South Africa, Days 1-2: Just getting there.

[Sidebar: Today is September 5, which marks the first anniversary of this blog! My first official post was a recap of my trip to Australia, so it’s both surprising and apropos that one year later I’m talking about another big trip. If only my life were always that exciting!

I started this blog as a lark, because I was feeling bored and unchallenged. But along the way I’ve received love and encouragement from so many of you who read it regularly, and miss it when I don’t write. So, thank you to all of my readers, whether this is your first post or you’ve dutifully read all 79 of them. Your support (and eyeballs) really mean so much. Mwah, Whitney]

Oh, South Africa. Where to even begin. I knew this trip would be important and life-changing even before the flight took off, and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll attempt to recap here all that we did, saw, ate and felt over those jam-packed 10 days abroad. As you’ve seen, I’m a terrible photographer, so please know that I won’t do the country’s beauty one bit of justice. It’s such a special place, and it was a special trip. One that we’re still talking about and will for months and years to come.

To begin: we flew for days and days.

I am not good on planes. It usually takes several Xanax and most of a bottle of wine for me to be comfortable on a short-leg flight, much less one that goes over water and to new continents. But as we gathered at the airport in the morning of Day 1, I was comforted by the idea that our connections and longer flights were giving us the opportunity to fly on South African Airways.

[Fun fact: 10 years ago I worked at a PR agency in New York, where SAA was one of my friend’s clients in the Travel group. She jetted off to South Africa with planefuls of journalists, while I got to tour West Caldwell, N.J., on the way to Ricoh Corporation. From her experiences, I had a high opinion of SAA and was excited to experience it myself.]

Since my last big trip was to Australia on the new Qantas A-380s, I was convinced we’d pass our time in similarly cushy seats with innumerable movie selections on our in-seat, on demand entertainment systems.


The plane.

Our plane was straight out of 1985, with old TV consoles down the center aisle and ashtrays in the armrests. That’s okay, I told myself, I have my iPod and ear buds. About 30 minutes into the flight, I got up to use the bathroom, knocked my ear buds and ripped the connector off the end. Yes, I spent 18 hours pretty much just staring straight ahead. I wasn’t alone, I learned later. Others’ trays were missing, seat power was out and reading lights wouldn’t turn off.

The food was definitely interesting — there’s more Indian influence in South Africa than I expected and many of our meals were curried. Considering the state of American air travel, I was just grateful for any meal, much less a hot one with salad and a roll. Our first lunch was chicken and spinach curry with rice and vegetables in a tomato sauce. It was decently edible. Luckily, I’m not a picky eater and will try just about anything. My friend Jackie is quite the opposite. After every meal delivery, we exchanged looks from the other side of the plane as she dutifully just buttered her roll. I don’t think she ate anything else for the first 48 hours of our trip.

Our crew wasn’t the friendliest — one flight attendant threw attitude when I asked for extra wine, since they only came through the cabin every 5 hours. Then, 2 hours into the 9-hour trip, the entire plane ran out of vodka. Catastrophe!

Awhile later, somewhere over the Atlantic, the pilot called for a medical doctor — I know these things happen on planes but I’d never actually witnessed one. An older gentleman a few rows ahead of us stood up, pulled a case from the overhead bin and went to the back galley, where another guy was crouched on the floor wrapped in a blanket. After 30 minutes or so, all seemed to be fine, but it was still alarming to consider what happens when there’s a health emergency at 40,000 feet! As if I didn’t have enough to worry about while flying…

We were first headed for a one-hour stop in Dakar, Senegal. Whoever thought I would be able to say I’d been to Senegal?? Before the trip, we all had bonded over all the vaccinations and preparations we needed, but most of us bypassed the yellow fever shot. Those that didn’t were happy to inform us what happens when you contract yellow fever … and I stopped listening when they got to “bleeding from the eyes.” The only reason we would have needed a yellow fever shot was exposure to Senegal, and that was only a refueling stop, right? No unsealing of doors, no new passengers?


