September, 9, 2020
The world shut down a few days after I returned from another great adventure to the Kruger National Park in South Africa on March 12, 2020. It was an especially massive letdown after such a perfect experience, one of the best in 30 years of regular visits to the Kruger. Just a month later in mid-April I was already chomping at the bit and pondering when I’d go again. Now, six months after Covid-19 grounded me, I plan to go back to South Africa and the Kruger National Park, albeit not until February, 2021.
At least that’s the plan. I’m throwing a Hail Mary pass way downfield and hoping both the United States and South Africa will be back to some semblance of normality in another five months. Some of what I’ve invested in the trip may be at risk, but most probably isn’t.
I started by arranging flights. Despite the cosmic uncertainties regarding which air carriers will operate what planes from where to where in early 2021, I was able to narrow down flying options to Emirates, Qatar, or Delta. Other airlines hadn’t yet finalized post-pandemic offerings, while schedules and fares on those three gave me enough options to compare to past cost and time factors. I chose Delta through Atlanta to Johannesburg and even managed to snag a bargain fare in business class both ways for less than on Qatar or Emirates—a lower premium cabin fare probably thanks to the virus’ negative impact on future load factors.
Once in Jo’burg I must always book a separate flight JNB to Skukuza Airport (SZK), the little facility which is actually in the Kruger National Park. Watching the plague impacts on government-owned South African Airways and its government-owned subsidiary SA Express, I knew both carriers had declared bankruptcy since the health crisis shut down travel to and from South Africa. SAA had been beleaguered with bad management and government corruption for years and was teetering on the edge even before the coronavirus hit. The Alitalia of the Southern Hemisphere, SAA never made money or ever had a sound business plan even in a good economy.
Luckily, however, a third airline, SA Airlink, operates ERJs between JNB and SZK, and it is a privately-owned carrier. I was delighted to find that SA Airlink was booking flights when I needed them, though at no lesser fare than I’ve always paid for that independent round trip. Still, I grabbed it, and it became part of my Delta itinerary, even though DL has no code share agreement with SA Airlink.
Booking the return SZK/JNB segment to connect to my ATL flight, I noticed a new challenge; namely, that the return flight on Delta will be scheduled then to depart Johannesburg several hours earlier than in the past. I was therefore careful to schedule myself on the noontime SA Airlink flight SZK/JNB to make the international connection legal.
Curious why the DL segment was scheduled so much earlier than it has been for years, I investigated. Delta, having ditched their entire 777 fleet, is switching to an A350-900ULR for the always-full-in-every-class (pre-Covid) ATL/JNB/ATL flights. That’s the same aircraft Singapore is (was) using on the world’s longest nonstop flight, EWR/SIN, which I wrote about in early 2019 .
There the similarity ends. Singapore fits out its A350-900ULR planes with only business and premium economy cabins, thus limiting the weight. Delta plans its usual three or four classes (business, premium economy, possibly Comfort+, and definitely sardine class—er, it mean, coach). That will add substantial weight. Though the new planes can make the nonstop ATL to JNB, the 5,512’ Johannesburg Airport altitude is too high for the A350 to take off with a full load of fuel and passengers and still return to Atlanta without stopping. To get around that problem, Delta plans to fly Jo’burg-Cape Town, and then can easily make the nonstop hop back to ATL from CPT. Delta’s flight path alteration meant I had to connect earlier from Skukuza to Jo’burg.
Naturally, I had to pay the entire airfare up front, but at little or no risk. After all, I want to make the trip, and if Delta is unable to deliver on the itinerary due to one or both countries still being closed, then it will refund the ticket or give me a credit.
Next to reserve was day-by-day accommodation among the 12 Kruger rest camps—“rest camp” being the charming and archaic South African term for the extremely comfortable, self-contained, full-service villages inside the vast African wilderness of the Kruger National Park. Once arrival and departure dates and times at Skukuza Airport were nailed down, I emailed my government-registered Kruger booking agent who knows the very best bungalows in each rest camp.
Within 24 hours I had my booking with South African National Parks and ponied up the required 50% upfront to hold it, the remainder due in December. That is possibly at risk if South Africa is open then and the United States is not. However, given the plummeting South African Rand, my cost in US dollars was quite reasonable, which minimizes my financial loss, should the worst occur.
Lastly, I booked an Avis car at Skukuza Airport online to drive myself through the Kruger during my visit. I can cancel up to the last minute with no penalty, so my car rental cost risk is nil.
This trip may not happen. Medical science and political uncertainties in both countries make prognostication a crap shoot. I keep up with the spread of the virus in South Africa, and, like the USA, new cases and deaths are declining. I could include graphs and charts and facts here to demonstrate the downward trends, but who really knows if that trajectory will continue or if we’ll have an effective and universally available vaccine by year’s end? So I may not go. Notwithstanding, I needed to be optimistic and plan to go. Looking forward is good for my spirit and is my natural inclination.