I’ve always thought that, through eight previous trips without any major issues, that at some point our luck would run out and we would inevitably have some sort of travel problem.
Well, this is that time and it is a tale of over-reaction (on all sides to some degree), bad management (on only one side) and a degree of incompetence and a general lack of care (again on one side). How a major international airline can perform so badly when under a little pressure is shocking and sobering in equal measure, but possibly, in this day and age, not surprising.
As always when leaving the Isle of Man, Fred had arranged a connection that requires an overnight stay in the UK, more specifically Manchester. We returned to The Clayton Hotel at the airport with Chris coming up to join us before getting up at 3am to take an early morning outbound flight with KLM. We haven’t used KLM on every trip to Africa (even when we could), but they have probably been our go-to option for East Africa.
Check-in was a little busy, but not excessively so, as is often the case at such an ungodly hour, even in Manchester. Our check-in attendant was nice and efficient, ensuring us that our luggage would be routed direct to Dar es Salaam and producing all our boarding cards for both outward legs of the flight. He was envious of our destination and wished us well (cue foreboding music!)
So, a pleasant, on time, if full, flight to Amsterdam takes about an hour, just time for a soft drink and a cookie to tide us over for a few hours. Everything seemed to be fine, as we made our fifteen-minute walk through Schiphol to our outgoing gate. We found a seat and sat down to wait a few minutes for boarding to be called. Then comes the announcement:
“Would passengers for the flight to Zanzibar and Dar es Salam 24 hours later please come forward for boarding with those in groups four and five first please.”
Wait, WHAT? 24 hours later?
Not sure that we heard this right and having no previous warning, Fred heads for the desk and starts to find someone to talk to. He is gone for quite some time (apparently having to move a couple of steps up the management chain) and looks grim when he returns.
“Apparently they have some sort of security issue with going to Dar,” he begins. “They are going to put us up overnight there and then continue the flight the next day at the scheduled time. They will not be taking our luggage off the plane, but will ‘look after us’.”
Well, we have firm plans from Dar es Salaam and this idea of a 24-hour delay is really going to mess that up, but we can’t do much about it at this point. We don’t really have any choice but to get on the plane. If we somehow choose to not fly, we won’t get a refund and will still have to get there somehow. Perhaps we can do something to get it sorted in Zanzibar?
The flight itself is fine and the eight hours goes by pretty well, all things considered, but there is no additional communication for us or the other passengers in the same situation. As we are coming in to land, there is finally an announcement. “Will passengers for Dar es Salaam please disembark and collect their luggage. You will be directed by our staff on the ground.”
More confusion then, but at least we will have our bags and I’ll have my medication (I won’t make that mistake again). Chris is in an extra legroom seat and is off about 100 people ahead of us. When we spot him at the end of the airbridge he signals furiously that we should cut the queue and get up to him. “Apparently, they have seats with another airline to go to Dar es Salaam tonight! They have a special immigration lane for us.”
We are whisked through immigration and emerge after only a few seconds with our visas freshly stamped. There’s a little confusion about our visa status – Isle of Man passport holders don’t have to pay – but Fred has the paperwork from the High Commission in London and we get stamped just fine for free.
Then the real chaos begins. There are probably 40-50 passengers in the same situation and a frazzled-looking little guy in a high-vis jacket trying to tick off our names on his list when he only has a rudimentary grasp of English. Fred, being Fred, ensures that the four of us are found and checked then we wait for someone to come and explain what happens next.
After several minutes of waiting for our bags, we have them finally when the KLM duty ground manager finally arrives and completely fails to take hold of the situation. It turns out that there are not enough seats for everyone, but as our names are already ticked, we manage to get him to confirm that the four of us will have seats and we can skip customs and head straight over to the domestic terminal.
When we get there – more bedraggled than ever after a 400m walk in 30-degree heat and 90% humidity – our names are not on the manifest. The nice girl at the desk tries several times over the next few minutes until Fred, Elizabeth and myself all have boarding cards and are told to go straight through to an already delayed flight that is waiting for us.
But Chris’s name hasn’t appeared and we are more than a little reluctant to leave without him. We wait as long as we can, but eventually after a short conversation, I point out that Fred needs to be in Dar es Salaam to sort this out and the three of us rush to a plane full of angry delayed passengers and finally head to our proper original destination. It’s only a 15-minute flight and we are soon finally landing in Dar es Salaam.
