keep calm and travel on
Although there were a few moments when time seemed to slow to a crawl, the first six months of our Kigali tour flew by pretty quickly. We celebrated the midway point of our first year in Rwanda with a two-week trip to Namibia with S’s parents. We had spent a long time poring over the itinerary and were looking forward to sharing Munchkin’s affections – and care – with his grandparents almost as much as nana and zadie were looking forward to seeing their only grandson. But first, we had to reach Windhoek for our rendezvous – and inter-country travel in Africa is never a straightforward proposition.
We picked Namibia partly because none of us had travelled in Southern Africa, partly because it is quite a bit more off the beaten path than South Africa, and partly because it seemed relatively easy to reach from Kigali. We had booked a direct flight to Lusaka on Rwanda Air and, after spending the night in Zambia, planned to take another short, direct flight between Lusaka and Windhoek on Air Namibia. Easy, right?
Our troubles started at the airport in Kigali when D received a phone call from Windhoek informing him that Air Namibia had cancelled our flight and rebooked us for another one the following day. The extra day in Lusaka would have meant missing our rendezvous and the start of the overland trip we had planned meticulously and paid no small amount of money to book – completely unacceptable, in other words.
Over the course of at least a dozen phone calls to Air Namibia, the airline’s personnel conveyed a spectacular lack of concern for our predicament, and we boarded our Kigali-Lusaka flight without a solution in sight, managing only to extract a vague promise that Air Namibia would work on rebooking us while we were airborne. The airline’s offices had closed by the time we touched down in Lusaka at 10pm, but a helpful Rwanda Air supervisor met us at the gate with the message that Air Namibia would provide seats for us on an early morning South African Airways flight that would get us to Windhoek a few hours ahead of schedule. The five-hour layover in Johannesburg was not an ideal way to spend the first Saturday morning of our vacation but it sure beat the alternative of missing our rendezvous.
We had more troubles on the back end. This time, Air Namibia didn’t cancel our flight outright – they simply shifted its departure from late afternoon to early morning – a big enough change that there was no way for us to make the flight. This time we had two days’ notice – more than enough time to find an alternative, which we did – or at least thought that we did. D spent twenty minutes on the phone with Air Namibia’s reservations desk and received multiple assurances that we would be rebooked – only to learn the following morning that no changes had been made to our reservations. We had to enlist the assistance of our safari company in following up with the airline’s management to ensure that we could make our return flight.
In the end, the new flight pattern worked out in our favor. As long as we had to fly through Zambia, we had decided to tack on a visit to Victoria Falls to the end of our vacation. The stopover at Victoria Falls was an afterthought – had we researched it better, we would have undoubtedly booked the very itinerary we wound up with through Air Namibia’s incompetence. Instead of flying back through Lusaka, Air Namibia rebooked us on a direct Windhoek – Victoria Falls SAS flight arriving at the Zimbabwe side of the falls. It left a little earlier than our original flight to Lusaka would have – and this meant that the last day of our Namibia trip we had to leave for Windhoek at dawn. The payoff was that we avoided an overnight in Lusaka and, by cutting out one of our flights entirely, ended up with an extra day at the falls.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly the last day of our vacation – we enjoyed a lazy, rainy morning at our lodge and then caught the puddle-jumper flight from Livingstone (the town on the Zambia side of Victoria Falls) back to Lusaka. With just the return leg of our Rwanda Air itinerary ahead of us, we thought we were in the clear….How silly of us! Upon arrival in Lusaka, S immediately noticed that our flight was not listed on the departures board. Rwanda Air’s office was closed but we figured we’d get some answers when the check-in counter opened three hours before departure. We had an hour and a half to kill until that time, the bulk of which D spent chasing after Munchkin as he pushed an empty luggage cart up and down the length of the terminal.
We had to pass through security in order to reach the check-in counters, and only once we were on the other side did the penny drop: the reason our flight was not listed on the departures board was that it did not exist. Apparently, at some point after D had purchased the tickets in mid-October, Rwanda Air decided to cut down its service to Lusaka. No one bothered to contact us so we only learned at the airport that the Sunday evening flight we had booked and paid for was now scheduled to depart on Tuesday and that the only other Rwanda Air flight out of Lusaka in the intervening two days was to Johannesburg.
After many a frantic phone call and a visit with the airport’s manager we at last found ourselves face to face with Rwanda Air’s lone Lusaka representative – the same one who had assisted us upon arrival in Zambia two weeks earlier. S took charge and after a series of forceful conversations managed to get Rwanda Air to rebook us on a Kenya Airways flight through Nairobi. Rwanda Air does not partner with other airlines and it took so long for the head office in Kigali to approve the new flight pattern that we watched one KQ flight leave half-empty at 6pm only to be put on the next flight, which left at 2am.
In the end, this too seemed to have worked out in our favor. The 6pm flight would have meant overnighting in Nairobi before connecting to Kigali the following morning. Instead, the airline put us up in a Best Western in Lusaka. Munchkin, who was a trooper throughout the four hours we spent at the Lusaka airport, fell asleep as soon as we were en route to the hotel and slept soundly until it was time for us to return to the airport around midnight; we didn’t even bother taking him out of his car seat.
Following the red-eye flight from Lusaka and a brief layover in Nairobi, we arrived back in Kigali around 8am Monday morning – in time to make it into the office, as planned. This all seems like a lot of hassle for one vacation, but in times like these it is always useful to maintain perspective. Inconvenient though the cancellations were, we managed to mostly stay on schedule and our various trials and tribulations pale in comparison to those endured by some of our friends. One couple, for instance, was forced to delay their return by an entire week after first getting caught up in a rainstorm in Thailand and then having their alternate flight back through Istanbul grounded for days due to snowstorms in Turkey.