Saturday, August 31, 2013

Exit Rows And A Crowded Lounge: Notes Along The Way

We got to the airport (VFA) at just about the right time after a ride in a spiffy van driven by a well-spoken young man with a nine-year-old son.

He asked us, "What is the most important secret of success?"

"A work ethic, setting goals, and treating others fairly and kindly," we replied

What an awesome responsibility, suspecting he was passing our wisdom on to his son.

We stood in line to check in for quite some time but it wasn't too warm. We checked in quickly and learned that the government of President Mugabe, like our own, requires all passengers to remove their shoes. At least they only have metal detectors though.

We had asked hopefully for exit-row seats on checking in, and didn't understand the agent's reply, but thanked him. When we boarded (the plane was a little late), lo and behold we had an exit row all to ourselves. Not only that, but on a reasonably full plane the entire exit row in front of us across the aisle was empty, while tourists crammed themselves into lesser seats.

People on Flyertalk laugh at the so-called "Kettles" (based on the famous "Ma and Pa Kettle" movies), inexperienced passengers who carry everything but the kitchen sink, but when they don't know enough to ask for exit row, we'll travel with them anytime.

We went through immigration at JNB after a 10-minute wait - not bad at all. We walked across to the Intercontinental, picked up our larger bag, and returned to the terminal. Kathy repacked and we then paid 60 Rand to have the bag wrapped in that heavy-duty cello-type material.

We then discovered a water bottle containing the remnants of some gin purchased back at LHR. Let us not quibble over the monetary value of the gin. Suffice it to say that Kathy unwrapped the wrapped sufficiently to insert the gin. We couldn't find our duct tape so envision our suitcase being passed onto the plane, transferring at LHR, and off-loaded at YVR with an ever-increasing tail of cello-wrap.

We're greatly disappointed - actually put off - by SAA's Baobab Lounge. Perhaps it's wonderful at the right time. We had trouble finding a place to sit, power outlets are virtually non-existent, and several uncontrolled children were running around, playing hide-and-seek, and in one instance throwing a minor tantrum (a lad about nine!) made things annoying (and we're usually ardent defenders of traveling children and their elders).

We finally found a place in the "audio-visual lounge," which is actually quieter and cooler than much of the rest of the lounge.  Kathy sat in an available chair and very nearly fell over; it was broken.

Brian reported that to the front counter and it turned into a laughable experience. First, he was invited to fill out a complaint form. When he explained he was doing this as a service to others, the employee said they would.

As he started to return to Kathy, another employee rushed up and said he was being paged. It turned out that this employee was supposed to follow Brian and misunderstood. Finally, Brian escorted the employee to the broken lounge chair (which he had previously turned upside down) and made the employee understand it was broken.

The Men's room is being repaired and the shower room facilities being offered are less than optimum - still enough kleenex makes a half-decent paper towel.

France would have been easier - and French Internet service might well be better too.

We're now relaxing and charging up our devices. We board in about 20 minutes and our next stop is LHR somewhere around 6:00 a.m. London time.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Bright (?) And Early!

We slept well and are both awake at around 7:00 a.m. local time (10:00 yesterday evening at home) and ready to start a long travel "day." Flying VFA-JNB-LHR-YVR, with roughly 10 total hours of layovers at JNB and LHR should see us landing in YVR about 38 hours from now, Sunday, September 1 at 11:55 a.m. on AC 855.

We'll start gently with some coffee and then a buffet breakfast. Our taxi picks us up at 11:30 a.m. here, and we'll see what seats we end up with - not too surprisingly, we couldn't check in online for our BA flight out of VFA.

Our Last Night In Africa

Through something of a comedy of errors, we ended up eating our final dinner in Africa back at A'Zambesi River Lodge. As it turned out, that was a good choice.

Our helicopter company had to shuttle us into town to take our payment by credit card and we had decided to have a light meal there.

Kathy had left her share of our US funds in the safe in our room, and the place we had decided on for a light dinner didn't accept credit cards. Attempts at four ATM machines leave us with the impression that HSBC doesn't do business with Zimbabwe, so we took a taxi back to our hotel.

Brian was getting a wee bit nervous about how much cash we had and... we couldn't open our room safe.

A visit to the front desk led to their looking for the master key and eventually to a procession of dignitaries to our room nearly 30 minutes later - a manger, a safe-opener, and a female security officer who took notes of the proceedings.

The official safe-opener managed to open it with a key and then figured out that the problem was a mechanical one with the safe, not our lapse of memory (Praise Be!).

In the morning, we'll open the safe bright and early, just in case.

We were able to order a la carte tonight (eschewing the ubiquitous buffet) and enjoyed the quasi-authentic African entertainment, interrupted by a trio of elephants eating their way through trees at the edge of the restaurant.

In truth, it was a magical evening. Our young Australian acquaintance, Amy, arrived just as we were about to leave, sharing descriptions of her magical "lion encounter" tour today as we described our helicopter tour.

And the dinner itself? A delicious soup for Kathy featuring cheese and morninga, a beef salad for Brian, braised warthog for Kathy in a tomato sauce and Cajun Chicken for Brian (speaking of chicken). During dinner we were entertained some authentic-looking dances and enthusiastic renditions of The Lion Sleeps Tonight and When The Saints Go Marching In, among other African classics. Brian, sympathetic to the dancers being upstaged by a trio of elephants munching on the trees adjacent to the restaurant, even bought a CD.

