Posted by: Tommy | February 20, 2011

The Mad Scramble

It’s about time for another Crazy Travel Experience story.  This particular experience ended successfully, though with a desperate sprint through the Cape Town airport. We split up for the day, planning to meet at the airport in time to fly to Doha, then India.  Here are our respective days, with particular attention paid to the craziness of the travel day.

We had bought tickets for the City Sightseeing bus, the big, red open-air bus that provides headphones and running commentary on different sights as it drives a set route around the city.  The bus runs an express service to Table Mountain every morning, which we took.  We had planned on both taking the cable car to the top, looking around and then riding the cable car back down.  But as we were approaching the mountain, the bus commentary was talking about how nice the hike up was and how the best way to do Table Mountain was to hike up and cable car back down.  Impulsively, I decided I had to do that – so with 3 minutes of planning, we made plans for the rest of the day.

The plan for me was to hike the mountain, then ride the bus the rest of the way around the city, getting off near the hostel in time to shower, eat and catch a cab solo to the airport in time to stop by the Thrifty counter before the manager went home (Thrifty is still trying to screw us on the cowsitting – $733! – but the Cape Town manager is in our corner, even agreeing to help with disputing our charges with AmEx).  I took the phone (we only have 1) with me in case Evelin (the manager) called with details.  Anna had tickets to the 1 pm Robben Island tour which was scheduled to
last 2.5 hours, so we didn’t think I could wait for her and then both
get to the airport in time to meet with Evelin.

I’d checked our flight time and knew that I’d have plenty of time to catch the flight, as long as I got the airport in time to talk to Evelin.  After hiking for 90 tough minutes, I took the cable car down at 11:30am, ate a sandwich at the bottom of the mountain waiting for the next bus, then hopped on at noon.  The bus took me along the Sea Point area, directly on the coast.  The pre-recorded audio described the different neighborhoods and for some reason talked extensively about relative property values between the different neighborhoods we were passing.  Which is weird, but exactly what I wanted to know right there.  Anita and I had made the same drive and had hypothesized about property values as we drove. (The bus also was fairly detailed about which beaches you could go to in the area to see the skimpiest bikinis).

After Sea Point, the bus drove by the Waterfront (I could see the Robben Island ferry carrying Anna pulling away from the dock), then through downtown Cape Town.  It was a little after 2 when we got to stop 12, the one across from our hostel.  I hopped off, checked our emails and sent a couple, then headed upstairs to shower, finish my lunch and head out.  I called the hostel-friendly share-taxi that runs to the airport for $15 per person and scheduled a 3:30 pickup.  We kept hearing that it would take at least an hour to get to the airport – we asked one cabbie what time we needed to leave to get there by 4:30 and he declared we had to leave by 3 or we’d never make it.

I scheduled a 3:30 pickup anyway and the hostel employees thought I’d be fine.  I grabbed a quick shower and ran to the ATM, arriving back just as the cabbie showed up to get me…at 3:10.  But hey, it was only $15 (normal cab fare on the street is minimum $30 to the airport).  Mr. H (an Indian guy with a 42-letter last name) drove a rickety, early 90s Corolla with no a/c and no airbags (again, $15!) that accelerated to a whopping 40 mph on the highway.  But the traffic had been greatly exaggerated – we got there in half an hour, even with a max speed that was half the limit.

We were so early that I was done talking to Evelin (she couldn’t get them to budge and she thinks they’re screwing us) before 4.  The airport advertised their free wifi, so I bought a milkshake, got a chair at a restaurant and opened up the laptop.  I couldn’t get the wifi to work (not uncommon), so I opened our flight confirmations just to make sure I knew when we were supposed to check-in.

And then I had a panic attack.  I remembered the flights being at 8:50 pm…but it turns out they’re at 18:50 (6:50 pm).  I started doing the math in my head.  Anna left for Robben Island at 1, it takes minimum 2.5 hours, but you have to take the ferry and that adds some time.  The plan had been for her to finish Robben Island, then ride the red bus around the city, just like I had, back to the hostel, take a shower, call the $15 taxi and meet me at the airport in time for the flight.

