By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN
When Mick Sturla left for vacation to South Africa, he had no idea his eight-day stay at a safari lodge would turn into a mad dash to get back home to the United Kingdom and involve sleeping in a rental car underneath an airport terminal due to new and evolving restrictions tied to the Omicron coronavirus variant.
Mick, 73, and his wife Jan, 73, flew 11 hours from Heathrow Airport November 21 directly to O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg with the intention of returning home the same way on Monday, until British Airways canceled their flight last Thursday.
The new and potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa has prompted a fresh round of travel restrictions across the world and raised concern about what may be next in the pandemic. Scientists in South Africa were the first to identify the new variant, but it’s unclear whether it started there or brought there from another country.
Hours after the South African health authorities announced the discovery of the variant, travelers found themselves stranded without a warning.
Despite the bans, the new variant has already been found in at least a dozen countries. Most of the cases detected have been in travelers returning from the region.
Sleeping underneath the airport terminal
After arriving in Johannesburg The Sturlas drove 4.5 hours to Graskop, stayed overnight and drove another 4 hours to their final destination at a game lodge near Kruger National Park.
“We had three fantastic days of game drives before stuff hit the fan,” Mick told CNN.
The Sturlas made the trek back another 8 hours to O.R. Tambo International Airport Sunday in hopes of completing their required PCR tests and getting on a new flight they booked to Mauritius. After taking their PCR tests required to travel, the couple slept in their rental car underneath the airport terminal in the downtime before their flight.
At the last minute, their flight was canceled because Mauritius joined the list of countries imposing restrictions on flights and travelers from southern African nations. Mick hired a new car and hit the road again 2.5 hours away to a bed and breakfast where the couple will stay until December 7, the earliest departure date they have been given.
“We were both worried we would miss Christmas with the grandchildren, and we still are as we are not out of the woods yet,” Mick said. “My wife was really in bits and me not far behind, but we are a more relaxed now.”
A travel visa expiring in two days
Like The Sturlas, Movin Jain and his family also anticipated some rest and relaxation during a 10-day vacation to South Africa from Bangalore, India.
Jain, his wife, sister and brother-in-law arrived in Johannesburg from Bangalore via Doha November 19 and were scheduled to go back home Monday on Qatar Airlines.
“We have not received any direct communication from the airline, but saw in the news two days back that Qatar had stopped taking passengers from South Africa,” Jain told CNN. “There is no direct flight from South Africa to India, and almost all the countries through which we could take connecting flights, have taken a similar decision to not accept passengers from South Africa.”
Sunday evening, Jain and his family went to O.R. Tambo International Airport to try and board their scheduled flight but were met with empty check-in counters and closed airline offices.
“So we are stranded, having to elongate our stay in South Africa on our own dime, and with no direct or written communication from the airline except the generic news,” he said. “We do not know how long this might last. We have our jobs back in India that we were on leave from, and haven’t brought our laptops here, so we can’t work.”
Luckily the group’s employers have been understanding about the matter, but beyond another week or so, he’s unsure how flexible they will be.
Jain has been in touch with the Indian embassy, who are asking stranded Indian nationals to submit documentation and details to them. Since then, they’ve heard from a travel agent saying they will let them know if and when a charter is arranged. The family’s travel visa expires in two days, according to Jain.
“It was a lot of anxiety for a couple of days,” Jain said. “What helped is that we were able to talk to the officer at the embassy, we got the assurance that someone in power is aware of all this and thinking of us. Now that we’ve accepted the situation, it’s a little better.”
For the most part Jain said his family was able to do activities they had planned for their trip until the last day in Cape Town where the travel restriction news hit, and their focus turned to figuring out a way home.
They attempted to board 10 rebooked flights to no avail
Lauren Kennedy and her daughter Riley Campbell had been looking forward to their vacation since April 2020, when it was originally booked, but had to reschedule due to the pandemic.
The family was at the airport in South Africa when they got news about the new variant and travel bans beginning after having just landed from Zambia the last leg of their trip. The family had return flights to their home in Raleigh, North Carolina booked with connections in Europe, but the current restrictions have dissolved those plans, according to CNN affiliate WRAL.
“By the time we got into the terminal, it was already frenzied and panicked and everybody trying to rebook their flights, so we were swept up in the confusion,” Lauren Kennedy told CNN’s John Berman. “We’ve probably… had about ten flights booked either canceled or that we were not allowed to board the flight because most of the flights that come from Johannesburg go through Europe and those bans were coming in like hour by hour, day by day, that each country was closing its borders to anybody who didn’t hold a European passport.
“Fingers crossed, we do have flights tonight going out directly to America, so you know, again, things are changing minute by minute, so we’re just trying to be calm, trying to be patient, and be grateful that we’re together and that we’re safe, and we’re healthy, we have our negative Covid tests we took yesterday,” Kennedy said. “We’re all vaccinated, and we’ve been holing up in this hotel room for the last how many, three days, so we’re just grateful to be together.”
Back to Zoom lectures
Andries W. Coetzee, a Professor of Linguistics and the Director of the African Studies Center at the University of Michigan said being stuck in South Africa isn’t so bad since he’s experiencing little to no interruptions in his work.
Coetzee grew up in South Africa, but this trip back home was the first time since the start of the pandemic, and he was visiting both to see family in the northern Limpopo province and to attend an event by the North-West University, his South African alma mater, in Johannesburg Friday evening.
He was supposed to fly home to Ann Arbor Saturday evening, connecting through Europe, but the flight was canceled when Europe closed its borders to flights from South Africa.
“After many hours on the web and the phone, I was able to rebook my flight through Delta for a direct Johannesburg to Atlanta flight on Thursday, December 2,” Coetzee said. “In the meantime, I’ve extended my stay at my hotel in Sandton. I opted to do this rather than go back to my family in Limpopo province since it’s easier to work from the hotel.”
Apart from adjusting the times he’s online for his students, he’s thankful his canceled flight allows him more opportunity to see his family and the hotel he’s staying at has a reliable internet connection.
“I was able to move all my meetings and teaching onto Zoom, and my work hence continues nearly as if I was back in the US,” Coetzee said. “I’m quite lucky that I am able to continue working with little to no interruption. And that I was able to extend my hotel stay. This is not possible for many other people affected by these new travel restrictions.”
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CNN’s Christina Maxouris, Tamara Hardingham-Gill, Laura Smith-Spark and Ivana Kottasová contributed to this report.