B and G’s excellent adventure – getting there

I was off on my own (ie without Pete) for a short adventure with my oldest friend, B. She and I go back fifty years, when we first met at high school. We became firm friends at university and shared many a scrape and mistake and wonderful times back in Perth, where I grew up. These days, she still lives there with her large family and plenty of responsibilities, whereas I’m a retired layabout on the other side of the country. So we planned a short escape to give her time to refuel the engines, and give me a chance to see a small part of New Zealand’s South Island. And gossip and reminisce over a glass or two of good New Zealand wine. Of course.

Needless to say, we didn’t travel on the same plane. B booked a flight from Perth which would have her arriving in Christchurch well before me. I flew on a morning flight from Brisbane, which meant a 3-4 hour drive from Hervey Bay to the airport. Rather than get up at midnight to drive to Brisbane, Pete and I drove down the day before and stayed in a hotel overnight. It was pretty ordinary, but it was a bed for the night. Breakfast was pretty ordinary, too – we had a sort of Eggs Benedict, overcooked eggs on a slice of ham on a slice of bread, covered in rocket leaves, drowned in far too much (bought) sauce.

Hey ho. Pete dropped me off and headed for home while I worked out how to do the self-service check-in. Much as I poo-pooed the whole procedure when I first encountered it, I have to say it has speeded up the airport experience considerably. No more conga line of people and bags snaking around in front of the airline desks. I’m not sure what they can do about the security screening, though.

It has been many years since my only previous flight with Virgin, so it was going to be interesting. Although it’s no longer as cutprice as it was when it started in Australia, Virgin is still a bit spartan. I paid the extra to pick my own seat, and get a meal. But you use your own device to watch movies etc, having downloaded the Virgin app. There were no usb ports. The food was ordinary – penne in olive oil and breadcrumbs on top with gluggy potato salad. The chocolate mousse wasn’t bad.

We got off to a bad start when the flight was delayed for an hour. These things happen, of course, but when the pilot did the routine apology, he explained that the delay resulted from two factors; first, the crew had arrived from New Zealand that morning on another flight, which was late getting in. When they arrived, they had to go through transit security. NZ flights seem to leave from the gates furthest away from the main airport, so they had to go all the way in, then all the way out again. It must have taken 20 minutes. Bureaucracy gone mad, in my opinion.

It’s a boring flight most of the way. The plane crosses the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, known to us as ‘The Ditch’. I played Solitaire or dabbled in a book until we crossed the NZ coast. The alps were spectacular, with snow dusting the mountain peaks and turquoise rivers swirling through the valleys. Yes, the camera was up there in the overhead locker. I had more leg room in the row behind business class – but there was no seat in front of me to put my camera bag. But I did my best with the notebook.

I’d organised a super shuttle for the trip into the city. It’s a shared mini-bus service, costing $25 – much, much cheaper than a taxi. The driver was a refugee from North Carolina, a big, bluff woman who said she used to manage backpacker hostels in the city centre – until the earthquake (there will be more on that). Her job vanished with the buildings, so she bought into this franchise. She was the first and by no means the last person to tell me how frustrated she was with the lack of action in addressing the devastation caused in the earthquakes in 2010-11.

I arrived at the hotel (complete with 2 bottles of sav blanc from duty free) around 5pm, expecting my friend would have arrived well before me, around 10am.

She wasn’t there.

All sorts of things went through my head. Illness? Problems with the grand children? A sick dog? I sent her a text message. “You’re not here. What happened?”

The last thing I expected was aircraft dramas. The direct Perth – Christchurch flight she was supposed to take was cancelled due to maintenance problems. So she caught a Qantas flight to Sydney, which would connect with an Emirates flight to NZ. Except that after about two hours the cabin lost pressure. You know all that stuff they tell you in those safety briefings? Masks come down from above, put them on and breathe normally? Yep, all that.  She said there was a noise and all the lights went out, then a repeated announcement was made – ‘this is an emergency’. But the lights came back on, the pilots said a fault in the air conditioning caused the cabin to lose pressure. The plane descended rapidly to 10,000 ft, where oxygen is not required. B thought there was also a medical emergency in the cockpit, with a woman passenger she thought must have been a doctor running down to the cockpit. The cabin crew kept stressing that they were trained in dealing with the situation and to keep calm.  Since B flew business class, she would have been shielded a little from events in the rest of the cabin. It must have been heart-stoppingly scary, but B said after she accepted that there was nothing she could do, she watched the cabin crew, who wore masks attached to oxygen bottles they carried, doing their jobs calmly and efficiently. There were 297 people on the flight. It must have been a helluva job keeping all those people from panicking. Although I expect there would have been a few who panicked, anyway. Here’s the news report about it.

The plan had been to land at Adelaide, but Adelaide couldn’t accommodate the aircraft, so they flew on to Melbourne. There was no gate available there, either, so they stopped at a hard stand away from the terminal and waited until ground staff brought over a ladder for all the passengers to disembark. Then Qantas staff had to arrange new flights for everybody. My friend was put on an Emirates flight. But her luggage (and about 10 other people’s) hadn’t made it off the plane. Staff did their best, giving stranded passengers Qantas pyjamas and rudimentary toiletries. B spent 5 hours in the Qantas lounge and arrived in Christchurch around 6:30pm, suffering from lack of sleep – but with a great story to share. Just as well I bought that wine in duty-free.

B told me it was almost as if she had a premonition something might go wrong. Although she’s a great traveller, she doesn’t like flying. Apart from the usual hugs and kisses for the dogs (in case she doesn’t see them again) this time she packed an extra dose of her medication and a pair of knickers in her carry-on luggage – something she doesn’t normally do. At least I didn’t have to lend her a pair of knickers.

Dinner was a bottle of lovely NZ sav blanc, and a (delivered) gourmet pizza. Even that was a tale in itself, involving issues like how do you call an 0800 number from your roaming mobile, why won’t the online apps recognise the hotel address, and ringing pizza joints that no longer deliver. But with a bit of advice from the hotel staff, all was well. After that, both of us passed out for a much-needed sleep.

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