Published: February 6th 2011December 21st 2010
"Don't let it snow, don't let it snow, don't let it snow..."
Looking out my hotel room window, the sun was just rising, creating a pink hew that blazed across the horizon.
I knew I wasn't out of the woods yet, but so far so good.
The bloody fire alarm in the hotel had gone off, and was still blaring. I was tired and hungover and the last thing I wanted to do was to evacuate the building and step outside into the freezing cold. And boy, was it freezing.
Thankfully the alarm finally stopped, and I sneaked back into the warmth of my bed.
Approximately three hours later, my Blackberry alarm rather than a fire alarm woke me again. I rushed over to the window and pulled the curtains.
Shit, shit, shit.
On any other occasion, the sight of snow billowing down from the heavens and seeing a foot of fresh powder smothering the ground as far as the eye could see, would be a joyous one, especially just a week out from Christmas.
But today, it was a sight that struck terror into the heart.
The hotel was one of those lovely English countryside hotels, with antique decor and wood-panelled walls
The start of the race.
to match. As a guest it felt like your very own mansion for a night. Nice as it was however, I didn't want to be here a minute longer.
The Burnham Beeches Hotel was the venue for Work Xmas Party #2 and it was an excellent day's drinking the day before, with everyone grateful and appreciative of being able to pass out in the same building the party was held in.
It was a cursed gift however, the irony not lost on any of my colleagues as we pondered how to now get ourselves home. Funnily enough, getting back to London was the least of my worries.
One of my colleagues had ordered a taxi to take us to Maidenhead, which was close to where a couple of my colleagues lived. Although Burnham station was a mere 30-minute walk away, Maidenhead was likely to have more trains going back to London. I didn't fancy a 30-minute slog in the snow (without the right gear), which was still falling heavily, so I thought I might as well jump in the shared taxi to Maidenhead.
Word then got through that the taxi driver's car had got stuck, and
that he was now attempting to get to us in a 4x4. We were wondering if he would ever show up - all we could do was wait.
Thankfully he showed up about 45 minutes later and we all piled in.
I had never seen anything quite like it.
The snow was still piling down and absolutely everything was white. Roads became indistinguishable from footpaths and driving was treacherously slippery. Our driver was very good though, very experienced, and he seemed to know exactly how to drive in these conditions.
In spite of the chaos, I don't think I've ever seen England so picturesque - it was a winter wonderland.
Trains at Maidenhead station were severely delayed. By hours. Seeking warmth, and in my colleague Bill's case, seeking a cigarette, we momentarily left the platform. We still had another twenty minutes to wait. I felt uncomfortable leaving the platform and my instinct proved correct as we heard the train thunder away as we returned to the platform five minutes later. Shit.
Ten minutes later we thankfully caught the next train.
It took me about four hours to complete a 1 1/2 hour journey
The ultimate destination - will I make it there?
home in the end, but this is far from the end of the story.
The F5 key on my keyboard is a lot looser than it was, such was the constant refreshing of Heathrow's website.
Every flight since the snow came down this Saturday morning had been cancelled, although my flight for tomorrow morning still had a status of "SCHEDULED". The Austrian Airlines website also gave me hope as it also showed the same status.
I spent a lot of time on the phone with Sag in the meantime. We were both booked to fly out to Cairo via Vienna, albeit on different flights the next morning.
My phone rang again around 9pm - Sag's flight had been cancelled.
I couldn't be sure that my flight would remain "scheduled" so I stayed up, hitting F5.
Around midnight, it was confirmed - flight cancelled.
Sag woke me up the next morning around 9am with another phone call. He had his flights rescheduled to fly out on Tuesday. I groggily worked out that we would only miss two days of our 15-day tour of Egypt and Jordan if we both managed to fly out on
That is pretty thick. Ain't no plane gonna take off outta that.
Tuesday. Sag had already booked another flight from Cairo to Aswan so that he could catch up with the tour.
Austrian Airlines had opened up their phone lines at 8am meaning that I was already behind the 8-ball. I quickly dialled their pay-per-minute number and prayed that I would be able to get rescheduled for a similar date. After half-an-hour on hold it was done, much to my relief - London Heathrow to Paris, and then Paris to Cairo on Tuesday. I went ahead and booked a flight from Cairo to Aswan. Sorted!
