Ten years ago I made my very first international flight alone. B and Alex, who was but eight months old, stayed home while I flew to London via Singapore. Today I am about to repeat that first leg, though on a more modest Airbus A330-300 instead of the then new A380. This time B and Alex will also be waiting for me in Singapore rather than staying home.
I felt trepidation at leaving them then. Now I feel anxious at flying. The weather forecast is for 50 kilometre per hour wind gusts over Sydney and a turbulent jetstream across the southern interior. But I console myself that the rest of the weather looks okay.
It is still dark when I awake, no alarm clock needed. I haven’t had enough sleep after last night’s concert, but I don’t want to be late to check in. Most of my bags are already packed, but I stay long enough to watch the sunrise, an orange glow in a clear sky shimmering off the big planes docked below.
I am still not feeling the excitement at beginning the journey, that blend of memories and anticipation as I enter the terminal.
Check in and bag drop is all done via automated kiosks, though the latter defeated the two passengers in front of me. I go straight through immigration and security with only a short wait, entering the maze of duty free shops.
I wander for a little, on a whim buy a tiny photo printer, some musk Lifesaver sweets. Apparently musk sticks, still popular in Australia, feature in Malmo’s Museum of Disgusting Food. I am still disappointed in forgetting to visit it earlier this year.
Might as well have the “free” breakfast at the Qantas Business Lounge, courtesy of my club membership. They have two kinds of bacon (American style crispy and other), scrambled egg, beans and hash browns, plentiful pastries and fruit salad. I eat sparingly, not trusting my stomach, then relax and listen to music.
When the time comes to head to the gate I discover that it is a bus gate, hidden in the basement. I’ve only disembarked via bus gates in Sydney’s International Terminal before, but I know they cause delays.
The massive international aircraft look so impressive from below as we wind our way around the tarmac to the freight terminal where our aircraft, a Qantas A330-300 named Mount Gambier, is parked. Then up the stairs, wishing I could take photos but too scared to try.
The interior looks more modern than any of the other Qantas A330’s I’ve flown on. Attractive red seats and Panasonic EX2 screens, same as in the Jetstar 787s. They reminded me of my oldest Android tablet. Their interface has also been updated and it took me a while to locate the flight map. Unfortunately, the soundtrack selection was still pathetically weak with only the addition of a super hero collection performed by the Prague Philharmonic.
The IFE just shows the message “Oops” when I click on the food icon.
The captain welcomes us on board, warning us that we would be delayed and that we could expect a few bumps due to the winds, but that the rest of the flight should be “pretty smooth”. So, as I expected.
I set my phone to play relaxing music and waited out the thirty minute taxi to the southern end of the runway, even snoozing a little. The waves in the bay are small, few white caps. Maybe the wind is not so bad.
Finally, it is our turn, the engines roar into life, as we race down the runway and launch into the sky.
We pass by the domestic terminal, the massive roadworks of the Wesconnex. The Sydney CBD slips past, then we over the suburbs.
The bumps really aren’t bad at all and the seatbelt lights switch off sooner than expected. As we pass over the dark green crenellations of the northern Blue Mountains I start to relax.
Printed menus, brochure style, are handed out, along with Singapore immigration cards.
The green national park gives way to flat fields of various shades of yellow and brown, turning red as we move further inland. The vegetation appears black from above in contrast, giving the impression of a blasted, cursed landscape. Silver threads of water shimmer like mercury.
The young lady in front of me reclines her seat in full, squeezing me in. I decline to do the same to the man behind me as he appears to be using the table. Fortunately, the crew ask all passengers to sit upright when they hand out the meals.
The choices are a Japanese ingredient salmon salad that sounds too healthy, a vegetarian lasagne or my choice, a chicken cashew satay with prawn nasi goreng.
Except that it’s not satay, more of a not entirely pleasant curry sauce with bits of chicken and overcooked spinach and green beans rather than grilled skewers. It’s food, it’s edible, but it’s not a great meal compared to what I will be eating in Singapore and Malaysia.
The warm, soft garlic and herb focaccia and cheese and crackers are odd accompaniments for the main, but taste fine. Later we are served what is termed an Weis ice cream, but is actually a non-dairy boysenberry and coconut ice bar which I really enjoy.
There is little cloud cover over the Australian interior. The winter jetstream means that we take a more northerly route than the great circle originally plotted on the map. West of Dubbo, through Queensland past Mount Isa and into the Northern Territory.
We were passing the great inland rivers, a massive drainage system so often nearly dry, but now with water. The Darling, part of Australia’s longest river system, the Murray-Darling, flowing from inland Queensland out to the sea in South Australia. Then those that never make the ocean, the Diamantina, Georgina and Cooper Creek, all which drain inland to Australia’s lowest point, Lake Eyre, normally a flat expanse of brilliant white salt, sometimes an inland sea.
I marvel at their fractally unravelled threads, black lightning splitting and reforming, finding a path through obstacles down to the very lowest scale. Much of the water will never make it to its destination. Siphoned off, soaking in, simply evaporating into the harsh dry air and landscape.
