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06 October 2021

Client Review: Travelling During The Pandemic by Esther P. and Tracy C.

Read our client review of their trip during the COVID-19 pandemic. Find out how they managed COVID travel restrictions in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

"Emma and many others from Yellow Zebra Safaris (YZS) were instrumental with the success of our trip pre-COVID and during COVID. YZS took the stress away and we have the best memories of a lifetime because of them. They truly were angels looking over our trip, from (1) planning and booking – helping us choose locations to align to our trip goals; and (2) pre-departure – ensuring we had all the required Visas, COVID testing and paperwork solidified; to (3) during our trip – checking in to make sure things were seamless and going as expected."

Traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the best experiences. This was a Girls Only trip – two Arizona, USA residents traveling to two Africa countries (Kenya and Zimbabwe) during COVID. If we could book again during a pandemic, we would. What were the perks of traveling during COVID? At each country, we didn’t have to share our safari jeep with anyone else; while on game drives in Zimbabwe we only saw 1 other safari jeep and during our time in Kenya we would see at most 6 jeeps, but the majority of the time it was just us and the animals. At each lodge or destination, there were minimal to no visitors at all. Having to deal with the COVID test and other required paperwork was annoying, but the reward for us to be there and have every place practically to ourselves was priceless.

Here's a detailed account of our trip in August 2021...

COVID Testing For Travel and Other Required Paperwork at Airports & Immigration:

There was a lot of misinformation on COVID PCR testing and required paperwork on any website we visited: airline websites, Kenya Ministry of Health (MOH), Trusted Travel, embassy, government, etc., and it was frustrating for everyone. Even when we completed all the paperwork, on a few occasions at immigration and/or the airport they didn’t even ask for it. Certainly, this is not unique to Africa, but it is an area that could be improved for any travel destination across the globe. One thing was constant – everyone asked to see your COVID PCR test for travel. We highly recommend you print your COVID PCR test. Whereas at some locations you can show your COVID test on your mobile device, others actually stamped your test so you could move to immigration. Outside your passport and any country Visa, the below is what we had to provide for COVID test validation, MOH, and Trusted Travel.

Kenya airport & immigration

We needed to show a COVID PCR test, MOH barcode and Trusted Travel barcode. Mobile device weren’t an issue at these locations for the barcodes or COVID test, but again we recommend a printed copy just in case. The process was smooth and easy.

Zambia & Zimbabwe airport & immigration

We needed to show a COVID PCR test, and the website said Trusted Travel barcode, but no one checked this barcode. Print your COVID test! When we arrived at Livingstone (Zambia) airport it was interesting that no one was at the immigration point to check any of our paperwork – we walked right in, collected our baggage and left. However, when we drove from Zambia to Zimbabwe it was a completely different story. Thank goodness we had a representative driving and guiding us on what to do. On the Zambia side, we had 3 buildings to enter to show the following: building 1 – COVID test only and they stamped it; building 2 – temperature check, COVID test and they asked to see our COVID vaccine card; and building 3 – immigration and COVID test. Once we’d walked across Zambia into Zimbabwe, we had to do it all over again on the Zimbabwe side, but only for 2 buildings: building 1 – COVID test; and building 2 – immigration and COVID test. 

Kenya COVID restrictions & PCR testing locations

Our 1st COVID appointment was at a location next to Wilson Airport (and our hotel was next to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport). The drive there was approximately 45 min to 1hr with traffic one way; the wait time for your COVID test was ~90 minutes. All the websites indicated it’s US$100 Cash Only. However, they didn’t accept US Cash, only local currency or Visa. On Visa it was only $57 vs. $100 so it was a win. The 2nd COVID test was 5 minutes from our hotel and we were in/out of there (again Visa only). There are several approved PCR testing locations; just pick one close to your hotel so you don’t burn an extra day or night if it’s not needed.

Zimbabwe COVID restrictions & PCR testing

The location was convenient at our hotel, Ilala Lodge. This was US$60, Cash Only vs what is published on websites as US$75.

