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Travelling to Kenya during the COVID crisis, by Bob BrindSurch

As somebody who has been travelling to East Africa for over 50 years taking photographs, enjoying the area, its wildlife and the hospitality of the local people, we were really feeling the strain imposed by the instructions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) regarding travelling to the region. We were also very concerned about the impact on the local people from the loss of tourism income and the potential impact on conservation in the area.

Over the years I’ve stopped visiting at migration time to observe the wonder of the river crossings because it’s become too popular and you seldom get to enjoy the spectacle in the way that you could 20 years ago. However a few weeks ago I woke up with a sudden realisation that maybe, rather selfishly, due to the pandemic’s impact on tourism this might be one year where it was possible to visit the region at migration time without the crowds. I also convinced myself it was an opportunity to do some personal research into the situation in Kenya rather than listening to the stories we received from the media that East Africa is a dangerous place to visit at the moment. I am reminded many years ago in an episode of “Yes Minister” where Sir Humphrey said that the FCO existed to explain why nothing could be done.

Once the idea was set in mind it took only a moment to decide to go. We were concerned of course about the situation in Kenya and decided to consult Safari Consultants for advice. I have known and visited the area for over 50 years but their local knowledge, expertise and contacts are second to none. One call to Mary Grimwood and the stage was set – we would have just five days to prepare before joining the British Airways flight from Heathrow. Much research was of course required and we learnt that we needed a private negative Covid test within 96 hours of flying, the normal visas and the necessary insurance particularly to go to an area where the FCDO was recommending UK citizens not to visit. We also needed to know of any other steps to take before travel.

The negative Covid test was simple if you are prepared to pay. £185 and a visit to a private clinic ensured you get the results within 12 hours so the appointment was booked and date set in just 2 days’ time. Kenyan visas were applied for as normal online but insurance was however a bit more tricky. We needed to insure against travel to non-FCDO recommended locations as well as the necessary health insurance. The first was relatively simple, one call to the broker I use for my company public liability insurance and it was all sorted for just £130 for both of us. Standard health insurance for us was remarkably simple in that as people who travel to the region many times a year we have an annually reoccurring service with a well-known UK company. One call assured us that as we had insurance for travelling to a non-FCDO location and as we were on a reoccurring policy with them they would cover us. We also had to complete an online health questionnaire and receive a QR code either on our phone or on paper and present it on arrival in Nairobi which was relatively simple.

The stage was set and the countdown had begun and as we frantically prepared our packing we excitedly ticked off the list of things we needed to achieve. Safari Consultants agreed not to book airline tickets until we receive the negative Covid test so that combined with the applications for visas were first hurdles. Visa application was remarkably simple and quick. Probably because of the lack of travel to the region it took only four hours between completing the online application and the visas being available. A total record well done Kenya. Visit to the clinic for the negative Covid test was nerve wracking but the result came through as promised within 12 hours by email. A quick phone call and an excited email to Safari Consultants and flights were booked and we had just 48 hours to think about it before we set off to Heathrow. Safari Consultants as always ensured all arrangements in Kenya were in place.

Arrival and check-in was remarkable because there were so few passengers the BA 777 which although it has a passenger capacity of 299 had only 60 passengers including ourselves so it really was a case of ‘where would you like to sit Sir and Madam’ and we had a whole row of seats just to ourselves meaning we were also able to move to a window seat to observe the amazing sunset as we landed at Nairobi. Masks had to be worn for all the journey but in truth this wasn’t very much of a problem. On arrival at Nairobi we were astounded by the amazing precautions Kenya takes with regard to Covid security. We were left feeling that the UK was a long way behind. On entry to the arrivals area we had to sanitise our hands and our temperature was taken before we could proceed any further. Staff stationed throughout the airport regularly reminded all travellers to wear masks and to keep our social distance. It does help I suppose when the person instructing you is carrying an automatic rifle! All the checking was done at the desk with care to ensure no contact. Our passports were shown through a Perspex screen and the Visa and QR code scanned remotely. On leaving the immigration desk there was another hand sanitiser machine something we soon realised was going to become a central part of our trip. As we collected our bags from the luggage carousel we observed each one being sprayed presumably to disinfect them as they would have been handled by many people on their journey.

