In the age of Covid19: a 2-week road trip through southern Africa

Part 1 of 4: Getting there and prep

Who can ever say “never”? On my own, I would never have gone on a 5,000 + kilometer road trip in 3 countries of southern Africa, sometimes in very isolated areas, over all kinds of roads. Safari-style travel was not on my bucket list: I prefer to meet people.

However, my partner’s sister has been going on such trips for a couple of decades, and was unfazed by the fact that she was recovering from a broken hip. We had been cooped up for 18 months thanks to Covid, and decided to take the risk of sitting on a couple of planes. Once there, we knew we wouldn’t be in any crowds.

The anchor point of the road trip was to count animals for 24 hours, for the benefit of the Zimbabwean government. This is volunteer work, and one pays for the honor (in cash, US dollars only, and only bills dated post 2009).

We flew to Johannesburg, South Africa, via Frankfurt, Germany, to cut up the trip. Otherwise it’s a double redeye. We flew via United to Germany and then with Lufthansa to Johannesburg (there are other airline options). As we booked several months in advance, and due to Covid there still weren’t hordes of tourists, we were able to purchase Premium Economy, which is more distanced and comfortable than Basic Economy.

A preliminary itinerary had been set up. We started out in a caravan of 6 4-wheel-drive vehicles with 11 people. By the time we returned, over 2 weeks later—our caravan just included one vehicle – ours.

My partner’s sister, Vicky, lent us her 4-wheel VW truck, but it needed to be outfitted for the trip. We went to a specialized business in Johannesburg called GoCamp. It took at least an hour to install a rigid shell over the truck bed, and a tent on top of it. A refrigerator was hooked up inside the shell. The result: a vehicle that can feed us and house us!

Meal planning/Grocery shopping

Next pre-departure task: meal planning and grocery shopping for the entire trip.

Vicky had set up a spreadsheet with dates and planned stops. Some were campsites, other lodges/hotels, of which some had cooking facilities and others not.

Each family grouping took care of its breakfast; lunches and dinners were to be prepared for the entire group, everyone taking turns. In the meantime all perishables had to be stored in the mobile refrigerator/freezer.

Once our culinary endeavors had been determined, we went to one of the most enormous supermarkets I have ever seen, President Hyper, similar to Costco but without the need to purchase large quantities. We came out with an overflowing shopping cart, several hundred dollars later. We also visited Son of a Butcher and an enormous liquor store (called "bottle store" in South Africa), Makro.

I realized belatedly that I’d need a few other clothing items, as I was informed that I might get quite dirty. Fortunately, South Africa has a store chain called Woolworths (apparently unrelated to Woolworth’s in the United States, which my grandma and grand-aunt used to call “the 5 and 10”) that is similar to Target in the US, selling among other items good quality and reasonably priced clothing, especially cotton t-shirts and long-sleeved shirts. I found plastic flip-flops in another store to wear in the shared “ablution rooms” – what would be called shower areas in the United States.

We also purchased anti-malarial pills, for Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Back at Vicky’s I started cooking some of the food and freezing casseroles and sauces. We stacked the dry goods in the dining area, and froze the meat and chicken.

Day 1 – 1: packing the cars

Did I mention that Vicky and her partner have been doing this for years?

They had their tent (ours was at this point installed on the roof of our truck), all kinds of cutlery and travel plates, pots, bed sheets, pillows, towels…

As our two cars were meant to always be together, we would be sharing the boxes of dishware, cutlery etc. We had two refrigerators in which we were to store the perishable food. We needed 2 sets of sheets and towels. Each of us packed a small bag/suitcase with our personal clothing and toiletries. I packed some first-aid items.

The grand finale was packing the food! Non-perishables were easy enough. But fitting all that meat – South Africans of British origin love their red meat and “boerewors" (local sausages); I wanted my vegetables as I am on a non-red meat diet; we had the bulky casseroles; butter (very important locally, once again); mayonnaise (only slightly less so); etc. – that was NOT easy at all.

“My” broccoli and carrots didn’t fit and I had to put them in an insulated bag with ice packs. The broccoli (“Diane’s broccoli”) became the standing joke throughout the trip.

And of course – travel in the age of Covid: PCR tests

The last day we drove to one of the participating couple’s home, where lab technicians came over to test all eleven of us at once. We were planning on printing the results on the morning of departure. We had 48 hours to get to Zimbabwe in order for these tests to be accepted.

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