South Africa journey Part I: The trials of the stranded traveler
(Writer's note: My wife and I recently returned from two weeks in South Africa. The following series chronicles that trip)
We were just outside London Heathrow's Terminal 5 when the angst began to take hold.
This wasn't how a trip to South Africa, nearly two years in the making, was supposed to begin. My wife and I had left Dallas 12 hours before. Other than the college-aged girl who, after chatting her neighbor into a coma, got up about an hour into the flight to "mingle" with other passengers, it was a smooth flight.
"We're almost halfway there" I thought to myself as I walked off the British Airways Boeing 747, leaving Chatty Kathy and her hangover behind.
With 10 hours of layover time to kill, and having seen plenty of London before, we opted to spend the time at a hotel near Terminal 5. Day use rooms are a thing at Heathrow and they are handy if you don't want to spend long blocks of time in the terminal. A shower, lunch and a nap were on the agenda.
What unfolded next was a first for us. Because of an IT meltdown BA canceled all of its flights out of Heathrow and Gatwick. At first, only flights leaving before 6 p.m. were affected. Then, as we were packing up to head to the terminal, we got the word that all flights were canceled.
London isn't the worst place in the world to find yourself with some time to kill. But we needed to find a place to stay for the night, and it turns out when it came to airport hotels everyone had the same idea. Within an hour virtually everything was taken, including the room we were sitting in.
The one hotel with a vacancy we could find had a queue out the door that my eyeball estimate said was at least two hours. We passed, and took an Uber into the city to familiar territory, the same small hotel where we had stayed twice before in central London.
It was a clear and cool early-summer night in London. Dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant and a bottle of wine made things a little better. We used old Oyster cards to take the Tube to Buckingham Palace and Waterloo Station, mostly because we're big fans of the Kinks song "Waterloo Sunset." It was fun to see a bit of London without an agenda.
After a couple of pints at The Wellington across from Waterloo Station, it was back to the hotel for what we knew would be a frustrating next day which by then we knew wouldn't be spent in South Africa.
Even early the next morning it was impossible to get through to BA by phone. Either the lines were busy or callers got a message saying their call couldn't be taken right now followed by a disconnection.
A call BA's North American number was the light at the end of the tunnel. After an hour on hold we had an actual human who guided us through the process of getting our flights changed, and what compensation we would be owed.
Since we didn't have our luggage, and doubted if we would ever see it again given the chaos at Heathrow, we were advised to buy some clothes. You haven't lived until you've spent an hour in the British version of TJ Maxx (called TK Maxx over there) in the heart of London's shopping district on a bank holiday weekend. It's not unlike the Black Friday sales I go out of my way to avoid every year.
Clothes, shoes and even a piece of new luggage were purchased. The evening was spent drying the the spare change of clothes we brought with a hairdryer. Sink laundry merit badge earned, along with the loss of some of my hearing.
The next day we arrived at Heathrow in the early evening for our flight to Johannesburg. A British Airways staffer briefly questioned the size of our new stuffed-to-the-seams carry-on bag. I politely explained to her we wouldn't be checking it because it was all the clothes we had in the world after they lost our luggage and left us stranded. Thankfully she understood and apologized with a look that seemed to say I know what you've been through.
With that we boarded a British Airways A380, the largest passenger plane in the world. The aviation geek in me was looking forward to flying this double deck behemoth and it didn't disappoint. Quiet and comfortable. Eleven hours later we touched down in Johannesburg.
We have dabbled in international travel in recent years but have never experienced anything more than an easily remedied missed connection. What did we learn about being stranded for the first time? For starters it's easy to turn into Jack Lemmon from "The Out of Towners" and start taking down people's names and threatening lawsuits. You're tired, you're dirty and you're angry someone else has gotten in the way of your vacation.
In the end calm and steady won the day. Truth is, you don't have much of a choice anyway. And it doesn't hurt to be stranded in one of the world's greatest cities. There's that, too.