Normal turn times were as promised everywhere (6–8 hours). If you were in a pitch, some places in Kenya had a rapid test (3–4 hours).

Flights

We had 15 flights during our 17-day vacation – it was a lot of flying. There were 7 International flights from the USA to Africa and 8 Africa Domestic Flights. COVID of course created a few headaches with flight cancellations, so we had to take a few extra flights that weren’t in the original plan. These burned into our vacation time and itinerary – but we got there. Just be patient, flexible, roll with the punches – and know that the reward is worth it.

Tip: since we had so many different flights with various maximum luggage weights and dimensions, what worked well for us was to leave a suitcase behind and check it in at a hotel near the airport, only traveling with the smaller duffle to the safari lodges on the smaller charter flights.

Now on to the good part… the actual trip…!

Zimbabwe

We spent 5 days in Zimbabwe. We were in Victoria Falls for 2 nights and stayed at Ilala Lodge. During our stay we took an amazing Sunset Cruise on the Zambezi River and a private walking tour of Victoria Falls. Then we traveled via the Elephant Train to Hwange National Park and spent 3 nights at Bomani Tented Lodge, where we had multiple days and nights of safari game drives.

Ilala Lodge, Victoria Falls

Super charming (think wedding destination quality). It is very close to the falls; in fact, from our balcony, we could see the famous mist. It was quite majestic to sit on the balcony at sunrise listening to the hum of the falls and watching the mist. The lodge has a lovely garden area where animals can roam. We saw baboons, warthogs and gazelle, but the bigger animals are known to cross there too. Beds were comfortable and the room was spacious; we had a Nespresso machine with a variety of coffees and teas, and a fully stocked fridge of bottled water, beer, wine and chocolate that was all complimentary. We were very pleased with the quality and selection of food at the Palm Restaurant (located on property) as well.

Victoria Falls

So many of the Zimbabwe locals told us there has never been a time you could visit the falls and take a picture without crowds upon crowds of people also wanting to take the same shot. Not the case for us! We barely crossed paths with a dozen people on this 2-mile walking tour of the falls. We had countless pictures of the falls without a single person in them (unless it was us, of course!). The falls were mind-blowing in terms of how massive they were. It was breathtaking to watch but also equally chilling to listen to the roar of the falls. After our tour, we asked our driver to take us to the Lookout Café for lunch (where it looked over the bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia). Here you can try some local game and we chose to try crocodile.

Zambezi Sunset River Cruise

What a relaxing treat this was. We were on the top deck of a smooth and glorious ride down the river. We saw an elephant, hippos and crocodiles from the boat. There were cocktails and several delicious finger foods to enjoy while we watched the sunset. The staff on the boat went deck to deck singing, a “Welcome to Zimbabwe” song that was harmonious and made you just smile with glee afterwards.

Elephant Express Train

This is an absolute must and a unique way to travel – eat lunch and see animals on the journey. Major bonus: for travellers that are very motion-sensitive to small planes, this sure beat taking another small charter plane flight to get to your destination. From Victoria Falls, it’s a 2-hour car ride to the train station located in Dete. The car ride was incredible, seeing so many villages and just getting a different perspective on day-to-day life in Zimbabwe. When we arrived in Dete to board the train – guess what – we were the only 2 visitors to ride the train! The train ride is normally 2 hours from Dete to our lodge, but ours took a bit longer because our fabulous train crew kicked it up a notch by stopping to allow us to take pictures of just about every animal we saw (giraffes, zebras, elephants, warthogs, baboons, lions and on and on). To add icing to the cake, they let us take a turn at driving the train and honking the horn.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Clients Esther & Tracy at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Elephant Express Train, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Elephant Express Train, Hwange Zimbabwe

Bomani Tented Lodge (Imvelo) located in Hwange National Park

If we could have taken this lodge and these people and planted everything in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, we would have. The experience overall at this place raised the bar so high that when we got to Maasai Mara we had to re-set expectations a bit. 

