For five agonizing days, Noelene Noone and her husband, the Cape Town radio broadcaster Shiloh, sat in Thailand, not knowing when – or even if – they would get out before the country shut down. Their experiences, as they raced through airports and cities to make the last possible flight, read like a thriller.
Sunday, 22 March – Phuket, Thailand
Just before 10pm local time (5pm SA time). I have my laptop connected to the hotel WiFi, News24.com open. Waiting for news from South Africa. President Cyril Rhamaphosa is due to address the nation. I am about to close the laptop when another item popped up on the news feed. “Emirates to suspend all flights for 2 weeks from 25 March”. We are meant to leave Phuket 25 March on an Emirates flight.
My head spins – this is not possible – why would Emirates suspend flights – just like that??
I log on to the Emirates site – our flights are still displaying. I check the Emirates app on my phone – our flights are still there. Maybe this is a mistake, maybe the last flights are on the 25th. We get dressed – I need to check with one of the travel shops in the road downstairs – they have better access to online booking systems.
Outside the street is still busy, and it is just after 10pm. First travel stall, closed for the night, second one closed too. Third stall open! I ask the lady in the booth – does she know if Emirates flights have been suspended? She hasn’t heard anything, but she’ll phone a colleague. No, they haven’t heard anything. I tell her it’s been on the news. I want to move our flight to the next available flight out. She says she can’t change our flight because we did not book through them – I can buy a new ticket. Is there space? The next flight is in 3 hours – we won’t be able to make that flight, but yes the flight leaving 1:45am 24 March still has space – but best to call the Emirates call centre. If our flight is indeed cancelled, she can help us to get on the flight for the 24th, she is open until 11pm.
We go back to the hotel and I try the 24 hour local number – not available. I call the Dubai call centre. I’m on hold. I listen to the same message playing repeatedly – selling Emirates flights. Why would they be selling flights if they’ve suspended flying ? We wait.
WhatsApps coming through from South Africa – have you seen the news on Emirates – they suspended flights – yes web site is telling us nothing, I am on hold to the call centre right now. We wait – 20, 30, 40 minutes. Finally, someone on the other side. The operator says they have not heard anything official – all they know is what has been on the news. If my flight is still displaying on the website, we are still flying. Wait until tomorrow, then we’ll have clarity, he says.
Wait? Go to sleep with this hanging?? No, I need to change my flight I need to fly out on the 24th. There are only business class tickets left for the 24th. And if we fly to Bangkok instead of Dubai – are there any space left on the flight from Bangkok? He tells me again to wait until the morning. No – I could be stuck in a foreign country – please look if there is an option to fly from Bangkok. He puts me on hold – 5 minutes, 10 minutes, the line goes dead. An hour into a call to the call centre in Dubai and the line goes dead. I call again. A polite voice explains – we are not taking any calls right now.
I’m nauseous, my stomach is in a knot. It’s after midnight – the travel desk in the road would be closed. I check the Emirates site again. Our flights are still displaying. I check News24 – the Emirates suspended news item is still there.
Then a WhatsApp – Emirates Airline has retracted the blanket suspension. After pressure from governments. They will still fly from and to certain countries – Thailand and South Africa amongst them – if the borders remain open. Relief! There is no ways South Africa would close its borders to its own citizens – we are flying home in two days! I send out messages to friends and family – we’re going to be OK. We go to sleep.
Monday, 23 March – Phuket
I wake up and check the Emirates site – still the same message – still flying. We go down to breakfast. I still feel the nausea of the previous night – I can’t have anything but watermelon and coffee, strong coffee. We chat to an Aussie in his late sixties. His flight for later in the week has been cancelled but he managed to get a new flight tonight on easyJet.
I check the Emirates app on my phone to see our flights under My Trips. Message – No upcoming trips. Where are our flights? They were there an hour ago. We go back to the room and I check the website – red message flash – we have a technical problem. What technical problem – has the site crashed with everyone panicking and checking their flight? Still the message on the site says Emirates are flying to certain countries. I anxiously refresh the site every 5 minutes.
A new message on the Emirates site – UAE government suspends all passenger flights for 2 weeks from 25 March 2020. I go numb. It sinks in – the site did not crash; it was taken offline. Our flights have been cancelled. No call centre is gong to help us now – we need to get to the airport and get on tonight’s flight.
