Category Archives: Airports

Night Flight

A long flight across the night. You know why late flights are good? Because we cease to be earthbound and burdened with practicality. Ask the impertinent question. Talk about the idea that nobody has thought about yet… Be poets.” From The West Wing

It’s a long time since I flew across the night. This trip was making me anxious. A rushed, last-minute work trip to a far away, cold place. Until I got to the airport. The minute I walk into the airport, I remember the thrill of travel. I still haven’t overcome my anxiety about leaving, being away, coping with admin and  visas and borders. Somewhere deeper is the thrill of movement and flight and the anticipation of wonder. I hope one day the thrill will overcome the anxiety. For now, I need to get better at anticipating to calm the nerves. It all disappears at the airport. I grab dinner, drop off my bags and head through security.

I’ve checked in early and have a window-seat. The plane beside ours is British Airways. I watch them load the luggage. We taxi slowly towards the runway and lift into the air. The lift is slow and gentle, steady. It’s a while since I’ve flown in a big plane – this one is a B373-800. The ride is smooth and steady. I have an empty seat beside me. I sleep on and off.

Somewhere above the coast of Libya, I lift my window shade. Below, settlements glow with light. They’re spread in all directions, along what look like roads. Like drops of water on a spider’s web. Bright lights against the dark ground. At the coastline, the lights stop abruptly and pitch dark laps against the line between dark and light.

Above, the sky is filled with a million bright stars. I see constellations that are familiar and some which are different, nothern stars. Orion fills the centre of the sky. It’s a breath-taking sight.

The next time I wake, we are over the pitch black hollow of the Mediterranean Sea. I try to spot boats in the Mediterranean or lights on the land in Europe. I sleep on and off and the world outside remains dark. Just that one glimpse of magical geography for the night.

We land in the early morning cold in Frankfurt. Stepping from the plane onto the sky-walk, our breathe is visible in the morning air. It’s just below freezing.

Second leg of the trip – Frankfurt to Brussels. We board in the dark. It’s minus 3 degrees and raising. We sit on the plane, waiting. Raindrops roll slowly, sadly down the window pane beside me. A short delay and an interminable taxi. Why is it that Frankfurt’s runways seem so far from the airport itself?

Finally we take off. The rain turns to cold misty cloud as we rise. Suddenly we break through the misty ceiling and we’re above the clouds. I catch my breathe. A rippling, fluffy-looking expanse of white stretches into the distance on all sides. Like virgin snow. It stretches to the horizon, where white and blue and purple fade to the gentle warm pick-orange-peach of dawn. In the distance, contrails pick out the pink against the blue-blue sky. Dawn at cruising altitude is as beautiful as ever – and universal.

After a while, through gaps in the clouds, I glimpse what looks like water. Lakes? A little later and I see it more clearly: it’s not water, it’s snow. Below the clouds, below us, we’re passing over snow-capped mountains. Above the clouds, a gorgeous sunrise; below a European winter.

All too soon, the brief announcement and a quick descent into Brussels, leaving behind the magic of the night flight and the sunrise sky for the grey, grim mistiness of early morning Belgium.

The Joy of Flying


I step from the Gautrain station into the airport and feel a little thrill of joy. A sudden sensation of well-being. I love this airport. The first of the Christmas lights are up. Twists of white lights along each railing, sprinkling the hanger-like space with sparkle.

I don’t have time to pause above the international arrivals area today. If I was here longer, I would. Just to stop for a few minutes and people-watch. It’s my secret joy, the opening scene of Love Actually in real life – meetings, greetings, love and hugs.

Today I trip past, run a quick errand, narrowly avoid a trolley-full of spinach, follow complaining south Americans up the escalator and head for check-in. Not too long to wait. I drop my bag and grab a paper.

Past security, I wonder about a little airport shopping. There was a time when Exclusive Books concluded that domestic departures OR Tambo was my “home” store  because I shopped there more often than anywhere else. They used to send me newsletters about it. No time today.

Past the boarding gate, on the sky-walk, that little thrill of happiness hits again. Up the steps, into the plane, find my window seat – always, for a Cape Town flight, especially. The plane is full but I have an empty seat beside me. I settle down and put my bag away. I’m smiling to myself.

photo-2016-11-11-9-33-14-amThe taxi and the take-off. As we lift into the air, I feel relief. Breaking away from the ground and soaring into the sky. Leaving the earth and its worries behind. I look down on Joburg – green, now the rains have come – until it disappears below drifting clouds.

Raising my eyes, I look up and out. This morning’s thunderstorm clouds. High, wispy ice-crystal clouds. Fluffy-white eiderdown clouds. We rise towards them and I wish were could go faster and be up there among them.

Then we are. Up above the cloud-line, looking out at a world of white and the incredible blue of the sky. I take a deep breathe. I feel my body relax. Below, glimpses of fields and houses still exist through the clouds. Up here we glide soundlessly, the clouds and I.

Somewhere over the Northern Cape, the cloud cover thins and I look down on a real live topographical map. A farm road angles and cuts through dry-looking land. There are a few fields near the road, stretching towards the red-grey-brown dirt. Two streams come together to form a small river that flows away, twisting and turning, into the distance. From up here, the land looks parched. A few minutes later, the earth disappears below the clouds again.


The fields in the Western Cape valleys are dark green and bright yellow and dull brown. The dams lie deep, dark blue. We begin our descent. The mountains grow higher and more majestic and more rugged as we get closer. Each ridge and valley, each farm and field become clearer, sharper. Song lyrics, nostalgic, long-not-thought-about, pop into my head:

Daar’s ‘n dorpie wat ek ken daar tussen die blou berge
En die lower van die eike oor die straat

First sight of the sea and Robben Island in the bay. From my seat on the right side of the plane, I’ve missed the sparkling blue of Gordan’s Bay on approach. Instead – a choice over and over again – the left turn reveal of the spectacular view of Table Mountain.

