Riding the WhaleJet to Singapore

Saying goodbye to B and Alex was so difficult. There were tears and they are still lurking just beneath the surface. Why am I doing this, when I could be lying down with B, Alex and Kita while our baby plays. Forget the Umpteen Great Wonders of the World, nothing beats raising your kid.

But it is too late to act on those regrets as I sit here high above the cloud layer, almost 12 kilometres above the Earth with 7 hours left to go. The dark is catching up with us as we approach the border into Queensland.

I am flying on Nancy-Bird Walton, the first of Qantas’ Airbus A380’s. It still feels brand new with spotless windows and shiny walls and seats.

By the time I had stepped through immigration I had little time for anything other than to go to the gate. I was on autopilot, writing out the familiar green departure form, passing through busy security with little thought.

Outside was the kind of late afternoon sky that would see me gazing up and watching the aeroplanes fly over, dreaming that I was up there with them.

I watch a few aircraft taxi out. An Etihad A346 garishly decorated to advertise their Formula 1 Grand Prix race. An old UPS freight aircraft. Singapore Airlines own A380 taking off across my own aircraft. Docked besides us was QF5, the Qantas 747 also to Singapore, announcements made in desperation warning their sole remaining passenger to leg it to the gate or their luggage would be unloaded. I guess she made it.

The A380 is not a particularly attractive aircraft, squat and lumpy. Its capacity becomes obvious when you see the crowd at the gate. The aircraft must have been almost full. When the couple next to me requested to move due to a problem with one of their seats (they resolved it themselves – he’s an engineer!) their only alternative was two seats at the absolute rear of the aircraft.

There were multiple entrances from the two air bridges into the cabin, dependant on the travel class and upper or lower deck location. As I present my boarding pass to the flight attendant at the door he greets me by name.

I sat down in my assigned seat, 69A, no fights over the window seat this time. The entertainment system is immediately available and I set it to the tail camera and selected some music. Doors shut, we pushed back and I had the interesting experience of watching our movements out the window and on the screen in front of me. It’s not the clearest picture however.

The view out of my window is mainly of the huge A380 wing. Okay, it’s not a great view, but turbulence is best experience (ie minimised) over the wing.

We watched the safety video, then the captain welcomed us over the PA, advising us that the weather was perfect for flying over the beautiful city of Sydney. I liked to hear that.

As we lined up along the runway the huge flaps extended, further increasing the size of the wing. Take-off was a ponderous affair, with less acceleration than I am used to. But the giant aircraft felt strong, stable, confident in the air.

We lifted off into a gorgeous evening sky of pink and blue, whispy high cloud with the odd contrail. Out route took us over western Sydney and over Richmond and the Blue Mountains before we disappeared into western NSW.

I snapped away, and listened to my MP3 player, tried to settled my feelings.

I am in the “green” section of economy. I was also the “wag” quoted in the Australian as comparing the seats to the green CityRail long distance train seats. They aren’t anything like them! All I can see is the patterned black carbon fibre seat backs, which is really quite attractive. The padding is soft and comfortable and I fit in the space, so I’m not complaining. The recline is quite nice, but the foot net is useless while my bag, which is beneath the seat the seat in front of me, blocks it. Once I move it in a bit further and recline my seat the effect is quite comfortable.

The seatbelt has a tendency to slip and lengthen. Have to keep tightening it.

I am typing on my MyLO device, plugged into a power socket ahead of me. I figure that the solid state memory will handle turbulence better than the hard disk of my notebook computer. Unfortunately, the wireless and ethernet internet connections still mentioned in the Qantas material are not yet available onboard, but interestingly the safety card now permits wifi devices to be enabled and GPS receivers, along with cameras, to be used during take-off and landing.

Now to the onboard entertainment. I’m liking the wide touchscreen seatback display with its excellent swivel and decent clarity. There isn’t much need to use the controls hidden under a flap in the armrest unless you are playing a game.

The movie selection is decent, though it lacks the latest of latest new releases. The Oscar winners lineup back to 1969 is a good idea though.

Great television selection, including Little Britain USA (which refused to screen!), Doctor Who: The Next Doctor and a variety of documentaries that probably screen on Friday nights on SBS (Transvestite Wives, A Ladie’s Guide to Brothels, Best Undressed etc).

The music selection is a big disappointment for me. I was delighted to see a soundtracks category, but was then horrified to see that is was all musicals and pop soundtracks. At least the were some reason classical selections.

Once the seatbelt sign was extinguished the cabin crew came through to hand out printed menus. Mine has a tuna on the front. Not hot towels, despite the mention in the menu. No amenities pack either. I was counting on one to brush my teeth tonight. Knew I should have brought one from home.

The females on the crew are all blonde and thin. It’s like Channel 9.

I stared out the window, watching the light disappear as we crossed a carpet of cloud, one that turned orange with the setting sun.

At 6pm the crew came through to serve dinner. The choice of mains was Chicken and Tofu in a Ginger and Soy Sauce or Braised Lamb with Wine, Garlic and Tomato Sauce. I think I got the last lamb, the attendant apologising to the row behind me. That means a lot of people missed out on a really flavoursome dish, though it was rather small. The accompanying potatoes and beans were a little bland thoug.