Shiloh goes downstairs to book out and get a taxi while I stuff the bags. We sign whatever the hotel gives us to sign. I send a few WhatsApp messages out before we are out of the hotel WiFi range. I never bought a local SIM card in Thailand thinking we won’t be needing data outside of our hotel. Now I regret it. Fast route, we tell the tax driver. It’s a long hour drive. The driver gives a few dry coughs. Shiloh and I both reach for the hand sanitiser – we’ll take our own cases from the back, I mouth to Shiloh. Traffic light seems to take forever to go green. The driver gives 3 more coughs. Just don’t let me get sick before we get home.
1pm – Phuket International Airport, International Departures
Not too busy – maybe we’ve beaten the crowds. Emirates has an office upstairs. We take the escalator – I am still in my beach dress and sandals – not the outfit I was hoping to fly in. Upstairs there is a long passage with offices – I see the crowd of about 100 people, then the door to the Emirates offices.
Is this the queue for Emirates, I ask an English girl waiting in one of the plastic chairs. Well there is no queue (correct, it is a crowd). They were giving out numbers earlier, but they’ve stopped now. She has number 50. I wait in the passage; Shiloh takes the luggage downstairs to information to see what he can find out. I wait an hour. Some movement at the counter – they’re handing out more numbers. There is a scramble for a number, pushing shoving, no regard for personal space, no social distancing. The lower your number, the more likely you will get on the last flight.
I finally get a number, 79. How many spots could there possibly be open on the last flight out? I check the Emirates site, still the same messages. I start to construct a story in my head that our flight for the 25th is still on, only after the 25th no more flights. There is no cancellation message in my inbox. The crowd around me is mostly French speaking, some English, some German. All high-risk countries – we’re an inviting mixing pot for the COVID-19 virus.
Supportive WhatsApp messages are coming through from South Africa – try Singapore Airline, try Ethiopian Airlines, try Cathay, Qatar, Ethiad. I stubbornly want explicit confirmation that our flights are cancelled. The queue is at number 45. An English gentleman and his wife emerge from the office – no place on the flight tonight, they’ve been offered a refund. A blond girl in denim shorts walks up to me – I’m giving up, you want my number? Number 68. I take the number. More people arrive – looking for numbers. I give my number 79 to a German family with a baby. Desperate people holding on to pieces of plastic with a number on it hoping it will get them home. We get to number 68. After four hours I have my audience. Your flight is cancelled. No space on tonight’s flight. You can get refund. I want to protest – they’ve moved on to number 69. I share my message with some new arrivals outside the office. I see the same denial in their eyes that I had a few hours earlier.
I find Shiloh downstairs. With him is a couple – ex-South Africans living in Australia – they are on the Emirates flight tonight. Although we’re almost the same age, I can see the motherly concern in the woman’s eyes when she greets me. A swearing English guy and his wife bought one of the last business class tickets to Dubai for R30,000. They have no guarantee of a flight onwards from Dubai.
I check my emails – finally the formal notification – our Emirates flights have been cancelled. The finality in writing brings some direction – we need an alternative route home. An Aussie next to us suggests we check Skyscanner.net – he can see an option – fly a local budget airline to Bangkok and then get Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa to Cape Town or Johannesburg. We phone our friend Kevin back home on Whatsapp. He’s also been searching for alternatives for us. Ethiopian Airlines from Bangkok is the most affordable option. Bangkok is a big hub – if Ethiopian Airlines can’t help us, there might be another airline.
6pm – Phuket Airport, Domestic Departures
Air Asia tickets to Bangkok about R1000 each – only flights tonight would be to the domestic airport in Bangkok. Flying at 7:15pm. We take it. We buy some sandwiches and chips and water. I can’t eat, the tension creeping up my back and throttling my throat so I can barely squeeze down the fresh bread with cheese and tomato. We change our clothes before flying – from beach wear to jeans. I wash my hands – for 20 seconds – maybe it will wash off the virus I most likely got exposed to waiting outside the Emirates office. I feel my forehead, feels cool enough. How is my breathing? I will my body to stay healthy until we get home.
