Porcupyn's Blog

July 25, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day One (MCO-JFK-DOH-JNB)

Filed under: Family,Geography,Humour,Travel — Porcupyn @ 8:44 am

All that brought us back to Day 0. Our flight, that had been scheduled for 6:15 am or so (if I remember right) at the time we purchased our tickets, had been changed to 6:45 am by JetBlue scheduling. As a result, our two hour transfer time in JFK had been reduced to just about an hour and a half. DS had warned us that in JFK, in order to change to our departure gate, we would need to get out of our arrival terminal and go through security once more then find our gate. By the time the morning dawned, like I said, I was in a bit of panic just in case our MCO-JFK flight was axed. Fortunately, we were able to get to the airport by about 3:30 am and check in – the flight was supposedly on time.

By the time we reached the gate though, we were informed that there was a 30 minute delay. We managed to all board very quickly and by the time the flight took off, it was only about 20 minutes late. So, though we had over an hour in JFK to get to our gate, we knew we still had to hurry!

There were clouds in the sky as we took off from Orlando – I had been half afraid that we might get delayed once more because of six am thunderstorms!! But we made it to JFK without any incident. It had been a while since we last flew into JFK and I didn’t recollect any of the scenery that I could see this time. Not sure what flight path the captain took. Here are a few sample photos:

Enjoyed the geography of the area from the air

Lot of little meandering rivers

Coastline off Long Island

Flying over Long Island approaching JFK (I did not get to see any part of Manhattan on the whole approach – we probably turned east way before New York)

We are all window seat lovers :-). So, usually, our configuration – if we can get it – is DW and DD sitting window and next to window, DS and me in the windows behind – essentially, we occupy three different rows on the plane. We love looking out the windows for sure. For the MCO-JFK leg, once DS found out that the schedules had changed and we were leaving MCO later than originally planned, he managed to move the three of them further forward. I like staying in the back and bet on myself being able to catch up once we were out in the open terminal 🙂

The plane took nearly half an hour to taxi and get to the gate (thank you JFK!!). Now I was getting close to hitting the panic button. But I stayed calm, and managed to catch up with the rest of the family by the time they reached the inter-terminal shuttle. We got on the shuttle, got off at the terminal, breezed through security thankfully (MCO would have probably taken at least 45 minutes; we are used to MCO and so I was shocked to learn from my Bay Area friends that SFO security typically clears in less than 15 minutes) … and – boarding cards in hand – landed up at the gate and were among the last folks in the queue to board. Yes, our flight was almost all boarded when we got there. At that point, Roadblock!!

Apparently, the boarding passes given by JetBlue in MCO – all the way through to JNB – were no good. We had to get over to a different line (which was empty at this point!) to get fresh boarding passes from Qatar Airlines staff. As we were the only ones in the queue, I thought it would be a quick thing – but it wasn’t! Three weeks before departure, DS had informed us that even if both parents were travelling with minors, South Africa requires birth certificates that display the names of the parents (what a dumb rule, I thought, and why hadn’t I been told about it sometime during the ticket purchase process). After double checking with another family that had recently returned from South Africa, I realized that the rule was very valid and after further thinking, I realized that the rule actually makes sense. Now, the Qatar Airlines staff did ask us to furnish the birth certificates – as I had them stuck deep inside my carryon bag, this took a couple of extra minutes.

But finally, we were ready to board, fresh boarding passes in hand. We were now literally the last to board the plane as all of those few folks who were behind us in the queue had now managed to board. South Africa, here we come!!

Here are some photos of the JFK-DOH leg (photo credit: DS).

Interior of the plane

Vegetarian Meal 1

Vegetarian Meal 2

Interior of the plane

Control Tower, Doha

Inside Doha Terminal

Need to go through passport control

Airport shops

Transiting from Qatar Airways to Qatar Airways would be a breeze, we thought, so we were not unduly worried that our flight took a few minutes to get to the gate (nowhere close to how much time it had taken for JetBlue at JFK); once in the terminal, I saw that we had to go to Terminal E (I might have gotten these letters wrong but anyway) and we were in Terminal B. I saw a shuttle that was on a higher level than where we were. So, we went up the escalator and got in the shuttle. It went to Terminal C (or so I thought I heard the announcer say – I was too busy taking a video of the shuttle). We waited inside the shuttle for it to go forward even as I – from the corner of my eye – saw most passengers getting off and I also caught a security guy outside yelling something. Next thing I know, he’s literally facepalming, the doors close, and the shuttle reverses.

