I had no idea what to expect on my pandemic gap year – or how long I could stay'
Despite the pandemic, twins Tilly and Christa Cripwell still managed to travel to Africa as volunteers on (separate) gap years.
Here’s where and how they did it ....
3 July 2021
Before any of us knew what a global pandemic was, I had pictured a gap year following the well-trodden backpacker trails of South-East Asia or South America. By September last year I was aiming to finish my time at an independent London school in December and head to the French Alps to work as a waitress in a hotel. Then, with November’s second wave of the virus and the subsequent lockdown, I realised I had to reconsider my travel options, as neither the French Alps nor South-East Asia was looking viable.
At that point Central America was one of the few regions to remain accessible and the idea of Costa Rica came up on my travelling radar after speaking to Milly Whitehead from The Leap, a company that specialises in volunteering programmes. I can’t pretend I wasn’t upset by the changes to my original plans, but after doing some research and realising I would be lucky to get away at all, I found myself adjusted to the change.
When it came to booking, everything had to be left to the last minute,
due to the perpetual rumours of red lists and quarantines. Still, early
in the January lockdown I was ready to book flights, PCR tests, visas
and other official documents with a view to leaving days later. And then
I learnt that my travel companion’s concerns about setting off in the
thick of lockdown meant that my plans would have to change again.
In order to travel legally during the pandemic, I needed to find legitimate and meaningful voluntary or educational projects with paperwork confirming these positions. Again, Milly Whitehead steered me perfectly – and soon I found myself flying to Tanzania to join a volunteering program in the city of Arusha.
I had no idea what to expect – whether there would be other gap year travellers there, where I would be staying, or how long I would be there – but I was just happy to be travelling. It had already been far more stressful than I’d expected and for someone who is an avid planner, this was something I had seriously struggled with.
I moved into a small house down the city’s back streets along with several other gap-year volunteers. The culture shock hit immediately: a night out involved being crammed into bars and nightclubs with no social distancing and face masks firmly out of the picture.
Arriving in this corner of Tanzania brought things into sharp focus for me. The volunteering started immediately and was better than I could ever have imagined. Our volunteer fixer was Mathias, a Tanzanian who understood the specific needs of the local orphanages and schools. Our work involved creating several new vegetable patches to provide them with fresh fruit and veg throughout the year. As a group we worked very hard, motivated by the orphans that our labours would benefit.
Our second stint of volunteering brought further manual labour, this time on a coffee plantation, where the voluntary work of 16 hard-working teenagers (there had been many new arrivals) benefited the local community. Our days would finish around 4pm. There was no Wi-Fi or television – something we all welcomed and loved, as it meant that all our time was spent socialising: playing cards, backgammon and the guitar. Our nights were also punctuated with trips to bars and clubs.
When our work was done, our coordinator Mathias liaised with his local contacts and found us a comparatively inexpensive – $800 (£580) – four-day safari. The trip took us through the Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara and the Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks – and because of the devastating lack of inbound tourism in Tanzania so far this year, each day concluded with a stay in the sort of safari lodge that is normally the preserve of the very wealthy indeed. The emptiness of the Serengeti was one of the huge perks of travelling during the pandemic – and I felt very conscious of how we were benefiting from this unlooked-for opportunity.
Once we finished the volunteer program in Arusha, our group headed to Zanzibar. However, rumours of Tanzania joining the UK’s red list quickly drove us over the border into Kenya, where two friends and I headed to Gilgil, northeast of Nairobi.
Here I volunteered at the Kivuli Trust, a school for children with mental and physical disabilities – easily the toughest thing I have ever done. Many of them had cerebral palsy as a result of being starved of oxygen at birth, in a place where there is a lack of hospital beds and birthing education. I later went on a fundraising trek up Mount Kenya to raise much-needed funds for the Kivuli Trust, which I hoped would help in some way.
And then, at the end of March, Kenya joined England’s red travel list. After many stressful phone calls and last-minute flight adjustments, my time in Africa came to an abrupt end.
I think I am still slightly amazed at just what has been possible this year. I have had the chance to do things I could never normally have done in places I would never normally have travelled. I feel very lucky to have benefited from the Government’s decision to allow travel for volunteers to continue. I have learned to be flexible (which goes against my nature) and to be open to making last-minute plans.
I have also become an expert in PCR and antigen tests – and have a new-found appreciation of travel in the pre-Covid age.
In early January, as the third lockdown abruptly stamped out the Christmas cheer and started 2021 on a sour note, the only travel I could imagine happening in the next few months was a road trip around the UK in a VW campervan – and even that was soon out of the question.