Food

The portion sizes here were over-the-top BIG. The food was exquisitely prepared like you were in a 5-star restaurant and the elegant dining table-scape matched the experience. The table was tapered with different pieces plucked from the African landscape (ferns, flowers, carved wood set in between candles). You didn’t feel like you were in the bush. Wherever you ate your meal, the dining table was set with the same elegance (whether it was in the lodge or out in the bush). We had meals at the lodge, outside the lodge near a firepit overlooking the waterhole to watch the animals, and out in the bush. We had day snacks on game drives (muffins, coffee/tea and of course the sundowners each evening with snacks and cocktails of choice). No matter if we ate in the bush or in the lodge, the food was fantastic.

Cape Buffalo, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Lion in tree, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Lion, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Wildlife

When we compare the territory (the concession size), the variety and amount of animals in Hwange to our experience in the Maasai Mara, Kenya – it’s obviously smaller. We still saw a great variety, plenty of animals, and it never felt zoo-like at all. Since this was our first safari on the trip, it was perfect. Our guide took the time to stop to allow us to take pictures, teach us about the animal (its eating and living habits and the animal tracks). We learned so much. We saw 3 of the Big 5 here (several lions, hundreds of elephants and cape buffalo). No luck on tracking the elusive leopard and there are no rhinos at this concession due to the poachers. We also did not see any kills at this location either. We were not disappointed – as this was our first safari, it helped groom us for what was to come in the Maasai Mara.

Accommodation

The Saddlebill tent was raised off the ground and had a small wooden deck out front with two chairs and a table that overlooked the reserve. The tent was very comfortable, with two double four-poster beds with mosquito netting. Each bed had a fan mounted above the bed that was a perk during those afternoon siestas after a long game drive. There were plenty of shelves, two large tables, great lighting inside the tent and plenty of outlets. We also had still water, coffee, tea, a flashlight and an airhorn for emergencies. The bathroom in our tent was very spacious and functioned great (just like a hotel): running water from the sink and shower. Wi-Fi was only accessible in the dining lodge area, not in our tents.

Elephant blind, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Elephants, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Elephant herd, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Best part of this trip

Elephant blind. On our last day, we had lunch at a watering hole in the bush. Lunch was spectacular as always and you couldn’t beat the view. After lunch was the big surprise! Our guide, Eric, asked us to walk with him to the watering hole to show us something. He was explaining how the water is pumped in from a water source (a story he’d told us the day before). Then he turned and shifted our focus to look at a camouflage blind that was literally sitting in front of us the entire time during lunch and we didn’t notice it at all. We both jolted with excitement and asked him if we were going to sit inside the blind (he nodded yes). We were over-the-moon excited. As we walked towards the blind, Eric skipped ahead and said that once he’d turned the water on, elephants can hear the sound of running water from 5 kilometres away and will come running to drink fresh flowing water. While we were still standing outside the blind, within a minute of him turning the water on, we looked in the forest and saw the trees moving and he said to hurry up, get down into the blind because here they come. The elephants were not walking, they were charging towards the water. We were 10 feet away from the elephants – so many elephants! And so many baby elephants! Out of the entire 17-day vacation to Africa, this was the best experience of the entire trip. Note: elephant pictures below are taken from inside the elephant blind to give perspective on how close we were to these beautiful creatures (camera zoom was not needed).

Kenya

We spent 8 days in Kenya. We stayed 3 nights in Nairobi, primarily as our base location traveling between the two countries and COVID testing. During our stay in Nairobi, we visited the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (the baby elephant orphanage). This is a must-do – you get to touch the baby elephants. We spent 5 days in the Maasai Mara at Naibor Camp, where we had the epitome authentic safari game drive experience, checked off seeing the Big 5, animal kills, witnessed the Great Migration and took a majestic hot air balloon ride at sunrise over the Mara.