Uh oh! Now we know what’s going on – the shuttle is a very short one, and we didn’t even need to get on it. We could’ve just walked. Anyway, now that we’d wasted enough time, we decided to stay on yo-yo right back to the other station. I see the security dude again, and we each laughed! From here, it was just a short walk down the stairs and around some shops to get to our gate even though it was deceptively described as a whole different terminal. Guess what, this flight was about to board as well, so we quickly got in the line.

The problem with taking oodles of photos is that it is very very difficult to pick and choose from them. The problem is compounded when you make two trips within a couple of weeks of each other (especially when you don’t travel that often) and don’t even have time to go through all the nearly 5,000 photos and videos that you and your family have taken. So, these photos that I share might (or might not) be the pick of the lot, but will still provide a representative sampling of our trip. You’ve been warned! 🙂

Once the flight got off the ground sometime around 7 am (JNB ETA was 3:40 pm), I was looking forward to what would be a nice flight through Africa and that I might even get to see Kili from the air. As we would be flying almost due south (first time ever that I had been on a nearly north-south flight along more or less the same time zone throughout), there would be no jet lag at all.

Guess again, buddy! The flight took off north of the airport and turned northeast. With me sitting on the right side of the plane, I bore the brunt of the sun’s rays. Each minute, I was expectantly looking forward for the flight to make a sharp turn towards the southwest; didn’t happen. The plane did take a more easterly orientation, but all I could see was a lot of water below, and desert far to my right. The scenery couldn’t have been more boring. After a while, it was obvious to me that we were not going to be heading south over land. And I was right; we kept going over the seas past the Arab peninsula then headed south.

Even though I had heard and read about the spat between Qatar and the other Gulf states, I hadn’t considered that the other countries would be spiteful enough to not let Qatar Airlines flights over their airspace, but that’s obviously what was happening (as I later deduced). While in flight, I kept thinking that maybe it is some Great Circle Route that I had not realized. Unfortunately, what that meant was that the window seat was not going to be an advantage for the next few hours for sure. I sat back, relaxed and turned my attention to the entertainment options.

After a few hours (just past noon local time, to be precise), I was looking at our progress on the map and realized that we were finally nearing the African coastline and would likely enter the continent. Sure enough, we passed over the island of Zanzibar.

Fumba (centre of the photo) and Kwale Island (bottom left corner)

Zoomed into Fumba, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Until we passed Lake Malawi, we had mostly cloudy skies like this one.

But then, it got better and I was able to get photos of rivers with and without water, mountains, valleys, lakes (per my interpretation of course), and really weird land shapes, especially as we got closer to Johannesburg.

Finally, we are in South Africa 🙂

Not the most encouraging of signs to see as soon as you land in a new country!

Once we got out of the plane, the immigration and customs formalities were very quick – and yes, we did need to furnish the birth certificates upon arrival. Fortunately, I got WiFi in the airport rightaway, so while we were waiting for our bag (we had only one check in bag and one carry on apiece), I was able to contact our host and inform her of our arrival. She replied immediately and said that she was waiting right outside for us.

So, within minutes of receiving our bag (with one wheel – of two – missing!!), we were walking out of the airport across to the parking lot. After getting our bags stowed in the trunk, we were ready to ride out into the sunset … and beyond – to Rustenburg. Though I was not too tired, I was very thankful that our host was picking us up as that left me free to ask questions about the country and the area, as well as take photos of the traffic – and the sunset of course!

Hadn’t realized that the freeway would be this wide!!

Same area different view – love the way the sunlight shines off the earth

Interesting roadway signage

Nice way to illustrate toll roads

Like some of the other old British colonies, South Africa drives on the left

A few sunset photos now – nature photos are always my favourite!

