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An idyllic week on a game reserve in South Africa turned into a nightmare for Briton Sonja De Pattenden, who was stranded when flight cancellations were enforced by measures against the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus.
In the scramble for flights home to Dubai, the insurance worker was scammed out of "substantial money" for a fake airline ticket.
On Monday, the World Health Organisation sounded a warning against the spread of Omicron, a strain of the coronavirus which was recently identified by scientists in South Africa.
As a result, flights in and out of the country were grounded as a precaution.
Ms De Pattenden, a Dubai resident for 25 years, faces an anxious wait to discover how long she will have to remain in South Africa.
“Everything changed very quickly,” she said.
“We thought the flights would keep running until November 29. But when we checked the Emirates website [and] just 10 minutes later it had changed to November 27.
“It left us no time to book a flight and try to get back. We had no notice whatsoever.
“We had been trying to find a flight out of the country to anywhere but there was nothing, only internal routes.
“I managed to find one flight coming back to Dubai on Monday, but it turned out to be a scam.”
Ms De Pattenden, originally from Cornwall in south-west England, arrived in South Africa on November 26 and heard about the travel restrictions while on her way to a Mokaikai game reserve, about 200 kilometres north of Johannesburg.
Ms De Pattenden, who lives near Arabian Ranches, is with three friends from Dubai.
Her travel insurance runs out on Thursday, the day she was scheduled to leave South Africa.
“We want to enjoy the last few days but I need to get home to my job and my home,” Ms De Pattenden said.
“Thankfully I have someone who can check in on the cats.
“I was due back in work on Sunday. I have my laptop so I could work from here if I have to, but it’s not ideal.
“It seems very unfair, as this variant is not just here in South Africa. We just have to find a route that can get us home.”
Flights to Zanzibar and Kenya with connections to Dubai were options that sold out quickly.
Japan, Israel, Morocco and Australia were the first nations to shut their borders to South African flights, with others soon to follow.
Services from South Africa to the UAE are grounded.
On November 27, the UAE suspended the entry of travellers from seven southern Africa countries from Monday.
The ban affected all passengers who had travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Botswana or Mozambique in the past 14 days.
Emirates and Etihad urged passengers to check travel regulations before flying as they were subject to change.
The WHO said Omicron posed a very high risk to the recovery from the pandemic given its potential for another wave of infections.
The virulence of the variant is yet to be established.
Early indicators showed it has more potential for mutation and more transmissible than the Delta variant that emerged a year ago in India and quickly became the dominant strain.
Caught off guard
Grounding of UAE flights from South Africa caught many off guard.
A British woman said her plans for Christmas were in tatters after her South African partner was stranded 6,500 kilometres away in Cape Town, where he was visiting relatives for the first time in two years.
“It was only when he went to get his rapid PCR test that he was told his flight had been cancelled,” she said.
“He was due to fly back on Saturday and tried to re-book his flight on Thursday with Emirates but everything was fully booked.
“We looked at all the other options of going by another country, but they were not letting anyone in who had been in South Africa for the last 14 days.
“A lot of our friends had been out for an Iron Man event and are now stuck. There was no warning and a lot of people have been caught out by this.
“It has all been quite shocking to happen so quickly. We have not idea what will happen next.”