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Covid + and in a remote African lodge

A man's descent into madness, isolating with Covid in a luxury lodge in remote Botswana.

Covid + and in a remote African lodge
This real life story of being Covid+ and in a remote African lodge first appeared in a Dispatch, the updates sent to all Society members. You can join for free here.


There is a knock at the perimeter gate. I’ve been anticipating it. I yell out to them so they can enter. They respond, open the door, bring in my food and leave it on the table. I stand a safe distance away. There is a brief, but friendly, conversation and then they leave and close the door behind them. Through a gap in the gate, I can see them block the pathway behind them with a heavy braided rope.

I am alone again.

A hippopotamus honks in the distance.

We should start at the beginning.

The Arrival

We arrive by light plane, after a morning spent in the company of lions, cheetahs and a leopard at a nearby lodge. Life is good, as life on safari in Africa tends to be. We are quite remote, in the northern section of the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

From the airstrip, we begin a game drive before pulling in under a copse of trees. Here a table sits, with white tablecloth. It’s a surprise bush lunch, lunch being a selection of salads, vegetables and freshly cooked meats. We have some drinks and talk some shop, the table being a group of travel professionals. The General Manager of the lodge is there, and he gives us a briefing about the area. We game drive our way back to the lodge, via a lion nursery, to check ourselves in and spend a few hours relaxing.

In the afternoon, I head out on a mokoro, a traditional canoe, with the guides for a peaceful look at the waterways. It is quiet and cool, and we see various frogs and plant life. It’s a nice time.

Later on at dinner, I am a bit tired. It’s been a long day. I have a generous glass of wine that turns into two generous glasses, then turn in for the night.

Day 1

I didn’t sleep well at all. I tossed and turned, I was hot and generally achy. I figure I must be hungover. I don’t drink often, and yesterday I had wine at dinner plus gin and tonics at lunch. I have also been travelling a lot, involving both a lot of small planes and the long routing I took to get to Africa.

It’s about 5 am when I see a message from my wife at home. That’s a good start to any morning.

Except when it’s bad news.

She has tested positive for Covid. Away for work the week before, I only saw her for a few hours before I then headed off myself. Already knowing the answer, I test myself. It indicates a positive result within seconds.

Shit. It’s my first time, so whilst I am vaccinated there is still some underlying unease.

I pack my things into my small bag and head to the main area, mask on. I need to figure out what the requirements are. I get strange looks from some other guests. I imagine their Covid experience so far has been very different from mine in Australia. I tell a staff member and then sit away from everyone and take in the sights. The message reaches management and they suggest I go back to my room and stay there. So, I do.

The group wakes up, and they are notified. I lie down. I’m tired.

An emergency lodge contact calls me. The internet doesn’t work. We are in the middle of nowhere. We message instead.

A doctor calls me. The internet doesn’t work. We try voice messaging. That doesn’t work. We text instead. We discuss symptoms and any required treatment. He asked why I tested myself. He asks me to test again after nasal irrigation, in case it’s residual. Still positive.

The regulations say that I will need to isolate in an approved facility in a town. I mention my travel insurance and send him the details. He says he will work on it for me.

It’s 9:30 am.

I rest. I don’t know whether I have a fever or if it is just warm. It’s probably both, it is a hot season. 35 degrees outside and 38 degrees inside feel pretty similar.

The group needs to catch their onward flight to the next lodge. They come to say goodbye. The camp manager comes at the same time with some options to get me out of the bush. It has to be a solo flight apparently, again required by regulation, to prevent infecting anyone else. He explains the costs, but I mention I’d like to speak to the insurance company first to ensure they’ll cover it. It’s not a small sum and may involve solo helicopters. He gets a satellite phone and I reach the insurance company service. The satellite phone doesn’t allow me to use the automated system, so pressing One for an emergency doesn’t work. Like everything, it’s designed for use in more convenient locales. I’m in decent health, so there is no urgency and he will leave it with the doctor to organise. He asks why I tested myself.

The group has left. I hear their plane go overhead. I go to bed to rest. I feel a bit sorry for myself.

I remain in limbo for a few hours before I am told the insurance company hasn’t responded. I am staying here one more night.

