Friday, July 21, 2006

South Africa: Getting There

Friday, July 21, 2006
My flight route to South Africa on July 9-10, 2006

Sunday morning, July 9 I awoke in our hotel room adjacent to the Columbus airport at 3:30 am. My 6:15 am flight to Dulles Airport in DC was the first leg of an international trip, so I wanted to be at the ticket counter the required two hours in advance, which meant 4:15.


The counter did not even open until 5:30. An inauspicious start to the trip. Here's how the rest of my time in the US went: Flew to Dulles (cannot call it by it politician name, sorry), found the gate for South African Airways' flight to Johannesburg. It's 7:45 am. The flight leaves at 11:50 am.

"Hey Bill!" It's Kevin McGowan from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the only other American on this digiscoping trip. This makes the next five hours go much more smoothly. We catch up, not having seen each other for a few years. And we quiz each other about how over-prepared we are for the trip. Two cameras? Yep. Many rechargeable batteries? Yep.

We tag-team watching each other's stuff as we wait and run airport errands: bathroom, newsstand, money-changers, bathroom, ticket counter, food, bathroom. There is no wireless Internet access in the airport--something I find completely inexplicable. Kevin and I are already antsy without a web connection. I realize that my hopes of posting a few things on BOTB were dashed the second I left the completely wireless (and free!) Columbus airport. [Fortunately, my sweet Jules was on the case and kept things current here. Though I find it daunting to live up to her level of posting quality].

We leave Dulles nearly three hours late. I have a decent seat--not the worst I've ever been in, but close. My seatmate leaves early in the flight and is never seen again. Perhaps he flushed himself into the blue void of the plane's septic system. I sleep fitfully. The SAA crew is busy bringing us hot food, warm lemony face wipes, South African newspapers. Our flight is 17 hours long. These things only lessen the pain slightly. About 6 hours into the flight, after watching on the system each seat is provided every movie NOT involving the ever-smarmy Matthew McConaughey, the right half of my bum begins to hurt. Then it, unlike me, falls asleep. Ouch.

I flip through the SASOL Birds of Southern Africa pondering life bird possibilities. I write a bit on my book project. I wonder who has won the World Cup, being played right now. I miss mi familia. I flip to the channel on my video screen that shows a live-feed from a camera mounting on the top of the plane's tail. I hallucinate a creature crawling over the planes body, peering in the windows of first class. Ahh first class.... I'd peer in too, but there's a curtain between those folks in the privileged barcaloungers of business/first class and those of us in steerage. My bum and my legs are KILLING me. I begin to wonder if this is worth it--of course I am contorting myself in a plane, breathing other peoples' Frito breath, inhaling their sneezes, and I have not yet set foot on the African continent. Of COURSE it will be worth it. As soon as I digiscope that first bird...

Salt flats in East Africa. I could not spot a single flamingo.

Outside the sun is setting and the Atlantic Ocean reveals almost nothing about itself, 34,000 feet below us. It's 2.5 hours until we land in Dakar, Senegal for refueling. I am doing yoga in the aisle--it's that or take 17 muscle relaxers with a bottle of South African cabernet.

Back in my seat, I slump into slumber, drooling on The New York Times--this is entirely involuntary, though the Times IS a truly drool-worthy newspaper (I buy one EVERY time I fly). As I doze, Matthew McConaughey fights his way, smarmily, back onto my video screen, the toilets break, and we begin our descent to Dakar. I am awakened by a large Afrikaans-speaking flight attendant as she slams my seat into the upright and locked (and most painful) position.

Now I know what it's like to be a sardine in a can.

We spend nearly three hours in Dakar and we are not allowed off the plane. It is 5 am local time. Only eight more hours to go! My aching buns rejoice.

Once on the ground in Johannesburg, Kevin and I realize we are not going to make the final flight of our day: from Jo-burg to Durban, where we are to meet the rest of our entourage. We finagle our way onto a later flight, hurry through security to the shuttle and are on another plane, taking off within the hour. It is 4:30 pm local time. It is winter in South Africa, so it gets dark at 5:30. We pray we'll land in Durban in time to see a few birds. And we do: Indian myna, house crow, house sparrow, some kind of wagtail, a few African spoonbills, and a blacksmith plover. No one is waiting for us at the airport. I nearly walk up to a limo driver holding a sign for Mr. M. McConaughey, just so I can be anywhere besides an airport.

Soon our van arrives with Gerald Dobler from Swarovski and Christian Boix from Tropical Birding, plus the other trip participants--nearly all of from Germany and Austria. We load up and board. I am excited to be on the ground and on our way. It's dark, so the birding will have to wait until tomorrow. We begin the 1.5 hour drive to Eshowe, where we'll spend the night. I drift into a fog. Everyone is speaking German. Where's Herr McConaughey when you need him.

I remember almost nothing else from the rest of the night. I know we checked into our rooms in Eshowe. Then we ate a filling dinner at a local sportmans' club. There was food, beer, and an exchange of introductions and business cards.

We must have gone to our rooms to sleep by about 10 pm local time. That would have been 5 am EST back in Ohio, or 37 hours after I awoke to catch my first airplane in Columbus. I left on July 9, and arrived on July 10, 2006.

The next thing I knew I was awakened by the pre-dawn singing of a pair of black-eyed bulbuls.

Welcome back to South Africa!


On July 22, 2006 at 10:50 AM Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I could sit that long, even to see African birds. Thanks for doing it for me so i can enjoy it vicariously! You are a great storyteller.

On July 22, 2006 at 10:51 AM Anonymous said...

Just reading your blog gives me claustrophobia. Bring on the pretty bird pictures!

On July 22, 2006 at 9:54 PM Susan Gets Native said...

My longest flight was to London, and even with Valium "on board", I nearly went crazy.
But South Africa just HAS to be worth just about any discomfort!
Can't wait to see and read more.

On July 23, 2006 at 4:31 PM Bill of the Birds said...

OK, I admit, I'm spreading it on pretty thick here...building up to the cavalcade of fun that happened once I got there. No worries--lots of pretty bird pix on the way.

On July 24, 2006 at 11:18 AM Rondeau Ric said...

You, spread it on thick? No. You, thick?

I have decided that the discomfort of the trip is in direct proportion to the number of birds you will see at your destination.

That’s why I stab myself in the leg, several times, with a needle during our drive to West Virginia each year
No pain, no birds. The companies still okay, but I’d rather seed birds.

I know it’s pricey but for that long a flight and your stature, physically speaking Bill, not fame wise, why you wouldn’t upgrade to business/first class?

More stories please.

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Getting to South Africa would be now easier for tourists and they can plan their trip easily.
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