Welcome back to The Ugly Truth, a series all about the 'other' side of travelling. This particular post is the second instalment of probably the most stressful 48 hours of my entire life. If you haven't already read Part 1, check it out here. Then get ready to sit back, relax and experience some serious second hand stress.
So for a very brief recap over Corona and Cape Town Part #1, my boyfriend Keelan and I had managed to get into Cape Town by the very skin of our teeth, then spent the next week anxiously waiting to see if the country was going to go into lockdown before our our flight back to England. In the end, in an accumulation of peer pressure from our families back home, and our own rising blood pressures, we contacted our travel agents and asked them to pull our flights forward.
However, when we got to the airport- only half our flights had been changed. To get home, we had to fly Cape Town to Dubai, then Dubai to London Gatwick, but only the first leg of our journey had been changed. Dubai wasn't allowing in any passengers without forward travel, so we weren't even able to catch the first part of our flight.
We were, quite literally, stranded.
To top it off, as we walked away from the check in desk in a horrified daze, a man grabbed my arm and urgently told us that the South African president was making an announcement that evening, and that everyone was expecting it to be the long awaited lockdown enforcement.
"You need to get out this country tonight," He told us, "Or you will be trapped."
I immediately whipped out my mobile and dialed my family back in England, asking them to try and get in contact with our travel agents. (As with a past flight drama- read about it here, we had booked through a travel agent that has branches all over the world, but only one emergency helpline, which is based in London. We clearly don't learn from past mistakes).
Keelan had a South African sim card in his phone, so he started trying to phone the helpline in England himself, but he was just placed on hold, with a staggering 68 calls in the line ahead of him.
Meanwhile, I had run over to the Emirates help desk and was desperately trying to find someone to talk to. The help desk was absolutely frantic. There were about three ladies trying to serve people, but they'd had to put up barriers around them due to the sheer number of people seeking emergency help. Everyone was shouting and leaning over the barriers, trying to get their attention.
When I could finally fight my way to the front to speak to an Emirates adviser, they just told me the same thing- that there was nothing they could do for us, and that we would have to get in touch with our travel agent. At this point, we knew we just really needed to get out of the country, at whatever cost. I asked where in the airport we could book a new flight, but she told us they didn't book any flights in the airport, and it all had to be done online.
I headed back over to Keelan to tell him the news- just as the South African sim card ran out of credit, and his half an hour long call to the travel agents got cut off. This also meant we had run out of internet, and there was only very patchy wifi at the airport. This didn't exactly bode well with needing to book new flights online, and to make matters even worse- both our phones were extremely low on battery.
Honestly, it was just the most ridiculous situation. We were both running around the airport, lugging around our huge travelling backpacks, desperately searching for a plug. When we eventually found one and finally managed to connect to the very dodgy wifi, I found my family were still in a very long hold queue to speak to the travel agents- they were about number 58 in line, and had already been on hold for forty minutes.
I looked at the time, and it was at that point that it really sunk in that there was no way we were making this flight.
We had to change plan and just started urgently searching the web for a new flight to practically any part of England. We both live in the South, but we were even looking up flights to places like Manchester and Liverpool, which is about 5 or 6 hours drive away. But every area we put in was coming up with the same message: 'There are currently no flights to this destination'. As one of the worst affected places in the world, most countries weren't taking the risk of flying into England anymore.
Finally, in some miraculous stroke of luck, my sister found us one single flight going to London Gatwick. She sent us over the details, and with shaking hands we put in our passport details. There were only a few seats left on the plane, and we were terrified they would sell out before we managed to get through.
A second after we pressed confirm, we realised that in our rush we had forgotten to add baggage onto our flights. We checked the flight number, then headed back downstairs to find the check-in desk for the airline, which was Turkish Airways. The check- in desk was empty, and shining in huge letters above it was a massive sign reading: 'FLIGHT F012 CANCELLED'.
That was the flight we had literally just booked.
Honestly, I could have burst into tears. There was a big sign saying that the help desk wasn't opening for another hour and a half, so we had no choice but to sit and wait until we could speak to someone and check if the flight was actually cancelled or not. The entire time we were waiting, we were trying to look up other flights and trying to come up with an alternative plan. We were trying to decide whether to message our AirBandB host, and ask if we could book some extra nights, when a Turkish Airways representative came out and took down the cancelled sign.
I have never been more relieved in my entire life.
When we finally got to the front of the queue, the lady tried to access our boarding passes- then frowned. She called over another member of staff to help, who then called for a manager. All of them were crammed around the one computer, tapping at the keys and frowning and literally all I could think was- not again. How could something be going wrong again?
Eventually, she told us that there was an issue with one of our boarding passes. There was a mistake, which meant that she couldn't access it. If we couldn't get the boarding pass, we couldn't fly. All we could do was stand there and wait with baited breath- until her expression suddenly cleared, and she told us she had managed to sort it out!
Even though our flight wasn't until about 5pm that evening, because of the announcement from the president, we were advised to go through security as early as possible and go straight to our gate, so we ended up being ridiculously early.
Right up until the moment the plane tyres left the tarmac, we were convinced something else was going to go wrong. Our flight took us 11 hours to reach Istanbul, where we were supposed to have a two hour layover before our next flight to Gatwick.
When we arrived at Istanbul airport, everything was locked up and covered in sheets. There was a ton of security, and passengers were only allowed to wait in one small part of the airport. We went to check our flight details, and the entire board was just a sea of cancelled flights. Ours had already been delayed by 5, and when I logged onto the Wifi, I had a message from my parents telling me that while we flew though the night, England had officially gone into lockdown.
This meant it wasn't certain if our flight to England was going to fly, and also meant that we couldn't be picked up from the airport. We would have to try and get trains, but we were't even sure at this point if they would be running either.
When our flight was finally called six hours later, we were told by other passengers that it was the last flight from Turkish Airways going to London. The plane was full of Americans who were trying to get home, whose only choice was to fly via London, and hope they could get a flight from there.
Landing in England after almost two years away, and under such crazy circumstances, was a very surreal feeling. I had pictured this moment so many times, usually imagining all my family at the arrival gates, holding up a welcome home banner. Instead, we landed in an almost deserted Gatwick, bleary eyed from around 30 hours in airports and planes.
Keelan and I had been together every day for almost two years, and now we abruptly had to say goodbye, not knowing when we would see each other again. I wanted to say something to convey how special he had made my entire travelling experience, but when we looked at the train times, he had one leaving in a few minutes. As we had no idea how often trains were running, he couldn't risk missing it. So our big goodbye turned into a brief hug, a kiss, and a hopeful 'see you soon'.
My own trains were a lot harder to navigate between all the cancellations, and it ended up taking me around six hours to travel from London Gatwick to Bath central station. I then got taxi from the city out to my house, and finally arrived home to see my family almost a full 40 hours after we had left our apartment in Cape Town.
I obviously had to then quarantine from my family, who has 'lovingly' attached this handmade sign to my bedroom door.
Looking back over the entire experience, it was by far the most stressful experience of my entire life and I still can't believe how lucky we were to get home. Had we not initially changed our flights to earlier and gone to the airport that day, South Africa would have gone into lockdown and we would have been stuck there with dwindling funds and nowhere to stay. Honestly still gives me nightmares thinking back to it all now.
Let me know if you have ever had any 'The Ugly Truth' worthy experiences!