People in the times of the coronavirus crisis – Eyewitness Johann Groenewald from Tracks4Africa in South Africa

Travelling has been put on hold. In some places, travel is slowly coming back. Some countries open borders again, others not. No one knows what is going to happen next or what is best to do. The world remains in the grip of the coronavirus. Will there be a vaccine? No one knows. Will there be a cure? No one knows that either. It is still too soon to know how it all works out. Epidemiologists are still searching for answers. For now, we will have to accept that the virus is a reality. It is best to follow recommendations given by experts, like physical distancing, and thorough hand washing and wearing a face cover to protect others. It is all we know for now, and things might be different next week when there is more or again even different evidence. We need to accept that we have to be flexible these days, for now, to get on with life. What we can do is dreaming of travelling and plan trips (be it in the near- or far future).
A short-haired smiling man wearing a T-Shirt showing the map of the African continent, in front of a photo mural of a Land Rover on an off-road track.
Johann Groenewald from Tracks4Africa

Even in all the countries that are loosening restrictions, or all the places that plan to loosen them, it does not mean that the virus is gone. As much as everyone wants this to be. It does mean places are reopening for economic reasons. Tourism and hospitality are important for the travel industry and guarantee economic stability for many. In several places in this world restaurants, hotels, and shops might be welcoming guests again. It is then down to each individual to decide which risk they want to take, and how responsible each individual plans to protect others.

A journey without a map?

I am a passionate self-drive tourist. You can travel at your own pace, you can make as many photo-stops as you want, and best, wherever you want them. You can sleep where you fancy. You can cook what you want, sit around the campfire for as long as you want, and get up as early in the morning as you want. I created many memories in South Africa and her neighbouring countries. On many different trips, we drove over 60,000 kilometres through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, even if that was only for a few kilometres to marvel at the Victoria Falls. So many places, so many memories, no one can take these away. The kilometres sound a lot but there are many places I dream of visiting still. It is a love that big.

While travelling through Southern Africa, there is one thing that makes road trips so much easier. Tracks4Africa. I explain this with a little travel story. I vividly remember that day in Botswana, when we drove for seven hours up and down the same sand track since we could not find the turn that would lead us to our camp for the night. We had been in Moremi for several days already, we had been to Xakanaxa and to Khwai. Plains were flooded, we were delighted every time we found a sandy track. 

Seeing is believing

So, there is this one day. We were driving from Khwai to Savuti. Tracks4Africa (the navigation system) told us over and over we had to turn left at this particular point on the sand track. To us, it looked as we would be driving straight into thick scrub if we would follow that advice. It looked so wrong. So, we kept driving up and down and searching for the right track. A full seven hours later a construction worker in his lorry appeared out of nowhere. He stopped us, obviously as perplexed as we felt. "Guys, what are you doing here?" I looked at him somewhat exhausted "We can't find the track to Savuti." He laughed, very loud "Right, I can see that. I have been watching you for a few hours." We had a little chat. Guess what happened. He pointed us exactly towards that massive scrub where Tracks4Africa wanted to send us down. We drove towards the scrub. It turned out that the scrub had simply heavily overgrown the track. Behind it lay our very own Shangri-La. Our very own little paradise, a marvellous free sand track.

It is hilarious in hindsight and a good travel memory. Tracks4Africa covers all tracks, big and small, I use it on a Garmin. It also gives lots of helpful details of places which I would not find in any other source of information. It is the ideal travel partner.

Make Africa visible and accessible to the world

Let us go back two decades, to the year 2000, when there was a lack of maps for GPS navigation. Until then visitors to remote parts of Africa had to travel solely with paper maps. With technology so many more opportunities became possible. Soon, road trip enthusiasts started sharing their GPS tracks and waypoints with each other. The passion of a few grew into Tracks4Africa.

Many hours of hard work can be briefly described as this. It sounds so easy and I am sure building a company from scratch is anything but easy. They built Garmin compatible maps with user-generated content. They started selling maps on CDs. They started creating routable maps and later became the first to offer routable maps from Cape to Cairo. They then added photo sharing of waypoints. They started publishing self-driving paper guidebooks. Today their service is also available in the form of an app.