Or so I thought.
Fast-forward to Monday. There were still no flights departing from Heathrow. Being the UK's biggest airport I had a false sense of security that my original flight would have gone ahead. I couldn't be more wrong.
Sag called me again, around 5pm - his flight had been cancelled again. He was at a loss as to what he would do. He couldn't get through to Austrian Airlines' and by 6.30pm, the pay-per-minute number was closed for another day - he would have to wait until morning to rebook.
My flight was still scheduled - but I was thinking
Train Ticket From Maidenhead To London
First...I had to make it back to London.
about a plan B.
If my flight from London to Paris was to get cancelled, I still realistically had enough time to get to Paris by land and sea for the connecting flight to Cairo, which left at 1640 Paris time. If the Paris-Cairo flight got cancelled or if I didn't make it in time, then I knew people I could stay with in Paris - and at least I would be out of London. I would then have a better chance of getting a flight out of Paris than I would out of London, as it was slightly warmer there. I was also thinking that after staying a night in Paris, I could keep going to Madrid, and catch a flight to Cairo from there. Surely Spain is south enough that it won't be affected by snow?
I have already booked a flight from Cairo to Aswan which has cost me an extra £86 - if I'm not on that flight to Cairo, I would lose that money.
I knew it would cost me even more money (and effort) getting to Paris, and that I could end up being stuck there and would then have to
Sunday evening. Stuck inside my flat when I should've been in Cairo.
buy a completely new flight to Egypt anyway - so it was a risk. Would it be a risk worth taking? Quite possibly. If I did make it, I would save
myself money and enjoy more of a holiday. Plus, it would be an adventure - more exciting than sitting around at home waiting for a flight to finally go ahead.
By 7.30pm, I wasn't just thinking about it anymore, I had to execute - flight cancelled. Again.
If I rebooked my flights tomorrow, then I might only make it for half the tour, at best. Would it still be worth it?
And as the seconds ticked by, my hard-earned time off was getting shorter and shorter. I couldn't bear two weeks kicking my heels in London. I had to get out.
Finding a way to Paris in the next 20 hours suddenly didn't seem such a crazy idea. It was do-able. It would have to be done.
The earlier I could get to Paris, the better, so I looked at options leaving that night.
Eurostar was not an option - Eurostar had cancelled several trains due to the snow and they
Could I possibly get a coach from here to Paris?
were even asking passengers with tickets not to come to St. Pancras. Word had it that the queue at St. Pancras snaked right out of the building and round the corner.
It was too late to get to Dover for the last ferry. Then at 9.30pm I discovered that there was an overnight bus heading to Paris that left in an hour from Victoria.
I had never packed a bag so fast and within 15 minutes, I was waiting on the platform at West Hampstead. Severe delays on the Jubilee line.
No. Of all times. The next train will arrive in 10 minutes
. This was diabolical.
I finally left West Hampstead station at 10pm. Half-an-hour to get to Victoria.
I ran up every escalator with all my luggage - thank God I didn't go for my rolling suitcase - and the final dash from Victoria tube station to Victoria coach station was nauseating.
I arrived at the coach station at 10.20pm.
The automatic machines weren't working. Why?!
I ran to the ticket counter. Closed. Shit!
I would have to try and talk my way onto that bus!
This isn't London obviously (as there would've been snow on the ground) but you get the idea. Ironically this is Dubai in 2006, a place that has never, ever seen snow (except inside one of the shopping malls which has mini ski slope built inside it).
At the bus check-in desk I asked if I could get on. There were hundreds of people in the terminal. It was chaos. The lady at the check-in desk tells me to buy a ticket. I tell her the ticket offices and machines are closed. She says to go online
. Yeah, like where the fuck can I find a fucking computer and printer...behind her desk!
"No, I can't let you use it I'm sorry", she says.
"Then where?!" I ask her.
She shrugs her shoulders.
The 3G network was painfully slow.
The National Express website was no longer allowing me to buy tickets for this coach - it was 10.30pm and the coach was meant to have left by now.
Meanwhile, the coach has been delayed for another twenty minutes.
