport was packed with all stores open. The flight to Atlanta was about half full. I was grateful for global entry so that I didn’t have to stand in line with the crowds that were arriving. Atlanta was SO different from Dulles, but I was thinking that maybe two weeks would make a huge difference and that Dulles would start to feel crowded. Not so, much as when I departed, it was empty which left me with such a sense of sadness and brought me back to reality.
I embarked on this trip for multiple reasons, but one of the most important was to experience travel today. While my husband's family members in Europe were living a relatively normal life with leisure travel a part of it (including planes, cruises and resort stays), my travel and my clients’ travel had come to a complete halt. I know that everyone has a different tolerance for risk and a different health profile, and I encourage you to make decisions that are right for you and your family, but I can say that for me travel felt safe. There was universal masking in the airports and on the planes, and a respect for personal space. While I am not quite ready to go to a concert, sporting event or movie theater, I can say that I am ready to travel again to a destination with a low prevalence of Covid, strong Covid protocols and the ability to be outside and social distance. And, more importantly, I will be here to help when you are ready, too.
Set up a risk free consultation with Lisa to discuss your future travel plans