When the pandemic caused South Africa to go into lockdown in March, many travellers found themselves stuck abroad. Tracks4Africa’s former digital editor, Karin Theron, reveals what was involved in returning from foreign parts (quarantine period included!).
Three years ago my partner, Pete, and I turned in our overland truck. After a seven-month overland trip from Cape Town to Ethiopia in 2015 we were ready for a new adventure. Our goal? To roam the oceans of the world instead of the plains of Africa.
It sounds idyllic doesn’t it… warm tropical water, paradise islands and cocktails at sunset. Life was indeed good for us on Moondust, our catamaran, but then Covid happened!
We’d arrived in New Zealand, about halfway around the world from South Africa, in November 2019. We were there to shelter from the devastating cyclones of the south west Pacific Ocean. Our plan was to set sail again in May 2020, after the cyclone season, heading first for Fiji. From there we’d make our way back home via Indonesia and across the Indian Ocean, stopping at Madagascar.
Caught out by Covid
Covid-19, this tiny shred of genetic material, unable to survive without humans as hosts, took us all by surprise. And most surprising for me was the reaction of many governments. I could not believe that most of the world simply went into lockdown! I already had a flight back to South Africa, intending to fly from Fiji for my daughter’s wedding in September 2020. When Covid erupted I naively believed that it would all be over by then.
What was I to do? Apart from the fact that my initial flight from Fiji had been cancelled by the airline, there were other concerns. We realised, shortly before we were due to sail for Fiji in July 2020, that it would be imprudent to leave the safe haven of New Zealand. No matter how much we were longing for the warm tropical water of the Pacific islands!
So we stayed in New Zealand, enjoying the beautiful scenery and hospitality of the Kiwis and bracing ourselves against the winter chill on an unheated boat. With my extended visa expiring at the end of September and the wedding date getting closer and closer, I realised I had to make a serious effort to get back home.
Where to start
Easier said than done! On phoning the South African consulate, I learnt there was no hope of a repatriation flight soon. However, they catalogued my registration for repatriation and advised that limited commercial flights were allowed into South Africa under lockdown level 2. In all likelihood these flights would be less expensive than a repatriation flight. The official recommended Qatar Airways as they seemed to be the most efficient and reliable airline under Covid.
I managed to book a Qatar flight and held my breath as I checked international flight arrivals in Johannesburg daily to monitor my chances of returning. If others could get in then so could I! Amongst the handful of international flights that did arrive, were Qatar flights from Doha. Then, five days before my departure, I received a notification that my flight had been cancelled!
My heart skipped a few beats but I shortly realised what lay behind the cancellation. The first leg of my flight, from New Zealand to Australia, was run by Air New Zealand. After a second surge in Covid numbers, Air New Zealand had suspended all flights to Australia.
Compliments to Qatar Airways! I phoned the local office at 21:30 and they were able to re-book my flight one day earlier, at no extra cost. This time round all legs of the flight were run by Qatar. All in all, it was less than half the cost of an official repatriation flight offered by SAA or the private initiative, Guardian Assist.
Flying during Covid times
Flying during Covid times is a weird experience. Airports are major hubs for the spread of the disease and those I passed through were quite eerie. In Auckland, Brisbane, Doha and Johannesburg, shops were closed and there were few passengers.
Everybody wears face masks and distancing rules are enforced. Before we boarded the aircraft, each passenger was provided with a rather awkward face shield. This we had to wear for the duration of the journey, except when we ate or drank.
It was pleasant to have so few fellow passengers, as I have always found it a bit awkward to touch elbows with a total stranger. On the last leg of my flight I had three seats to myself and a good sleep. Up till then I hadn’t had any communication from either the South African government or the airline about procedures upon landing in South Africa. I was happy to just go with the flow…
Back on South African soil
We went through immigration control and baggage collection as usual, without any indication of what could be expected. At some point we were ushered onto tour buses. After about an hour’s wait, seven tour buses departed together. Driving in convoy with hazard lights flashing, we made our way to a still unknown destination.
After my 44-hour flight I was extremely tired and felt relieved when the convoy pulled into the grounds of the Indaba Hotel in Sandton. This is an approved quarantine site operated under the auspices of the Department of Health. The hotel manager welcomed us and assured us that we would find information and a welcome pack in our rooms, with more details to follow the next day. As we exited the bus, we were allocated rooms under the watchful eyes of a few members of the police force.
Quarantine and room service with a difference
In quarantine, you are not allowed to leave your room for the first seven days. After this period, we were allowed to stretch our legs in a demarcated area. We were served delicious meals, three times a day, on a knock-and-drop basis.
The fact that it was served in take-away format meant I did not miss my standard glass of wine accompanying dinner. Somehow polystyrene and a delicate wine glass don’t go together… Those knocks became the highlight of my day! The only other human interaction we had was with the healthcare staff. They visited once a day to check our temperatures and see if we were showing any symptoms.
Our rooms were at the far end of the hotel complex, with mine facing a wide, open space with a number of big trees. The trees were home to a surprising variety of birds whose song woke me long before day break. It felt like I was home in the bushveld again!
It was only through asking that I learnt my quarantine was courtesy of the South African government. I was glad to get this return on my tax money! Hotel management informed us that we would be allowed to leave the facility after 10 days, at which time they would provide us with a health certificate.
It was good to see the private sector and Government working together to successfully get South Africans back home. There is no indication of when New Zealand will allow me to re-join Pete on our circumnavigation. In the meanwhile, I’ll be happy to travel in South Africa again.
For the latest on Covid-19 and travel regulations, visit sacoronavirus.co.za.