I walk directly to the bus and try to talk to one of the workers walking out of the bus, presumably the driver. He completely ignores me. I overhear that the first bus is full and that spillovers will have to go into the second bus. I walk to the second bus where a man is checking tickets. I ask
The original stopover point.
him if there are any seats left on this bus - I consider bribing him.
"No English" he tells me, "speak Spanish". WTF? Are we in England or what?!
All the while there are loads of people trying to talk to him, trying to talk to the first driver, trying to talk to the lady at the check-in desk. All of their English was poor. Even the workers couldn't speak English properly. What a farce.
It is at this stage, that I give up and head back home. I would need to work out another way of getting to Paris.
The clock was ticking - I had 15 hours and 40 minutes to get to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Back at home, I work out my plan;
1) Bus from West Hampstead to Charing Cross
2) Train from Charing Cross to Dover
3) Taxi from Dover Train Station to Dover Ferry Terminal
4) Ferry from Dover to Calais
5) Taxi from Calais Ferry Terminal to Calais Frethun Train Station
6) Train from Calais Frethun to Lille
7) Train from Lille to Paris Gare du Nord
The White Cliffs Of Dover
Disruptions on the Eurostar meant that the Dover-Calais ferry was the only way I could get across the Channel.
Train from Paris Gare du Nord to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport
While working out my plan, my heart sank several times when I realised that a connection wouldn't work, only to work out an alternative that would. I was considering catching a later train to Dover to catch the 0930 ferry but then that would have left me with only 26 minutes to complete Leg 5 (above) so I decided to play it safe and catch the 0830 ferry.
This was totally do-able - comfortable even. If all went according to plan, I should arrive at Paris CDG Airport at 1430 Paris time, just over two hours before I was due to fly out.
I had investigated every single option, including ferries to other ports in France such as Boulogne-sur-Mer and Le Havre (but these ferries didn't take foot passengers - you needed a bike or a vehicle) and even looked at renting a car (too expensive and driving conditions in both the UK and France were likely to be treacherous and slow)!
By the time I had finalised my plan, it was 0330 UK time. Leg 1 would begin at 0445.
Train from London to Dover: Successful.
The bus pulled up just as I was approaching the bus stop so you could say I had good timing or was just plain lucky - I would need all the luck I could get.
Leg 1 went smoothly and I arrived at Charing Cross at 0510 UK time, twenty minutes before the train left for Dover.
Leg 2 was pretty relaxing - it was a two-hour train and I managed to get some sleep before I realising that the train was running late - suddenly I was anxious. I needed to be at the ferry terminal at 0745 and at 0735, we still weren't at Dover Train Station. I estimated the taxi would take about 10 minutes to get to the ferry terminal - providing I managed to get one quickly.
Leg 3. A whole load of people got off the train once we finally arrived at Dover Station and some were running off the platform - I would have to join them because I didn't know how many taxis there would be waiting outside the station. I managed to get near the front of the queue as people started piling into the taxis.
I'm gonna keep putting up random pictures of snow to fill up the photo quota for this blog entry.
One guy got into a taxi so I asked him if he was going to the ferry terminal, which I assumed most people were. He was, and was willing to share, so in I hopped. The guy was from Luxembourg and he was just trying to get home by land after his flight got cancelled.
I arrived at the ferry terminal at 0747 and when buying a ticket, I asked if I could get on the 0830.
So I suffered my first setback - I would have to catch the 0930 ferry now, which meant I now had that extremely tight 26-minute connection in Calais for Leg 5.
Leg 4. This was my second time aboard an English Channel ferry - the first was in 2006 when I came over to Germany for the World Cup. My mind wasn't on reminiscing at the time however - I slept for an hour of the 90-minute journey before withdrawing some euros on-board before buying some breakfast and making sure I was at the head of the queue to get off the boat. I was sure that I would have to go through immigration and then after that
Ferry from Dover to Calais: Successful.
I would have to grab a taxi and jet it to Calais Frethun - I wasn't confident of making it.
I got a call from Sag.
"What are you gonna do bro?" he asked, referring to my cancelled flight.
"Er, I'm in Calais!" I replied.
