When I booked my first trip to Africa on a relatively inexpensive ticket to Johannesburg, I knew that I didn't actually want to spend my time there. That isn't to say there aren't worthwhile things to eat, do, and see in Joburg - on the contrary, it seems like quite a lively and vibrant city from what I've heard. I simply knew that for this particular trip I was looking for something a little different. I ended up booking a trip up to Livingstone in Zambia were I did quite a bit of exploring and even crossed the border into Botswana for a bit. I was happy with the time I had set aside for exploring the natural wonders in southern Africa, yet I still felt like getting myself a little taste of city life. When it comes to cities in Africa, very few have a reputation for being as beautiful and vibrant of a city as Cape Town!
In travel there are a lot of choices to be made - which airline to fly, which hostel to stay at, what sites to see. This was one of the few situations where there was clearly no contest - I was going to Cape Town, it has been a dream of mine to visit this city on the African coast for as long as I can remember. No question about it. Case closed.
As I had already figured out my flights from Johannesburg (JNB) to Zambia and back, I now needed to figure out how to get from JNB to Cape Town (CPT). Five airlines operate the route - two full service carriers (British Airways affiliate Comair, South African Airways) and three low cost carriers (Kulula, Safair, and Mango). While looking for airfare I was surprised to see that South African Airways (SA) was offering the lowest price out of all five carriers and had a schedule that worked really well for me. I could arrive from Livingstone on Comair and connect about three and a half hours later onward to Cape Town. Enough padding for a potential delay but not long enough that hanging around an airport would become soul-suckingly boring. I forked over the $80 USD and soon enough I had a ticket in my inbox and was officially headed to CPT!
SA's domestic flights leave from Terminal B at JNB, which meant when I arrived from Livingstone at Terminal A I needed to grab my luggage and march it over to the other terminal to get a boarding pass and check my luggage through to CPT. It goes without question that SA is the biggest, baddest kid on the block at just about any South African airport, so it was a bit of a mine field trying to figure out where I should queue up to get all of the above taken care of in an orderly manner. Check-in desks are listed on electronic boards throughout the terminal, and perhaps it was just a quirk during my trip through, but the flights did not seem to be listed in any type of rational order. Not alphabetically, not by departure time - just randomly thrown on to the board like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Eventually I deciphered the code and found the check-in desks appropriate for my flight. Much like my British Airways operated by Comair flight up to Livingstone, the check-in staff were pretty disinterested in providing anything but the minimal level of service to get my bag tagged and boarding pass in hand. With SA essentially operating a shuttle service between JNB and CPT, I can't say I blame them for being a bit bored with the repetition of it all, though it wouldn't kill them to smile a bit. Getting through security was a breeze and before long I was staking out a spot at my departure gate which was almost at the end of the terminal.
Outside of the terminal windows I could see a light drizzle falling from the sky, and apparently that light drizzle was just the front line of a string of storms coming in from CPT. My flight posted a one hour delay, which elicited a round of groans from passengers. After about 40 minutes we were notified that our flight was now boarding, though no one at our gate had opened the door to the jet bridge or started announcing a boarding order. Everyone stood around for a minute just shaking their heads in confusion before one of the staff members got back on the PA and told us that our flight was now boarding .... from the gate three doors down.
Cue the mad dash of people scrambling to pick up their bags and run down the hallway to get onto the plane.
Having checked my bigger luggage I managed to be one of the first people to arrive at the correct gate and on to the plane.
"Welcome to the David Livingstone Hotel, sir. May I offer you a drink?"
I looked over to see a wide smile spread across the face of a man standing behind the lacquered wood top of a circular bar. Like many bartenders the world over, he seemed to be occupying his time by absentmindedly cleaning glasses and scanning the room for opportunities to strike up a conversation. I had wandered into his web out a sheer boredom - the river boat I was going to board made its home at the David Livingstone and I had made the unfortunate mistake of arriving almost an hour early in a country I would soon learn didn't take promptness quite as seriously as I did. As a staunch non-drinker, I had wandered the hotel grounds popping my head into various tour offices, intricate wooden lobbies with vaulted thatched roofs, and fancy bathrooms (you know it's nice when they have a stack of real cloth towels, right?) before deciding that the bar was the only corner I'd left unexplored.
