On safari during a pandemic

All photos by Malini Pittet.

“Did you really go on safari during the pandemic”?


This was a common reaction when I returned from a trip to Kenya and Tanzania in January 2021. Around the time that we left on our trip, Switzerland went into a full lockdown with only essential shops open and home office encouraged for all employees who could do so.


Like many Western “First-world” countries, Switzerland has struggled with finding effective measures to curb the pandemic. The freedom of its people is of great concern and most measures aim to protect this freedom at the cost of the spread of the virus. Moreover, there have been some issues concerning reporting numbers of infected people and deaths caused by the virus. The example that brought this mix-up into the spotlight was the unfortunate death of a young man in a car accident; he had tested positive for Covid-19 and was automatically added to the deaths caused by Covid even though this was clearly not the case. This muddle was subsequently adjusted.


As a self-employed wildlife photographer and conservationist, the year 2020 was not an easy one. Most of my photography projects and photo courses were cancelled; some were postponed only to be cancelled at the end of the year. So, when the opportunity to go to Kenya and Tanzania came up, I jumped on it quicker than a cheetah pins down a springbok in the Kalahari.

Covid-19 changed the way we travel. Organising the trip required some additional steps related to the pandemic such as getting PCR tests before travelling and booking PCR tests in Tanzania to be able to re-enter Kenya. During the flight, we were obliged to keep our masks on at all times except during mealtimes. These were also very strict- no more fancy three-course meals or air personnel walking through the aisles continuously. Thanks to HEPA filters on the flights and efficient circulation of air, the air we are breathing during the flight is actually cleaner and safer than in many other situations such as restaurants, bars or even shops. (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/2020/08/how-clean-is-the-air-on-your-airplane-coronavirus-cvd/).


We landed in Nairobi early in the evening and following an easy immigration procedure including covid checks, we were taken to our hotel where we discovered that all restaurants closed by 19h. Thankfully, we found a solution and after a short sleep (only realising when setting the alarm clocks that we were two hours ahead of Europe), we were ready for the next leg of our journey.


This leg involved a short flight from Wilson (including several covid checks ranging from temperature checks to paperwork) to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. The admin procedure here took a bit longer, but the airport was deserted apart from the regular staff. From Kili Airport we flew to the Seronera Airfield in the Serengeti. It is always a great thrill to land in the bush on a dirt track; that’s when you get the feeling that your holidays have really begun. Our safari effectively began on the two-hour journey from the airfield to the lodge.

As a precaution, during our stay at Namiri Plains we were assigned one guide and one staff member to accompany us during our safaris and at the camp. Usually, mealtimes on lodges and camps are a social event with different groups eating together at one long table; a good way to exchange stories and ideas. Now in Covid times, meals were enjoyed within one’s group to limit contact with other people; which never really was a problem as we were the only guests for most of the stay. The staff did four-weeks rotations, returned home for a break. Following a negative PCR test, they would stay at an intermediate camp for a week and after a second negative PCR test, they could return to the lodge and once again interact with guests.


An unintended result of travelling during a pandemic was the exclusivity of sightings. The normally busy Serengeti grasslands teaming with wildlife but also packed with safari vehicles was now deserted devoid of tourists. A typical sighting of a cheetah with cubs pre-covid times would involve multiple vehicles around the animals, frenzied radioing to inform colleagues and a rush of inbound vehicles racing to reach the cats before they leave and on arrival find the best observation position for their guests.


Honey badger cheetah cub

This was my first visit to the Serengeti, and it was a truly astonishing sight to see grasslands stretching from horizon to horizon. Standing in the middle of meter-high lush green grass, one would think the place was empty. But this grass is deceptively silent; at any given time, one is surrounded by a mass of wildlife. Cheetahs, servals, lions, mongooses, and a multitude of herbivores thrive in this seemingly never-ending grassland. It was the time of the year when many species were having their young making for some incredibly adorable observations. Originally, it was a Facebook post by the Namiri Asilia Lodge that prompted this journey. An image and videos of two ridiculously adorable melanistic servals appeared on my feed some time in November 2020. A flurry of bookings and it was not long before I was in the very spot where the serval kittens had been seen for the first time. Sadly, they had not been seen for several weeks before my arrival despite the mother (a yellow serval) being spotted several times. The father of these kittens, a melanistic serval was named after the guide who spotted him for the first time- Manja. We had the privilege to spend a whole afternoon and a whole day with Manja (the serval), giving us a peek in the life of a serval in the Serengeti. Life is tough for an adult felid of this size, sharing its space with multiple predators; it is therefore no surprise that the kittens face a great struggle to reach adulthood.

Having travelled all the way to Tanzania and making the trip during a period with fewer tourists, we took the opportunity to visit a special place which we wouldn’t go to in normal circumstances- the Ngorongoro Crater. The volcanic caldera is at 1,800 m asl and our lodge the Highlands was at 2,915m asl. Again, we were assigned one staff and one driver/guide for our stay. The Crater which spans 260 km2 is a phenomenal sight from inside and from the rim. Even from the edge of the caldera which rises over 600 m, wildlife can be seen dotting the grassy patches. A result of the pandemic was that the Crater was free of the usual vehicle traffic jams and tourists; we had a spent a privileged time with the Crater wildlife, alone and undisturbed.

It was time to head back to Kenya, a journey we made by road. It was a good road, empty except for a few goat herders. Crossing the border was a colourful event punctuated by policemen approaching us to say that we needn’t wear masks because there was no Covid-19 in Tanzania! From the border, a dirt track winding through the countryside took us to Amboseli. The lodge in Amboseli was larger and hosted more guests than the lodges we visited before. However, the architecture of the common areas was open, making safety measures easily manageable. A few nights with the elephants and a unique time with Craig, one of the last remaining elephant super tuskers, and it was time to return to one of our favourite Kenyan destinations- Ol Donyo.

We headed home with our hearts warm, and cameras filled with nearly 700 GB of photos and videos! Travelling back home was another opportunity to see how Switzerland was still struggling with managing the pandemic. When entering Switzerland, one must fill out a paper form and have proof a negative covid test. As our air personnel filed the stack of papers in a compartment, we wondered what would happen if one of the people on our flight contracted the disease. The authorities would have to leaf through hundreds of paper forms to find out who was on the flight and then inform them of the need to quarantine! Kenya proved to be smarter; to enter the country, one must fill an online form which generates a QR code that needs to be presented alongside a negative Covid test.

At no time during our trip did we feel unsafe or were confronted with crowds, whether at airports or during immigration procedures when entering and exiting countries. On our side we also took precautions at every step of the trip to stay safe including maintaining our distances, wearing masks, sanitising appropriately, etc. Travelling during a pandemic was a success as guests and personnel followed the rules every step of the way. A large proportion of the population in Kenya and Tanzania rely on the tourism business; Covid-19 dealt a blow to this sector in 2020. Vaccination efforts are growing every day in countries around the world, and unless the mutations turn sour, we can expect the safari business to recover not only in these two countries but across the globe.


Final note- in 2017 Kenya banned the use of plastics, particularly single-use plastics, and the effect four years later is quite noticeable. According to the BBC, about 80% of the population has been participating and a visible result is that the roadsides are no longer lined with plastic trash and wildlife areas are plastic free.


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