In the evening the team brings some dinner. I barely touch it. I’m not particularly hungry.

As I am falling asleep I hear a solitary male lion call out in the dark. I don’t hear a response.

Day 2

I wake up to hear that the insurance company is requiring proof of the isolation requirements and proof of infection verified by a PCR test. The PCR tests are only done in the town. They won’t cover the costs to go and get the PCR, but I won’t get the PCR unless they cover the costs. I mean, I can cover the costs. But I don’t want to pay up unless I know they will, which based on their response so far seems doubtful.

A distant storm brews on the horizon. The grey clouds hang ominously.

Out the front of my room, I watch an African grey hornbill feed its chicks in the gnarled Fever berry tree. They return regularly and frequently, each time to excited cheeps from the chicks. The parents call to each other, taking turns looking after their family.

I miss my family. I check in on them. They are sick too and isolating by themselves at home. There is no one bringing them food.

Covid is a bit stronger today. On one of my frequent trips to the toilet, I notice a small spider hiding out above the cistern. He watches me do my business, never running away. I leave him be, my little spider friend.

I realise mid-morning that I haven’t eaten and they bring lunch. It’s Nadia, the same person I’ve been speaking to via WhatsApp and who has brought my food before. I think she is the manager or the assistant manager. Definitely some position of authority. And here she is, delivering a tray of brunch to the overstaying guest.

We chat. She asks why I tested myself. She has had Covid 6 times but has never been symptomatic. This is my first time, and the symptoms are definitely ‘Matic’. And then, she is gone. I eat my lunch and am exhausted from my efforts, from either being upright or trying to be social. I go to bed and pass out for a few hours.

Away from the room, life goes on.

When I wake up, there have been quite a few messages coming through on my phone. The insurance company doesn’t want to budge. I don’t want to budge either, not feeling confident in their eventual generosity. If I was really sick, I don’t doubt they would step in to fly me out to a hospital. I’ve seen them do it before. If I wasn’t symptomatic, or Australian, I probably wouldn’t have tested and then contacted them. Being mildly sick seems to be a policy ‘purgatory’.

Thanks to our connections, I am assisted by others. It is low season and the lodge isn’t at capacity, so offered to put me up for two more nights. Rather than pay for a solo flight, I will be flown out by an anti-poaching plane. It’s passing by the area on the way to my destination. The pilot has had Covid recently, so doesn’t care. A donation to the charity isn’t required, but I’m sure it wouldn’t rejected.

Maybe I should give them double the amount I paid for travel insurance, considering they are doing twice as much.

I do the maths, with the help of the Dr Text. By the time of the flight I should not be infectious. I will take precautions and isolate for a few days in a lodge near Kasane before I rejoin my itinerary.

The hornbills come and go, ever attentive. Squirrels visit too.

With a decent fever, I gingerly lower myself into my small plunge pool. It is freezing, but it does the trick. I see the nearby hippos in the lake looking at me. I like to think that at this moment, buoyant in water and both carrying some extra weight, we are twin souls. The hippos snort derisively.

The camp medic brings around some medication for me to help with the muscle aches and pains. He asks me why I decided to test. And then too, he is gone. I’m alone again, left with my thoughts.

That night there is a storm that comes in, with thunder that seems to roll on forever. Lightning seems to surround me on all sides, lighting up my open room through the mesh walls. The rain is very brief, but the wind blows for longer. It’s humbling.

When it settles, I hear a nearby owl hoot and the honks, splashes and munching noises of the hippos feeding. Somewhere in the distance, a hyena calls out for his clan.

Day 3

I wake up after another restless sleep. I go in waves between feeling normal and feeling exhausted. I shower, firstly in hot water to ease my muscle aches and then in cold water to cool down. The day is already hot.

For a change, they have set up a table for me at the edge of the dining area, so I can eat in a new place. I will have my dinner here too. It’s a nice change, but after the walk back to my room, I need to lie down for a few hours.

I have perfected my bug-catching skills with a towel, a humane catch-and-release system. Occasionally they find their way in, and I politely show them the way out. I leave my spider friend there in the toilet, ever attentive. It’s nice to have some company. I find myself apologising to him for the sounds and smells I make. Ants make their way across the decking as dragonflies dance in the shadows. I take another dip and cool off. The hippos are hiding.

