“The song Should I Stay or Should I Go became the soundtrack of our trip,” Sally Palmer says of the South Africa vacation that she and her husband, Joe, returned from on March 21st. The lyrics and melody of the 1981 hit by The Clash ran through their minds each day of their long-planned holiday with Classic Journeys, as COVID-19-related closings and travel bans ratcheted up with lightning speed from their March 15th arrival onwards. In retrospect, the five days that the couple spent in South Africa marked a major turning point of the global pandemic. 

Classic Journeys South Africa Guests Enjoying View

The line, “if I go there will be trouble, if I stay it will be double…” took on new meaning in particular, as mid-trip, the Brownsville, CA-based couple caught wind of travel advisories telling Americans to either return home quickly or stay out of the country indefinitely. Luckily, thanks to quick thinking by the Palmers’ South African Classic Journeys guide Clive de Bruyne, the two made it back—snagging the last two seats out of Cape Town, within 24 hours of the U.S. State Department’s Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel issuance. “It felt like we were running away from a tidal wave, and eventually it caught up with us,” said de Bruyne of the looming presence of COVID-19 throughout the trip. But despite the many unexpected changes that the coronavirus brought, the Palmers managed to have an incredible—and incredibly memorable—time in South Africa.

South Africa View Table Mountain Evening Dusk

Coronavirus Concerns Were Low at the Beginning of the Trip.

As the couple departed from California, they were monitoring COVID-19 cases in South Africa (the country recorded its first confirmed case on March 5th). The State Department hadn’t yet issued any travel warnings. Both frequent travelers who’d planned trips with Classic Journeys for each of the past six years, they opted to proceed. Their flight to Cape Town was uneventful, save for having their temperatures checked upon arrival. On arrival, they learned that the two other travelers who’d planned to be part of their small group trip were no longer coming (one cancelled just prior to departure due to COVID-19 concerns, while the other was turned back en route to South Africa for the same reason). The optimistic duo decided to view the change as a positive—after all, their group tour was now private

The Palmers’ Plans Rapidly Started to Shift. 

More COVID-19-related changes came from the get-go, and never let up. On the Palmers’ first day in Cape Town, strong winds shut down the cable car to Table Mountain, so they explored the famous waterfront and the Cape of Good Hope instead.

South Africa Guests And Local Guide

On their next attempt up the mountain, a fire broke out and then the cable cars were suddenly shut down. This time, wind and fire weren’t to blame, COVID-19 was the culprit. Similar things happened with planned excursions to Robben Island and the Langa Township—the first was cancelled completely, and the latter shortened, both due to COVID-19 fears. “We found out later that our trip to Langa Township was one of the last offered; they shut their doors to tourists completely afterward,” said Sally. 

She and Joe took their ever-changing schedule in stride, though. “For us, everything was still new and wonderful,” said Joe. “Our guide’s spirits stayed high and our spirits kept up.” 

Africa South Africa Beach Penguin

Multiple Closures Spurred Creativity Changes.

The Palmers’ new travel schedule was mainly invented on the fly by Classic Journeys local guide, de Bruyne, whose skill as a guide was pushed into hyperdrive by the city’s sudden closures and cancellations. “Ordinarily there’s one or two things that don’t go according to plan, and it’s my job to work around that and make the magic happen,” he said. “This time, literally every day we were faced by a new challenge.” 

Rather than riding to the top of Table Mountain in the cable car, the experienced guide led the Palmers along a small trail to a scenic overlook, where they nearly had views of Cape Town fully to themselves.

“As we sat on a rock a third of the way up the mountain, we were all chatting about how our experience was far superior than standing in a queue with a bunch of other tourists,” said de Bruyne. “That became the theme of the rest of the trip.” 

Classic Journeys South Africa School Children Guest

Instead of Robben Island, the trio went to the District Six Museum. They pivoted to an abbreviated tour through the Langa Township. They paused for dozens of spur-of-the-moment coffee and beer breaks that offered the chance to check in with locals. And as several other museums and notable places closed spontaneously, they opted to rent bikes and ride along the promenade.

“We chatted a lot about how the planned itinerary was coming apart but staying together, and all the while we were still having a grand time,” said Sally. “We still experienced Cape Town, it just wasn’t the typical tour. We felt like in addition to a private tour, we had a very personalized tour.” Adds Joe, “Humor was always involved, and Clive is fun and playful. A level of trust and closeness developed between us very quickly.”

In the Meantime, the Pandemic Rapidly Spurred Worldwide Changes.

