Ag pleez SAX won’t you take us direct to Durban?

IT could have been a public relations nightmare…a disaster from start to beyond the normal finish time, but good humour, good companionship and a general determination to have a good time prevailed.

Eating out with Dusty Miller

Perhaps the main reason for a trip to Durban in particular and, more widely, Kwa Zulu Natal was to experience the new South African Express non-stop direct flight from Harare to King Shaka International Airport, which now serves Durban.

But despite being verbally invited several weeks earlier, and having had a written invite for around a month, the Monday morning SAX (South African Express) flight was full –– overbooked apparently –– and our party of 10 travel writers and travel agents from Zimbabwe had to trek to the Indian Ocean holiday resort city a day late, via Johannesburg by SAA (South African Airways) flight: meaning a big slab of a scheduled eight-night “educational” was apparently irretrievably lost. (Some was, however, recovered.)

Fast forward a week. We had already said goodbye to colleagues and fellow travellers who had become firm friends as they left earlier by SAX flights for the capitals of Zambia and Botswana.

I was first in the queue for the new two-hour hop by SAX Bombardier CRJ 200 at King Shaka but the stern expression on the lady at check-in and her body language told me something was again seriously amiss.

Again I overheard the dreaded word “overbooked”. My suitcase was weighed, labelled …and then returned to me to await “further and better particulars.” I grabbed a chair where I could see what was going down, buried my nose in a paperback thriller and mentally shrugged that it was all out of my hands.

Five minutes before departure time I was waved over. I was one of four lucky ones actually boarding the plane. The others would return….via Jo’burg…which rather negated much of the purpose of the journey!

Because of the severe shortness of time, I was totally convinced my hold luggage was not aboard and that certainly proved the case on arriving at Ha-ha-ha-harare (Africa’s fun capital!) exactly two hours later!

Little cramped

Seating on the CRJ-200 is a little cramped if you are even slightly bigger than Twiggy. I’m considerably larger than the 1960s model, but having two seats to myself at the front of the craft helped. If you need to use the single toilet (for about 50 passengers), it helps to be a double-jointed contortionist!

I wasn’t hungry, so said “no thanks” to “lunch” served at 10:40am, but it looked fine. First to be served drinks, I apparently had the only lemonade on board.

Flying at 29 000 feet on a clear day it was possible to make out much of the terrain we overflew from turning inland from the majestic rolling waves crashing on golden beaches and a sad farewell until…? to the warm Indian Ocean across tracts of South Africa, then Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Landing was uneventful and we were soon out of the aircraft, into a bus and deposited at the terminal. I was certainly not the only one whose main luggage item(s) was still sitting on the tarmac at King Shaka. National Handling Services staff, clutching sheaves of report forms in duplicate, greeted very irate travellers. Probably 12 or 15 “pax” were without suitcases.

I’m a very old hand at travelling and this was the fifth time my main suitcase had gone missing (twice Air Zim lost it between Harare and Gatwick…delivered to a temporary address within 26 and 32 hours respectively); once between Malaga and Leeds & Bradford (delivered to my brother’s, via Paris, eight hours after I arrived.)

On the latest occasion but one, Ethiopian misplaced my kit somewhere between Dubai-Addis Abba-Lusaka and here. That’s when I learned that despite Iata rules insisting that the airline delivers missing material, Air Zim insists even more insistently, that you return to the airport (no matter how inconvenient) and collect it yourself. (Incidentally you are treated like a major international diamond smuggler by Zimra if your case does go missing!)

They don’t tell you to carry your passport when uplifting the missing luggage, but perversely and bureaucratically want to see it when you get there!
After the Ethiopian flight, no one phoned me to say the lost case was found (I went to check 36 hours later.)

Getting better

On this latest occasion the airport rang my cell as I got to the airport gates at 9am. So they’re at least getting a bit better!

South African Express (SAX) flies Durban-Harare return three times a week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday).

Our northbound journey, which took exactly two hours, was scheduled to last two hours twenty-five minutes and costs (according to Skyscanner.com) US$517 return.Skyscanner confusingly shows the carrier as South African Airways, which is in fact the parent company of SAX.

The Friday before our jolly to the seaside, SAX threw a glittering major dinner party at Victoria 22 in Harare, co-hosting the event with Kwa Zulu Natal trade, commerce and tourism bodies. Both there and at a briefing at OR Tambo Airport on the diverted route south, the Press heard the route was a work in progress; that frequencies may well be increased and arguably more suitable equipment used to service the route.

It would seem the Bombardier CRJ 200 is certainly not the ideal aircraft for this route, given the enormous quantity of shopping the women on our trip bought on every feasible occasion, vis-à-vis the plane’s limited hold capacity and tiny cabin lockers!

But the route has been sadly missed since Air Zim dropped it many years ago and I’m sure will be a winner with people travelling (preferably light!) to the coast for schools and universities; for Durban’s magnificent sporting attractions; to visit friends and family; to catch one of the many coastal and inter-continental sea-cruises leaving Durban’s harbour; for a major beach holiday or just for a long weekend’s break of sun, sea and sand.

(Read more about Durban and KZN in Dusty Miller’s Travel column in tomorrow’s NewsDay)

dustym@zimind.co.zw