Trip report: Proudly South African

October 19th 2008, 15:21 | Written by Konstantin Koll

This trip report covers a recent (October 2008) trip to South Africa, all flights were in Y class. The main destination was the tiny airport of George in South Africa (GRJ), which is hardly featured in any trip report. The flight JNB-FRA was also my very first B747 flight, as I only had A330/A340 on longhaul before (yes, I'm an Airbus fan). Enjoy!

I arrived at DUS airport around noon, about 2-3 hours before my departure to FRA. I went to the Lufthansa checkin area in terminal A, as usually, and was surprised by the very short queue. A minute later, I was at an available counter. I was given my boarding passes and passenger receipt, when I was asked “GRJ? Where the hell is that?” The lady behind the checkin counter was in her 40s or 50s, and looked like she had seen everything—except for someone flying to GRJ :D

Behind security, which was also a breeze at this time of the day, I got myself some newspapers, including the infamous USA Today. Soon, my Boeing 737 arrived which would take me to FRA. There was no meal service on this short hop, and less than an hour later, I arrived in FRA. The arrival gate was in the newly extended pier of terminal A, and my flight to CPT would depart from a B gate. This meant a long walk to the main concourse, and then a walk through the infamous tunnel connecting terminals A and B beneath the apron. However, I was in no hurry, and had to wait for more than an hour before boarding the South African Airways A340-600 to CPT.

I was seated at the rear of the aircraft, so I got to enjoy a long walk through the longest passenger aircraft in the world. After boarding was completed, we soon taxied to runway 18. Right after take off, the flight attendants handed out the first round of drinks, pretzels, and towels. My choice of dinner on this redeye flight to CPT was comprised of a nice beef steak in a brown pepper and onion sauce, potatoes and some unidentifiable vegetables. While both the steak and the potatoes were tasty, the vegetables were very bitter and hardly edible. Fortunately, the roll and salad served were quite good, and so was the piece of chocolate cherry cake. However, I would definitely rank this meal as one of the worst I've had onboard an airliner so far.

As for the remainder of the flight, I couldn't get any sleep at all. This was mostly because of excitement (my first trip to Africa), and also because I usually go to bed very late at night. I passed the hours watching the movie “Step up 2 the streets” twice, as I liked it very much. The A340-600 was equipped with an AVOD entertainment system, which was quite good, but user inputs lagged for several seconds. The response of the touch screen was horrible at times, so I resorted to the controls in my seat.

Off the coast of Namibia, breakfast was served. This made up for the botched dinner: I got an egg omelette with ham, potatoes and sausages. Everything was heated together in the same aluminium box we all know, so the omelette actually soaked the taste of the ham and the sausages :D It was very delicious—well done!

Immigration in CPT was a breeze, and I actually encountered the nicest customs/border control officer ever (knocking a certain officer at JFK off the first slot on my personal list). I took a taxi to the St. Georges Hotel downtown, gladly payed the “day rate” of some 30€ to get into my room (it was 6am), and had a nap for a few hours. This actually saved my day, as I was quite refreshed after a shower. I left the hotel around noon to explore Capetown.

Two days later, it was time for the CPT-GRJ leg, operated by South African Airlink. I arrived early at the domestic terminal of CPT, and boy was I happy about that! There was a queue of several hundred (!) people at South African Y checkin. The staff was frequently calling out flights that were due to depart soon, so passengers booked on those flights would get a fast lane treatment. I managed to check in my bag with still some 2 hours to go.

The domestic terminal in CPT is currently under construction, probably for the 2010 soccer world championships. The departure “hall” was an ample tent, and passengers were bussed to remote stands for domestic flights.

This flight to GRJ had some very light loads (I counted ~20 people), which means the cabin was about half full. We soon took off and headed east to GRJ. Although the flight was scheduled for only an hour, the flight attendant handed out a round of drinks (coke for me) and a bag of cheese crackers. They tasted a bit artificial, but were very welcome as lunch replacement.

