June 01, 2014

The Luckiest Traveler: Bujumbura and Other African Adventures

Judge Thomas C. Warren (Ret.)

Traveling to Africa for five weeks this spring was a grand experience and eventually I may even tell you all about the animals. But sometimes the excitement of a trip comes in different forms when you have lived through traumas and problems. Often the best stories about travel are those that deal with survival or overcoming the surprises of the trip. Based on that test, this trip was a real whopper for me.

You may think you have stepped off the edge when your itinerary says you have to fly through Bujumbura! Bujumbura—where is that? Well, it turns out that, if you did not get a direct flight from Nairobi to Kigali, Rwanda, you may just get a flight that, in the middle of the night, will make a stop in the capital of Burundi. Now, when you are a counter of countries visited (like me), this should not be a problem, but my travel friend Les says it does not count when you don’t leave the plane. However, it makes a great story when you fly in and it is pitch black: you see no lights of the city, no lights of the runway (were the lights really Christmas tree lights?), and no lights for any terminal. What a strange experience. But passengers actually boarded the plane from somewhere. Does Bujumbura really exist? You can’t prove it by me. The short flight into Kigali (lots of lights!) was topped off by flying through thunder and lightning. What a start to our African adventures!

While in Africa we actually had very little rain, but, after flying in small planes from the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, we boarded Land Cruisers for the trip to the tent camp. Unfortunately, the previous night, there was a lot of rain and we ran into an area where several vehicles, ours included, had become deeply mired in the mud. With due regard to our drivers and safari guide, they did not expect us to solve this problem. Fortunately, there were several others around with the same problem and all the Africans pitched in together to dig out the tires, jack up the Land Cruisers, throw tree limbs under the tires, and push like all get out.

Eventually, we were back on solid ground, but because the road and adjacent lands were impassable, we had to backtrack and go the long way to the camp. This turned into the rough, rocky, dirt-road, night drive from Hell. It took us many miles further than anticipated and driving at night, which the park rangers frown upon. As you see from my writing this, we survived, but I am sure my spine is now several inches shorter from the bouncing. If the truth be known, we had a wonderful time on all the animal drives and our stays at the tent camps.

It seems that airplane flights were a recurring nemesis on this journey. As our safari was ending at the Ngorongoro Crater, we (all 16 of us) headed to Arusha and the Mt. Kilimanjaro airport to fly to Nairobi to connect on flights to various places or back home. The airplane God was against us! Due to a bit of a late start, heavy traffic, and road construction, we missed our flight. The next one was late enough in the day that we would have missed all of our connecting flights. I don’t quite know how he did it, but our safari leader and owner of the safari company went behind a closed door and soon was back to all the worrying travelers with having arranged a charter to come in from Nairobi and fly us to Nairobi. We all made it to each of our connecting flights (a sack lunch was even included). Awesome work by Kosen, and I sure hope he got refunds on all those tickets on the missed flight, as this was part of the safari package and he did not ask us to pay for the charter. Good work, Kosen Safaris!

I am beginning to think I am “rental car challenged”! The last two weeks of our adventure were in South Africa, and the final week Mary Ann and I were headed alone to Stellenbosch and up the Garden Route on the Indian Ocean. When we rented the car (a cute little VW), past experience had taught us to ask the checkout clerk for advice on any unusual things about the car, like how to get the gas cap open, etc. Everything looked good to go, except that I forgot to order an automatic transmission, so the driving was, to start with, a challenge in that the stick shift was on the wrong side due to left-side driving in South Africa. When I got the car back to the parking lot at our rental house, one of the guys working there asked me to move it a couple of feet. I then discovered that I did not know how to engage reverse (Push down, stupid!), and the car rolled (Mary Ann seems to think it rushed) forward into the corner of the wall, causing a very nice crease in the bumper. I figured I would now probably own most of that car and worried about it for the next nine days until I turned the car into Avis at the Cape Town airport.

At the end of the journey, I drove into the return lane, which was empty, and, at the end, got out and talked to the agent. He asked how the car worked and I said, great. I then confessed that I did have a new little (six-inch!) boo-boo on the bumper. He said, “Yes, I noticed.” I said, “What should we do about this?” and he said, “Nothing,” as I had 100-percent insurance coverage, which is standard in South Africa. The insurance God is now on my side. The Avis agent then asked where we were headed, and I asked how to get to the hotel we were staying in at the airport, and he said, “Put the bags back in the car and I will drive you over there.” Wow! Can you believe customer service like that? When the bill arrived when we were back home, the total for the nine-day rental, including insurance, was $237. Mary Ann said, “Pay it now before they change their mind.”

Now it is hard to top that story, but my life became even more interesting. The next day, we flew back to Nairobi (maybe the worst airport in the world) and connected with British Air, which was to fly us back to the United States through London Heathrow. From London, we were flying business class (frequent flyer points, of course) so we went to the British Air business class lounge in Terminal 5. Mary Ann had noticed that our seats on the next flight were separated, so she said she was going to talk with one of the agents about moving us around. She asked for my passport. Uh, oh! I searched everywhere and no passport. Mary Ann and Angela, the British Air agent, they went to work. Angela tracked us back through all the checkpoints in the terminal, but I never had to show the passport. She talked to the cleaning crew on our inbound flight from Nairobi, called Nairobi, got Homeland Security considering my possible use of the passport copy, and even sent an agent to search the plane. This all took over an hour and I was starting to really feel ill! Would they hold me up in London? Would I live in Terminal 5? Am I a complete idiot?

Finally Angela and another agent come walking over to us just as I was contemplating hitting the free booze. Wonders will never cease: the agent she dispatched to the inbound plane (which fortunately had not departed for somewhere else) had found the passport when doing his search. It had somehow escaped my pocket and was in the area where I had been sitting. I signed for the passport and lapsed into euphoria. Needless to say, I have sent a very appreciative letter to British Air about Angela the guardian angel.

When telling this tale to my kids, one of them emailed me back that, “You have to be one of the luckiest travelers I know!” And they didn’t even know about the other four stories above.

Judge Thomas C. Warren (Ret.)

Hon. Thomas C. Warren is retired from his judgeship on the Chelan County District Court in Wenatchee, Washington. Active in the ABA’s Senior Lawyers Division and Judicial Division, he can be found “in Chelan, Washington (or somewhere in the world).”