The company is owned and managed by Wouter Brand and Johann Groenewald. We cannot go to South Africa right now, but we can ask the locals about their country. Johann Groenewald lives in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape of South Africa. I contact him to find out how life is in times of the Coronavirus crisis. 
Right now, we hear from different countries that they opening-up travel and restaurants, and shops only after the numbers of new infections remain low enough. The situation changes all the time. Would this be the case in South Africa too? “We are currently in lockdown level 4 which still requires extreme measures from all citizens. There is no regional differentiation yet, but we expect it to be implemented at some stage.  We are not allowed to have social visits and you are only permitted to drive to shops or to seek medical assistance.  Some industries, which are classified as essential services may provide their employees with permits to travel from the home to work and back or drive around for essential work. If you move around in public, you are required to wear a face mask and practice social distancing. All businesses who are allowed to be open must also have a strict set of measures in place, e.g. only allow a certain number of shoppers into your building (which leads to long queues outside!).

Non-essential businesses are by and large required to remain closed, however, some concessions have been made. The retail sector may sell essential goods but the government has a list of goods which may not be sold such as cigarettes, alcohol, and a lot of everyday stuff which one would expect to be for sale - such as t-shirts!  It really is a silly situation to walk into a shop and see certain items not for sale whereas you are already exposed to the environment. Online sales of all goods except cigarettes and alcohol are allowed under level 4. So, you can buy a t-shirt online, but not in a shop.

Hospitality businesses are still closed. Restaurants are only allowed to sell take away food, but many restaurants who are not traditionally take away food suppliers find that the business they generate through these sales does not justify opening up the business.”

Update, according to the official Twitter page of The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa "South Africa will be placed on alert level 3 from 1st June 2020. Public gatherings and other high-risk activities, especially those that involve close contact between large numbers of people, remain prohibited to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. ... All borders of the republic remain closed except for the transportation of goods and repatriation of citizens"

Unnecessary rules

I wonder how Johann personally experiences this crisis, and how he experiences the situation at large. How people react depends a great deal on how well informed they are in times of crisis. I wanted to know how the situation in South Africa is. “Personally, I have two hats to wear, first as a human being with a family and secondly as a small business owner with employees. I support the idea of the lockdown and initially it had the effect of allowing our country to prepare hospitals and testing equipment and procedures to be put in place. Everyone rallied behind our president in the first few weeks, however as the government was supposed to relax the lockdown, we saw conflicting messages from the ministers involved. From what I can see as a normal citizen it really does look like the government is having fun with making rules and lists of things you can and cannot do. We are allowed to exercise outside our homes from 6 am to 9 am. The effect is that streets are filled with people and to be honest it is like a social event.

It has also become very clear that in informal areas and poor communities, a lockdown is not practical and borders on being inhumane. The reality is that social distancing is not practiced in these areas. People are deprived of earning a living and forced into the hands of government handouts which includes social grants for the lucky 17 million and food parcels for all. The queues for food parcels are probably the best place to spread any virus as thousands of people are forced together. On top of that regulations state that charity organisations who have been feeding people for years in these poor communities are now not allowed to hand out prepared food, only food parcels. There is currently the ridiculous case over peanut butter sandwiches which are not allowed to be handed out. The reaction from the government is quite arrogant in that you can go to court, but no one wins a court case against regulations. The real question everyone is asking now is if the regulations are at all legal or at the very least practical.

There was a bit of panic buying but not really too much. The government failed to mention before the lockdown that no cigarettes or alcohol may be sold. That would have sparked panic buying. There is a roaring underground trade in illegal alcohol and cigarettes, one just has to ask around.

The feeling on the ground is that the government has gone too far with making unnecessary rules. We have a nationwide curfew from 8 pm to 5 am, we can only exercise between 6 am and 9 am, we are prescribed what we can buy in shops, we are not allowed into parks or the beach and most people in the informal sector cannot earn a living. Surfers are arrested for going into the ocean and joggers for not being back in their homes by 9 am. If you are caught, you are fined and if you pay the fine you have a criminal record! Try to explain that on your next Schengen visa application. The government is, in fact, making criminals of all its citizens.”

