Back when the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) was still running, it was usual practice to reserve 2 or 3 days in Cape Town on arrival from St Helena before flying out to Europe, to cater for delays in the RMS schedule, as a result of high swells, issues with engines or what have you.
Perhaps it was somewhat naive to think that it would be all ‘plain sailing’ flying to and from the remotest island in the world, some 4 hours by air away from African land mass, and 2 hours away from the nearest diversion land mass (Ascension) in winter when cloud and wind and rain could be a problem. Whilst the journey has gone from 5 days to 6 hours, it may be advantageous to plan in the same ‘just in case’ buffer.
Someone who visited St Helena recently by air said she felt it was like embarking on a real journey. The 11 hours from London to Johannesburg was all quite normal, but the night in Johannesburg (optional as SAA does have a good early morning arrival option) and the Saturday morning flight to St Helena on a relatively small but comfortable jet, stopping in Windhoek, flying over African desert landscapes and then watching hours of sea. That felt much more like an adventure.
The added risk that the plane may not land on time is something that us people in the modern world struggle to understand. With 24hr conveniences, 8 flight options a day on busy routes, fast lives to live, some of us are not used to disruptions. When the RMS was running, we weren’t attracting those who lived in the fast lane (the amount of people I’ve spoken to who said they didn’t come previously as they didn’t have the time) but now, St Helena is under real pressure to deliver.
It isn’t so bad. Since the air service started in October 2017 there have been 4 delayed flights; the last 3 have been in the last 3 months resulting from fog (not wind shear by the way). The first delay ironically was on the flight Rhys and I took back in November.
However, there have been big affects on those who are delayed. Stories of families having had to transfer four tickets between Africa and Europe sounded painfully expensive and my heart goes out to every single person who has been in that situation.
But how do you manage the risk? I am expecting to fly out for a holiday in 2 weeks time, and I’ve been thinking about this for a while.
What if you fly from St Helena?
Rhys intends to go to New Zealand after touch down in Johannesburg, hopefully on 15th September, but he hadn’t yet booked his ticket. In July, we checked prices in 2 months time compared to the next day and found out the price was the same. This wasn’t too much of a surprise as people delayed in June told us that the flights they rebooked for the next day were the same price as the ones they had booked 6 months before. As a result, Rhys will wait until the morning of leaving (15th September), confirming that the flight has left Windhoek on the way to St Helena, and then will book his ticket from Johannesburg for the next day (16th September).
Unfortunately in this case, I’m a bit of a planner. I already booked in March to fly from Johannesburg to Bangkok, and paid £405. I have a price tracker on Skyscanner.net which tells me the price for the same ticket is now £445. Ok, so I saved £40. But what if I’m delayed? Emirates say I have to pay a charge to change my ticket AND “if the fare of the itinerary you wish to change to is higher than the fare you’ve already paid, you would need to pay the difference in fare in addition to any charges”.
Not only that, the problem with changing flights is that I’m now stuck with the same airline. And if the seats are full on that airline, I may have to wait days before I can go on my journey.
So my recommendation is, if you are leaving St Helena, book your flight the morning you fly out from St Helena, once the flight is confirmed that it has left Windhoek (and therefore is likely to land). Or even book your onward journey when you get to Johannesburg.
What if you fly to St Helena?
It is far better to book a 2 week trip to St Helena to avoid disappointment, in case you are delayed for some days. If you are delayed on the way to St Helena, you will be put up in the Southern Sun at Johannesburg airport. The food is really nice, and try and make the most of your days seeing the sites. You can go shopping in Sandton, see a 1 day safari (book at the hotel), visit Soweto, or even go have a drink in a bar in Melville. Whatever takes your fancy. So far the feedback on the best way to travel is using the UBER app.
On the way back, if you don’t want to book two single flights (as above) then perhaps tack on 4 nights or so in Johannesburg on your return journey. I’d recommend this if you are travelling between June and October. If you don’t like the idea of spending lots of time Johannesburg you could even book a short trip to Botswana or Cape Town by air or to the Kruger National Park by road, which if all goes well you can book last minute and embark on if you aren’t subject to delay.
If you are delayed in St Helena, and are a tourist, you will be put up in the Mantis Hotel, Jamestown. The weather, naturally, will most likely be bleak, so probably a good time to visit St Helena’s restaurants (like Bertrands on a Saturday or Sunday lunch or Anne’s place for a more casual meal), if a walk to the heart shaped waterfall isn’t to your liking. (When it rains, the waterfall is at its best).
Of course you don’t have to do anything of the sort and chance it. There has been 4 delays out of 42 flights, and the summer months, particularly between December and April, usually see blue skies and sunshine. Other places experience far more delays than we do (like the Falklands), and some easy googling shows that around 100,000 of flights are cancelled a year worldwide. You just need to judge the level of risk you are happy with, and plan accordingly.
We must all remember, St Helena is the most remote place in the world. Not many people get to travel here. There are still big wonderful discoveries here to make. And it pays to plan resilience into the journey to this remarkable island.
Update: The flights out and back in September were no trouble at all for me. Here’s some of the pictures from the departure.