An Exhilarating Journey to Rwanda & Kenya: A Conversation with Kate Doty
At the end of last year, GeoEx trip planner extraordinaire Kate Doty made her first journey abroad after almost a full year of sheltering in place in her San Francisco home. For her return to travel, she chose two of her favorite places on the planet: Rwanda and Kenya. We asked her to describe her outstanding experiences and impressions from the trip.
When did you travel?
I went to Rwanda and Kenya from November 17–December 12, 2020.
Can you tell us how each step of your journey went, from your home to your first hotel in Africa?
I took an Uber from my home to San Francisco Airport (SFO). The car was clean, the driver had the back windows lowered by about 5 inches, and the trip was quick.
SFO was empty, and I went through check-in in record time. Everyone was wearing masks and keeping social distance.
On my connection in Newark, the check-in with my PCR documents took a bit of time; otherwise, the experience was similar to SFO.
My connection in Brussels was a different experience. There were lots of long lines for presenting Covid test documents, there was no special line for business class travelers, and it was a bit of a free-for-all, with more than 600 passengers in the terminal. The airport staff was helpful, but also overwhelmed; lots of passengers had masks on only over their chins or only covering their mouths, which made me uncomfortable. The terminal had only a single coffee shop open for coffee, bottled water, and light snacks. All the other shops, restaurants, etc., were closed.
On my arrival in Kigali, the airport was clean and the staff were well prepared. There were 10 greeters in full PPE, with iPads, taking and processing our ID numbers. In accordance with Rwanda’s entry requirements, before I had departed the US, I had filled out an online form and uploaded my PCR test results. On arrival in Kigali, the greeter took my ID number, then pulled up my personal details, including my passport number and hometown. I also needed to show a paper copy of my hotel confirmation with the confirmation number. The system was very efficient.
Once I entered the arrivals hall, my guide/driver was there to meet me. We walked a short distance to the vehicle. Before I or my bags were allowed inside the vehicle, he sprayed my luggage with a mist disinfectant and I was required to use hand sanitizer. The action of being sprayed with hand sanitizer by the guide each time I entered the vehicle remained throughout the trip. Masks were kept on while inside or outside the vehicle in Kigali, and I had the windows in the Land Rover rolled down.
Visitors to Rwanda are required to arrive with proof of a negative PCR test and to get a PCR test on arrival. They then must quarantine until their test results are available.When I arrived at the Retreat Hotel, I was immediately taken for my arrival PCR test. (Since my trip, this procedure has been changed, and the test is now provided inside the airport. It generally takes 15-30 minutes to get the test in the airport.)
The bell captain brought me to my room—at this hotel I could walk to my room, so no concerns about close quarters in an elevator—and explained the mandatory quarantine protocols, including how to order food and extra towels. I was not allowed to leave the room. Food and towels were left outside the room. The wait staff would knock on arrival and then step away.
My room had a small outside balcony where I could sit or stand for fresh air.
I was in quarantine for 18 hours before I received a call saying my test result was negative. The testing center was supposed to email the results, but this did not come. My guide, however, was able to get a copy on his WhatsApp account. You need to show proof of the new Covid test anytime you check into a hotel or do an activity in any of the national parks, such as a gorilla or chimp trek.
How was traveling within Africa?
Traveling within Africa was excellent. The rains had been good, and the landscape was lush and green. It had a “garden of Eden” feeling to it.
In terms of safety and Covid protocols, our hands were always sprayed before we entered the vehicle, and our temperatures were taken on each arrival and departure from camp. There were hand-washing stations—and sometimes feet-washing stations—at the entrance to each camp.
As for the travel experience, it was absolutely exhilarating. Our safari vehicles were open-air (no windows) and we had the wildlife areas to ourselves; we rarely saw another vehicle even from the camp where I was staying. This is unheard of in the Mara in any normal safari season.
And the wildlife was thrillingly abundant! The gorillas were amazing. Even in the rain, when we were close to them, I got lost in their gaze and movement. The babies were playful, the silverback huge. They were rolling around and swinging from the branches. Magic.
