Day 1 – The Voyage Begins
When I started planning this trip, the trip itself served as an afterthought. What pleased me was getting the combination of mileage flights that I wanted, getting the 20-hour layover in Singapore that I wanted (not once, but twice), bypassing the horror of ever having to actually take United, despite using ‘United’ miles. No, the trip itself was far in the future, the green light at the other end of the lake in Gatsby, and planning the trip was what led up to it. But now it was here. The first journey approached. 30 different flights are to come (I wish I was kidding, as I realized that nearly a 4th of the days of my trip involve a flight), and like any long list, it has to start somewhere. And that somewhere was, coincidentally, the longest flight of the trip, the 14 hour jaunt between JFK airport and Johannesburg, on South African Airways’ beautiful A340-600 (for those of you who aren’t plane nuts and don’t recognize that name, google Airbus A340-600; with the possible exception of the B747, there might not be a more aesthetically stunning plane). It was a strange flight to be sure. 14 hours in a metal tube six miles above the ground is never easy, but having the opportunity to fly on so many new airlines (this one, along with Thai Airways, Vietnam Airlines, Singapore Airlines and All Nippon Airlines, not to mention the budget carriers like Air Asia and JetStar) was actually one of the most enticing aspects going in. At 10:40 AM on February 24th, in JFK’s Terminal 4, Gate 26, it started. It will end aboard a Singapore Airlines A380-800 (a plane even normal people know because of its two full levels), on a Frankfurt-JFK route, on June 8th. There is little chance I will ever be on a trip like this again. But after the flight, and the first day in South Africa, there is a great chance I will be aboard South African Airways again.
There is a huge catch-22 in long-haul flight for smaller airlines (and with a lack of connection destinations in its isolated pocket of the globe, South African Airlines counts). Planes that can fly the requisite 7,000 miles are really big (the A340-600 is the longest plane in the world), but those routes aren’t always full. Let’s just say this was one of those times. I was in the last quadrant of the plane, along with about 10 other youths, a couple older singles, and one family of four. The plane was in 2-4-2 configuration, and it became immediately obvious that everyone would get at least two seats to themselves. In fact, even before the plane left the gate, the crew announced that we should ‘wait until after takeoff’ to switch seats. I was situated in the aisle seat of the ‘4’, and because I didn’t want to be selfish and take all four seats in a row (some did do this, but there were still more than enough empty seats to go around), I targeted my coveted window-aisle combo. I could have the window, an attraction I’ve leaned towards for much of my life, and the aisle empty, a feature that I’ve slowly come around to when I realized things like ‘being able to go to the bathroom any time I wanted’ trumped ‘three minutes of watching planes in airports aligned with 12 hours of watching clouds’. Needless to say, I didn’t listen to the crew’s suggestion, and staked claim to 67 H-J before takeoff. It was a great move.
I’ll say a couple things about South African Airlines. First, is that their food service is good but rare, and not that it is undercooked. They served just two meal services in the entire 14-hour flight, a ‘dinner’ and a ‘breakfast’. What irks me is that the flight started at 11:00 AM NYC time, and they served what they called the ‘dinner’ at basically around noon. They could have easily served a lunch, then a dinner than a breakfast, or at least served something more filling than a half-sandwich and chips in-between the meals. This opinion could easily change after taking Singapore Airlines, but out of all the 10+ hour flights I have taken, the gold-standard in food terms is Cathay Pacific. Who along with two full meals, served a round of meat-filled sandwiches and a Raman ‘cup-of-noodles’. This was before the airline industry crashed, so it could be cost-cutting measures by SAA, but either way, the food that came was good but way too little of it actually came. The other takeaway from my time aboard South African Airways was that they had the most extensive movie collection I have ever seen. Touch-Screen On-Demand behind-the-seat entertainment is now basically standard on any reputable airline (I’ve flown Etihad, Swiss and Korean long distance over the past two years and had it on all of them), but I’ve never seen such a collection of movies. They had the standard new releases (Argo and Lincoln), the standard kids movies (Happy Feet & Ice Age 1 and 2), but they had about 20 other English titles, like The King’s Speech, the Avengers, older movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, and the movie that I embarrassingly watched and enjoyed, Pitch Perfect (about competing a cappella groups – made slightly less embarrassing by the presence of Brittany Snow, Anna Camp and Anna Kendrick in the film). Bravo, South African Airways. Now just replace some of that budget with more food.