He laughed, almost disbelievingly, before applauding me for giving this a go.
"Austrian Airlines offered me a flight going out on Sunday, but I told them I wasn't sure - would it be worth it? I don't know what to do. I might try and buy another flight and try to fly out today."
As a crewman let us off the ferry, I wasn't quite in the frame of mind to advise Sag - I just sprinted as fast as I could.
To my great surprise, there wasn't any immigration to go through - I was in France! And it was a good thing I was at the head of the queue. There were hundreds of people on that ferry, but there were only three
taxis waiting outside the ferry terminal - and I didn't get one! I overheard the people in the taxi nearest to me asking
Another Snow Photo!
Are you sick of snow photos yet? Now you know how I felt about snow while I was stranded in London because of it!
the driver to take them to Calais Frethun. There were three of them - one seat left.
"Can I join you guys?" I asked.
"Sure", replied one of the passengers.
Leg 5. The people in my taxi were an Italian-American couple and a Frenchman. The Italians were trying to get to Milan and for them too, this was like an Amazing Race. They took a photo of me as a momento of the people they were meeting along the way. It would've been a good idea actually, but I was far too focussed on the task at hand.
The Frenchman knew Paris and the train systems pretty well and gave me advice on the RER train I was to catch for Leg 8 from Central Paris to the airport.
"There are always problems with that line" he told me ominously, "and with the snow, there could be delays. There will probably also be delays on the train to Paris". Well I hoped not.
I arrived at Calais Frethun right on 1226 and I just bolted. I didn't even say goodbye to my fellow taxi passengers.
But alas it was in vain - the
Leg 6 and Leg 7
Train from Calais-Frethun to Paris Gare du Nord: Successful.
Caught a break here - I managed to get on a direct train from Calais to Paris, eliminating the need to change trains in Lille, thus bypassing Leg 6.
train had gone.
It was still not over yet however - the next train at 1252 would arrive in Lille at 1314 and give me ten minutes to change onto the right train that would take me to Paris. That ten minute change in Lille was now crucial - I would have to hope for no delays en route to Lille and find the right platform once I got there. If I missed the 1324 train from Lille to Paris, it would be all over. I knew all this because I had saved all the train timetables to my phone, in case I needed to quickly change my plans.
I then caught a break - the 1252 train turned out to be going all the way to Paris! No change in Lille required, no Leg 6. Jackpot!
The snow here in Calais was melting too, and it felt noticeably warmer - I felt my luck was starting to turn.
Leg 7. The train seemed to be going very quickly - when it was moving that is. It didn't stop in many places, but when it did, it stopped for ages
. The result was that it arrived
I chose a taxi over a train as my mode of transport for the final frenetic dash to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
in Paris 30 minutes later than scheduled - it was now 1500. I had forty minutes to get to the airport.
Leg 8. I had two choices. The 1515 RER train that would get me to the airport at 1537 - if there were no delays - or a taxi, which could leave now
Having remembered what the Frenchman in Calais told me about the RER line, I decided to plump for the taxi.
I was on my way at 1505 - I pointed to my watch as I told the driver my destination. He understood.
Then coming out of Gare du Nord, the one fear I had about taking a taxi had fully materialised - TRAFFIC!
It was in this moment that I started to accept that I was now not going to make it - but my driver had other ideas.
Cruising up the bus lanes where he could, jamming himself into the smallest gaps in traffic, riding over kerbs when necessary and running red lights, he turned around and told me not to worry.
Once on the motorway, he put the pedal to the metal - 140km/h in
The only food I had to eat on the whole journey, aboard the ferry from Dover to Calais.
a 100km/h zone. I was starting to believe again.
I arrived at Terminal 2e at Paris CDG Airport at 1547. I tipped the driver generously and sprinted into the terminal building.
I ran up to the Air France check-in counter and asked if I could still check in for Cairo.
"Yes, of course", was the reply. I had made it.
Or had I?
"Any baggage to check in?"
I put my rucksack on the conveyor belt. The check-in lady then stared puzzlingly at her screen.
This did not look good.
"Who did you book your ticket through?" she asked.
"Austrian Airlines", I replied.
"I can't seem to find your ticket."