Getting close to Rustenburg now

A large toll plaza

Between Pretoria and Rustenburg (that’s what I think our host said), slower drivers tend to drive off the road into the shoulder if a faster vehicle is approaching from the rear. She said that usually at night she doesn’t follow this rule of thumb. But she said that this does not happen most other places in South Africa (again, this is my recollection of what she said – I am pretty sure I saw this behaviour all over the place, and I followed it as well)

July 1, 2018

South Africa – Preparations

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 9:15 am

Long long ago, in school, we had learned of the Continent of Africa – the sobriquet was ‘andh mahaadviip’ or Blind/Dark Continent. Among other countries on other continents, I had studied about the countries of Congo, Ghana and Nigeria. But though I had had urges of travelling to, say, Argentina and Brazil, I had not really thought that I might ever want to visit Africa. In those days, due to the apartheid policies, an Indian passport holder wasn’t permitted to visit South Africa (the restriction was on the passport; I don’t know if South Africa ever cared about it). So, even if I were to visit Africa, it would have to be one of the other countries.

Anyway, apartheid is a thing of the past (no such restrictions exist anymore on an Indian passport) and now I live in the USA, which makes it relatively easy to travel to many countries without a visa. But still, I’ve always felt that there are many other places and countries I would want to visit before setting foot on the continent of Africa.

Then, a couple of years ago, some of our friends in the same subdivision made a trip to South Africa. After looking at their photos, I commented about how while those photos were really nice, Africa would not be in my radar for the near future. At the start of this year, though, something happened that changed all that.

It was during the South African summer of 2017-2018 that the Indian cricket team visited for a test series. Having purchased an annual cricket subscription via Sling/Willow, I was following the tour and watching some of the matches as time permitted. When the cameras panned outside the grounds and then South African tourism commercials were shown, I suddenly started to get butterflies in my stomach and a desire to visit South Africa was born.

We were up at 2:45 am, anxiously reviewing the status of our six am flight from MCO-JFK. Yesterday’s flight had been cancelled because of thunderstorm delays the previous evening (go figure!!), and as there had been thunderstorms and delays last night as well, we were really worried (correction – I was really worried). So worried I had been that yesterday, I had whatsapped our airbnb host in Rustenburg asking if we could think of a plan B (no dice, as they were pretty much booked solid the next week) in case our tenuous connections – just under two hours in JKF to change terminals and get past security (and something I hadn’t even considered, get a fresh set of boarding passes) and then just over an hour in Doha (thanks, Qatar Airlines). Anyway, I was afraid I had placed myself firmly under the eight ball, what with my quest for el cheapo airfares that turned out to be anything but!

Anyway, let’s start at how it all got started. In December 2016, I was going to India to attend my wife’s niece’s Big Fat Indian Wedding (to be honest, I was one of the few who really met the conditions for that adjective, but that’s besides the point). On an MCO-FRA flight, I got into a conversation with my seatmate – an employee of one of the plethora of cruiselines in Florida, he was off to his homeland for a well-earned vacation. And his homeland? Botswana. I learned that when I changed to a Mumbai flight in Frankfurt, he would get on his connection to Johannesburg enroute to Gabarone. I wondered: what on earth would he do in Botswana other than visiting his family? Not only could I answer the question then (Only now has the Africa-returned me finally got the answer), but I also wondered why anyone else would want to visit Gabarone (or even Africa for that matter)!

Africa had always been a mysterious place for me – I had studied about countries in Africa in middle and high school geography classes mostly (with some history thrown in), and the moniker of Dark Continent fit perfectly. Four years ago, I had sung along to ‘waka waka’ with Shakira and her troupe, and watched the World Cup Football matches on TV but that hadn’t kindled any desire to visit an isolated land mass, bearing lots of diseases especially the ones the flummox mankind and modern doctors – it was the last continent I would ever wish to visit (maybe even after Antarctica). Or so I thought. Well then, what happened that made me do the about turn?

Well, in December 2017, I purchase an annual cricket package online from Willow TV. Cricket is a game played by many countries in the world, but obviously it is more popular in the erstwhile colonies of UK than elsewhere. So in the early months of 2018, the Indian cricket team was touring South Africa, and I was tuned in on the TV. The more I watched, the more I wanted to visit South Africa. By the time the series ended, I was ready to jump out and head over if I found a good ticket price.

