Out of Africa with tour caddy Chris Simmons

DP World Tour caddy Chris Simmons on his four-day ordeal to make it back to the UK from the Joburg Open in South Africa

In nine years as a professional caddy, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve travelled around the world, worked in difficult conditions and learned you need a lot of patience, skill and luck to make as many flights as we do every year without too many problems.

When I first heard about the new Covid variant – a midnight phone call from my wife on Thursday night of the Joburg Open, where Matt [Jordan] had just started his 2022 season – I knew I needed to react straight away.

I didn’t think I’d face as much difficulty as I did over the next four days – caused by the UK Government leaving us to fend for ourselves and the airlines and transit airports trying to cope with the rules changing so quickly. As I write, I’m back in the UK – in quarantine for 10 days and roughly £5,000 lighter than when I left home at the end of November hoping to make a good start to the season with three events before Christmas.

We were due to tee off at 6.50am on Friday for our second round, so I was in bed by 9.30pm. When I got the call at midnight telling me to try and get out of South Africa as soon as possible, I spoke to Matt’s manager and started looking for flights. I knew every UK-based person in South Africa would be doing the same as soon as they woke up and saw the news.

I couldn’t change my original return flight, so jumped on Skyscanner and managed to get on an expensive Joburg-Frankfurt-Newcastle flight the following day. I also got Matt on a flight to Manchester via Istanbul. A few hours of stress later, I tried to go back to sleep – which wasn’t happening.

I was up at 5am on Friday morning and the clock was ticking to get out of South Africa. The course was busy by the time we got there with a lot of the UK-based players and their caddies in their casual gear withdrawing from the tournament before heading to the test centre en-route to the airport. Some had been lucky and got a call the night before, some had turned up ready to play – it was chaos as we were all trying our best just to get home.

A group of us got to the testing centre for 6.30am on Friday morning – another £80 for those. By this point, the guys looking for flights weren’t getting anywhere. For our little group, we looked set and just went and played some FIFA in the hotel while we waited for our flights home.

When we got to the airport, the queues were huge. There was also some rumbling about Germany not allowing non-nationals into the country – though I did eventually find out I’d be ok as I was just transiting. Another problem solved.

We didn’t get the chance to board the flight. Turns out – after a couple of hours of delay waiting in the lounge and a false start when we thought we were boarding – the plane’s PA system had a fault, so we were back to square one. I now knew we would definitely have to quarantine when we get home, though we had no idea when that would be.

We headed off to a new hotel – another £200 lighter – to try and get some sleep – which still wasn’t happening. Every flight was well and truly full now and the hundreds of people from our flight were in the same boat. We’d gone from bad to very very bad.

We headed back to the airport at 9am on Saturday to find our flight was still on the board, and they were hoping to leave at 11am – just in time to connect in Frankfurt and get the last flight to the UK on the list there, which was heading to Manchester.

There were hundreds of us in the queue at this point and I knew we weren’t leaving at 11am. If I got on the flight, I would get to Germany and be stuck. I wasn’t allowed to leave the airport as a non-national arriving from South Africa and there were no more flights scheduled to the UK until after the quarantine deadline.

By now, the tour was in motion with a plan of its own – a charter flight from Joburg to Dubai at 10am on Sunday. The 100-plus people on the charter would then wait in Dubai for 10 days, play some golf, and fly home from there. A slower journey home but a manageable one as long as Dubai didn’t go on the UK’s red list. A new plan in place, we headed back to the hotel to wait for Sunday morning.

By 9.30pm on Saturday night, the charter was cancelled – we couldn’t land in Dubai with such a big multi-national flight – so we were back to square one again. Another night with very little sleep and the dread of being stuck in South Africa indefinitely hanging over us. All we knew from the UK Government was that there were no direct flights home and we needed to sort it out ourselves. On the other hand, the tour was doing everything they could to get us out, they just couldn’t find a destination for the flight.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, I had no plan. There were three of us in our hotel looking to get back to the UK and all we had was a vague rumour that repatriation flights would start soon. On top of that, we were now effectively quarantined in South Africa as we didn’t want to go out and socialise, and we were physically and mentally exhausted.

However, our luck started to turn when we looked to extend our stay in the hotel and ended up moving across the complex into another one. On the bus over, we met an English lady who was heading back to London via Ethiopia. With nothing better to do, I looked on Skyscanner and there it was – the Kenya Airways Dreamliner which the tour had arranged had been rescheduled by the airline as a Joburg-Nairobi-London flight. What a 30th birthday present!

We checked all the access and testing requirements and arranged our quarantine in the UK – which was initially full – and got to the airport expecting our latest £500 flights weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Much to our collective surprise, we took off, arrived in Nairobi, had our layover, and made it back to the UK on Monday afternoon.

Four of the most stressful days I’ve ever experienced, and we got 10 days in an airport hotel under strict security to think about it all. We get about an hour a day outside in the car park – which is at least something – though all I have in my suitcase is my gear for 30C days in South Africa. We can order takeaways, which breaks things up and I’m keeping busy with any jobs I can do on my laptop, watching the football, and generally catching up with things. This is not the December I had hoped for!

In all, I’ll be roughly £5,000 lighter than when I left home at the end of November with the extra flights, tests, hotels and quarantine fees. We’ve also missed the chance to earn something in South Africa in the three events.

The good news is we’re back in the UK and the clock is counting down on the quarantine period. I’ll also be back home for Christmas.

Here’s hoping we get the 2022 season underway properly in Abu Dhabi at the end of January.