Saturday morning, we did one last game drive in Chobe, then loaded up in the UTc buses and began the long trek home. By lunchtime, we pulled into Vic Falls, and proceeded directly to the town's casino for lunch (on our own dime this time). The casino was a garish, plastic place, done up in a faux, hyper-real, overblown African style that would be right at home in Las Vegas. After all the food we'd had over the last week, none of us were particularly hungry, so we just had a light snack at a fast-food place.
Then we spent a bit more time shopping. I found a much nicer Zambezi walking stick than the one I already had, so of course I had to buy it, now giving me two fragile, unwieldy sticks to schlep around. But they did eventually make it home unscathed...almost.
And that was that for Africa. Everything was downhill after that. Everything. We got to the Vic Falls airport to catch our flight to Johannesburg, and discovered a huge line of people waiting for just two check-in agents at the South Africa Air desk. But many of us were still frantically repacking our bags to accommodate our last-minute purchases, so it least the wait gave us a little time to try and cram one more wooden hippo into our dirty socks. Because I now had two walking sticks, and (of course) a bottle of Amarula, I tried to be a good citizen and pare down the rest of my carry-on luggage to the absolute minimum. BIG mistake. Since Ron had almost no carry-on, he helped out by carrying one of my walking sticks, and a second bottle of Amarula for Dave & Kathy. But against my better sense, I packed my spare camera body, my 500 mm lens, my brand-new, expensive Domke photo vest, and a lot of other valuable stuff into my checked luggage.
As our group edged closer to the front, they suddenly shut down one of the two check-in stations for no apparent reason whatsoever, and we were all forced to smoosh together into one increasingly-aggravated queue.
But after some time, we finally settled down in the plane for the short hop to Joburg, and just before takeoff, the pilot made some quick, barely-heard announcement about bug spray. Almost immediately, a guy came down the aisle with two cans of insecticide blasting away all over everything. Thanks for the warning.
The landing in Joburg was, I think, maybe the smoothest I've ever experienced. But then they made up for it by making us sit on the runway for awhile. According to the pilot "nobody in Johannesburg knew we were there." Oh good.
Pam and I had learned before we left that we were both scheduled to be in center or window seats for the seventeen hour flight back. Pam wasn't keen on the idea, and I was aghast; there was no way I'd survive 17 hours in a window seat. So, all during the trip, we'd been trying to get our seat assignments changed, and we'd been told in every airport from New York to Vic Falls that we'd have to do it when we checked in for the flight. Apparently, a few others in the tour group were unhappy with their assignments as well, so when we finally made it into the terminal, Jim Huddle went to the SA Air desk and haggled with the people for awhile, and finally wrangled us all good seats...well, better seats, anyway.
Of all the airports we had to wait in, Joburg was maybe the one that we wished we had more waiting time in. There were quite a few shops there selling African goodies, and some of us still had money burning holes in our pockets. But we only had about an hour, and then it was into a 747 for an ugly 17-hour flight.
I was astonished to find that I not only had an aisle seat, but that the center seat next to it was empty. We'd heard the plane was supposed to be full. But they closed up the doors, and we were ready to be off....like that meant anything. We sat there. And sat there. And sat. After a half-hour or so, the pilot announced that "not all the baggage was on board." After an hour, he changed his story to something about paperwork in the galley. Although I didn't know it at the time, the line about missing bags might have been true, and mine was one of the bags that did not leave with us when we finally headed off at just past 9 p.m. But we were finally on our way.
Oh, with a stop at Sal, of course. Once again, we touched down on the little wide spot in the ocean in the middle of the night. It was crowded there this time, another 747 was sitting there getting gassed up. The clock in the terminal had advanced a full minute and was now stuck on 17:24. And when we re-boarded after an hour or so of groggily shuffling around the terminal, new passengers got on, and the plane was full, including the seat next to me. Fortunately, it was occupied by a smallish woman who slept most of the time.