The family of hornbills is still here, but one parent is missing. I haven’t seen them for a while. The solo parent does the best they can.

I text my wife. She is feeling better, but now my son is sick. She is recovering, and doing the best she can.

I am immensely grateful to be here. The place is somewhere that others would dream of visiting, and here I am, alone, for days. The lodge itself costs over USD$2500 per person per night, and on top of it, I am in the family villa. All my food is provided, and I have a minibar.

And yet, despite my gratefulness, I just want to go home.

I barely speak all day. I message some people on my phone when I have the internet, but it is too patchy to speak on. I also have no one here to speak to. I read some articles I had saved before. I watch some TV I downloaded on my iPad for the flight. I go outside and stare at the water, watching the hippos as they dip up and down in the water like sneaky fat corks.

A storm rolls in with surprising speed. The wind noise goes from nothing to a jet engine. It’s like someone has turned an ocean meditation soundtrack up to 11. The animals fall quiet and then it rains, big fat drops splattering all over the place. I put down the rain cover in the front of my room but can’t do much about the rest of the room. It will get wet. As it rains, I realise that it isn’t a big deal. We can just wipe it up afterward. It will all dry off in the sun.

Why did I worry?

And then it hits me: “Why did you test?”

Everyone has been asking it. But, they weren’t asking about the symptoms that made me test. They weren’t asking me what my wife messaged me. They were asking something different.

“Why did you test?” means “Why did you bother?”.

Life here is different. There are bigger issues, and almost everyone has had Covid many times. It is now regarded in the same way as a common cold or the flu. If you get it, you try not to spread it and get on with it. You get sick, you assume you have it. You may be sick, you might not. It’s just this Australian, on Covid avoidance for years, that brought tests with him. Meanwhile, life goes on.

I have barely unpacked after repacking a few days ago. I’ve just rotated between shorts for dining and boxer shorts for lounging. It won’t take me long tomorrow to pack. I hope the test shows negative tomorrow, just for the comfort of everyone. Maybe even for my own sake.

I visit the toilet again, for more business. My spider friend is still there, watching. I need to clean up after myself, but as I do, the wind blows him off the toilet. He doesn’t move.

It’s then I realise the truth.

He isn’t my friend. He’s not some Disney animal companion.

He’s dead.

I’m a little depressed, even though I know how silly it is. I just hope he was dead before I desecrated the toilet and not a result of it.

I have some energy so I decide to draw the area like I’m a 19th-century explorer. I’m perfectly still, except for my pencil. It’s not great, but it’s something to do. I hear a strange noise but ignore it. I keep drawing. Thunder again rumbles in the distance.

Some movement in the corner of my eye grabs my attention. By the base of the very tree I’m drawing a warthog appears. I remain still and just watch. Soon there are two. Some strange noises come from beneath the deck I’m sitting on. Strange little honks. One by one, baby warthogs (hoglets?) join their parents. I sit still and watch. I have ten minutes with them, the family snuffling around in the dirt before they head off. I get up to see where they are but I can hear them breathing beneath my feet. I soon see them behind my outdoor shower area. There are two parents and seven babies. The babies are very young, still suckling from the mother. Well, I am pretty sure it is the mother, but both parents have beards. I take some photos before the rain comes and forces me inside.

I head to bed to sleep.

I hear the lion call again, but this time it’s further away. It’s leaving the area.

Day 4

I wake up early and shower. I pack my things. It takes about 2 minutes.

I head for some breakfast, on the edge of the breakfast area. I feel better, lighter, clearer. Breakfast is eggs, which for the first time doesn’t hit my stomach like an anvil.

I head back to my room to write a thank you note. I leave the money I have in an envelope with the note as a way of saying thanks. The money isn’t enough, but I don’t know what would be.

My car arrives to take me to the airstrip for my flight. I say my goodbyes, half sad and thrilled. I sit in the back as we drive, the open air hitting my face. We pass by some ostriches, the male dancing in front of a female. We pass some zebras, grazing in a field. We see a giraffe mother, walking with her young and healthy child.

I was away from the world for what seemed like forever. It was, in reality, only a few days. Meanwhile, life goes on.

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