"Hello. I'm sorry, but I don't drink."
The words felt treasonous in my mouth. What more awful words can one utter to a bartender?
"Ah. Everyone drinks, sir. But whether we prefer alcohol in those drinks is another matter entirely!"
Another wide smile. Like so many Zambians I met during my trip, he easily found his stride in that tricky middle ground between helping you and teasing you. It's a service style that sits well with me - there's nothing I love more than someone who can make you laugh while keeping you on your toes.
He picked up a small menu from the bar top and offered it to me with a wink.
"Our menu, sir. If you turn to the back you can find quite a few beverages that offer satisfaction but no sin."
Who can resist a sales pitch like that? As I reached over and took the menu from him, my eyes were drawn to the little silver name tag that was attached to the breast of this blue sweater.
It read Lovemore.
In my head I thought, "Wow, what an interesting name." I felt the urge to ask him about it but decided I should focus on picking one of the aforementioned drinks and perhaps make an inquiry if he continued to be so friendly. I settled on the orange and vanilla milkshake, which prompted Lovemore to congratulated me on selected a real winner. He stepped away, still with his ever present smile, to prepare my drink. Other than what appeared to be a young French couple at a table off in a corner, I was the only customer in Lovemore's realm.
Soon enough he saddled back up to the bar and delicately placed a rather elaborate tall glass in front of me, complete with paper umbrella and speared cubes of fresh fruit.
"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" I offered.
Another smile. "Well I suppose that depends on what you wish to ask, sir."
As the home of the spectacular Victoria Falls, the residents of Livingstone obviously has a strong connection to the waters of the Zambezi River. It provides nourishment for their bodies and draws in thousands of visitors to pump tourist dollars into their economy. It's the geographic backbone of this part of Africa and I was really looking for another opportunity to experience some time it on top of my previous wander through the national park where Victoria Falls is located.
When I mentioned my desire to the owners of the lodge I was staying at, they told me about a variety of cruises that operators offered on the river. Day cruises up and down the river, half-day safaris, close encounters with the very edge of the falls. While all of that was pretty interesting to me, the one that really caught my attention was the offer of a sunset cruise - a casual cruise down the Zambezi prior to sunset to catch a glimpse of some wildlife and then a slow return to the dock while the sunset.
Watching the sun drop below the horizon while drifting along an amazing river with Victoria Falls cascading in the distance sounded like a great way to spend an evening. I was slightly terrified by the prospect of falling off the boat and directly into a pack of hippos, but still ... where do I sign up?!
Staying out at Taita's remote location on the Batoka gorge without phone or internet service, it wasn't exactly easy to price shop options. The price the lodge owner quoted for a trip with a company they worked with was about 310 Zambian kwacha, which roughly converted to about $40 USD at the time. Being a bit of a captive and not really too put off by the price, I decided to book it and "Go with God."
No reason to stress myself out over something when I don't have the tools available to fix it, right?
If you ever happen to find yourself in Zambia, chances are you're there to see the world famous Victoria Falls. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989, it is considered the largest falls in the world despite being neither the widest nor tallest. Straddling the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is nearly twice as tall and well over twice as wide as the famous Niagara Falls along the Canadian/US border that many Americans are familiar with. The falls are a wonder to behold and it was definitely one of the highlights of my first trip to Africa.
You can access the falls from either the Zambian or the Zimbabwean side, though nowadays most folks seem to prefer the Zambian side due to some of the instability in Zimbabwe. I debated which country I would use as my entrance point to the falls for quite awhile. Despite the issues in Zimbabwe the reason I ended up in Zambia was that the cost of flying into the Victoria Falls airport was much higher than the cost of taxes and fees when using airline miles to redeem a free ticket to Livingstone.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I was staying at the Taita Falcon Lodge and as an incentive to lure me into booking, they offered a free ride to and from the park as well as a ticket in. Who can say no to that?
After a grueling 32 hour slog that took me from my home in Chicago to London, down the entire continent into Johannesburg, and finally ended with me walking out of the Livingstone airport after the short hop from Joburg with a smile raised toward the blazing Zambian sun .... yes, I was finally fecking there!
