Emotional reunion for Scarborough's Peter Caton after 20 months stranded in East Africa when coronavirus swept the world – as he was left unaware
A Scarborough man has told how he was stranded in East Africa for nearly 20 months as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world – and made it home just in time for his dad’s surprise 80th birthday party.
Peter Caton is a professional international photographer who was born and raised in Scarborough, but has been living out of hotels for 15 years with his camera bag, documenting the world.
In March 2020, Peter and his partner Susan Martinez were working on rising sea levels in Liberia in West Africa before they took a getaway trip to the continent’s east coast to celebrate Susan’s birthday on Diani Beach in Kenya.
The pair switched off their mobile phones – in what would later turn out to be their worst decision – in the week which ultimately was when Covid swept across the world and plunged countries into the unknown. Peter and Susan were left unaware, as they enjoyed beautiful views of the Indian Ocean, that they were about to be left stranded.
Jokingly, Peter said: “All my friends back home don’t really feel sorry for me, they were like ‘you’re stuck on a beach, big deal!’ but back then it was a bit concerning because we didn’t know how the world would open up and, in Africa, things can get pretty volatile pretty quickly.”
Realising the situation, Peter applied for an emergency British visa for Susan, who is Ecuadorian, but on the day he was set to receive it, Peter said the passport offices were closed with Susan’s passport now stuck inside.
Peter said the British Government kept repeatedly ringing him, urging him to return home on a chartered flight, but he said he could not just abandon his partner in Kenya.
Now stuck, the pair were left living in a beach treehouse. “I kept reminding her it’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever done for anyone in my life, but I’m not sure how much she appreciated it at that moment!” he said.
Peter withdrew as much money as he could in case he had to bribe people due to civil unrest, which he said “is violent on another level”.
“We had our own escape plan, but we were so isolated,” Peter said. “The whole of Diani just emptied and we didn’t know anybody and we just had each other.”
After being stuck on the coast for five months, Peter and Susan’s funds were dwindling after their six-week work trip and holiday had now significantly overrun.
They were forced to seek work in Old Fangak, Jonglei State in South Sudan – which has seen clashes of civil unrest – to document the flooding and climate emergency in the country, which Peter said was “hell on earth”.
His work would later feature in The Guardian and The Sunday Times.
“The mosquito situation there, I’ve never seen anything like it. I was wiping my face with my hands every few seconds and they were just covered in blood,” he said.
“They’ve been largely forgotten and the funds have dried up from the international community.”
In July, the Government made the decision to cut the foreign aid budget to 0.5 per cent of national income.
“They’re really suffering. I returned to photograph the floods nine months later and they haven’t receded.”
With just a holiday’s worth of clothes in a suitcase each, Peter and Susan made do as best they could.
“There were no shops open and so we had to try and get by with what we had. We were always hoping that next month it would open because the states were closed and we couldn’t leave even if we wanted to.
“In the end, we went a bit bonkers because we hadn’t socialised or even spoken to anyone else in all of that time.
“It was really difficult.”
Determined to make it home for his dad John’s 80th birthday party, Peter said: “I always made a deal with myself that I had to get back for my father’s 80th birthday, my parents aren’t getting any younger so I always had that deadline with myself that I would be back.”
Setting off from South Sudan, Peter made the trip home to Scarborough alone due to ongoing visa issues for his partner.
“It’s wonderful to be back, just something as simple as getting water out of the tap. It’s a bit of a culture shock. When you’ve been living in the developing world for so long and you’re immersed in that culture it’s like a new home,” Peter said.
He took seven modes of transport to get home – a canoe, boat, helicopter, aeroplane, bus, train and car – as he travelled through Dubai and Manchester; taking two and a half days to arrive just an hour and a half before celebrations began.
“It was quite surreal for me because I had just been wading through the swamps for 10 days in 32-degree heat. So going from that to Scarborough with a suitcase full of dirty clothes and being suddenly thrown into a big family reunion, it was difficult! Very, very strange, but very familiar in my hometown.
“I was emotional just thinking about it coming home. I’m just exhausted by it all, both mentally and emotionally, and happy to put my feet up for a little while,” he said.
Not staying home for long, Peter will be returning to Africa to Ethiopia and Tanzania for work and to see his partner.
Looking back, Peter said: “Don’t switch your phone off! If we had just kept them on for that week then we would have got an emergency British visa and had a completely different experience.
“I’m looking forward to finally being able to go to the pub for some local beer!”