Durbanville rises towards the top of the hill, green and pretty. Table Bay. Lion’s Head. With an elegant turn, the striking, familiar beauty of the Table Mountain massif itself. A few wispy clouds rest on top, like a table-cloth about to fall off.

Over hostels and compounds and the plane comes in to land. We land with a bump – there is wind out there. The sensation of speed and resistance as we slow.

The grass beside the runway is Cape Town summer-dry. In the distance, from the window of my earth-bound plane, the mountains are green-blue-postcard-picture perfect.

Paris to Rome

A week ago, I woke up in Paris. The idea still makes me smile. I did some work and got organised, then headed down the precarious steps to check out. A quick breakfast of coffee and croissant (and sadness that I can’t do this every day). It had rained in the night and the morning was fresh. It felt more like a European city than the sunshine of the previous day. It was really pretty. I headed off to the meeting that was the official reason I was in Paris. The meeting ended sooner than expected and rather than remain at the office, especially as I had gotten a lot of work done that morning, I headed out again to enjoy Paris just a little bit longer.

I planned just to sit along the marina and enjoy the view, but I found myself walking back towards Notre Dame. I walked along the river, along the Seine, thinking about the history and the way people must have lived in those buildings and the people who lived and who live in those beautiful attic windows.

I didn’t go as far as the Notre Dame – it looked a little dusty and windy, so I decided just to enjoy it from a distance. Instead, I spent a happy 20 minutes picking out souvenirs. Yes, I realise that is terribly touristy but it’s one of the things I really enjoy about travel, choosing something to bring home. Besides, I wanted to remember Paris. My thought over coffee that morning had been that Paris seems an eminently liveable city. I could live here. Not something I normally say about anywhere outside of Africa, and a feeling that should be tempered by what I know about how expensive Paris really is. Still.

I walked back past the Hotel de Ville and along the river. Far below, beside the water, an old man and an old woman sat in garden chairs, she with an umbrella in case it should rain. On the ground between them was bottle of red wine. Oh, to grow old in a city as beautiful and convenient and bohemian as Paris.

The receptionist at the hotel, when I picked up my bags, looked a bit perturbed when I refused her offer to call a cab and instead said I would take the subway back out to the airport, but I had directions from a colleague in the Paris office, so I ignored her dismay. Into the Metro, where a very business-like woman helped me to buy a ticket – I didn’t really need help but I’d gone to the window instead of the machines, where apparently, which I didn’t know, it was only possible to use a card not cash, so she clearly felt I needed to be assisted all the way through the process on the now-English language machine.

Ticket in hand, I set off on the trek to find the right platform. The trains here worry me just a little, with enough light in the tunnel to show the expose wiring and the open doors providing a clear view of the lurching twists in the track and the run-down 70s decor. Such a contrast with the Gautrain. Just a few stops and then a train to the airport. Out of the window, I caught a flash of an old stone building with beautiful flowering wisteria around the wooden, top floor windows.

At the airport, I set off through the maze of passages and eventually found my terminal/gate and settled down with a delicious baguette, trying to ignore the soldiers with large guns who were, for some reason, patrolling the airport. Automatic check-in machines, find the right counter, through security and wander towards the gate. The airport – well, at least the bit I was in with the flights to  Europe, was crowded with people. Small children ran around, parents looked harassed and business travellers looked long-suffering.

photo (765x1024)I was flying to Rome. This was only my second trip ever to Europe. It felt so odd not only to have had the opportunity to explore Paris but now to be heading off to another European capital that has existed, for me, only in stories and pictures. I boarded the plane, realising with a sigh that the person in the seat next to me was a very small (admittedly cute) little girl with brown curly hair and
green, green eyes. Her vociferous objection to the seatbelt subsided once we’d taken off and I settled down to read. A little while later, I looked up and glanced out of my window. Far below, as far as they eye could see, were soaring mountain peaks, white with snow.

We land in Rome and the pilot makes the usual “Please remain in your seats” request. Before we’ve even come to a stop, everyone is up and out of their seats. I let them go – I was in no hurry.

Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport of Rome. Another airport with poor directions and miles and miles to walk. I eventually found the baggage reclaim and then found myself wandering another good 10 minutes to find the train station. I asked for a ticket for Leonardo Express. The woman at the counter took pity on me and said there is a shuttle bus (mini-bus) leaving immediately. I just reached the shuttle in time and sit back, barely noticing the city as we headed towards Rome.

I got out at Termini, the main train station in Rome. The hotel would be nearby but I was nervous of getting lost – I have even less Italian than French and I didn’t trust the map I’ve been sent. The taxi driver I approach, however, was adamant that the place was just 400m up the road. Which is how I found myself lost in Rome with my all bags, at 10 o’clock at night, trying to figure out how I had accidentally misplaced a large, stone church that was supposed to be my landmark.

After wandering around for a while, I spotted some taxis (sitting, as it turns out, in the shadow of the church) and went up to them, determined this time to take a cab. The driver looked at me with pity and pointed to the hotel, across the road and a few buildings up the street.

The man at the hotel handed me the key to room 52 and cheerfully informed me that it was four floors up and no, there was no lift. I was too tired to argue. Not that I’m complaining now – in fact, it was the perfect option – I got to stay in one of those beautiful attic rooms, with double-door shutters opening onto a gorgeous rooftop in Rome.

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