Being in it together

You can look where you want these days and find that everybody is using their time as best as they can, be it with baking, learning languages, exercising, or picking up one of these long-forgotten hobbies. I see that is also true for Johann’s world when he tells me how he gets through all this right now. “I actually work a lot as I am trying to rescue my business. With our products not being sold in retail and no one travelling we had to resort to aggressive online sales, and we spent a lot of time interacting with our customers. Most of my staff can work from home and we now have a small team in the office to fulfil online orders. We have regular online meetings to keep us all in 'shape'.

But as a family, we are also baking a lot and we prepare extensive meals. We are lucky to have food in a country where the majority of people are now really wondering where their next meal will come from.

We do zoom fitness classes with our regular fitness instructor and our kids are attending online school. My daughter had music lessons online as well as movie nights with their friends online. My wife is reworking large parts of our garden. Our house has also never been so clean... I have a few woodworking projects in the garage which gets me out of the house. As a family we are used to being together, so we are all getting along very well.”

I think of all my road trips and how often the sat nav told me to 'turn right in 723 kilometres.' There is a lot of wide-open space in Southern Africa. At times on a road trip, I would not meet a single soul for hours. I see that Johann is not happy about staying put at home, but I love that he is using his work to sweeten the house arrest. “Namibia and Botswana are both open for local travel and it really does make me jealous. I do understand that they have about 30 times fewer people than South Africa, but it would have been nice to drive out for a weekend. I have the added frustration of buying a new travel vehicle just before we went into lockdown and cannot even take it for a test drive. I do however revisit a lot of my travel photos and it brings back good memories. We are working on a Zambia guidebook and I have spent three months in Zambia during 2019 to capture information and photos, so I have a lot to process.”

Sharing travel experiences is just as good as a road trip

Tracks4Africa is based on user-generated content. I wonder if the company already feels the consequences as people cannot road trip and deliver tips and experiences for updates. Johann says “Yes and no. Obviously, people are not actively travelling at the moment, but we do find that we can now get their attention to send us information. When we ask for help on certain areas, we get very good feedback. I think that most people are just too happy to take part in any activity which resembles travel. We really have a wonderful network of people, some just customers and other active data members. The feedback during our lockdown newsletter has been very encouraging to me as well as my staff who can see the relevance of what they are creating.”

Small business owners and freelancers are mostly on their own in this crisis, there are some funds available depending on what your line of work is and where you are based. It would be great if there would be assistance for businesses in South Africa impacted due to the coronavirus crisis available and Johann tells me “There is in the form of various initiatives. Most of these are in real terms a loan of some sort. You will have to face the music at some stage. You can under certain circumstances also claim UIF (unemployment insurance fund) on behalf of your employees if they cannot work or can only work reduced hours. But this is not much and is typically less than 50% of what lower-paid employees earn. There are also many complaints about how effective the application process is and there are huge delays in receiving the funds.”

The corona crisis hits the economy hard. Even experts struggle to foresee all the possible consequences. We see how large companies simply ask governments for state aid, as for example, Lufthansa negotiated with the Federal Government in Germany about EUR 9 billion (it is obviously all bound to rules and regulations). I wonder how Johann and Tracks4Africa are doing and I am surprised to hear they carry the burden all alone “I have decided that we as shareholders of the business will pay the shortfall for 2020 and see how it goes in 2021. Our staff have also taken a salary reduction of 10 to 15%.”

How to prepare for Iron Man in lockdown

Times are strange, one can feel lost, so it is always great to hear what others are up to, and I have to laugh when I picture what Johann tells me “Under full lockdown, we exercised around our house. I have videos of my wife jogging around our house. The neighbours came out to watch on the first day and then we saw them also walking around their house every morning. A friend of mine is training for the Iron Man triathlon and ran 50 km around his house which I think was pretty insane.” South Africa implemented the lockdown on the 27th of March 2020, and it is still on. Will it normalize soon, I ask Johann and he explains “I think the days of a lockdown should be over. As I said the government had time to prepare and if they did not manage to do so then they probably will never be able to either. We are seeing a growth in our infection rate now and the inevitable will happen. Some provinces, renowned for their lack of governance, are reporting very low numbers but we expect their death toll to tell the real story in the months to come. The reality is that the larger part of our society cannot practice social distancing and that South Africa will probably see a peak in numbers in two or three months from now. Many people are really scared of being infected and when all of us know someone who is affected in some way then the real fear will set in.”