8:30 pm – Bangkok – Don Mueang Airport, Domestic Arrivals
We sit down on the plastic chairs near information. I connect the laptop to the airport WiFi. On Ethiopian Airlines’ website I search for tickets in the next couple of days, Bangkok to Cape Town. Only business class at R35,000 plus a ticket. Bangkok to Johannesburg. More business class tickets. I go back to Skyscanner.net. They show economy tickets available – Bangkok to Cape Town. I hit proceed. Oops – something went wrong, says my browser. Back to Skyscanner.net, find the tickets, proceed. Oops – something went wrong. Maybe we can get help at the Ethiopian Airlines offices at international departures at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Information points us to where we can get a taxi. It’s a 30-minute drive.
9:00 pm – Bangkok – Suvarnabhumi Airport, International Departures
We walk around like two lost souls with our baggage in tow, looking for anything that said Ethiopian Airlines. We ask around. At a desk of another airline, hostesses are packing up for the night. They take pity on our exhausted faces and one of the hostesses dials a number. After a minute she says – no answer they are closed. I ask her if she knows if there is an Ethiopian Airlines flight out tonight. She says – there was, but it got cancelled. That word – cancelled – bounces around like a game of torture ripping out my guts. We ask where the airline offices are – they point upstairs.
We take the escalator. There is a row of small cardboard offices for a multitude of airlines. All the offices are closed, most look boarded up for more than just overnight. The Qantas airline office is open. We ask if they are still selling tickets – our tickets are sold out until the end of the month. There are four rows of plastic chairs at the top of the escalators before the airline offices. Three travellers are sleeping there for the night. We sit down and I take out my laptop and connect to the Google hotspot. If there’s no office to help us, we must find tickets online. The connection is temperamental but will have to work. Onto the Ethiopian Airlines site. Bangkok to Cape Town. Business class tickets appear as option, via Johannesburg with a FlySafair local connection to Cape Town leaving 1:30 am 26 March. Around R90 000 for the two of us.
I refresh my search – there must be economy tickets. Nothing. I change my search Bangkok to Johannesburg – if not home just get us to South Africa. Only business class. Despair is creeping up on me as the realisation starts sinking in – we will have to bite the bullet and buy business class tickets if we want to get home. I refresh my search. A new item appears on the list – R20 000 for two. Only three tickets available. I blink and click proceed. My heart pounding my palms wet. Shiloh holds the passports as I type our details in. Address. Date of birth. Names as on the passport. Contact details, next of kin. Proceed. Credit card details. Visa, numbers, expiry date, CVC number. Proceed. The wheel turns. I pray that the Google hotspot do not fail us. Turn, turn. A message on the screen. Thank you for choosing Ethiopian Airlines. You should receive your e-ticket in the next x number of hours – or something in that order. We’ve got tickets. We’re flying to Johannesburg on 26 March.
11:30 pm – Bangkok – Summit Windmill Golf Residence.
We take a 20-minute taxi drive to the Summit Windmill Golf Residence and book their cheapest room. The lone masked lady at reception takes our details and our temperatures. We pass the test. With very low demand she upgrades us to their best suite. Only twelve hours earlier we were in our hotel in Phuket believing we’re flying Emirates home.
I send WhatsApp messages and update Facebook. We shower. I curl up on the bed with my laptop open on News24 waiting for Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation. Cyril does his address in his calm stately manner. To curb the spread of COVID-19 South Africa is going into full lockdown midnight 26 March. What exactly lock-down would mean, I don’t know. My gut tells me we need to be on that Ethiopian Airlines flight home or we’re not going home for a long time.
Tuesday, 24 March – Bangkok – Summit Windmill Golf Residence
I sleep because I am exhausted. I dream I am swimming underwater in murky sea water, I can see ahead there is something I need to get to, but the water holds me back and I am running out of air. I wake up shaking. It’s as if every muscle in my body is jumping. I feel my head. My temperature feels normal. My body calms down. I reach out to feel Shiloh’s temperature. It feels normal.
I check my emails. There is an email from Ethiopian Airlines. Offering me 25 percent discount if I upgrade to business class flying to Johannesburg. It lists our flight details. I know the email was triggered by an algorithm, but that algorithm believes the flight is still going and I believe the algorithm. What would normally have been annoying junk mail gives me such reassurance. We have breakfast – a spread at the hotel buffet.
