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The Tunnel at the End of the Light

I Just Returned from Africa. It’s Not Like Before. It’s Not Easy.

Stuck in Zimbabwe. Photo by Richard Bangs
Stuck in Zimbabwe. Photo by Richard Bangs

With lockdowns lifting it seemed a good time to travel to Africa with fully vaccinated friends on a trip planned and aborted in 2020, the year the earth stood still.  

It was challenging and rewarding in ways not anticipated. 

The plan was to meet in Windhoek, capital of Namibia, and from there embark on a flying safari through Botswana and Zimbabwe, nine days in all. I booked a flight from LAX on Emirates with a 3-hour layover in OR Tambo International Airport at Johannesburg before connecting to Windhoek on a regional airline, AirLink. It appeared to be the best choice, as Air Namibia liquidated in February, and South African Airways had been mothballed since last September. I had no intention of entering South Africa, biding time in the transit areas before the connection.

But a few days before departure I got a non-explanatory email from Emirates stating my flight times had changed. I would now arrive after my connecting flight to Windhoek, and the next available would be at 6 am the following morning. So, I would now have to spend the night in Johannesburg. I booked the City Lodge Hotel, based at the airport. I went through Immigration, had my passport stamped, and started the long walk down a corridor to the hotel entrance. When about 30 yards from the doorway a young masked man in a yellow airport vest approached and said he had to take my temperature and pointed a non-contact infrared thermometer at my forehead, as so often happens these days when entering buildings. “You’re good. Your reading is low,” he said, and then “Now, follow me.”

So, I did, as he walked over to a black rectangular metal box with no signage but a credit card slot and several buttons. “You have to put your credit card in the machine now to get a ticket to enter the hotel,” he advised. 

“I never heard of having to pay for temperature clearance, “I said through a jet-lagged fog.

“It doesn’t charge you. It just needs to read your name to issue the ticket.”

So, I put in a credit card. But nothing happened. Not sure if I was distracted, but when I looked to fetch my card, it was gone. No ticket emerged.

“What happened to my card?,” I yawped. And this is where I really got stupid.

“Oh, that happens sometimes. Just put another card in and it will force the first one out.”  I can’t believe I did it, but I did. And of course, it, too, disappeared. I turned to confront this official-looking gentleman, and he was gone. I had been Covid-scammed. 

Hours later, after police reports, technicians opening the empty parking-ticket machine, and calls to my bank where I was informed that within minutes the thief bought $7,000 worth of luxury goods (the charges were reversed), I checked into my room. Sleep knitted the ragged sleeve of anxiety, but just for a couple of hours as I was to catch the 6 am flight to Namibia. 

Despite the wrangles of PCR tests before every border crossing, the rest of the trip was enormously gratifying in ways never available and may never be again. In Namibia we visited the 40,000-acre Woltemade Ranch and were the only guests, pampered as royalty. In Botswana, we stayed at the newly opened Xigera Safari Lodge in the Okavango, and save a travel journalist on junket, we were the only lodgers, and never saw another soul in the Delta. And in Zimbabwe we stayed at the Chilo Gorge on the edge of Gonarezhou National Park, second largest in the country, where we seemed the only visitors in the 2,000 square-mile wildlife sanctuary. It all felt like earth’s first morning, as we gazed across endless expanses without a sign of vehicles or people or human interference. At night the stars sent down spears of light, as there were no competing illuminations. We were as Homo Habilis, chipping away at an overloaded future.

In Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, I bade goodbye to my friends as they headed to the airport to continue north to the Serengeti, while I readied for my next-day flight home for work reasons. They did not go through the PCR dance as Tanzania does not require such for entry, despite the death of its Covid-denying president, John Magufuli, in March, of Coronavirus. But a few hours later I was surprised to see my friends slinking out of a van back at the hotel. Even though Tanzania did not require a PCR test, the Harare airport did, and they were refused entry. So, they had to spend the night to wait for results and try again.

Now it was my turn. With my negative test results duly printed (electronic statements not accepted), I entered the airport, made my way to the check-in desk, and waited for my boarding pass. The Emirates rep was about to hand me the pass when he asked, “Have you been to South Africa in the last two weeks?” I paused a beat and then meekly said “yes.”

He pulled back my pass and paged through my passport until he found my South Africa visa stamp made nine days before. There was an oneiric quality to his response: “I’m sorry, Sir. You cannot board for another five days.” 

Of course, that prompted a lively discussion that quickly escalated to management level, with me in animated protest flashing my CDC Vaccination card, remonstrating that it was Emirates’ unilateral schedule change that forced my stay at the OR Tambo airport hotel, and that I would be transiting in Dubai on my flight home, never entering the UAE. I complained I had seen no website warnings of this rule, nor had anyone mentioned such at any time before, after or during my flights…all to no avail. Policy was policy, they countered, and turned to the next customer.

So it was I spent five days at the Amanzi, a lovely safari lodge in the suburbs of Harare. It was not painful. I set up my office in my well-appointed room, did the required Zoom calls, and save for the nine-hour time difference with California, all was good. 

In the end, the incommodities and disruptions were worth it. To accommodate a few crocodiles of the mind to experience Africa as it may have been a thousand years ago was a small price to pay, and though I would advise staying away from unmarked credit card machines, I would very much recommend the trip.

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