As I’m subscribed to a bunch of flight price notification websites, you would understand that it didn’t take long for the prey to be caught! Specifically, one day in January (or maybe February, I don’t remember which it was), I came across this email that touted flights to Johannesburg – even from Orlando – for less than $1,000 … with a catch! The tickets on Qatar Airways were open jaw itineraries, and we were on our own as far as getting back home was concerned. Not to worry I thought, we had enough of a cushion between the advertised price and (big mistake) what I thought the typical good-deal round-trip airfare to Johannesburg was –> $1,300 to $1,500 [[i]I have since learned that tickets can be had in the range of $1,000 to $1,100].

If we didn’t get a good ticket price from the Europe destination of the original ticket, I gave ourselves two days to get to a different European city from where we could take a flight back to Orlando. In other words, if we were landing in Open Jaw Destination city on day 1, we should be looking at landing in Orlando on day 4. We were severely constrained on this end, because classes were starting the Monday following, and family wanted to be here on Friday. Which meant, we had to make Thursday our “day 4” and Monday would be our “day 1”.

With that in mind, I scouted through the gamut of available destination options in Europe and, in my infinite wisdom, I picked Sofia, Bulgaria for our Open Jaw Destination. Why? Don’t even ask, OK?!!

We were constrained with regard to our departure date as well, but after a lot of brainstorming, we finally decided that we would leave two weeks and two days before our return date, i.e., on a Tuesday … assuming our stars lined up and I was able to get the tickets for that itinerary. Which I did, without much difficulty – except for the short connections, which I glossed over, as I thought that a morning flight should pose no issues (we’ve missed connections because of weather multiple times before – the last having happened just last summer – but they were all on evening flights) within the USA, and there should not be any issues in Doha, it being a Qatar hub and a Qatar-to-Qatar connection.

So now, we were armed with an open jaw itinerary MCO-JFK-DOH-JNB-DOH-SOF. At this point, we were left with figuring out the itinerary within South Africa and our return trip.

At this point, there was a mutiny in the house. DW and DS – with tacit approval from DD – had arrived at the conclusion that I turn into a slavedriver on pleasure trips, making everyone wake up early to use the maximum extent of vacation time [[i]guilty as charged, if I may add ;-)]. But they didn’t want to be running around; rather, they wanted to take it easy (or at least, easier). So, I had to reluctantly hand over the reins to them. As a result – and this was to my own disadvantage – I neglected to perform any research and planning.

First thing that they determined was that Kruger was going to be quite a reach. Instead they preferred a place closer to Johannesburg and found Pilanesberg National Park. To be honest, I had also been wondering if we could pull off Kruger, while also having time to visit the other destinations we wished to visit. But I had been looking at Madikwe based on – I vaguely recall (so might be wrong) – someone’s trip report in this forum. So, was not too overly worried about missing out on Kruger.

Next, DS – who is a veteran of a few message boards such as (and including) FlyerTalk – figured out the Southern African leg (South Africa plus Zimbabwe) of the plan thus:

Day 1 (in South Africa) through Day 3: stay in JNB area somewhere near Pilanesberg preferably
Day 3: fly to CPT
Day 4-6: stay in Cape Town
Day 6: start driving the Garden Route and overnight at Hermanus
Day 7: Garden Route to Knysna
Day 8: Knysna to PLZ
Day 8: fly from PLZ to JNB (overnight at airport)
Day 9: fly from JNB to BUQ, take bus to Victoria Falls
Day 10-11: stay in Victoria Falls
Day 12: fly VIC-JNB (our JNB-DOH flight leg was in the evening)

In theory, I was fine with all of that except that – I was worried that if we got up late on any of those days, we would be missing out on sightseeing, especially as it was winter in those areas and sunset was in the 6:30 pm range more or less. And I didn’t think we could afford to take it easy in getting ready once we got up either! I was not too keen on the Garden Route and would have preferred doing it a bit less leisurely and instead spend some time at Addo National Park; I wanted to take a train within South Africa JNB-CPT (either direction) and I wanted to take the overnight train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. But anyway, I didn’t want to get in the way of the plans that DW and DS had come up with, so I gave in to the plan. After all, for the most part, it was just me quibbling for a train instead of a bus and a couple of hours here or there.