International flight, so be there 2 hours ahead of time.  That would be 4:50.  1pm, plus 2.5 hours is 3:30.  An hour for the bus ride. 30 minutes to wait for the cheap taxi. An hour at least to drive to the airport in 5 o’clock traffic…She’d never make it before 6, even if everything went smoothly.  We’d considered staying 1 more day in Cape Town since Anna had a bad cold and we’d had to skip a few things – I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to play the “my wife is sick, are you sure you want her on your plane? We could wait until tomorrow” card.  The Qatar Airways (nicest airline ever) people were extremely helpful and called their main office to inquire about moving us back a day.  They results were not encouraging – they’d charge us $100/each as a rebooking fee.  But we’d also have to pay the difference in seat price from what we had to the only seats they had left on the next flight – and since we bought our flights in June, the difference was a little over $400 each.  Total cost to stay 1 more day – just under $1100.  Umm, no thanks, I guess we’ll fly today.

“Is your wife here?” they ask me.  No, but she’s coming, I say.  Then they look nervously at their watches – It’s already 5pm.

I ran to the information desk at the airport and got them to look up the hostel phone number.  Luckily, we had been there for 6 days, so the guy remembered us when I called.  I asked if he’d seen Anna yet – “No mate, no sign of her” – and then asked him to pass along the following message: “Flight is at 6:40.  You need to be here now.  Don’t wait for the cheap cab – get the first one you can and get here NOW”.  He said ok, then added “I hope she gets here really soon or she’ll never make that flight.”

I positioned myself and my luggage cart between the two entrance doors
to the airport…I’d certainly see her if she came through.  Every 10
minutes or so, I’d circle around to the Qatar Airways check-in counter,
hoping I’d missed her.  At 5:20, one of the QA girls saw me looking at
the sign on her counter that said “Check-in closes 1 hour prior to
departure”.  I’d talked to her several times already and she knew I was
nervous – she told me she’d hold her line open until 6 to give Anna more

At 5:30 I was fruitlessly trying to read my book – I’d read a page, then
frantically look around hoping she’d just walked in.  I gave up that
charade after about 10 minutes, opting instead to stare at my watch,
then the door, then my watch, etc.  Every 10 minutes, back to the
counter to see if she’d slipped by me.

At 5:40, I went back by the counter to confirm that they’d be open until
6, only to be told that they were closed.  Mariam, the girl I’d been
talking to, was nowhere to be found.  My eyes bugged out – and then
another employee told the one at the counter that Mariam had told me 6.
The one at the counter looked annoyed, but agreed that I could have
until 6.

At 5:50, I was mentally subtracting $1100 from our bank account.

At 5:55, I was checking my watch every 4 seconds.

At 5:57, I made one final run by the counter.  Nope.

At 5:59, I was wondering if my watch (5:59) or the airport clock (6:00)
was accurate.  And then I looked over – and saw a tiny person with a
giant blue backpack hustling toward me.  Gleefully, I went into a full
Third-Base-Coach arm twirl, waving her home and telling her to hurry.  I
grabbed my bag off the trolley and started sprinting for the Qatar
Airways counter.  It was funny to see the faces of the QA desk agents –
they were legitimately excited that she had made it.  There were wide
smiles and laughing, but also 5 people trying to assist us.  One took
our bags and weighed them, getting them in the right place.  Another
took our passports to input details.  Another already had our boarding
passes queued up and ready to print.  Another explained to us the
procedure at the Doha airport.  Then they told us to hurry.

At security, we asked for (and received) permission from everyone in
line to jump ahead so as to not miss our plane.  When we got to the
gate, Anna asked if she had time to pee quickly  – denied.  We were the
last people on the plane.  We got into our seats – 2nd row – and the
plane backed away and started taxiing.

Anna –
I rode the City Sightseeing bus from Table Mountain to the Robben Island Gateway. My plan was to ride the bus back to the hostel. If I made it by 4 PM, I could just ride with Tommy, but if not, I would call the inexpensive shared taxi for a ride to the airport after grabbing a quick shower. I would pick up my bag and hop in the taxi to the airport and then meet Tommy at the check-in desk for Qatar Airways.

When I picked up my ticket, it showed that the ferry departed for Robben Island at 1 PM and departed for the return to Cape Town at 3:45 PM. I was a little worried about having time to ride the bus back to Long Street, pick up my bag at the hostel, and then take a taxi to the airport. I decided that I could always grab a taxi when I got off the ferry, ride back to the hostel, have the taxi wait while I grabbed my bag, and then go to the airport. It seemed extremely unlikely (read: impossible) that I would be to the hostel with enough time to meet Tommy by 4 PM.