After landing in Dakar at about 5:00 a.m. local time, there was a full transfer of passengers. I was too bleary to be concerned about impending disease and tried to nap while we were on the ground. Just before scheduled takeoff, the pilot announced that the president of Senegal was trying to depart the airport. If we didn’t take off in the next 10 minutes, the airport would close and we’d be delayed an hour. Since you’ve seen how the trip had been going, you can probably guess what happened next.

Léopold Sédar Senghor Airport in Dakar

An hour later, we were ready to depart for Johannesburg. My seatmate Roz and I were cuddled in our blankets, all ready for the second leg, when they announced they were going to spray the cabin. Apparently this is very common overseas, but I was completely unaware. I don’t even want to know what they were spraying for. So, the flight attendants walked the aisles with spray cans of this horrible, sweet, smelly spray and we had to cough our way through it with our blankets over our heads. Gross, but necessary, I suppose.

The spraying jolted me awake for takeoff over Dakar as we headed back out over the South Atlantic Ocean down to the southern tip of Africa. Dakar at sunrise looked like pictures I’ve seen of the Middle East — squat, white cement buildings, dusty and brown, sandy landscape, a rocky coastline but plenty of palm trees. There were even children playing in a field (schoolyard?) as our plane passed over. At 6:00 a.m.

The second leg from Dakar to Johannesburg was quieter than the first but still another 8-hour flight. I slept fitfully and uncomfortably. I dozed for what felt like hours, then looked at my watch and it had been 15 minutes. We had breakfast and another lunch — chicken in a sauce with what they called “sweet potatoes,” but which were white and more of a yuca consistency. I chatted with the flight attendant in the back galley, and she told me that our plane had been purchased by SAA three months earlier from Iberian Airlines. All the rest of the SAA fleet are outfitted with full entertainment systems. Of course.

The first glimpse of southern Africa!

Midway through the second flight, I saw land. It reminded me of the American southwest — barren, red clay with rolling hills and canyons, dotted every so often with trees. We had clear skies all the way in to Johannesburg so it was neat to see what the rest of the country and continent looked like.

The hour delay in Dakar made us miss our connection from Johannesburg to Cape Town, but luckily those flights run every hour.  Our travel agents (or SAA?) had automatically rebooked all of us for the later flight … we just had to get there. Picture 35 exhausted Americans with luggage carts running through an international airport, yelling to redirect each other and cramming onto escalators. It was our version of The Amazing Race. I threw a leftover plane bottle of wine into my luggage before we rechecked it. (Africa, it turns out, doesn’t care so much about shoes off or the liquids rule, or maybe even security for that matter.) Miraculously, we all made it on to the next flight, a 2 hour and 5 minute ride to Cape Town.

Not everyone’s luggage arrived with us, but there was another flight an hour later so we just loaded on the bus to the hotel. As we drove out of the airport, we passed our first “township” — what we would call slums or shantytowns. Many of us gasped at the sight. I knew that we would see lots of discrepancies between wealth and poverty, but we were sort of unprepared to see it so immediately.

Mount Nelson Hotel, Cape Town. A bed, finally!

After little sleep, no shower and the same clothes for more than 36 hours, we arrived at our hotel, the Mount Nelson— the oldest hotel in Cape Town, dating from the 1880s. We poured ourselves off the coach feeling (and probably smelling) rank, and the staff greeted us with cool, fruity drinks on silver trays. I almost fell at their feet. In the room, we discovered that our bags had been tossed at the airport. My wine was gone, but I had gained a random pair of black, women’s athletic pants. The next morning I learned that some of our group had actually lost valuable items and clothing. It was a kick in the teeth to be robbed as we arrived, but I hear that’s common in Africa. Hey, they might need it more than I do. I was just impressed that they worked so quickly — time from bag checking to flight was only about 15 minutes.

It was definitely a weird two days of travel, with a few “is this really happening?” moments. But it brought us somewhat safely and generally soundly to Africa, on the other side of the world.

Days 3 and 4 to come…

Want to read the rest of the story? Click here.


2 thoughts on “South Africa, Days 1-2: Just getting there.

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