Lions In Lusaka And Down In Durban

Mercifully planes usually leave on time, so I am feeling slightly hard done by at the moment. I travelled from Norwich to Amsterdam on Sunday 31st May. The check-in for the flight from Norwich is at 05h10 in the morning, a brutal time to have to be awake and functioning. The plane leaving Amsterdam was about an hour late, a pain because we only got to Joburg at 10pm. Although I was spending the night at the Intercontinental Hotel right next to the terminal,I had to be up again the next morning at 05h00, the Monday flight to Lusaka was at 06h30!

Then coming travelling back to Joburg and Durban two days later we had to leave the hotel at 06h45, so I had my share of early mornings.

All the other flights were on time, and so when I left Durban a few days ago on Sunday I felt quite good.  I need to keep my Gold frequent flyer card on South African Airways so decided I would travel with them, instead of the usual KLM flight to Amsterdam followed by the short hop to Norwich. It means taking a trains and tubes from Heathrow to Norwich.

The trip back did not start well. I worked at the University in the morning, up to about 11h30 and then went home to pack. I was booked on the 16h55 flight to Joburg. As I had arranged to meet the Principal of Waterford School for dinner, at 17h00, I knew I had to get an earlier flight – and decided the 15h40 would work. My planned steady, measured packing, with a shower at the end and a reasonably early arrival at the airport to change my ticket was thrown into complete disarray. I know, to deal with failing memory and the fact I travel so much, have a checklist of things I must take. Running through it I realised I had left my flash disk with all the documents I was working on, at the office. Under normal circumstances it is a 35 minute round trip. I did it in 22 minutes. I left the flat in a cab at 14h45. I made it, albeit drenched in sweat!

However things really deteriorated in Joburg. Laurence and I had our meeting, and very useful it was too. He drove from Swaziland just for this, although we also had a meal, which turned out, with hindsight, to be a good decision. I then wandered through to the departures lounge in our magnificent new airport.

For the past three years, or more, O. R. Tambo airport has been undergoing massive renovations and expansion. This is in part to cater for the 2010 soccer cup. It has been amazing, and impressive as the airport has continued to function without too many hitches, albeit a degree of dust, noise and inconvenience. It has been worth it, the new facilities are magnificent. The arrivals halls are huge, clean, airy, and efficient. This has had a knock on effect on the staff. They are friendly, helpful, smiling, and happy, so unlike any airport I have been to in the last few years. Normally the attitude is that you have done something wrong until proven otherwise.

“Why do you’, said with contempt, “want to come into our country. How are you going to exploit us and misuse us?”  We seem to have a virtuous circle developing in South Africa, long may it continue. There is still work to be done, in particular there is a temporary international Business Class lounge, which is crowded and has no toilets on site.

The boarding time for the London flight was scheduled for 19h35. I did some shopping and wandered to the gate. A great deal of nothing was happening. After half an hour I went up to the First Class lounge and asked the receptionist if she knew what was going on, explaining at the same time that the business lounge was not particularly pleasant.

“That is OK, sir “, she said understandingly, “We are not busy you can sit here”.

And that is where I was until we boarded at 23h00. The problem was a ‘relay’ controlling power to the business class cabin and it meant there was no in-flight entertainment, nor would the seats recline. It was finally fixed for almost all the seats but not 5D or 5E. I, of course, was in 5D!!

So what were the good things? Well I normally travel on KLM and I was cursing my decision to go on SAA, until looking at the screens, I saw that KLM’s flight had been cancelled. If I had been doing my normal route I would have had a 24 hour delay! I was in business class and that meant that I slept on a fully reclining seat. I was not travelling with babies or rug rats, although there was a small infestation at the front of the cabin. There are such swings and roundabouts in travel and most of it is not anything one can control.  One has to grab what pleasure you can, and the fact that my bag was among the first off the plane at both Joburg and Heathrow was a small victory!

The Swedish International Development Agency reference group meeting was held at Chimanuka lodge about  30 minutes drive from Lusaka . It is a delightful spot. The owners have excellent rooms and conference facilities. They have farm land in the area, but the lodge is centred in a game farm. On the property there is also a cheese factory. It is possible to have a game drive and a tours of the cheese factory. They also have, in a separate, and one hopes, very secure enclosure.

I have to digress here and tell of an event that happened when I was about four years old. We lived on a cattle farm outside Nairobi in an areas close to game reserves. One of the lions developed a taste for, easy to catch cattle, and so the young British farmers decided that said lion had to be shot. The story goes that they sat in a hide near the carcase of the last kill all night. Just before dawn, at the time the first birds start clearing their throats, they gave up. Walking along the road they were swinging the torch and suddenly, caught in the light, was the lion, eyes and teeth gleaming. Somehow one of the chaps managed to get his rifle up, and with a lucky shot, killed the lion stone dead.

There was much excitement in the community. The staff of the little pre-primary school I was at, decided that it would be fun if we were taken to see the dead lion. Indeed I recall being placed on its back and having my photograph taken. I would like to think I was an unusually sensitive child, but that may not be the case, just my wistful thinking. This outing made a deep impression on me. When I have nightmares involving animals it is always lions that feature prominently.

So back to events in Zambia. After a day of meetings we decided to go for a walk. It was dusk, a beautiful African evening. We walked down toward the lion enclosure – and I could hear them roaring quietly in the distance. We got as far as the dam and watched the dying sun. It was idyllic, thorn trees and clouds reflected in the water, standing listening to the chirp and croak of the frogs and the various noise of the African night. Suddenly the lion roared about 20 metres away on the other side of the fence. I leapt two metres into the air and my pulse was racing. I managed to play cool, and we nonchalantly walked back, with me taking comfort from the knowledge that while I could not outrun a lion, I was pretty confident that I was faster than at least two of our party.

It was really good to be back in Southern Africa and I felt so comfortable, which is probably a bad sign I need a challenge and a change.