I was over-nighting at the excellent York Lodge in Harare, Zimbabwe with a cotton swab halfway to my brain, being tested for COVID-19 by a very sympathetic doctor, in order to be able to fly home. This would be the third test I’d have in the last ten days, and it had become routine at this point.
If you—like me—enjoy traveling to distant locations around the globe to hunt, you’ve been impacted by the global spread of COVID-19. In fact, my safari to Zimbabwe had been rescheduled from September 2020 to August 2021 due to the numerous lockdowns and travel bans around the world. Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to hunt axis deer on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, and though it was still within the United States, we were required to produce a negative COVID test before even being allowed to board the plane for Honolulu. We faced the same issues traveling to Zimbabwe, with the exception of having to be re-tested in Johannesburg, South Africa at the famous Afton Safari Lodge, due to the fact that Zimbabwe requires a negative COVID test no more than 48 hours old.
Logistically, the trip from Newark, N.J., to Harare, Zimbabwe was rife with the chance of being completely foiled. We were flying United Airlines from Newark to Johannesburg, and the flight left at 8:45 pm. The old South African Airways flight 203 used to leave JFK airport in Queens, N.Y. at 11:15 a.m. and would arrive in Johannesburg at roughly 8 a.m. the next day, leaving enough time to catch a connecting flight to almost anywhere in southern Africa. The United flight required us to spend the night in Johannesburg, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the excellent service and accommodations at the Afton Lodge—I highly recommend it if you are transiting through Johannesburg—the time difference required another COVID test in order to fly from South Africa to Zimbabwe. So, there were two chances for the COVID test to prevent the hunt from happening at all, and a good opportunity to be detained and quarantined in South Africa. Couple that concept with the fact that my wife was traveling with me, and a false positive could’ve easily wreaked havoc, ruining the entire trip.
The same can be said for the return journey. I was hunting with my buddy Lindon Stanton of Mbalabala Safaris in the Makuti Safari Area near the Kariba Dam, and while we had a great week and made many irrevocable memories, all that tends to come to a screeching halt once you get back to civilization. Lindon has assembled a great team, including the folks who will get you to and from the Harare airport, and works in conjunction with the York Lodge to provide all the services that his hunters need to transit in and out of Zimbabwe as painlessly as possible. I’m not really a big city kind of a guy, so I’m out of my element to begin with at either end of a safari, and I really appreciated the convenience of having the doctor visit the lodge to do the testing. The tests all turned out negative and we made it home without issue, but that could’ve gone the other way very easily. For the record, we are both fully vaccinated (by choice), but I don’t think that played a role in the negative test results, and for the record, the United States, South Africa nor Zimbabwe ever asked for proof of vaccination, just a negative COVID test.
If you have a hunt booked and you are booking airfare, I recommend two things. First, book your airfare through a reputable agent who is well versed in the obstacles facing hunters, including rifle permits—I needed to obtain a South African rifle permit just to overnight—and I will recommend the concierge services available. Second, I also highly recommend purchasing trip insurance, as should you have the misfortune of coming up positive on a Covid test, you may be out the cost of airfare at the very least, and quite possibly lose your deposit or even worse. To cover the first issue, I have used Steve Turner’s Travel With Guns for over a decade, and their team has been very good to me and mine over the course of a half-dozen safaris or more. They have a crack team and network with partners all over the globe. The second issue—regarding the possibility of contracting COVID and being grounded—may be out of your hands. Even if you are negative upon departure, the idea of sitting on a crowded airplane for a considerable amount of time, though wearing a mask, increases the risk of exposure. My personal fear was being stranded in a foreign country, required to quarantine for whatever amount of time, not only being forced to miss my hunt but being financially strapped as a result of the process.
I have no advice for the prevention of contracting COVID, but if you are booking a hunt, please do your best to keep your schedule as flexible as possible in case something does go wrong. The COVID-19 era has really put things into a tailspin around the world—where the Johannesburg airport is usually bustling, with all sorts of restaurants and shops to explore, less than half the amenities were available—and many of the airports and airlines are running on limited staff. Leave more time at the airport, especially if traveling with a firearm, and understand that everyone is doing their best to accommodate the situation.
I know hunters who refuse to wear a mask for the duration of time required to get to remote destinations, and I understand the frustration involved. However, I will jump through the hoops necessary in order to have those fantastic hunting experiences, with the hopes that this all comes to an end in the very near future. One last thing: read the fine print regarding the type of test required to fly and/or enter a particular country. We needed the PCR rapid test—as opposed to the antigen test—so be certain of the test you’re paying for and that it can be used for travel.