The 14 hours went by quicker than I expected. It is slightly jarring to be in a situation where you have sat down for roughly 7 hours and barely gotten past the halfway mark, but they put the lights out in the cabin for roughly 10 hours of the flight, so it was basically like a cozy little hotel. When we finally landed in Johannesburg, I was a little disappointed. First, to be leaving my floating personal entertainment service; second, and more meaningful, was Johannesburg’s incredibly overcast weather. By the time the plane emerged blow the clouds, we were already just about 400 feet above the ground. It was dark, dim and as I would later find out, the polar opposite of Cape Town.
Four hours later, I entered another plane. This time one about half the size, with no movies to choose from, and packed to the gills. The two hour flight to Cape Town was as quick as a two hour flight could be. I was stunned to learn while watching out my window as we took off from Johannesburg that both Lufthansa and Air France send an A380 on their routes to the ‘Burgh. As much as I am sure the NYC-JNB flight on the A340-600 is never full, I am even more sure that Lufthansa and Air France are sending that big boy out less than full. The biggest shock, however, was that Emirates was not sending an A380 on the route, which is basically against everything Emirates stands for in this modern flying world. The descent into Cape Town was everything the descent into Johannesburg was not. There was no cloud in the sky, and the mountains enveloping the Cape were visible, an stunning welcome party to the Cape.
As I left Cape Town airport and headed towards my hotel (the ‘Altona Lodge’) in Green Point (near the Waterfront), I continued to be marveled at just how beautiful the city of Cape Town could be. The mountains that make up Table Mountain National Reserve are as good as advertised. A nice combination of a long flat mountain reminiscent of Mt. Rushmore (without the faces) and the mountain that stands over Machu Picchu, with the selling point being I don’t have to climb up thousands of feet in Cuzco or trek to South Dakota to see it. I’ll speak more about the Table Mountain experience when I go up it in a few days, but for now and from afar, it is breathtaking.
The hotel is perfectly situated in a quiet, small street away from much of the noise and bustle of the Waterfront area, but walking distance from that same area. I decided due to my lack of sleep and packed schedule over the rest of the week to take it lightly on the first day, and set up a walking route towards the waterfront (the Wharf as it would be better known – and to familiarize it with my imaginary readers from San Francisco), but I took a slightly scenic route through the lasting remains of the Cape Town development project for the World Cup. The first site is the stadium (it hosted the Germany vs. Spain semifinal, among other games) still gleaming in its modern design. Next to the stadium are an in-progress Cricket Field, a beautiful golf course, and an open area with multiple rugby fields. I can’t really think of anything that encapsulates South Africa more than a large public and professional sports complex that is adorned with beautiful trees, lush greenery, and, due to the time of day, a magnificent sunset. That, to me, is South Africa, athletic, modern beauty.
The waterfront itself was small, but packed with restaurants and shops. It reminded me of a lot of South Street Seaport in its design of its main mall (The Vitoria Wharf Center), and also San Francisco, in its small harbor. I walked up and down the quays looking for my place to eat for the evening, but also to just imbibe this little corner of South Africa. It is a weird feeling, in general, being in South Africa. I realized when walking by the water that this was the same ocean (The Atlantic) that I have walked by in New York, Boston, DC, Jacksonville, Miami; but this was about as far away (literally, not metaphorically) from that as I could be. I was on the other side of the world, closer to the Antarctic than any other main continent. I was in uncharted territory, and it felt great.
I finally decided on a restaurant, Sevruga, that had a view of the water. As many of the restaurants on the Waterfront (save for a couple of exceptions, such as the Quay Four Tavern – a place I expect to go to at least once) it was expensive in South Africa terms, but compared to the US, just moderately so. Their menu featured many African staples (Ostrich, Crocodile, Kingklip fish) but done in un-African ways. Probably not the greatest introduction into South African cuisine, but from what I have read, South Africa really doesn’t have a cooking style all their own, but ingredients and meats, so having Ostrich Tandoori Slices (which doubled as my breakfast the next morning), with really good mash potatoes (I forget what was in them) and Miso-Marinated Kingklip with crayfish Mash potatoes in peach suace, was African bases (Ostrich, Kingklip) and despite their foreign-inspired cuisines, they were both excellent in a great, intimate setting. A wonderful dinner to start off my African experience, and although I may never have that pricey a dinner again in Cape Town, it was well worth it. My dad often says how important Ambience and Atmosphere are for a restaurant. Well, quay-side outside on a beautiful night in Cape Town is quite an ambience. I took a cab home, full and content, ready to start my first act of tourism (a trip to Cape Point, the Westernmost part of South Africa and one of the Southern-most points) the next day.