The mains were accompanied by a really nice warm turkish bread roll, a nice change from the stale rolls of Jetstar, a difficult to eat mesclun salad with lemon dressing, Bega cheddar cheese and crackers and a stingily tiny Lindt chocolate.

You can grab snacks and drinks from the snack bar at the end of the aircraft, but I can’t be bothered to try crossing over the other two passengers to reach it. They stocked up on cans of drink and chocolate chip cookies though. I asked the FA for some fruit, and she returned with a crisp cold apple, their sole onboard fruit (it’s either apple or banana).

Dessert was a rather disappointing pine-lime Split ice block/ice cream. The (actually) hot Cadbury chocolate drink with marshmallow was really nice though.

I tried to watch television or movies, but its difficult to concentrate right now. Got halfway through Patton, Oscar winner in 1970, but had to give up. You could tell it wasn’t edited for the flight – the was an intermission pause in the middle! Just not used to watching TV anymore now we’ve got a baby.

At one point someone was playing a harmonica in the cabin. It’s still noisy in the cabin, not as whisper quiet as I had been lead to believe from other reviews.

The flight has been fairly smooth so far, though there were periods of chop near the border between Queensland and the Northern Territory, through parts of NT and close to Timor.

The tail camera shows little in the dark except the flashing strobe. The design of the A380 window with the big gap between panes makes it difficult to see anything outside. I like the very clear flight path screen, though it’s interesting that the icon for the aircraft is actually a Qantas 747!

“Why did you have to make me so constipated?” Wierd Al sings in the background.

It’s 10:30pm Australian time and I’m so tired. Emotionally drained. I just SMS’d B from the aircraft. It was US$1.90, but I needed to do it. Probably asleep though. I had plans to have a late night hawker meal around my hotel but all I want to do is crash into bed. It will be strange not needing to listen out for Alex’s cries. Poor B. I wonder if I can remember how to sleep properly anymore.

With an hour and a half to go we were served a late meal. Thankfully it differed from the menu, pasta with pesto and roasted vegetables, not mushroom sauce. A very nice fruit salad of rock and honeydew melons with one grape in an orange sauce and a Tim Tam to round things out. They had run out of soft drinks other than ginger beer.

Why is it that meal time = turbulence? Once the meal was served the aircraft started shaking. Ten minutes later the seatbelt sign was on. Ten minutes after that it was off again, but I can confirm that this massive aircraft feels the whims of the weather like any other.

I fell asleep, only to be woken by my fellow passenger for the collection of my tray.

Soon it was time to begin our descent into Singapore. I changed the display to the tail camera. As we neared Singapore city and ship lights become apparent. So were frequent flashes of lightning to our forward left. It’s funny, but without the visual cue of the screen you often don’t notice when the aircraft turns from within the cabin.

The waters around the port of Singapore are busy with many, many ships and this is visible even at night as you near the runway. I watched us come closer and closer until, with a couple of heavy thuds, we landed. In a surprisingly short distance we had slowed enough to leave the runway and taxi to our gate.

Exiting the A380 took a long time, but eventually I crossed the jet bridge and into Singapore.

I have to say that I’ve been very impressed with the A380. It was a comfortable flight and Qantas have done a good job with the economy section. It will be interesting to compare it with their previous flagship, the 747.

Changi’s Terminal 1 is looking run down and badly in need of a renovation. I also wish people would stand on the correct (ie left) side of the travelators.

Prior to passing through immigration I had to make a quick stop at a Begawan Solo and purchase some kuih lapis. Then the slow queue. At least baggage retrieval was fast. I took my big bag down to the left luggage office. At $4.30 for 24 hours it isn’t expensive and saves me lugging it around hot Singapore.

I went to the tourist office to discover that the MRT trains had just stopped. They recommended the Airport Shuttle Bus, which at $9 straight to the hotel door was a pretty good deal. While waiting for the shuttle to leave I tried to access the free wireless internet. Unfortunately, you are required to sign up and the sign up process failed dismally with a server error.

At least my mobile works fine, including net access.

We drove beneath a parade of tropical trees, their canopies stretching across the highway. Fortunately, mine was the first hotel, reached via historic Joo Chiat Road. I could smell the durian stalls lining the street from inside the bus.

The hotel was a bit like the rest of Singapore so far. Okay, but rather run down. They first tried to give me a quiet room near the pool, but it had no net access. The second room’s network cable was in ruins. Finally the third room has access. All are a little dingy and some sockets don’t work. But the rooms are functional and that’s what counts.

What are the rumours about my dog?

Better still are the food courts around the area. Underneath the hotel is a muslim food court selling roti, curries and drinks. I had a late night snack of banana roti and milo tarik (hot Milo drink), then walked down to a 24 hour convenience store for a “Kikapoo” soft drink.

There’s a lovely sense of decay around here that contrasts deliciously with the sterile image of Singapore. Can’t wait for breakfast!

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