Then my luck changed. After a lot of research, I chose to go to Zanzibar, which I had long wished to visit and knew was accepting incoming volunteers from the UK. I found myself on a flight on January 14, having completed the admin the pandemic then demanded: PCR tests, volunteering letters, insurance and the like.
The first thing I was told by the taxi driver who picked me up from the airport was: “Covid does not exist here in Zanzibar!” It may have been untrue but it was a welcome departure from it being the main topic of conversation back in the UK. He told me that the Tanzanian president had prayed it away. There were no masks and all schools, shops, bars and clubs were open.
I volunteered at a Muslim school in Paje village on the east coast of the island every day for the first month. The school had not had a volunteer before, so they started the English class as a result of my arrival. I also taught an English class to adults in the village every evening. They were all so keen to learn because tourism is such a crucial part of the economy. By the end of the month, we could have lengthy conversations together.
My school friend joined me halfway through my time in Zanzibar and we both flew on to Arusha in mainland Tanzania, staying for four weeks with Mathias – the same person who arranged my sister Tilly’s stay. For the first week we taught sport and English at a school called Saide at the foothills of Mount Meru, just outside Arusha.
We painted three new classrooms and bought and installed a new water pump outside the classroom block, which meant the school now had easy access to filtered water, no longer requiring the children to walk 30 minutes up the hill for a bucket. This freed them up to focus their attention on learning instead. They were so grateful to us and we were delighted to see that something we take for granted back in the UK brought them so much joy. During my time in Arusha I also began a stint of volunteering at an orphanage.
Some friends and I then embarked on a fundraising hike up Kilimanjaro to raise money for the Meningitis Research Foundation in memory of a school friend who died of meningococcal septicaemia in 2015 aged 13.
Of the 16 people with whom we volunteered, 12 scaled Kilimanjaro and all reached the summit despite challenges including altitude sickness, frostbite, dehydration and hallucinations (one thought they saw a dog at the summit and another waved at a rock). All raised thousands for various charities. My group of three 19-year-old girls felt particularly proud that we beat two other groups of men taking the same route to the summit by about 20 minutes.
The pandemic meant that the mountain was empty. We were told there were usually queues of people waiting to take a photo at the summit – for us we were the only ones there. Every night we would go to the guides’ huts and hear stories from their decades of climbing the mountain while they cooked maize and played music. One of our guides had reached the summit more than 500 times and said he still loved it every time he did it.
I think the versatility of this generation of Covid gap-year travellers has been hugely impressive. Everyone has shown great resilience and become nimble at working out solutions. We have navigated the challenges that Covid has thrown us. Most gap year hopefuls planned to travel to South America, South-East Asia or Australia – but in the end our options narrowed to just a few countries.
Tanzania has never been a common gap-year destination, but the fact Covid made it one this year gave us so many amazing opportunities. You might argue that our cohort has made the best of a bad situation. But I consider it to be a blessing in disguise as we collectively veered off the beaten track and have all achieved things that wouldn’t have been possible if Covid hadn’t driven us to these countries and these particular volunteering opportunities.
This year has taught the class of 2020 how to navigate through times of uncertainty and meet the multitude of challenges we were presented with with resilience and flexibility. We returned to the UK feeling a huge sense of achievement.
How Leap VIP helped Tilly and Christa
How you might ask were we able to send Tilly and Christa (and many others) overseas in the midst of a pandemic when borders were closing and red lists were emerging all during the toughest travel environment since ww2.
Well…it all began with Leap VIP. An annual subscription service that provides Leap VIP members with our expertise, knowledge and contacts across the globe that are ready and willing to accept volunteers. As volunteers were exempt from travel restrictions Tilly and Christa were able to get out and volunteer legally.
advised the twins on following all rules when exiting the UK, complying
with COVID safety protocols for their host countries and travelling
safely and responsibly at all times.
The twins were model Leap VIP members as they used us to responsibly navigate through Tanzania, Kenya, Costa Rica and Guatemala on her gap year – something they never thought possible due to the pandemic.
They used Trailfinders to book their flights, when Kenya was added to the red list Trailfinders were able to divert flights quickly via other destinations.
Our vast COVID travel knowledge enabled them to know the latest rules, paperwork and documentation they needed to fill in before they safely jetted off as well as the rules regarding PCR testing.
There is no easy way to travel in COVID times, but we have the know-how to break it down and take each step with you from flights to which insurance you MUST have for FCDO restricted destinations to how long you can spend in each destination.
‘Milly Whitehead steered me perfectly’ – Tilly Cripwell
There is no limit to what Leap VIP can help you achieve on your gap year. From teaching in a school in Kenya to working on a coffee plantation in Tanzania to working in an animal sanctuary in Costa Rica – every adventure starts with Leap VIP.
Become a Leap VIP member and let us create your perfect gap year.
on 08 / 07 / 2021