In addition, DS did a lot of research to get us relatively under budget from SOF to MCO!! The result was this:

Day 13 (using the above calendar): land in SOF at noon and head over to accommodation (undecided as of now), then check out a bit of Sofia
Day 14: more sightseeing then take overnight bus (FlixBus) to Budapest
Day 15: check out a bit of Budapest
Day 16: BUD-RIX-OSL by airBaltic (he said he had seen excellent reviews, and more importantly, it had an excellent on-time record, which was important to us, as our flight to get back home was a separate itinerary/ticket)
Day 16 (evening): OSL-MCO by Norwegian (we’ve done Norwegian before and liked it, except for the little nickel-and-diming that goes with them – but we knew how to get the best out of that!)

So, to recap, we purchased (or planned to purchase, in the case of BUQ-VIC) the following separate tickets/itineraries:

– MCO-DOH-JNB-DOH-SOF (Qatar Airlines)
– JNB-CPT (Mango Airlines)
– CPT-CPT (in town car rental)
– CPT-PLZ (separate car rental to reduce the one-way drop off fee – I don’t know if the drop off fee is proportional to the number of days the car was rented, but DS got to that conclusion, and I followed his recommendation without confirming)
– PLZ-JNB-BUQ (one ticket, but different airlines – Mango and SA Airlink – per DS, both of these are subsidiaries of South African anyway, but they have different rules and regulations, and price points)
– BUQ-VIC (extraCity bus – DS had confirmed that there was no need to purchase tickets in advance and there would always be availability)
– VIC-JNB (FastJet)
– SOF-RIX-OSL (airBaltic)
– OSL-MCO (Norwegian Airlines)

Tickets purchased, next on our agenda was to figure out where to stay. DW and DS got everything planned out:

For the three days in JNB area, we would rent a car as soon as we got out of customs and immigration, then drive to Mogwase, which is a small town south east of Pilanesberg National Park and just outside the park boundaries. Here we would stay at a Bed & Breakfast.

In CPT, we would get an Airbnb very close to Table Mountain and the CBD area. Upon landing from JNB, we would rent one car for local driving for three days, then drive back to the airport and swap it (not literally) for a one-way rental for two days which we would drop off at Port Elizabeth. On the way, we planned to overnight (Airbnb again) at Hermanus and Knysna.

Then a night in the airport – our departure to BUQ was at six am, and we didn’t see the wisdom (now we do!!) of getting accommodation to sleep until 3 am then get quickly ready to go to the airport. In the town of Victoria Falls, we got a family room in the backpacker’s lodge accommodation – mainly for the convenience and the proximity to the actual Victoria Falls area (needless to say, it helped our budget too!).

Of all these plans,I was a bit worried about using the Airbnb. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re relatively Power Users of Airbnb; however, with the stories we had been hearing of security in South Africa, I was not too keen on Airbnbing – I was wanting to stay at a proper hotel. But then, once I started reading the Airbnb descriptions of the kind of accommodations and hosts available, I got over that feeling of insecurity. Besides, the media always reports the scarier/bad news, is how we sort of rationalized our decision.

After some more research on Airbnb, I was able to find what appeared to be a very nice place in Rustenburg, which is halfway to Pilanesberg from Johannesburg. Not only was this place less expensive than the Mogwase Bed and Breakfast, but the host also offered pick-up and drop-off from either of the local airports, as well as provide a day trip into the National Park. All for an extra fee. After asking for a quote, we decided that it might be the best of all worlds for us; we wouldn’t have to a) rent a car b) drive in a tired state of mind c) figure out how and where to self-drive in the park d) pay top dollar (or Rand) to a professionally guided safari (as our host should be able to give us some insights into the area). A bit surprisingly, both DS and DW agreed with my decision and so, we cancelled the Mogwase accommodation and signed up for Rustenburg. With that decision made, I realized that in Jo’burg, we wouldn’t really be going anywhere on our own – and I liked that, because this city is where I had been most scared about from a security standpoint. What it also meant, though, was that we wouldn’t be able to check out the most touristy aspects of the town, as we would be in Rustenburg except for the drive in and out of JNB airport.

For Cape Town, our primary factor was distance from the CBD and Table Mountain which we intended to hike up. In Hermanus and Knysna, the Airbnb decisions that we made were just based on the photos and the budget that we wanted to stay under. Both places had a range of available places, some less expensive, and others more expensive.

DS then figured out which car rentals to get, and I paid for one online – the second one we needed to pay at pickup.

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