The Palmers headed to South Africa’s famous Stellenbosch wine region on March 18th, the same day that a Global Level 3 Health Advisory – Reconsider Travel statement was made by the State Department. Up until that point, de Bruyne felt they’d mainly stayed a step ahead of the virus, but again, that swiftly changed. “The day before we arrived in wine country, everything was open; as we arrived, everything started shutting down,” recalls the guide. “But we still managed to find magic amongst the mayhem.” When a culinary walk was cancelled, he created a gourmet picnic for the Palmers at the region’s renowned Jordan Wine Estate.

Classic Journeys VIP Guests South Africa Local Guide Wine Picnic

“Clive punted, again, and we had a wine tasting and a picnic out on a pond, with our own fancy baskets and wine glass holders,” said Sally. When another planned tour cancelled, the trio pivoted to mountain biking instead, followed up with another picnic and wine tasting. 

Classic Journeys South Africa Luxury Tour Guests Bike Ride

Family members worried about the spread of COVID-19 continually checked in on the pair, but they reassured them. “We kept saying ‘hey, we’re having this fun experience, we’ve got this all to ourselves, this is dynamite, this is wonderful,’” said Joe.

The Palmers were scheduled to leave for Phinda Private Game Reserve on March 20th to end their Classic Journeys trip in South Africa with a safari in search of the big five, but the worldwide pandemic caught up with them the day before: A Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel was issued on March 19. Then President Trump imposed a 30-day European travel ban, and Virgin Atlantic notified them that the second leg of their return trip on the 23rd was cancelled. The influx of news reached the Palmers late at night on the 19th, and after an anxious evening of little sleep, de Bruyne “came to the rescue in the morning,” said Sally. With help overnight from Classic Journeys tour operations team in San Diego, he booked them on the last two seats on British Airways on the same day. “We literally got the last two seats out of Cape Town,” she recalls with relief.

With an extra morning at their disposal before heading to the airport, de Bruyne suggested filling their last hours with a nature walk. “He said, ‘no tourists go here, and very few local people of South Africa have been here,’ so we did this long 2-to-3 hour walk in wine country,” said Sally. “We got to see the beautiful landscape, the national bird and tons of flowers. It was unique and beautiful, and so much better than just sitting, fussing and waiting.”

Classic Journeys Guests Walking Landscape South Africa

“Clive Literally Led Us Through The Zombie Apocalypse”

Just five days after their arrival, the Palmers’ return trip was strikingly different from their trip out, marked by empty airports, masked passengers, and even one person in Heathrow clad in a full Hazmat suit. On their final flight from London to San Francisco, in a singularly surreal moment, they realized they were the only paying passengers in first class of the 747. The other seats were filled with pilots tasked with collecting empty planes to fly them back to Heathrow. 

Despite the slew of unexpected twists and turns, the couple count their trip as a success. “Even though it didn’t play out the way we expected, I think we had a wonderful look at South Africa thanks to Clive, and the support and flexibility that Classic Journeys provides its local guides,” said Sally. “This was a one-in-a-million trip. We’ll never forget it.” 

De Bruyne echoes the sentiment. “We joked at the end of the trip that we felt like family. We just clicked. We were in the trenches together, we met all these challenges together,” he said. “It reminded me why I do what I do, and that we’ll see this through.” In South Africa, now the epicenter of the pandemic in Africa, de Bruyne is one of the country’s 59 million people currently on lockdown.

The Palmers are currently sheltering in place in their own home too, quarantining themselves for 14 days while reflecting on the trip. “Are we sad we didn’t get to see the big animals? Yeah. But we went on a fantastic adventure, and we both came back in one piece—let me tell you, that doesn’t happen every time,” said Joe. “Clive literally led us through the zombie apocalypse.”

Classic Journeys Local Guide Guests South Africa

Kelly Phillips Badal is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor and world traveler who writes about travel, lifestyle and design. The former editor in chief of Interiors California, her work has also appeared in Sunset, Angeleno, BBC Travel and CondeNastTraveler.com; and she’s held staff positions at Better Homes & Gardens and Country Living. Kelly is married to travel and lifestyle photographer Tanveer Badal. Together they split their time between New York City, Los Angeles, and wherever their travels take them. Follow her at @kellybadal

More by Kelly Phillips Badal: 
Mel Robbins Dreams About Travel to Shake Off Negative Thoughts
COVID-19 Nearly Trapped Two Travelers on Remote Easter Island
The Architect of Microsoft Outlook Wants Us to All Communicate Better