We still need to plan the journey from Johannesburg to Onrus. I search for a flight we can take from Johannesburg to Cape Town. We are due to land 1:05pm at O.R. Tambo. I find a flight using Travelstart – FlySafair at 4pm – R1,772 for the two of us. This means we will land in Cape Town around 7pm. If we rent a car, we will be in Onrus well before the lockdown. I book a car online with Avis. Route home planned.
Lunchtime we walk to the local 7-Eleven to buy 2-minute noodles, water and chips. All through my three-week trip I tuned in to BBC news and News24 daily to listen to updates on COVID-19. I’ve also been a fan of John Hopkins’s data science program for some time. When they published their dashboard of all the COVID-19 cases all over the world in February, I started following them daily with morbid fascination. Now, for the first time, I do not want to hear any more updates – nothing in the world mattered to me other than getting on those flights and getting home. I have vowed never to wish time away – the only reality is the now we have – but on 24 March I looked over the beautiful golf course into the clear blue Bangkok sky and I wished the next two days to be over and for the outcome to be known.
Wednesday, 25 March – Summit Windmill Golf Residence
The hotel serves breakfast in the rooms – a buffet is no longer considered safe. I eat fruit and coffee. I check my emails – no cancellation, rather an email from Ethiopian Airlines reminding me of our journey. I am starting to see the end of the journey through the murky sea water – 26 March in Onrus. The hotel had offered us late check-out 2pm knowing we’re only flying late in the evening. I booked the shuttle to the airport for 2pm – the earlier we’re there the sooner we can get our boarding passes.
I’ve tried printing the digital boarding passes but keep getting an error message. There is some security in having a boarding pass. If the airline cancels a flight after it has issued boarding passes, they need to set us up in a hotel and pay daily convenience allowance until they can re-book a new flight. Well that was the rule before the world went upside down.
The one step in the journey still worries me. South Africa is going into lockdown midnight 26 March. Normally if we rent a car at the airport to drive home, we return it the next day. It is the cheapest and most convenient way to make the journey from Cape Town International back to Hermanus. Avis in Hermanus closes at 5pm. With the lockdown, Avis will not be open 27 March to receive the car. I contact our friend Kevin in Hermanus – can he contact Avis and ask how we can return the car to them – maybe after hours on the 26th.
We wait for 2pm. I’m even relaxed enough to start a spreadsheet of all our expenses. We watch a movie. At 1:30pm we pack up. I check my phone – there is a message from Kevin – cancel with Avis, they are not interested in helping no matter what the circumstances. Book with Bidvest, they will help with an after-hours drop off on the 26th. I cancel and rebook as we get out the door and check-out.
2:30 pm – Bangkok – Suvarnabhumi Airport, International Departures
As we enter the airport, our temperatures are measured – we each get a dotted sticker on the shoulder. Information tells us we cannot get a boarding pass until 9:30pm. We have 7 hours to kill. The chairs in the waiting area are marked with social distancing stickers – only every third chair can be occupied. We find two chairs across from each other where we can sit. The airport is filled with people with different degrees of protection. Unlike the messages from South Africa that don’t encourage wearing a mask if you are not sick, compromised or caring for someone who is sick, the messages here along with sanitise is – wear a mask. At the hotel the receptionist offered me a mask which I wore around them as a courtesy. At the airport most people are wearing masks. Some are wearing gloves and plastic face covers, like a see-through welding helmet. Some people are wearing light raincoats. Then there are families and groups in full hazmat gear – white suits with hoodies, boots, gloves, face masks and large see-through goggles. Even little children walk around in the full protection.
To the right of me a young American is on his phone – trying to arrange a flight home. He has been touring South East Asia for the last 3 months. The last month he’s been in the north of Thailand, working at a youth hostel. He had a flight home booked for tonight, but it got cancelled. He finally gets a flight via Japan to New York in two days’ time. We chat – he is 21, his family are pig farmers in Tennessee. He is considering his options – stay at the airport for two days or book into a youth hostel. His dad told him not to leave the airport, if Thailand goes into lockdown he will get stuck at the hostel.