Our flight was the only one arriving at that time of day, so once I had finished with my entrance formalities, exiting the secured area and heading out into the parking lot took me less than a minute. I had been notified by the owners of the lodge I'd booked with that I'd be met at the airport and provided with a transfer to the facility. As I blinked my eyes in the suddenly much to luminous world around me it dawned on me that I'd never really bothered to ask what or whom to keep my eyes open for.
It was soon apparent to me that further information wasn't necessary. A hulking, burly beast of a man stood talking to a group of airport employees and drivers. His hands darted through the air as he gesticulated wildly in the midst of telling what appeared to be a rip roaring good story, and it ended as he and his captive audience erupted in riotous laughter at the conclusion of said story. It was then that he locked eyes with me and smiled, shouting out "Yes, yes you must be David then?"
His name was Faan and he was one of the owners of the Taita Falcon Lodge - my home for the remainder of my stay in Zambia. He scooped up my bag in one of his giant mitts, tossed it in the back of the truck he'd been propped up against, and we shot out of the airport into downtown Livingstone.
As I explained in my previous report about my British Airways (BA) flight into Johannesburg, I was able to get to South Africa on a relatively inexpensive ticket through London. As excited as I was to be visiting Africa, I didn't think Johannesburg was really a destination that I wanted to spent a significant amount of time exploring on my first trip to the continent. There are certainly interesting things I'd like to see and explore there, but for a first time visit I thought perhaps there were better sites to really get a feel for the southern tip of the continent.
So with a little bit of research I decided I wanted to hop a little further north to Livingstone, Zambia - home of the famous Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) and easy access to Botswana. Fortunately for me British Airways has a subsidiary based in South Africa called Comair that operates a lot of regional flights out of Cape Town and Johannesburg. This meant I was able to use some of my BA Avios award points to redeem for flights to and from Livingstone. So after a little research and me forking over 4500 Avios and $136 USD, I was booked to Zambia. Booking this round trip itinerary with BA/Comair or South African Airways would have cost me north of $500 USD, so the 4500 Avios was a good investment in my opinion.
This entry is going to cover both the flights up to Livingstone and back down to Johannesburg to give a fuller picture of the in-flight experience.
Africa - the one place in the world that I desperately would love to explore in-depth but varying issues related to work, politics, safety, and money have prevented me from doing to date. My first scheduled trip to Africa involved a trip to Cairo to explore the ancient Pyramids and some wandering through the Khan el Khalili souq, but fate decided that my first trip to Africa was not to be as the events that we now know as the Arab Spring erupted in the city and airlines ceased flights into the area. I needed a new destination and I ended up in Sri Lanka instead.
Undeterred, I kept my eyes open for another opportunity to find a cheap airfare into Africa and lo and behold a $740 roundtrip ticket popped up one day from Chicago to Johannesburg using American Airlines and British Airways (BA). It was a bit more money than I would usually pay for a ticket, but a sub-$1000 fare to South Africa is still a pretty good deal and my wanderlust for Africa wasn't subsiding in the very least. So with both of those things in mind, I booked a ticket and jetted off to London Heathrow (LHR) on AA when the day came.
After a restful day recuperating from my trans-Atlantic flight at the YOTEL in Terminal 4, I took the free Heathrow Express train connector to BA's premier gateway to the world - Terminal 5. In frequent traveler circles, especially those that consolidate travel on Oneworld carriers, LHR gets a lot of flak for being an absolutely awful airport. I can see where they're coming from in some sense - it's difficult to navigate, signage is pretty lacking, getting between terminals is a bit of a pain even with complimentary buses and trains, and if you're uninterested in duty free shopping there is very little for you to do to pass time while waiting for your flight.
Flying with American Airlines to anywhere other than Asia, South America or the South Pacific, you're likely to either be put on an itinerary or at a minimum be offered one flying to London Heathrow (LHR) for an onward connection. This has been the case for many of my travels around the world, making my way across the globe through London's most massive air complex. Many of those times I simply would spend my time wandering the terminals and enjoying the beautiful accents all about me, or if I were lucky that trip I'd be relaxing in one of the lounges dotting the airport.
