By Susan Roberts
It was supposed to be a stress-free visit to family and friends in Australia, to celebrate my birthday and have a bit of a holiday before the silly season hits us. But just getting there turned out to be more alarming than I’d bargained for. And if you believe (like I do) that things happen in threes, then you might need to check back here in a month or so and see if I’m still around and kicking.
Travelling from Durban to Melbourne includes two extra flights – one each end of the trip – which shouldn’t really be necessary but they are: Durban to Johannesburg; Johannesburg to Sydney; Sydney to Melbourne. I had to get up early on the morning of my travel day, check in two hours before departure in Durban and fly to Johannesburg so that I could spend four and a half hours waiting there before my flight from Joburg that evening. Within an hour of leaving Joburg, my plane flew back directly over Durban. That’s right, I waved down at my home which I had left almost eleven hours before and felt like I had gone nowhere yet.
Yes, eleven hours and that was just the start. But wait, there’s more…
After a night in the air, the same plane flew me over a cloud-covered Melbourne on our way to Sydney where I had to wait another three hours before I could catch my final flight back to Melbourne. It seemed like such a waste of time – if only the Joburg plane could have just stopped in Durban to pick me up and then stopped again in Melbourne to drop me off. But life is never that simple, is it?
I know it seems like I’m complaining when in reality air travel is faster and safer than most other forms of travel. However, before my long triple flight was over I would have time to doubt those maxims – more than once.
On the first flight – from Durban – the plane was about to touch down in Joburg, and the obligatory sigh of relief was about to be exhaled, when the pilot suddenly pulled the plane out of its final approach. We lurched upwards and soared back into the sky again, leaving the Joburg runway far below us. Bewildered passengers all around me began to ask each other what on earth was going on. After a few anxious minutes, the pilot announced that dangerous crosswinds and a warning from the tower had caused him to lift the plane out of the potential danger zone. He then had to turn it around and attempt the same approach a second time.
Then followed twenty agonising minutes, during which my whole life began to flash rather unattractively through my mind’s eye. I may not have made a huge impact on the world in my lifetime but, at 52, I wasn’t ready to leave it just yet. I could almost smell the breath of the Grim Reaper and it wasn’t welcome. I mean, I know we all have to die some day, but just before my holiday was about to start? Afterwards would be preferable, but not at all would be even better! We don’t know the way we’re going to shuffle off in the end but I had hoped for something a little more meaningful than a charred stain across the windswept runway of Joburg airport!
To the combined relief of all passengers and crew, we finally bounced down onto the concrete with a bump and a shake, skidding our way to a stop in the most terrifying landing I have ever been part of. To say that I needed the toilet after that would not be an exaggeration.
Four and a half hours and several cups of comforting Mugg & Bean tea later, I sat in my seat in the tail of my next plane – a Qantas jumbo – ready for the second leg of my triple flight. Through the window I could see lightning illuminating the rain-lashed ground beneath the plane; I could feel the howling wind and hear the thunder. And we hadn’t even left the safety of the departure gate yet.
We sat, fully loaded, in the pelting rain at Joburg airport while no fewer than ten planes lined up to take off, all delayed by at least an hour because of the weather. When it was finally our turn to join the queue, we taxied out to the end of the runway and watched two British Airways, one star Alliance, two SAA planes and one smaller plane whose logo it was impossible to read, take off before it was our turn. One every two minutes, the pilot told us. Three places behind us in the queue was another huge jumbo – Air France this time – towering over its companion planes just as we were. If it was this crowded on the ground, I didn’t want to think too much about the potential traffic jam in the sky above.
With our forward facing wing lights lighting up the stormy skies around us, we eventually left the ground and took to the skies an hour after our scheduled departure time. Finally we reached cruising height, but my second sigh of relief of the day was likewise thwarted as a flash of light outside the windows lit up the sky for a brief instant.
A few minutes later, our pilot announced in his laid-back Aussie accent that we had been struck by lightning. I began to wish that I’d never watched those ten seasons of Lost! Vivid memories of the fate of the “tailers” in the cheap seats began to surface. Then the pilot continued: “No worries, no damage, this is a fairly common occurrence.”
The following day we landed safely in Sydney without any further incidents. Later, as I made my way through the airport building to catch my connection to Melbourne, I overheard a fellow-passenger asking the pilot about lightning strikes and just how common they actually are.
“Used to be very common,” he told her, “but I haven’t had it happen to me in about ten years.”
Needless to say, I’m not really looking forward to my return journey in four weeks’ time…