We chat and watch the nervous rush of people trying to get home. I get an SMS from FlySafAir – your flight has been cancelled. I check my emails – full explanation – FlySafAir needs time to park their planes before the lockdown midnight 26 March, the final SafAir flight is 25 March. We’re stuck in Joburg for the lockdown. Shiloh chats to Kevin – who has now become our de facto travel agent back home. There is one option – SAA is flying Johannesburg to Cape Town 26 March, there is still space. The flight leaves at 1:55pm from domestic departures terminal B, we land at 1:05pm international arrivals terminal A, we have to disembark, clear customs and complete whatever test and questionnaires COVID-19 controls has put in place, collect our luggage, walk from terminal A to terminal B, check in and board before the boarding gates closes at 1:45. Forty minutes. I call it the 40-minute sprint.
I log on to the Google free WiFi spot, find the SAA flight – R4,500 for the two of us. I start to complete our details, make mistakes, redo the details submit. The price had gone up to R9,000 for the two of us to fly Johannesburg to Cape Town. Confirm the transaction. We get the tickets.
Like in a Tarantino movie we follow Kevin’s instructions to give us the best chance to make the 40-minute sprint.
- You can only have hand luggage – there is no time to wait for luggage at O.R. Tambo. I have a big suitcase – but after I left half my luggage in Delhi, I should be able to throw out some stuff – like liquids not allowed in hand luggage and fit everything into a cabin-sized suitcase. There is one shop at the airport selling suitcases. I swipe my credit card – I have no idea where my credit balance is by now – we just need to get home. In the waiting area I open my case and start repacking into the smaller case, Shiloh taking some stuff in his backpack. The young American next to us looks half embarrassed the other way. When I put my branded cap in the throw away pile, he quickly chirps – I’ll take that. I take my large suitcase to information – I want to get rid of this suitcase, where can I leave it? The woman behind the counter thinks for a second then points to the cleaner – there, give it to housekeeping. The cleaning lady is first confused but after some exchange in Thai between her and information lady, her face breaks into a broad smile. The free suitcase has made her day.
- Check in online and get your digital boarding passes. Done.
- Before you board the flight to Johannesburg find the chief air hostess – tell her you have a connecting flight you need to make in very little time – ask to disembark first even if it is before business class.
- There is another possibility – there is a flight from Addis Ababa to Cape Town leaving around the same time as the Johannesburg flight – when you check-in in Bangkok, ask if you can switch to the Cape Town flight from Addis Ababa.
The Ethiopian Airlines check-in desk is allocated – right at the end – W6. It only opens in an hour, but I want to get in the front of the queue to get the best chance to switch to the Cape Town flight from Addis Ababa. We say goodbye to the young American – he gives me the link to his YouTube channel. While we were sitting there, Thailand has announced a lockdown to come into effect before he flies, so he is staying at the airport – he plans to make a video of his two days there – like the Tom Hanks movie.
Behind us in the queue is a large group of youngsters due to fly to either Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo. The rest are South Africans connecting to Cape Town or Johannesburg. One was due to fly to Cape Town in two days on Ethiopian Airways. Since the SA lockdown was announced on Monday, he has been trying desperately to change his flight – phoning Ethiopian Airlines with no answer. He tried contacting the SA embassy in Thailand – no answer. Yesterday he was notified his flight from Addis Ababa to Cape Town was cancelled. He needs to get on to tonight’s flight.
The queue starts to move. We get to the front – a friendly sweet Thai lady. I show her our passports, she finds our bookings, I ask can we please switch to the Cape Town flight? Our connection flight from Johannesburg got cancelled, our country is going into lockdown, we have no other way to get home. (I choose not to tell her about our 40-minute sprint option.) She asks for details on the flight that got cancelled. I had thankfully printed it out at the hotel. She looks at it, she calls her manager. Short upright Thai guy walks from the other two check-in counters where he has been overlooking check-ins. He studies the printed sheet of paper. This was not done on our code, we cannot change. I desperately plea – why not? If the connecting flight was booked via Ethiopian Airlines he can change, this flight is on another code, he cannot break the rules. I plead again – our country is going into lockdown. Is there any way I can buy a ticket to get on to the Cape Town flight? You can buy a ticket from sales in Johannesburg – but it needs to be a new ticket, you cannot change this ticket. How do I contact sales now? He shrugs her shoulders. I plead – please we need to get to Cape Town. He moves to another problem at another counter.