The airport of GRJ is tiny—and I mean tiny. There are no jet bridges, all aircraft are parked on the apron. Passengers walk to and from the terminal building themselves, there are no busses. The way between the terminal and the planes are “guarded” by staff in bright vests, so people don't walk the wrong way.

After successfully conducting business in GRJ, it was time to get back home. This was actually my very first time with 3 flights in a row: GRJ-JNB-FRA-DUS! I arrived at GRJ around noon, and had to wait for an hour till checkin opened; given the tiny airport, I'd say 40 minutes before departure are sufficient, though.

Unfortunately, that day a thunderstorm was raging over GRJ, and it actually woke me up at 6am that day. The weather was a bit more calm during the day, but all flights departing GRJ had been significantly delayed. This worried me, given the short connecting time in JNB of only 90 minutes.

After a smooth takeoff, the pilots promised to make up some time in the air. The two flight attendants served two rounds of drinks, and also a very tasty chicken-lettuce-sandwhich. That was a nice treat, and calmed me down a bit. A South African local seated next to me was confident that I would make my connection, as JNB is a rather small airport compared to the likes of LHR or FRA.

The CRJ-200 arrived at a remote stand. If I didn't had such a short connecting time, I would have enjoyed the bus ride at JNB given the rather “exotic” airlines there (from a European perspective, that is). However, I rushed my way through the domestic terminal (which was also under construction) and to the international terminal. I had to go through security again as I exited the sterile area (either by accident, or because of the construction work going on). After X-ray, my bag got hand screened, as some packs of tissues caught the attention of the screeners (I caught a cold in GRJ). They re-packed my bag in slow motion, and after that I had to queue at passport control for about 20 minutes. I arrived at the gate about 10 minutes before boarding.

My seat was in the very last row of this bird. Given the cramped space and the IFE boxes underneath the seats, many passangers in that row were re-seated by the flight attendants, which actually gave me two seats! After boarding was completed, we rushed to the runway and took off.

Remember the thunderstorm in GRJ earlier that morning? That very thunderstorm was now raging above JNB, making sure our takeoff was one of the worst I've ever experienced. Not only was our B747 shaking, but on several occasions the plane has dropped several meters! It took about 40 minutes till we were out of that mess, and dinner service commenced.

I was blessed with a very friendly and nice crew on that night flight to Germany, as hot towels, drinks and pretzels were handed out. For dinner, I've opted for “beef with carrots and rice”—a very bad choice: unfortunately, there were absolutely no carrots in the box, and the rice was not white as I expected, but red from different spices. The rice was as spicy as it looked, and I was happy that I ordered two drinks before the meal service. I have to pass the verdict that this meal was again sub-par, especially since I've had the best airline meal ever on my last LH longhaul flight EWR-DUS two months before.

As for the comparison of A330/A340s to B747s, I must say I definitely like the A330/A340 more. They are more modern in the LH fleet, and the seats are a bit more comfortable. The B747 on the other hand has got a much wider cabin which I like (3-4-3 compared to 2-4-2 in Y class—please bring on those blended wing aircraft). For some reason, the temperature onboard the B747 was much cooler than on any A330/A340 flight I've experienced so far. This can be either because of the aircraft type, because of the settings by the crew, or simply because of my cold. I didn't take off my pullover as I usually do, and even used the blanket for the first time (eat this, US legacies: they are free on LH longhaul flights).

I didn't watch any movies, but was standing in the galley for quite some time. I managed to get some sleep between TIP and LIN, and soon after breakfast was served. It was also an egg omelette, but not as tasty as the one provided by South African. Also no sausages :(

I had about 70 minutes to connect in FRA, which was a pretty close call, although the airport was deserted at 5am. There was a long queue at immigration, but some very nice fellow passangers with no connections let me in front. I rushed through the infamous tunnel (again), and arrived at my gate A1 about 5 minutes before boarding. There, an A321 was on block that would carry me on my last leg to DUS. There were 38 passangers on the plane, as I had a nice chat with one of the flight attendants. Their routing for the day would be FRA-DUS-FRA-ARL, so upon arrival in DUS I wished all the crew a nice afternoon in Stockholm.

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