Naibor Camp, Maasai Mara

Some would say 5 days was too long, but 5 days was perfect for us. Each day brought a new experience in the Mara and we had time to rest and not feel rushed to cram it all in. This experience was the essence of Africa! From the grassy and desolate landscape, picturesque sunrise and sunsets, to a vast amount and variety of wildlife, nature in its rawest form (i.e. animal kills), it had it all. In addition to the overwhelming excitement day in and day out of seeing new animals, we bonded so quickly with our guides. We left Africa with lifelong friendships, not just the memory of the animals and landscapes.

Elephants at sunset, Masaai Mara, Kenya
Zebra at sunset, Masaai Mara, Kenya

Food

The food here was just okay (comfort-type food), whereas the food at Bomani was gourmet. For a camp in the bush, it is impressive how they can do all the variety of dishes in such a small compact space. We had breakfast each day out in the bush and the experience was spectacular, but the food quality was not stimulating. Lunch and dinner were much better quality and were always served at the lodge. They did strive very hard at the ambience and effort of making it look like a 5-star dining experience but missed the mark on the quality and selection of food (where that was like 3.75 stars). However, you can’t beat the view of your meals at the lodge. The resident hippos lounging on the Talek River make up for any quality in taste and food selection.

Wildlife

We saw the Big 5 and so much more! This truly was the authentic raw experience you would see on any wildlife TV show. We saw kills (a lion killing a cape buffalo, lioness killing a baby topi, cheetah killing a baby gazelle and the crocodiles killing wildebeest), which was horrifying and thrilling all at once. You couldn’t take your eyes off the action at any moment or you’d miss something. The game drives covered such a massive amount of territory in the Mara. We saw such a variety and plentiful amount of wildlife, including the elusive animals like cheetahs, leopards and rhinos. Tons of lions, elephants, cape buffalo, zebra and wildebeest everywhere. Our game drive experience was top-notch. Each day, something new, and our guides were over-the-top fantastic. We laughed so incredibly hard with our guides and fast friendships formed that will last a lifetime.

The Big Cats of the Mara

Plains game spotted on game drives

Accommodation

This lodge and our tent were nestled within a forest of trees that hugged alongside the Talek River. The resident hippos never got old to see! We also had other visitors at our lodge that included a tortoise, monkeys and other smaller wildlife. One perk at this lodge was they had a massage therapist and she was wonderful. Nothing beats a massage outside overlooking the river gorge, and if you are lucky (like us) maybe a monkey will pop into the tree and watch you get your massage. The tent was very spacious and more rustic than the tent we had in Zimbabwe – it had two twin beds each with a nightstand, two outlets, three lamps (which felt like candlelight vs good lighting), one shelf unit and table for your personal items. Inside the tent could use another table, more outlets and better lighting. The bathroom had a bucket shower with plenty of hot water, which was totally fine for us, but the bathroom sink did not have any running water. For us personally, we prefer running water at a bathroom sink, but if this is not an issue then you’re all set. The toilets had more of the camping concept, but it had a toilet seat and it flushed (albeit it took a couple times to flush at times). You are in the bush, so the accommodations are probably very common with the many mobile camps in the Mara. Wi-Fi was only accessible at the dining lodge area not at our tents

Wildebeest great migration crossing, Maasai Mara, Kenya
Wildlife, Maasai Mara, Kenya

Best part of the trip

Witnessing the Great Migration from the Serengeti! We planned our entire trip around the timing of this phenomenon. When we first arrived at the Maasai Mara, our guides informed us the wildebeest and zebra had already crossed earlier in the week and it was unlikely we would see it. We were very disappointed. We went to the crossing 3 days in a row and on the last and final day of our trip – it happened! It’s hard not to gasp out loud in horror at the first sight of a crocodile killing a wildebeest (okay, probably each time those gasps were let out when that happened), but witnessing this experience of these wildebeest and zebra jumping into the crocodile-infested waters to cross was hands-down incredible for us.

If you’d like to experience a safari to Kenya and Zimbabwe, why not contact our experts here to discuss the ideal holiday for you? Alternatively, if you are looking for some inspiration, please take a look at our related blogs and trips below:

 

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