I accept our boarding passes – Bangkok to Addis Ababa, Addis Ababa to Johannesburg. A win to have boarding passes, the 40-minute sprint will have to deliver.
Thursday, 26 March – Bangkok, Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, Cape Town
0:55 am – Suvarnabhumi Airport, International Departures.
I spot the young South African from earlier in the departure hall – he got onto the flights for 26 March – Ek gaan huis toe! (I’m going home!) he says when he sees me. We board. The flight to Addis Ababa is packed – not an open seat. I fall asleep upright in my seat before the security demonstrations start.
6:30 am – Addis Ababa Bole International Airport
We try one more time – go to the Ethiopian Airlines desk to see if we can switch to the Cape Town flight. Surely humanitarian exceptions can be made to flight code rules. There is a queue of over 20 people that does not move. I said to Shiloh – the irony is there are probably people in that queue wanting to switch from the Cape Town flight to the Johannesburg flight. But a flight ticket is not a bus or train ticket you can just exchange.
Shiloh meets a young South African couple. Their Emirates flights from Phuket to Durban were also cancelled. The only tickets they could find to fly home was Ethiopian Airlines business class tickets to Johannesburg. They had to phone home and borrow R86,000 from a friend to pay for the flights. We meet a South African family – father, mother and two little girls. Their Emirates flights were cancelled – it has cost them in excess of R200,000 to get these flights home.
We’re not going to get on the Cape Town flight. I go to the guys preparing the boarding gate and explain my story. They give us two seats in row 11, right at the door of the plane.
We board 20 minutes early – I lighten up – maybe that would mean we land 20 minutes earlier, which will give us a fighting chance to make the local flight. The flight is less than half full. We get served lunch at 11 – I pick a bottle of red wine – we’re mid-air, the flight can no longer be cancelled. I talk to the head stewardess – she will help us disembark first.
1pm – Johannesburg, O.R. Tambo International Airport
The air hostess had given us COVID-19 declaration forms to complete – listing the countries we’ve visited in the last 14 days, have we experienced any of 8 symptoms, have we been in contact with anyone with these symptoms, have we knowingly been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, have we tested positive for COVID-19. India and Thailand and no to the rest. Give our flight and seat numbers, nationality and sign.
The plane circles the airport. Up to this point in the 4-day drama Shiloh – normally the emotional side of our marriage – has remained very calm, positive and supportive. The plane circling instead of landing is pushing the breaking point of his self-control. Surely there are hardly any other planes keeping up the landing. We finally land 1pm – most of the 20-minute head start lost. Our connecting flight is leaving in 55 minutes, boarding gate closes in 45 minutes. Within seconds of the seat belt sign switching off we are at the door with our hand luggage. As the door opens 4 masked officials step on to the plane. Everybody back in their seats. We need to take your temperatures at your seats. We turn around and sit down. We’re right in the front and our temperatures are taken first. Two girls step forward, they need to get to a funeral, their temperatures are good, can they disembark. The official lets them go. Shiloh gets up – we need to catch a connecting flight – our temperatures are good, can we disembark. No sit down. And the emotional wall of calm breaks – we need to be on that flight, the country is in lockdown, we need to get to Cape Town, this is our only chance, we need to disembark! I cringe – now they’ll keep us until midnight!
Are you South African – I bring out our two green passports – which countries did you visit – Thailand and India – give us the forms – OK go! And we run. The ramp splits up and down. We run down – door is locked, back to the split run up, door opens. The door opens on to seats of passengers waiting for their last plane out of South Africa. We’re in the transit area – not passport control. We’re not turning back, we ask where is passport control, some dazed looks, someone points that way, we run, where is passport control, we need to check into the country? That way, but it is for check-out of the country. We run past the checkout controls. Where is passport control, we need to check into the country – that way but I think it is closed. My lungs start to ache from the thin Johannesburg air. We get to a control point that looks pretty closed – four guys packing up – please we need to check into the country – how did you get here – we got off a plane, we need to make the last flight to Cape Town before lockdown. The dramatic line seems to hit a cord. I’ll take you. Some door is unlocked. Go straight then slightly left – follow the passage. We go straight, slightly left. We’re in what looks like a lounge of sorts with drinks and food and people waiting, we follow the passage and an area opens with a snaking queue – immigration!