NGO's and charities should be allowed to do the good work they have been doing

Small businesses are the main pillars of communities all over the world. They are a vital part of any well-functioning community. I wonder what role individual business owners in South Africa will play in re-starting the economy, and Johann says “I personally feel that our unions who are now calling for the closure of large businesses and schools will try to get the political upper hand and if they do, we will see the supply chain come under huge strain. This is the time I expect panic buying to set in. I may sound very pessimistic, but our country has a very bad record with politicizing everything and if people on the street are scared then our opportunistic politicians will have it their way.

Businesses should at this stage be allowed to get what is left of our economy going again and people who now stand in queues for food parcels should be allowed to earn a living. Business owners are normally creative and resilient individuals with little regard for politics and I think their role could be critical in pulling South Africa through this crisis. NGO's and charities should be allowed to do the good work they have been doing, there is enough misery as it is.

One can only hope that the worst will be over by October. But the disruption of an extended lockdown will be felt well into 2021.”

Be more self-reliant in the future

Johann plans to do a few things differently in the future, personally as well as with the Track4Africa business, and he tells me “I think one is taught some very dear lessons in a time like this. Being more self-reliant is one of my goals, but not in a way to live in the wild on my own vegetables. I have been building up savings before this crisis and it is now carrying us through, but these savings must become a way of life. I recall stories from my childhood where my grandparents were farmers in very remote areas. They were self-reliant and they bought everything cash and that meant not having that much either, but they were happy people, nonetheless.

The same goes for Tracks4Africa, the business must be made robust in terms of its cash flow and we will expand into some new product offerings which will enable us to diversify and make more of the skills and information we already have. For me, Tracks4Africa is a lifestyle, but I have personally become complacent in the last few years. I am now working harder than before and I am forced to leave complacency behind, be creative and to believe that you cannot keep a good man down.”

Photography, bird watching, remote camping and challenging routes

Johann has very clear ideas of how the ideal road trip looks and makes me dream when he explains in great detail “My vehicle is well equipped with shelter, food, water, fuel, guidebooks, camera, and some good company (or solo). As I drive out of my town, I see people going about their business and I feel the freedom of leaving all the daily nonsense behind. On the freeway, cars pass by and I just smile at them being in a hurry. In the shade of a tree, I stop to make coffee and carry on till late in the afternoon. I search around my location for a suitable place to camp and settle in for the first night and make a list of what I forgot to pack (normally a towel for me). I wake up in the morning and have the freedom to decide where I go today.

Some days just driving is the best part of the journey while others the remoteness of a bush camp in a beautiful spot is the attraction. With the right friends, I like to take on very challenging routes whereas with the family, it is about seeing new places, meeting interesting people, never being on the same spot more than three nights and being able to sit at a waterhole watching game for as long as we want.

I like the combination of photography, bird watching, remote camping and driving challenging routes to get to these places and with good company. Sometimes a bit of luxury is also nice.

Then at some point, it is time to return home and as I drive into my hometown, my car dirty from the trip, I look forward to the luxuries of home. A good bed, my bathroom, and my dogs. I am not a perpetual traveller. I tried it once and I think while I still have work to do there is always something pulling you back. Maybe one day we sell the house and my wife and I will take to the road for an unlimited time, but with the freedom to return when we want to!”

People will always travel

Johann proves he is a true customer champion who believes in customer engagement-and service when he tells me about his first aid on the road while sharing a message with old and new Tracks4Africa customers and friends. "We started Tracks4Africa nearly twenty years ago and we still have some of our original data members and customers. That to me is truly amazing, and I like to think that we are a big family of mad mappers. I have met so many fellow travellers who use our products over the years. Most of them are happy users of our products and some have given us their honest opinion on where we can improve. To me, a map is never complete, and we welcome all and every traveller to take part in our process to continuously map Africa. I love meeting people on the road and when they realise, I am from Tracks4Africa they haul out their GPS and tell me they are stuck or this or that is not working. After a few moments of explaining they get what went wrong and they are happy customers. Our support staff does this daily, and it is very satisfying to see people engaging with them, leaving as happy customers.

Of one thing I am very sure, people will always travel. I hope that we will be there with them in one form or another.”

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