The story about how we got home was equally nerve-wracking to us, but probably not as dramatic of a story to tell you. Our last post found us making a mad dash for South Africa as borders were closing to international citizens to cut down the spread of Coronavirus. It's not as if we had been traveling completely oblivious to the situation, but cases in southern Africa had been quite low and we honestly felt safer camping in desolate Namibia than we did back home, in Washington State, a Coronavirus hot spot. Once they decided to start closing borders, we knew we had to head back towards Johannesburg, and the region's largest international airport.
After waking up in our hotel after the long day's race through Namibia, we decided to cautiously continue to Kruger National Park. Our flights, which were scheduled for about a week later, still looked good and we would be only a couple of hours from the airport if things changed. Plus, the airlines' websites all said to only contact them if your flight was less than 72 hours out. So we got on the road again and started the next leg of our journey.
Since we had decided not to cut the corner through Botswana, we still had more than a day's drive to Kruger. We figured we would just aim for the other side of Johannesburg and arrive at the park early the following day. Even though we were making forward plans for the rest of our stay in South Africa, we were still attempting to change Doogie's flight so he could go home with us on the 26th. We were also trying to sort out a plan for retrieving his luggage and laptop from where it was being stored in Cape Town until his next event (which by then had been canceled).
Sometime mid-morning, we received a text from Doogie's travel agent that said she was unable to rebook him on our flight because it was canceled. Cue the next round of panic! The Delta app still indicated our flight would fly as scheduled. We quickly pulled over at a picnic table rest area and called the travel agent to confirm. She was not able to do much other than keeping him on his original ticket, which at that point, we knew would never fly as scheduled. Being a frequent flier does sometimes have its perks, as Doogie was able to use his medallion customer service number to call Delta directly. We had complicated tickets and our phone agent worked with us for almost two hours before we were disconnected. We couldn't believe we got disconnected after sitting on and off hold for that long on the side of the road in the hot sun. Luckily the agent had finished what he was doing after we got disconnected so when we called back, the next person was able to tell us that it looked like we were all set. We had seats on the Johannesburg to Atlanta nonstop flight in five days, the soonest flight they could get all four of us on, and the second to last flight before Delta discontinued the route due to the pandemic.
Whew! What a crazy 24ish hours. We ended up stopping for the day well short of our goal but at a great little lakeside campground. The campground had a pool and trampoline and the owner was nice enough to give us the prime campsite for both. It was just what the kids needed after two long days in the car. We pulled our Guzzle Stream back out, replenished our clean water supply, had a peaceful pasta dinner and crawled into our tents, looking forward to Kruger.
Since we were planning on the fly, we decided to head to the Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp, at the southern end of Kruger and just miles from the border with Mozambique. Not known to be one of the bigger campgrounds, I hoped we might get a camping spot without a reservation. We were in luck and got a shady spot amongst the neighborhood warthogs. From what we could tell during our few national park campground experiences in South Africa, campsites are never assigned by the reception desk but are creatively picked by just driving around and parking close to a braai (bbq).
We "reserved" our spot by throwing our table and chairs next to a braai and then headed out for an afternoon game drive. It had been an emotional two days, so when we saw an elephant almost right outside the rest camp gates, we were all very excited. On our drive, we continued to see a whole herd of elephants, kudu, more elephants, and eventually a pod of hippos.
Over the next day and a half, we did three more game drives around Kruger and saw so many animals. The experience was amazing. We saw a cheetah and leopard, monkeys and baboons, giraffes and zebras, elephants and more elephants, hippos, and, on the last morning, a large lion pride. Luckily no snakes, but between you and me, we were not on the lookout for any! And, just as we were wrapping up our last drive, we came to a screeching halt at a water hole when we saw a herd of Cape buffalo, which rounded out our "Big 5" sightings. The "Big 5" includes elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and Cape buffalo (and surprisingly not hippos).
Kruger National Park was amazing and we all enjoyed it immensely. It was the perfect way to distract ourselves from the events going on in the world. While we were at Kruger, South Africa had started tightening down, which we noticed in the park shops. They stationed workers with hand sanitizer at the entrance of each shop and many workers were wearing masks. We had also been keeping a very close eye on our flights, worried that they would be canceled again before we could even make it home.
After two nights and four game drives in Kruger National Park, we headed towards the Blyde River Canyon. We had our eye on a hike and a camping spot in that area before heading towards Johannesburg the next day. We found a hike using the same AllTrails app we frequently use at home. The hike turned out to be on the grounds of a mountain resort that also had camping so we decided to spend the night there. We couldn't believe it after spending so much time in the desert, but the hike was in the rain forest and reminded us of hiking in Kauai. It was nice to get one last outing in before tackling the travel day(s) we had left to make it all the way home.
We woke up and had a leisurely camping breakfast before heading back towards Johannesburg. We weren't due to drop the truck off until 2 or 3 pm but didn't want to chance any accidents or construction along the way. It was with heavy hearts that we returned the rental truck sometime after lunch. The parking lot at Bushlore was a clear example of the world we were heading back to, as the trucks were lined up outside their gates. The man who dropped us off at the airport said every rental vehicle was coming in and every upcoming trip had been canceled. And, that was before South Africa had imposed any kind of lockdown.
We got to the airport six hours before our flight. Partly because our drive had been quicker than we anticipated and partly because we were anxious to get back to the US. There was a big sigh of relief when we boarded our 17-hour nonstop flight to Atlanta. Yes, we flew Delta's longest nonstop flight, almost completely full, during a world pandemic. The flight passed relatively quickly, but it was a culture shock when we landed in Atlanta. We had gone from a country that had people stationed with hand sanitizer at gas stations and park shops and restaurants to nothing. No masks, no hand sanitizer besides the small amount we still had with us. Not even a question about our health or temperatures at customs. I guess at that point, the supplies had run out and they were just trying to get American citizens home. Our next flight to Portland was canceled along with 75% of the day's flights, but we managed to get rerouted through Seattle and landed only an hour or two after our originally scheduled time...some 40 hours after we had left our camping spot on the mountain top in South Africa.
Now that we're back at home in the Columbia River Gorge, I can reflect on what a grand adventure it was, and, not in the way I was expecting. We drove 7253 km or around 4500 miles. We didn't get to finish our loop, see Victoria Falls, or do the guided safari we had planned in Botswana. Nor did we "overland" as much as we thought we would. But, we experienced fantastic and inexpensive campgrounds. The people in both countries were always friendly, and especially kind to us traveling with kids. The scenery was varied and beautiful. The animals were incredibly amazing and fascinating. Given the chance, we would all go back. Africa is a pretty special place.