The flight wasn't pretty, and more and more of my brain started shutting down to escape the nasty reality of it. I'm not sure, but I think I might have even slept for an hour or two. But eventually, the Big Pond came to an end and we set down in the chaos of JFK Airport in New York, some 30 hours after getting out of bed in Botswana. The entire airport seemed to be one large construction zone, and I almost expected the airplane to be held up by a flagman while a cement mixer backed up. Getting off the plane, I knew I was back in the good old US of A: the very first sign I saw hanging on the jetway wall was in Chinese, with no English translation.
So then we started waiting for our luggage. The wait wasn't nearly as long this time as last time we were there, only about half an hour this time...for some of us, anyway. As the minutes wore on and fewer and fewer bags dribbled down the chute, my big black bag became more and more conspicuous by its absence. Finally, the belts stopped, and me and a handful of other people were left standing there empty-handed.
South Africa Air has some sort of alliance with Delta, so we were directed to the Delta lost bag office, where they had precisely one guy on duty. It took about another half hour to get to the head of that line and file a report. The guy said there had been a "mis-loading" in Joburg.
When we originally booked our New York to LA return flight, we selected a flight that gave us something like a five-hour layover in NY. None of us were looking forward to spending another several hours rotting in the airport waiting for a flight that would last nearly as long, but we thought it might be good insurance, in case anything went wrong. Good call. Between delays in getting out, delays in transit and delays in the airport, we finally stumbled up to the National Airlines gate only about an hour before departure. And yeah, there was another hour layover in Vegas, where the outside temperature was a balmy 42.7 (109) degrees. Just to complete the experience, I managed to lose my jacket in the terminal.
Overall, the trip was great, and I did have fun...so of course, the great kosmic karma kops decreed that I had to pay dearly for that. Waiting for me when I finally dragged my weary butt home was a notice from my landlord saying they were "terminating my residency 30 days from today." "Today," in this case, being June 20, just a few days after I left. The next morning when the apartment office opened, I went down there to inquire if this was some sort of bad joke or mistake. Nope. They were just booting me out, and they claimed they didn't even have to give a reason. Later, out of the goodness of their hearts, they deigned to grant me an extension until August 11. What I finally figured was that they had raised my rent as much as the law allowed, but figured they could get more money out of a fresh sucker. It was probably illegal as hell, and if I hadn't been an utter wreck at the time, I probably would have fought it.
I spent the next several days fighting the severe timeshift and the fresh shock of the apartment thing. Five days later, I got a call from Delta, saying that my bag had finally made it, and they were sending it around by courier. What they didn't say was that the guy wouldn't come pounding on my door until two in the morning. The bag was a wreck. The lock had been cut off, the zipper broken, and somebody apparently had a considerable amount of time to go through it and pick and choose what they wanted to steal. Can't help but wonder if the guys who operate the x-ray machine have an operation going. Gone was my spare Nikon FM2 camera body, my Soligor 500 mm lens that had worked so well for the eclipse, my newly broken-in Domke photo vest, and assorted other valuable items. Really, about the only item of real value they didn't take was my Bogen tripod and the expensive geared head for it. Guess they couldn't fit it under their coats. I know they had time to go through the bag, because I had a plastic portfolio inside that had a small amount of Zimbabwe and Botswana currency stashed in it that I was saving as a souvenir. They had had time to open the portfolio, go through it, take the cash, and reclose it. As I write this nearly a month later, I'm still going around and around with SA Air about this.
A late update: on October 1, I got a letter from SA Air with a check for the princely sum of $74.20, based, they say, on the estimated weight of the items stolen. Guess I'll have to carry heavier cameras next time...
They end up their cheery little letter by saying they look forward to "fully meeting my expectations" on future flights. Rat bastards. I'll freaking SWIM to Africa before I'll step onto another one of their planes.
But the eclipses are still calling. There's a doozy coming up in China in 2009; a full five minutes of totality near Shanghai. Hmmmm....
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