In Kenya’s lush green, open spaces, I saw so many breeding herds of elephants, with young babies. I also saw the biggest pride of lions in the Mara that I’d ever seen—30 lions in all, including youngsters. They were just roaming around, kings of the world.
I witnessed my first ever giraffe crossing of a body of water. The river was about 30 feet wide. The giraffe couldn’t tell how deep the river was, so they were very hesitant to go forward. It was fascinating to watch them negotiate who went first and who kept a lookout for predators.
The staff at the lodges were thrilled to host us. Everyone was so very kind and helpful; it was a deep joy to be in the presence of such great human beings.
The lodges and camps I stayed at were outstanding, with great care taken in the guest bedrooms. Everything was clean and stunning.
Were you ever uneasy or was it comfortable throughout the journey?
I was uncomfortable only twice, once on the flight from Kigali to Kenya and once in Nairobi’s airport. On the flight, not all the passengers were wearing face masks, and the flight attendants did not advise them to put their face masks on. And on arrival in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the scene was crowded and disorganized, with many people without masks or with masks that didn’t entirely cover their mouths or noses. Happily, I had arranged for a VIP airport assistant, and that was a huge help. (It’s important to note that a friend of mine arrived at Jomo Kenyatta the very next day and said that the arrival was smooth and easy, with no crowds at the airport. So, it just goes to show that circumstances can change even from one day to the next.)
Apart from these, I was entirely comfortable throughout my trip. At all the lodges and camps in Rwanda and Kenya, the following measures were consistently followed:
- There were hand-washing stations on arrival, and you washed your hands each time you entered the camp.
- Your temperature was taken any time you entered or left the camp’s common areas, whether to go on a safari or to take an afternoon nap in your tent.
- All the staff wore masks.
- Social distancing was practiced and easy to manage, whether at meals, around the campfire, or in the lounge.
- Common areas, lounges, dining areas, and your tent/room were cleaned multiple times each day.
What were the highlights of your journey: sightseeing, dining, encounters, etc.?
First of all, just being in Africa was an extraordinary highlight. Rwanda and Kenya are both special destinations for me, and being back in those countries was deeply thrilling. After being at home for months on end, eating alone day after day, the pure joy of seeing something new cannot be overstated. And the pleasure of dining on wonderfully prepared dishes with the flavors of the world, and eating with other people, was just exquisite! Being around people, socially distancing of course, and chatting about what wildlife we had seen, how our day had been, normal things like that, all these seemed extra special.
To breathe in the African air, to explore the reserves, to witness wild places and wildlife—that was all truly exhilarating. And to see gorillas! Being with the gorillas was like experiencing something from another time, and yet very real and urgent.
Other highlights were hiking to enormous waterfalls, and simply talking with the general managers from the lodges, hearing their passionate stories about the conservation projects each team is focusing on.
How did you feel touring—were most people (staff, travelers, and locals) following Covid protocols?
What was your overall impression about traveling in Africa now?
As long as you are comfortable with the idea of traveling, go now, as soon as possible. The rewards are everywhere! The smells, sounds, and sights of the world; the joy of being in new places and sharing new experiences—these free the soul and let the heart sing. And to have the treasures of Africa virtually to yourself is simply indescribable.
Were you especially surprised by anything?
I was surprised by how relaxed I felt by day three. Practicing all the protocols wasn’t hard, and the sense of risk I felt at the beginning of my trip fell away. It was well worth it to me.
Now that you’re back, what would you tell travelers who are interested in going to Africa now?
I’d say that travel is more complicated now than it was before Covid, but with care, attention, and a willingness to be flexible with schedules, Africa is waiting for you—and it will exceed your expectations.
If you were to do the trip all over again, would you do anything differently?
I’d spend more time, and I’d travel more slowly.
Are you glad you went?
100 percent! In fact, it inspired me so much that I’ve traveled to Mexico and Costa Rica since then!
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