Italy, March 2020. Was I really travelling in the hotbed of coronavirus infections at this strange turning point in our world’s history?
Well, yes. We arrived in Venice by vaporetto and lugged our suitcases to the address of our hotel. We were met by a kind Italian man, who told us this hotel was closed because most of their guests had cancelled and we were being upgraded to their sister hotel around the corner… with a canal view. On our first outing, the same man gave us directions with a closing remark I will never forget, “You are lucky to experience this place like this – with so few people. It is a privilege”
Six months later and a question mark hangs over travel as we know it. Will it ever be the same again? When will travel confidence be restored? Now, this story isn’t going to speculate or emphasise the importance of travel to communities around the world. It’s also not going to talk about how hard hit lodges and conservation efforts have been around Africa (although it’s worth looking into if this is the first you’re hearing of it).
Instead, I’m going to tell you why I think you should throw your face mask to the wind and get on a plane to Africa (okay, don’t. You’re going to need your face mask and they’re bad for the environment). Right now, there is an opportunity to experience safari unlike ever before and, probably, in ways which will never be possible again in future.
With many people hesitant – or unable – to go through with their safari bookings, some of the world’s most exciting, remote safari destinations just got wilder. From the action of the Great Migration to the splendours of spring on safari, one thing is for sure – you won’t be sharing your sightings with the usual melee of game-viewers and guides. In fact, the chances are higher than ever that you will get a taste of Africa’s space without an overlander on the horizon; that you will take in the world’s natural marvels without the hum of a Cessna overhead. For the Africa lover, this is time travel without the vertigo.
As I skimmed through Instagram, dreaming of the wonders beyond closed borders, I saw the warmth of African hospitality at work. One lodge on the Zambezi has given guests the full honeymoon treatment – the luxury of exclusivity now a natural perk for the 2020 travel pioneers. And, while those who are willing and able are leaving first tracks in this new way to travel, I am reminded that I have been lucky enough to experience Africa on the quiet in a different way over the past few years.
Summer in Southern Africa sees high temperatures and monumental storms. Green season is when the waters rise and the landscape revives; a time with heightened potential to find impassable roads - and so far fewer tourists. Last year, we worked from our wild camp in Namibia in searing heat and skies that used colour to tell stories of the storms that would come. The year before, we camped in Zambia, visiting Busanga Plains with the advice that, if we stayed beyond the third rains, we would be trapped there for the season as roadways became veritable water systems.
We pushed cars out of black cotton soil bog with lions round the bend, had tent poles collapse under the weight of a deluge, felt the occasional worry at whether wild weather would get in the way of the fun – but, more than anything, we were rewarded for our timing in the most spectacular ways.
We experienced these wild places alone - spent whole days watching leopards doing leopard things, observed swathes of deserted African bush with hardly a human or structure to be seen. And, while 2020 may make the notion of isolation a cringeworthy thing, aloneness in Africa ignites an awareness of the enormity of the experience. Visiting these places, these tracts of Africa which pay homage to the timelessness of wild spaces, is always a special. To experience them like that – with so few people – is a privilege.
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