You cannot be serious. I had not come all this way to fall at the final hurdle.
She rang Austrian Airlines. No answer.
"OK - you're going to have to go to Terminal 2d, and talk to Austrian Airlines. It should take you about 10 minutes to get there."
Exasperated, I asked her if I would still make the plane.
"If you hurry."
So I picked up all my stuff and sprinted, not even
Last Snow Photo
Don't worry this is the final snow photo. If you guess where this actually is, you get 100pts!
sure which way I was going.
"Excuse moi!", I shouted at the dawdlers on the travelators.
With all my luggage and dressed in my winter clothes - thermals, scarf, jacket and beanie - I ran flat out for what I swear was a kilometre, to the Austrian Airlines ticket desk.
I was drenched in sweat.
"They can't find my ticket" I told the man at the ticket desk.
He immediately understood my predicament and suddenly a look of worry, and then determination came over his face. He picked up the phone - no answer. He dialled again. Again, no answer. I again started to accept that I wasn't getting on this plane due to an administrative error - this was going to be a bitter pill to swallow.
He then turned to me.
"OK, I've checked you in - there was a problem with giving Air France the ticket. You now need to go back to Terminal 2e and talk to the woman at the check-in desk and show her this piece of paper."
He handed me a piece of paper with my details.
"Tell her that we will give them
OK, So I Lied...
THIS is the last snow photo. Can you guess where it is?
the ticket tonight - now go!"
Already out of breath, I raced another one kilometre back to Terminal 2e, determination in every stride. I was no longer yelling at people to get out of my way, I simply brushed straight past them - this was no time to be polite.
I made it back to the Air France check-in desk and cut in front of a couple that were already there.
"Oh, you're back!" said the lady I talked to earlier.
I handed over the piece of paper and explained to her what was going to happen.
"Excuse me" she told the couple I had rudely pushed in front of, "I need to attend to this gentlemen urgently".
They shot me a nasty look, before their faces softened as they saw me out of breath and sweating through all of my clothes. I was completely saturated.
The lady then checked in my bag and handed me my boarding pass, along with a purple sticker.
"Show this to the people at security" she told me. It was an "Access One" pass.
"Merci beaucoup", I told her before sprinting my way to the
Boarding pass for flight AF524 from Paris to Cairo.
The Access One pass was gold - it basically meant I skipped all the queues at security. Once through security, and then through a special Access One immigration checkpoint, I made the final dash to the gate - it was like that final sprint to the mat to collect my one million dollars
- but not knowing if I was going to be first or second.
I get to the gate - and to my relief, there is a plane-load of people sitting down, waiting to board.
Then over the tannoy;
"To all passengers on Air France flight 524 to Cairo - we apologise, but your flight has now been delayed by thirty minutes".
So after 11 hours of buses, trains, taxis and ferries across land and sea, I had made it.
I had somehow sweated through four layers of clothing - I even had to take off my saturated singlet because I was getting cold once I had cooled off.
Meanwhile, Sag had bought another flight to Cairo and was taking off from Heathrow in thirty minutes - I would see him at Cairo airport.
I always had a sense throughout the journey, that I was going to make it - even when I started accepting I wasn't going to make it. I somehow always had faith that I would pull it off.
I had bad luck and good luck, and made some good choices along the way (like choosing not take a wheely-suitcase - I would never have got between Terminal 2e and 2d quick enough if I had one) - my luck pretty much evened itself out. In saying that however, my biggest stroke of luck was having my connecting flight going out of Paris - because it made it possible to get there in time by land and sea. If my connecting flight was out of Frankfurt for example, then I would have had no chance of getting there.
Having a detailed plan was important, so that I knew exactly what I was doing and didn't waste any time - and having previous experience on all the different modes of transport and having been to all the places en route before certainly helped as well. Most importantly, from my previous experience, I knew that this was possible
I had only spent about £160 all up on my journey - compared to people who had bought new flights I had got away relatively unscathed financially.
My mother always told me that "when there is a will, there is way" and it's amazing how resourceful one can be if you're determined to do something. I've done a lot of travelling - but this would have to rate as my greatest travelling achievement.
Would it be all worth it? You'll find out in the next few entries.