There is a lady taking temperatures. We’ve been running, Shiloh says in an out-of-breath voice. She looks at the temperature and laughs – don’t worry you’re good. There is a queue of about 50 people – Shiloh makes a WhatsApp call – we’re at immigration but I don’t think we can make the flight, there is a queue. The guy in front of us hears his conversation – go to the front of the queue, he says – it looks like everyone heard the conversation – they give way and we go to the front of the queue – welcome home, stamp stamp.
I check for terminal B – left – run, run – terminal B is huge and deserted. Where do we board flight 343 – SAA. Go up. We go up. Ask again, where do we board flight SA343. One official starts running – follow me, you can make it. We run. We get to the check-in counter – do you have luggage? No only hand luggage. Where are your boarding passes? We checked in online, I give her our green passports. Here – I’ve printed it for you – now run like you’ve never run before. Security – our bags go through the scanner. OK, run the one official lady tells me – or you stay in Johannesburg for the lockdown. I laugh – I’ll stay with you. For a moment she pictures the scene. It’s not very modern, she says. It’s alright we’re old hippies, Shiloh shouts over his shoulder as we run. We’re at gate D1 – our gate is D8. I glance up at the departure screen. There are only four flights listed – SA343 to Cape Town – Boarding Closed. A barista from one of the coffee shops packing up sees us running – the only passengers in the departure hall – where are you going – D8 we need to make the flight. He grabs our boarding passes and starts running. Come follow me. The three of us – a barista with our boarding passes, me with my new carry-on bag on wheels, laptop bag over the shoulder, and Shiloh with his backpack, running down the departure hall. Along the way cleaners and shops stewards chant run, run. I am not sure if they are mocking our desperation or supporting us, but I would like to believe we are running on the wings of Ubuntu, South Africans helping South Africans get home.
We get to gate D8, three ground stewards manning the gate. The barista has already handed them our boarding passes. Before I could thank him, he is gone. It is well after 2pm. They scan our passes and we walk down the corridor to board the plane that should have left by now. As we step on to the plane two broadly smiling stewards welcome us with a bottle of cold water each. Cheers to SAA ! Their smiles break into happy laughs. We make our way to our seats. The plane stays stationary – after five minutes an announcement – good news, our last crew member has arrived, and we will be departing shortly. We made the flight because one crew member was late.
4 pm – Cape Town International
We land in lovely Cape Town – one leg left – the drive to Onrus. At Bidvest car hire a young intern helps us. Mevrou has a small suitcase for someone who has travelled for 3 weeks. (You don’t know half of it, young man.) They are closing at 5 – it’s 4:55 when we get the car. The airport is closing at 5, he tells me excitedly, we’re expecting the army trucks at any moment. We stop at Woolworths in Somerset Mall and I buy 6 bottles of red wine before they close at 6pm – the last wine we can buy until the lockdown is lifted. Jo-ann who was looking after our cat for three weeks messaged me earlier – she has stocked us up with some groceries at home. Over the mountain, Onrus and home. We need to take the car back, it’s already dark. Quickly take out the luggage and bottles of wine, Shiloh in the rental car, me in my car, we drop the Bidvest rental car off in town. At home, for the last time before lockdown kicks in, we get two massive pizzas takeaway from Karmenaadtjie, the best pizzeria in town, could be the best in the world.
We managed to get home, many other South Africans I am certain are still stuck in Thailand and other parts of the world. In my opinion, Emirates cancelling their flights while the borders were still open and the demand was high was criminal. If not legally criminal, morally criminal. People stuck in a foreign country are at high risk – they hang around airports, sleep on benches, scramble for tickets disregarding their own and other’s safety, expose themselves to possible infection and get exploited financially when financial hardship is already a reality waiting for the world.
We got home before lockdown on the wings of the prayers and support of our friends and family back home and the kindness of complete strangers. When big brands failed us, service from Ethiopian Airlines, SAA and Bidvest car hire were there. Africa brought us home.
Noelene Noone’s posts first appeared on her blog of her travels to India. Please click here to see the unedited version of her Thailand escape.