It takes us over four hours of flight, more than half of the total, before we finally cross the threshold of land and ocean west of Darwin. My eyes have been burned by the hard reflected light and welcome a more soothing blue hue.
I’m tired and a headache constantly hovers in the background. The flight is starting to feel long and I need to distract myself. I could watch the boxed set of Game of Thrones, but an around the world trip isn’t long enough for that. The complete set of Harry Potter? Save that for the concerts! None of the new release movies excite and same with the encores and classics.
Ah, world movies. So for the next few hours I watch Mirai, a Japanese animation with English subtitles (preferred to dubbing, better for practising the language) about a young boy trying to find his place when a baby sister arrives into his life. There are lots of Japanese train references and I really want to share it with the rest of the family.
I am constantly distracted by sights outside the window. We pass over Timor, then other islands in Eastern Indonesia, East Nusa Tenggara. The lands are clearly volcanic, calderas of yellow sulphur. Is it smoke or cloud around their tops?
The air is rarely settled on this flight. For most of it there have been frequent light bumps. It feels like we are constantly fighting the wind, wings and engine swaying out of the window. It makes me look out, away from the movie. Occasionally we will hit a smooth patch and I delight in the brief feeling of calm, but for most of it there niggles keep me from truly relaxing.
A couple of times I drowse for perhaps ten minutes before awaking again. I need more, end up taking more Panadol, which I fortunately remembered to purchase during my trip to the city.
We cross the southern tip of Borneo. Storm clouds lurk in the interior, but we pass through scant wisps of high cloud.
With an hour to go we are offered a snack, either a pumpkin and feta tart or a box of dumplings, two chicken sui mai, a small char siu pau and a “shanghai dumpling” that looks like a xiao long bao. It’s obvious which I chose. They were nice enough, considering.
I’m feeling increasing nervous as we approach Singapore. There are towering clouds over Batam and its nearby islands. I really don’t fancy flying through them.
We are placed in a holding pattern, doing a tight loop over Batam, then flying out, northwards and away from Changi. I suspect that we are doing the northern approach as B and Alex did yesterday.
We skim past clouds, so close, but with only a murmer. There is clear sky and out the window I can see the east coast of Johor. There’s our next hotel at Desaru Beach! It’s visible thanks to the bright blue water park adjacent to it.
Now we turn again for our final run into Singapore. There are clouds ahead, but no, we are going below them, between them. A new oil terminal and long jetty, the second Johor Straits Crossing bridge, resorts, not long now, down, down down.
The journey is over. Welcome to Singapore.
I feel a huge sense of relief.
The taxi to the gate passes in a blur. As I’m seated near the front of the economy section it doesn’t take long to leave the aircraft and step on to the familiar brown carpet of Terminal 1.
I hurry along to immigration and, for the first time in a long time, don’t have someone with a visa problem ahead of me. The luggage collection area seems to have been spruced up, bright with lots of flowers.
The real shock comes when I exit. The exit to the road is gone, replaced by The Jewel, a brand new nest of a building with a giant circular waterfall as its centrepiece. I want to admire, explore further, but I get a message on my phone.
They are hungry. Go to the hotel quickly.
Choices. Minibus, free shuttle bus? I’m tired, I have a headache and I haven’t been to the bathroom in over eight hours.
I catch a taxi. It costs me $13 Singaporean. The whole ride Alex is messaging me on Hangouts, telling me how hungry they are.
So much for the grand entrance through the scenic tropical canopy. I do take some time to admire the golden light, that most perfect time in the tropics.
It’s good to see Alex and B again, but while I just want to sleep, they are desperately hungry after a day at Sentosa Island, riding the luge and exploring. Fortunately food is usually close at hand in Singapore.
The run down Katong Shopping Centre, full of maid hire places, is a short walk behind the hotel. B orders a massive chicken rice set, with vegetables, soups and one of my favourites, acar (sweet pickled salad). It’s perfect food for my tired stomach.
Afterwards we cross back, past a Norwegian Salmon vending machine, past the hotel to the Marine Parade Hawker Centre, now hidden behind the massive MRT subway construction currently being undertaken. The genesis of this trip was B wanting to eat durian and me not wanting that horrid smelling fruit in the house.
There are piles of durians for sale at the Parkway Durians stall, different cultivars, different sizes and prices. They hack it open for you and, with disposable plastic gloves, you can pry apart the spiky skin to pull out the maggot yellow fruit inside.
Somehow I am able to withstand the stench and accompany B while she eats the fruit. That is, until another couple of girls sit adjacent and open their durian, which must have been another variety because the acrid stench is just too much.
We need a drink. While B and Alex have a lime juice I drink a blueberry “juice” that looks more like window cleaner but tastes much nicer (I imagine, not having tried window cleaner before). And eat a popiah, because, hey it’s Singapore and they sell nice ones at that stall.
A tired Alex started bickering with his Mum and it is definitely time to go back and rest.
I still feel terrible, exhausted from days of rushing around and waking early for flights, of the stress and anxiety before the flight and the bumps during. I’m not feeling this holiday yet. Maybe I just need a good sleep.