Simon Kelner: The camaraderie of a 27-hour journey home

 

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We are probably all familiar with that sinking feeling. You arrive at an airport and, as you check in, the person behind the desk tells you that there might be a delay on your flight.

You will be given nothing more specific than that, but you know what it means: an interminable wait, punctuated only by some mournful meandering around depressing shops and more fast food than is good for you.

I wrote yesterday about my reflections from a trip to Tanzania, but, in terms of adventure, very little could compete with the journey home, a 27-hour extravaganza that began with a casual warning of problems ahead, became more serious when the captain told us the aeroplane's computer system was playing up, turned even more worrying when he said that the hydraulics had failed, and ended with a six-hour wait in Dar es Salaam's lounge followed by a re-routing to Nairobi to catch an overnight flight to London.

Let me tell you: the snow at Heathrow was the least of our problems. We'd been sitting on the plane for a couple of hours when captain Richard Sutcliffe (a polite and loquacious north countryman, who – in the spirit of the age – had kept us informed at all times about a variety of mechanical difficulties) told us that he had no option but to abort the mission. It was the first time in 16 years' flying, he later said, that he'd had to cancel a flight. He'd tried everything, including the time-honoured remedy of switching the plane off, waiting a few minutes, and switching it back on again (I'm not kidding, by the way).

So we were sent back to the lounge, given an unlimited supply of samosas, and waited for news. It is too trite to suggest that national stereotypes were being observed, but I couldn't help noticing the difference between the phlegmatic Brits and the more excitable Americans. One woman seemed to think that merely because she came from Los Angeles she was more important than anyone else in our group.

As the hours passed, allegiances were made, those with leadership qualities emerged and, once or twice, tempers became a little frayed. It was part Blitz spirit, part Lord of the Flies. Craig, an IT expert from the Royal Navy, would definitely, we all agreed, have been in charge of the escape committee. He kept us entertained with his stories – he'd met the Queen five times – badgered the BA staff, improvised with a pen when a corkscrew couldn't be found, and even sorted out an impromptu smoking area for those in desperate need.

All in all, it was a remarkable display of patience and forbearance, and by the time we were on the plane to Nairobi we were a pretty bonded, and jolly, group. Maybe it was because everyone had spent time in Tanzania and had soaked up some of its laid-back attitude. Or maybe it was because we'd been drinking for six hours. Either way, I found the humanity of it all rather moving.

 

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