About 400 years ago the first Dutch settlement at Cape Town was established as a stop-over port between Amsterdam and Malaysia. The trip from Europe to Cape Town took a couple of months by ship, plus a couple more to reach Java. The return trip would be the same. Thus travelers and commerce at that time could easily take a year or two before returning to Europe. A couple hundred more years would see the Boers migrate eastward into the Natal and then highveld regions. Their treks to seek new farms and to distance themselves from the British could also take a season or more. Johannesburg would not really become established until a hundred years ago when gold and diamonds became mining prospects in the region. Today, we can cross the Atlantic and the Equator in a day to fly from Dulles Airport on the East Coast of the USA to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Our estimated travel time was actually 20 hours, between two flights and one change in planes. Though our travel time is a fraction of the days of tall ships, researching different airline routes and saving up to pay for the tickets is still best addressed well in advance. Linda started checking on prices early in the year, following price fluctuations on Delta and South African airlines. These would not be inexpensive tickets. Then she noticed that Ethiopian Air had a much discounted rate.
A few internet searches verified their safety, service, and on-time records. Additional phone calls to the others in our party verified that everyone was willing to go for the much lower price. After securing the tickets, our friends started raising our anxiety with questions about pilot training, airport equipment reliability and food quality.
Over the next few month, while fielding our nay-sayer’s doubts, we tracked the on-time performance, which was consistently good. We looked over the pre-flight menu ordering options, and one of our party chose to request the fruit plate. Then the week before our travel date, the daily flight from Dulles began to leave 2 to 4 hours late. Hmmm. Not much we could do at this point.
When we arrived at the Dulles, our flight was listed as delayed 45 minutes. However, the line for check in was not more than a dozen parties ahead of us. The check-in information was clear that you should be there 3 hours ahead of time and that the desk closed 1 hour before departure. As we speculated, this was a staffing plan as the same staff at the check-in counter were moving us onto the plane.
One hour, forty-five minutes after our scheduled departure time we lifted off. We wondered whether the 13 hour flight would get us to Addis Ababa in time for our connection, which was supposed to be only an hour and a half lay-over. Once in the air, the co-pilot announced that the flight would take only 10 hours today. Well, we must have some good tail-winds or a heavily padded flight schedule. As it turned out, when we landed in Ethiopia, we and other passengers were met by staff who escorted us to planes where most other passengers were already boarded and waiting for us (though not in the correct seats). Good thing that we used the airplane toilets before landing, rather than expecting that we would have time in the terminal.
We had landed at Tambo Airport and checked into the hotel a couple of hours earlier than Linda had estimated. Part of this we attribute to the ease of going through Customs in Johannesburg. We were among less than a dozen non-residents. The rest of the plane went to a different line. Nothing to declare? Just walk down the corridor and out the doors.
As it turned out, our trans-Atlantic flight was in the newest plane in Ethiopian Air’s fleet, a 787. This was one of the most comfortable planes that I have flown in. We
had lots of leg room, even in Economy, personal video monitors for music, movies, games and lots of maps and data about the flight. Their Ethiopian music selections included more albums than I could listen too in ten hours. That even included a whole album of wedding music. I shall have to work on the list on the flight home.
As to that food, one friend had predicted that we would be getting “rat on a stick”. Our first meal was lunch of beef, chicken, or macaroni and cheese, with lots of starch (potatoes, two roles, pasta salad, desert).
Wine was included… seconds, please. After night covered the ocean and clouds, about 7 p.m. EST and 2 a.m. East African Time, the lights came on for a snack of meat and cheese panini. After a few more hours, breakfast came down the aisles. As these meals were loaded at Dulles, they were similar to what we have had on flights to Europe. On the second flight, lunch was provided. Now, this food was loaded in Addis Ababa and had much more flavor, but not rats. Chicken and fish were our options. We managed to stay awake for one more meal after checking into the airport hotel. This all seemed too easy. Ah, time for 10 hours of sleep, before breakfast Friday a.m. and meeting our guide in the hotel lobby!