The company providing our transport to the hotel where we were to spend the night were brilliant, they met us wearing gloves to handle our luggage and assured us that the vehicle had been completely disinfected after the last passengers and encouraged us to sanitise our hands yet again. On arrival at the hotel our temperature was taken and we were encouraged to wash our hands. Our luggage was scanned as per normal but also disinfected again. We were astonished at the level of precautions inside the hotel. In the lift beside the buttons was a hand sanitiser so that after pressing them you can sanitise your hands. The escalator had a dispenser which delivered small plastic sheets which you placed between your hand and the rail. These were deposited in a bin at the top. We were told the room had been thoroughly cleaned before our arrival and in the restaurant menus were out and instead there are a series of QR codes strategically placed which you were asked to scan with your phone to receive the menu. It worked remarkably well.

In the morning we departed for Wilson Airport and whilst I must have passed through there many hundreds of times, never have I seen it with so few people. Everybody arriving was instructed to wear a mask, told to sanitise their hands, their temperature taken and to keep their distance from others. Those failing to do so were informed in a very loud voice that if they did not they could not enter the airport. A very effective tactic! The light aircraft was remarkably empty but we were instructed to wear face masks throughout the flight.

On arrival at the bush airstrip we were met as always by our driver guide who took our temperatures and our safari adventure started. Given we were the only two in the vehicle and were sufficiently far away from the driver no masks were required and we could enjoy the safari drive to camp in the usual way. On arrival at camp our temperature was taken yet again and we are encouraged to wash our hands. We were shown to our tent which had been cleaned for us and all meals in the camp were taken in the open air with social distancing in mind. Not too difficult as there were only one other couple in camp. In camp and with our driver, who, with his family, I’ve known for very many years, we felt totally safe and it was wonderful to be able to forget Covid for a few days. The safari experience was as always amazing but all the more so because the lack of people in the main reserve which we of course visited as it was migration time. On one occasion we came across a leopardess who had caught a baby Dik Dik and was encouraging her cub to dispatch it. An amazing opportunity to observe real nature which, in the reserve, would ordinarily have attracted dozens of cars. We only saw a few!

Over 50 plus years I have undertaken more safaris to East Africa than I care to count and each one is different in what you see and experience but this one was very special. It was just the two of us, the wildlife was in abundance and we felt totally safe and refreshingly free of the worries we would have had at home regarding the virus. Kenya and the safari companies have truly excelled themselves in the precautions they had taken to keep their own citizens free of the virus. We were told that the death toll was less than 1,000 compared to our 50,000 at home a figure which the Kenyans found incredibly hard to believe. We had heard people back in the UK question these figures as being accurate but whilst there are different ways of counting these things we felt absolutely sure that they were as accurate as in the UK. An absolute success story which needs to be celebrated especially in a country like ours where there are those who don’t seem to take the virus seriously enough. We had one very sobering moment that summed the whole thing up. As we drove down the road past some children who, as always, stopped and waved at our safari vehicle we heard one callout “mzungu”, Swahili for white man, and they all turned away and covered their faces. They had much more fear of us than we should have of Kenya.

Our flight home had even fewer passengers, the air hostess informed us that there were only 50 people on board. Far from being concerned, as the FCDO informs us, about travelling to Kenya we felt totally safe at all times and as soon as you are comfortable doing so, I would encourage everybody to travel and enjoy an amazing country and to contribute to the economy at a time when they really need it. Anyone who enjoys Africa like we do will know it’s endearing magic.

I always start my photographic trips telling guests that Kenya is:
“A land of diverse wildlife, big game, big cats, huge landscapes and great people. It is a land of adventure and wide open spaces. The cradle of mankind, part of the old world but also a shiny new one just waiting to be explored. It is all these but it’s never dull”.

What our trip showed us was that it’s also a country which takes the pandemic risk very seriously and where you will always feel safe.