The other times I'd be on overnight connections or very long layovers during the day. In need of a bed or a place to crash for hours on end I became very familiar with the hotel situation at LHR. The hotel scene around LHR is very competitive, which is good overall since it means generally there are lower costs associated with purchasing a day room or overnight stay. Over the years I've become familiar with the Hilton which a decent property that is attached by walkway to LHR's Terminal 4, the Sofitel which is a beautiful hotel attached to Terminal 5 and is therefore the most convenient location when connecting on British Airways, and the various other properties strewn about the local area.
The Sofitel and the Hilton are the most conveniently located, but are often beyond my price point. On the other hand, the other airport hotel properties are often priced pretty well but so annoyingly difficult to access using Heathrow's absurdly named "Hotel Hoppa" bus service that takes a bit of time to use and is only available for a fee. Neither is very appealing, so I was often on the look out for something different.
Enter the YOTEL.
Like the Hilton, the YOTEL at Heathrow is at Terminal 4. It's located on the public land-side (important to note for transit passengers - you must enter the UK) on the mezzanine level across from the Windsor Castle restaurant, so it's very easy to navigate to from your gate. If you happen to be arriving at a terminal other than 4 (and that's the case with most arrivals into LHR), you can make your way here by hopping onto the free Heathrow Express trains between terminals. While the service generally heads from the airport into Paddington station, it can also be used to transit between terminals free of charge. Trains from Terminal 5 stop at the airport hub at Terminals 1 & 3, and you can ride the train to the hub without a ticket. From there you hop on a train bound for Terminal 4, or if you've arrived at Terminals 1 or 3, just hop directly on to a train to Terminal 4 with no transfer needed.
In the aviation world, the first class cabins of the Big 3 Middle Eastern carriers (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways) are often lauded as some of the finest methods of aviation transport available to the public. Having not even flown in one of their business class cabins, I couldn't help but feel like I was missing out in some way since so many of my aviation fanatic friends had made the trek at least once. The surest way to make someone do something is to make them feel like they're missing out, so there we were with me waving my hands in the air wishing I was like the cool kids.
I'd collected quite a few American Airlines (AA) AAdvantage miles over the course of my travels around the globe, and AA has had a partnership for award ticketing on Etihad (EY) for a few years now. As I recently outlined on the blog, for a trip to the Middle East with friends I'd flown into Jordan with Royal Jordanian in business class and we'd flown onward from Amman to Dubai on Emirates in economy class. I still needed a way to get home from the UAE though, and I figured this might be an ideal time to spend some miles to try out EY's notoriously posh first class cabin.
Luckily EY releases award space pretty decently, and I was able to find a flight from Abu Dhabi to New York City in first class, connecting home to Chicago on AA. The ticket cost me 90,000 AAdvantage miles, which is a lot but at the time I had quite bucketload to use and the outlay didn't seem too expensive at all.
At the time my relationship with AA and its free wheelin' contribution of miles to my account felt a lot like....
In this day and age, it's almost impossible to visit a new country without having learned something about it that will impact the way you experience the country. Whether you've read the Wikipedia page on the capital city or watched a CNN news report about a newly elected leader, most travelers walk into a new nation with a pre-conceived notion of what they will experience and how they will feel about it. It's an information age and we have the ability to be quite educated prior to our arrival, for better or worse.
The UAE was perhaps a victim of this phenomenon when it comes to my visit. I'm going to go ahead and just get this out of the way - I did not enjoy my time in the UAE, and I didn't expect to enjoy it when I arrived. I was quite wary of spending time there prior to booking our trip for two major reasons. The first is that I'm an openly gay man that would be traveling with his same-sex partner to a country with a notoriously poor record on LGBTQ issues. The second was the notoriously poor human rights record the UAE has earned when it comes to the way it imports, treats, and in some people's opinions enslaves foreign laborers from Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. If you're interested in learning more about either of these topics, Google is your friend.
Despite thinking this trip might not be such a great idea, I tried to approach our stop in the UAE with an open mind. I have many friends who refuse to travel to many places in the world due to various political or social controversies, but that isn't a philosophy that I have adopted. While I do not judge anyone's personal desire to make a stand on an issue, I'm a firm believer in the idea that minds will not change nor will arms to opened if we stand in our corners ignoring one another. So I travel and meet people, sometimes people who are very different in their world views than myself, and hope that someone our little interactions register as little micron movements in the march to a better world.