Welcome back to The Ugly Truth, a series all about the 'other' side of travelling. If you haven't already, check out The Ugly Truth #1 and #2 for some seriously stressful stories of missed flights, visa issues and colossal mistakes.
This woeful tale picks up right as The Ugly Truth #1 ends- have a read of that first to understand my very fragile mental state as I boarded my flight to Cape Town. I had imagined the moment of touching down into South Africa so many times over the last few months. I had pictured myself staring out the plane window in utter awe, maybe with some fluffy white clouds parting to reveal Table Mountain, and some inspirational song playing in my headphones. In reality, the descent was so bumpy that by the time we landed, I was on the verge of throwing up and had to sit with my eyes closed and my head in my lap.
With the time difference from New Zealand to South Africa (and not to mention all the traumatic events from the last few days) we were absolutely shattered. We had to wait on the plane for quite a long time while they worked out the best way to process us amid Corona. When we were finally allowed off, we went very slowly through some stringent security tests, one being an Infa-red machine that checked our temperates before we were allowed to officially enter the country.
As we walked out the airport into South Africa for the first time, it was unusually windy and there was a huge storm. The air was thick with smoke, which we later found out was due to a massive fire on Table Mountain. Honestly, this pretty much set the precedent for the rest of the week.
We headed straight to our AirBandB and were asleep within an hour.
Jet lagged, we woke up at 4am to the headline news that Cape Town had officially closed its borders to English citizens just after our plane landed. We were told we were one of the last flights let into South Africa. We literally just lay there and looked at each other as it finally started to dawn on us that Corona was a very real, and very dangerous virus.
When we finally started to get up and get ready to explore the local area, I realised I no longer had my purse. It had my ID in it, and all my bank cards and I had no idea if it had been stolen or if I had just dropped it somewhere. We had no adapters so couldn't charge our phones, meaning I couldn't find out immediately if any money had been taken from my accounts or not. We had to race out to the local shops, buy an adapter, then find a shop that sold a SIM card, buy one, top it up with minutes, find a cafe with a plug and then make some very, very costly calls back to the UK to cancel all my cards.
Over the next few days, we tried our best to enjoy Cape Town as Corona virus loomed over us. Cape Town seriously is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, and I was in constant awe of my surroundings. We had booked a full week of activities, but frustratingly Corona was standing in our way at every turn. Table Mountain was initially closed due to the fires, and then stayed closed because of Corona. Robben Island closed, as did the majority of restaurants, all museums and bars and clubs. They eventually even closed Bo-Kaap, a historic neighbourhood characterised by rows of colourful houses.
Although we were still having the most amazing time, it did feel like there was a cloud of anxiety hovering over Cape Town as the country waited to see how badly the virus would affect them. Our taxi drivers said they had never seen the city that empty, and there was definitely the feeling of rising tension.
Back in England, our families were getting more and more worried that flights would be cancelled and we would be stranded in Africa. My parents were calling us daily with updates about how fast the virus was spreading, and listing countries that were abruptly closing their borders and cancelling flights. We eventually made the very difficult decision to change our flights, and head back to the UK early. This was so devastating as we had been looking forward to Cape Town for months and months, and we were also returning to the UK and starting long distance- in England, we live three and a half hours away from each other. But it was one of things where we knew we just needed to look at the bigger picture, and that in the grand scheme of things, we were actually very lucky.
However, it turned out that simply making the decision was the easy part. We booked our flights through a travel agents, so our families back in England tried to contact them to ask them to change our flights. However, because we had booked through a branch in New Zealand, we were told only that specific branch was able to change our flights. Due to the time difference, we had to wait until late that evening, but after trying for several hours we still couldn't get through. We were meant to fly with Emirates, so the next day we tried a different tact and headed down to the Emirates office in Cape Town. Along with a crowd of other people, we queued for several hours to speak to an assistant- who looked at our flight details and told us it could only be changed by our travel agent! Straight back to square one.
That night, we phoned the New Zealand branch of the the travel agents again and finally got through. We changed our flights for a few days time, and could finally relax and enjoy the rest of our trip.
On the morning of our flights, we got up early, waved goodbye to our AirBandB and headed to the airport. The situation on arrival was actually quite frightening. The sheer panic inside the airport was palpable. It was so busy, and the help desks were surrounded by people shouting and crying about cancelled or delayed flights. The queue to check in for our own flight was so long that even though we had left plenty of time, we were starting to get anxious.
When we finally reached the front, the lady at the desk started to look up our flights, then stopped. Frowning, she tried again. Then, as mine and Keelan's hearts sunk lower and lower, she looked up, and said "I'm sorry, but only half of your flights have been changed."
We were due to fly to Dubai, then a connecting flight from Dubai to London Gatwick. Our first flight had been adjusted, but the flight from Dubai to London had been left at next week.
We literally just gaped at her in horror.
"Dubai isn't letting anyone enter without forward travel." She added, "So I'm sorry, but that means we also can't let you board your first flight."
With literally no idea what to say or do next, we started to walk away from the help desk in a horrified daze. Just then, an Australian man tapped me on the shoulder. In a low, urgent voice he said, "I've just heard what she has said to you. Have you seen the news? The South African president is making an announcement at 6pm tonight, and the prediction is that South Africa is going into full lockdown. You need to get out this country tonight, or you are going to be trapped."
And that's when we truly knew we were in a very, very bad situation.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where everything gets much, much worse.