Tomorrow promises to be a long day... a taxi to the airport at 11:30 a.m., a flight to JNB at 1:50 p.m., a multi-hour layover, during which we pick up our larger suitcase from the Intercontinental and check it, a flight to LHR, a three to four layover, and a flight LHR-YVR, about 24 hours in the air not counting layovers followed by a drive home in the midst of Labor Day weekend.

It's worth it.

Victoria Falls By Helicopter

We'll overlook the confusion of booking a helicopter tour with Shearwater. The tour itself was marvelous. While the water is low compared to other times of the year, that cut down on the spray and the views were absolutely magnificent.

Here are some preliminary photos from Brian sitting in the back seat with two Belgians. Kathy rode shotgun with the pilot and there will be better photos and video to follow.

Warthhogs And Waterfront: The A'Zambezi River Lodge

Wandering the grounds of the A'Zambezi River Lodge with photos of the Zambezi riverfront and yet more warthog photos for at least one grandson who enjoys them...

C'mon - just one more smile...


Victoria Falls: Breakfast At A'Zambezi River Lodge

We enjoyed our buffet breakfast at A'Zambezi River Lodge this morning. The food was tasty, the service was friendly, and the manager dropped by to make sure all was well. It turns out he was only recently in Vancouver, visiting a sister who lives in Kamloops.

He was as excited at having seen moose and bears during his trip as we are, for example, seeing a tusked warthog down on his "knees" peacefully grazing in the grass adjacent to the swimming pool.

Victoria Falls: The Smoke That Thunders

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe: Dinner At The Palm Restaurant at Ilala Lodge Hotel

Having bumped into Amy, a lovely young business analyst from Sydney visiting South Africa to take a course, we enjoyed wandering with her around the Rainforest, the park viewing site for Victoria Falls.
While there, a UN tourism conference approved guide (note his badge) seemed strangely eager to have his photo taken with her. We're sure it will soon be adorning his trip album.
We made a dinner reservation for 7:00 p.m. at the well-regarded Palm Restaurant at Ilala Lodge Hotel and slowly strolled up and down the quiet streets of downtown Victoria Falls for an hour. We found a fairly crowded supermarket where Amy picked up a six-pack of Diet Coke, paying $6 or a buck a can. How can the locals afford it? Do they have separate prices in the scanners for tourists? We'll never know.

Once back at the Illala Lodge, we enjoyed a leisurely dinner out on the Colonial terrace. This was more of the quality of food and presentation that the JNB Intercontinental had promised but failed to deliver the previous night.

We started with appetizers, including a vegetable spring roll for Kathy...

Amy and Brian both chose the vegetarian meatballs (lentils) in a marinara-type sauce.
Our tasty appetizers were followed by mains of a beef salad for Amy, the chicken special for Kathy, and a vegetarian Indian-style melange for Brian, all delicious and in large portions we couldn't complete.

Amy tried a baklava from the interesting assortment (Brian couldn't convince her to try the peanut brittle and cranberry concoction) and pronounced it as okay but nothing special, and not worth the calories.
Still, the presentation was attractive and the whole evening was really enjoyable for us. Incidentally, the total bill for this "splurge" meal, including a glass of the house wine for Brian and Kathy, and a Zero Coke, for Amy came to just over a hundred dollars, good value from our point of view for very good food and attentive service in a lovely colonial-style setting.

The taxi back to the hotel only set us back ten bucks, and we said our good-nights to Amy before retreating to our own room to find the mosquito netting already deployed for bedtime.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe

A fine breakfast in a JNB restaurant, Mugg & Bean, and a very pleasant British Airways (Comair) flight to Victoria Falls with an exit row to ourselves. We had a choice of two light meals on this one hour and 40-minute flight but settled for water since we'd just eaten.

We were fairly early off the plane but still waited in line for a half hour or more, fortunately inside out of the sun, until the friendly but slow immigration officers took their turns taking our USF $30 each and stamping our passports.

Our pre-arranged shuttle driver was waiting for us and off we went. A'Zambesi River Lodge is a very pleasant place and we're happy with our room. Tonight the mosquito netting was up around our bed when we returned from our wanderings.

As we waited for the hotel shuttle to the town and the Falls site itself, we bumped into the same nice young Australian woman we had stood behind in the immigration queue. Amy and we decided to join forces and toured the Falls together before wandering around the small Victoria Falls downtown and then enjoying a fine and reasonably-priced dinner at the somewhat elegant Palm Restaurant at Illala Lodge, one that came justifiably well recommended by Trip Advisor.

Then it was back to our hotel with a helicopter tour and a tram ride to the center of the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia scheduled for the morning.

Here are a few quick photos of our day with better ones to follow when time permits.

Dr. Livingstone we presume.
The warthogs roam as freely around the hotel grounds and the park as we'd heard.
 The falls are breathtaking, even with low water.
Brian bravely takes a photo of Kathy standing at the edge of a precipice taking photos.
The Zambesi River Bridge, downstream from the falls. We're scheduled to ride the little tram car barely visible at the left of the photo to the middle of the bridge tomorrow after our helicopter ride.
So far it wasn't as hot as we feared it might be. Most of the hordes of official tourists at the UN tourism conference here have departed. We did see some at the falls and a passenger in a car labeled "Iraq" waved at us majestically while we were waiting to cross a street. Maybe he thought we were standing there just to catch a glimpse of him.

Almost everyone we meet from the shuttle driver to the hotel employees to the taxi driver who drives us from the restaurant back to our hotel inquires gently what we have planned in the hopes that they will become part of the plan, but nobody is really pushy about it.

In short, it's been a fine day and we're looking forward to combination of relaxing around the hotel and seeing Victoria Falls once more from the air and from the bridge before departing for home Saturday morning.