I boarded the return ferry at 3:35 PM, and found a seat. We waited to depart. And waited, and waited. Finally, at 4:10 PM (25 minutes after our scheduled departure), I asked a staff person what the problem was. He said a full bus of people had not returned to the ferry, and we had to wait for them. Finally, we departed at 4:30 PM. I was panicking at this point, running the scenarios in my head, trying to figure out how I might be able to make the flight, imagining Tommy having a complete melt-down while waiting for me. My brain just couldn’t think about anything else. I had no way to reach him – he had our cell phone, but I didn’t know the number.

Finally at 5 PM, I was the first person off the boat, literally running up the dock toward the street where I could get a taxi. I rushed up to the first taxi I saw, asked him how much to drive me to the hostel and then to the airport. I didn’t have any Rand left, but I could get some. I didn’t try to negotiate the price – I just leaped in and explained that I was in a hurry. He seemed relaxed, and assured me that I would make my flight–now departing in less than 2 hours, and I still had to get my bag and get to the airport.

I had Tommy’s passport, so he couldn’t check in without me. We started to drive to the hostel, normally only about ten minutes away. Not today – the traffic was terrible. We sat in traffic. The driver turned off the direct route to try an alternative, which was faster, but only barely moving. We got about two blocks away, and I jumped out of the taxi and ran to the ATM for cash for the taxi, then ran up to the hostel to get my bag. When I walked into the office, the guy working the desk said he had a message from Tommy: “You need to leave immediately.” I looked at him, somewhat incredulously, and declared that I was well aware of the time crunch I was in. Then I had to apologize for taking my stress out on him, the messenger.

No time to discuss further – I dashed downstairs, threw my bag in the taxi, and we took off for the airport. Or, well, we inched forward in traffic. Another inch. Another inch. Slow going. I realized that there was no way to make my flight. I re-analyze the day and decide my only option would have been to not go to Robben Island. I wait, growing increasingly more anxious. The taxi driver tries a different route, but the road was closed due to Parliament opening that day, and a bevy of Mercedes rolled past us. The driver turned around again, trying yet another route. At this point, it was 5:25 PM, and we had only actually made it four blocks from the hostel.

The driver started running red lights, making illegal u-turns, clearly as determined as me to make this flight. Finally, we got on the freeway to the airport. I sighed in relief, although I still am not optimistic. He only went 70 km/hr with a speed limit of 120 km/hr. After all the crazy driving, he turned into granny on the highway.

We are at the airport, pulling into the terminal. I strapped my backpack on and toss him the money for the cab. I run into the terminal at 5:59 PM, certain that I have missed the flight, but determined to give it every possible effort. I saw Tommy’s orange shirt, but he was looking away. I raced toward him. He turned, recognized me, and started doing the third-base rounding home wave like a crazy person. I, with my backpack bouncing on my back, ran and caught up to him, and then we ran to the ticket counter together.



  1. Close call – too close for comfort!

  2. That is crazy what happened. But when you travel all the time, you can get sort of complacent about rechecking times. I have missed flights like that. Again, isn’t it great there are nice people everywhere.

  3. I also rode that City Bus a few weeks ago and also found it funny that they talked so much about real estate prices. Also tried the wi-fi in CT airport and had no luck. Glad you made your flight!

  4. OK, my pulse is now racing from reading your escapades!! I’m wondering, have you been to any church servces so far??

    • Not since Israel, so it has been a while. The day of the week really gets away from me, and I never realize it’s Sunday until it’s too late.

  5. I’m glad I’m not the only one who cuts it close – I’ll have to make sure Dale reads this entry, just to show him….but then maybe not, he’d get too stressed out just thinking about it.

  6. […] Capetown airport – The large sign behind the check-in counter for Qatar Airways proclaimed a closing time of 1 hour before departure.  As I called our Capetown hostel every 15 minutes, frantically wondering where Anna was, I knew that all was lost.  I’d already spoken to Qatar Airways and been informed that rescheduling our ticket for the next day would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1800 – or, our entire budget for 6 weeks in India.  After pleading, begging and cajoling, the desk agreed to stay open for an extra 15 minutes.  So when she showed up, 14 minutes into the extra time, I felt like we’d just avoided elimination. […]

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