Landing in the Dark
Well, at least we have already done our immigration stuff and landing as a domestic passenger makes all that a simple formality. So, yet another scan of our luggage later, we are outside to be greeted by nobody!
I’m not going to blame the hotel for this one. They’d have no idea that we might get on a connection, and probably assumed we’d not be seen at all. We grabbed the first available taxi driver and were whisked away around the airport to our overnight destination. I turned my mobile data on and flashed a WhatsApp off to Chris to find out his situation, left the phone on and went to bed. At some point in the night, my phone pinged to tell me it had chewed through £60 of mobile credit while roaming, but I did get a reply.
Chris was in a hotel for the night in Zanzibar, and was booked on a morning flight with the same airline we had been placed with. Finally, we could relax slightly and pick him up in the morning on our way west.
It’s vitally important to remember that the name of this small local airline is Precision Air.
Driving to Destruction
Our guide, Mdoe or M.D. and our driver, Joseph, were already at the hotel awaiting our arrival and they readily agreed that we should pick Chris up and head off. We boarded the bus that had been provided for our comfort and headed off after a light breakfast to wait at the airport for Chris.
By the time we got there, his plane had been delayed then cancelled. He got another message through to me, confirming that all the affected people were on the next flight, due to arrive at about 2pm. We grabbed a snack and waited – and waited! Luckily, we had reasonable free WiFi outside the airport and a place to get a snack for lunch.
The aircraft finally arrived and Chris emerged – with his luggage – to much relief from all of us, but at almost 3pm. Right, 320km or so to do on almost all good paved roads. We set off at once and ploughed into the traffic chaos of the A7 highway on a Friday afternoon. We decided that his local airline needed a new name – Imprecision Airlines.
The road really was quite good, but the trucks – in both directions – were almost endless. Joseph would wind up for an overtake, only to be thwarted time and time again by more oncoming traffic. The day wore on and darkness fell with us still travelling west, although the traffic did thin greatly after sunset.
With a 40-minute delay because of diversions at roadworks – exacerbated by a semi-trailer dropping his trailer at the resumption of the main route – it was gone 11:00 when we arrived in the town of Mikumi.
We’d been pelted by a couple of tremendous thunderstorms on the way and, when we arrived, it was decided that the bus wouldn’t make it up the 6km track to the lodge and a change to a 4x4 Landcruiser was decided upon. At least the rain had cleared away, leaving a cool, calm late evening.
This was not a good decision!
We started our ascent through deep puddles/ponds and very slippery and bumpy mud and made slow progress. We got stuck a few times, but with some cursing and patience the driver managed to forge ahead each time. With probably a kilometre or so to go, we stopped in a set of wheel ruts and simply couldn’t get out. We all got out to lighten the load, but nothing seemed to work and then the battery lost enough charge that the car wouldn’t start again.
I’ve always felt that the Toyota Landcruiser makes a pretty good safari vehicle and it is often nice to think of it as the Japanese answer to the Landrover Defender. Now, I’m not so sure. The one we were in was simply massively under-powered and the 4x4 system pretty inadequate. Even manual diff-locks are so old-fashioned seeming nowadays. When we drove a newer Toyota Hilux in Namibia and Botswana, we’d never felt that we’d get seriously stuck, or that it wouldn’t make it up a hill
Nobody seemed to have a plan for what to do next, just an insistence that they’d get the truck unstuck soon. I eventually decided I wanted to go to bed and suggested that we walk, and after a little bit of pointless argument, Mdoe phoned up to the lodge to send people down to help keep us safe. We grabbed our shoulder bags and started to get ready to walk up the muddy track by torchlight. Soon the Massai night guard and another staff member came down and we started to plod up the hill. I’ve never been out and about in the bush this late, now after midnight and into another day. I was glad that I had my super-bright and adjustable pocket torch in my bag exactly where I could find it quickly.
The walk was slippery and muddy, but otherwise uneventful. We climbed slowly into the clouds and an eerie silence fell over us as we finally spotted the sign and lights ahead. Unbeknownst to the four of us, the guys down at the truck were following and bringing our luggage with them – bless them!