“Darling, why not phone them now and say we will ring them when we get to Nairobi. Tell them Mummy wants to take them to Carnivore tomorrow night.”

Carnivore, this slightly overweight, posh Brit tells her public school looking teenagers, is a restaurant. As I’m standing in the queue at Heathrow waiting to board the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, I imagine them gnawing on a great big kudu leg, and I shudder, suddenly grateful that my family have lived in Africa long enough to have lost this colonial edge.

After the previous three sleepless nights, worrying whether my mother will survive the week, Heathrow Terminal 2, which has taken an executive decision to make as few announcements as possible, is strangely calming. It feels more like an upmarket shopping experience than a trip to an airport. I guess that’s intentional; it certainly makes you want to spend more. As I cover this sort of thing all the time in my work at eyefortravel.com , and the occasional piece penned for Tnooz , I don’t know why I feel surprised.

What I need is a wee dram

Boarding the flight to Frankfurt passengers, weary from a business trip to London, heading home for Christmas or connecting to a long-haul flight, march on in an orderly fashion. In the seat behind me, it’s less orderly – so much for getting some rest. Two appallingly behaved children kick the back of my chair, bang the window and bite each other, the mother so disengaged I have to wonder what life crisis she must be facing. The air hostess offers me refreshments in German and though I answer in English, she continues to speak to me in a language I do not understand. I shrink into my seat; that ‘can’t speak the lingo’ thing rearing it’s ugly head yet again.

The first duty free outlet at Frankfurt airport feels like a morgue. I’m one of about three customers, and there are few staff on duty. So with three hours to kill I take advantage and slather myself with expensive night cream without feeling like I usually do, a surreptitious shoplifter. Then I spend what feels like hours dreamily staring at whisky from around the world, and remembering a trip to Isla off the West Coast of Scotland. I’m trying to decide whether to buy my uncle and aunt, who have exhausted themselves helping my mother out in the past weeks, a decent bottle – they both enjoy a wee dram.

Finally, a member of staff approaches me and I ask him why the airport is so quiet. He says: a) the terrorist attacks on Paris, b) the collapse of the rouble, c) ISIS, and d) the migrant crisis. In other words d) – all of the above – I think, counting my blessings. I’ve left my own family behind in the week before Christmas, and don’t know what awaits me in South Africa, but at least I’m not rammed on a boat making a perilous journey across the Mediterranean sea.

I’m asked if I want to try some of this whisky and it seems like a good idea; soon I’m feeling a little less on edge.

Cattle class comfort

It’s Lufthansa again to Joburg, and I’ve chosen a window seat. The Gods’ are on my side this night, as I’m not sat next to nutters. On one long-haul flight, when my now 15-year-old daughter was a baby, my companion was a drunken Madonna impersonator who tried to kiss me, stood on her chair to sing in the middle of the night and was in the loo when we landed. Not tonight, tonight they are medics – a South African radiographer and his physiotherapist wife who are living in Somerset, and are flying ‘home’ with their two children to visit family. I can tell they are South Africans immediately by the way they smile at me, and soon they are empathising with my predicament; the previous year they both had to fly home at different times to visit ailing parents.

The company is good but comfort definitely isn’t a priority for Lufthansa’s cattle class (just for the eyefortravel.com record, the return flight with Swissair is distinctly different – who said airlines had to be commoditised?) As we land in Joburg, I wonder if I’m ever going to walk again and the physio emphathises, before wistfully commenting: “We’ve arrived in Africa. The earth is red.”

I think of my mother’s imminent operation, and it seems a fitting colour.

A South African welcome

Joburg airport: it feels like home and it certainly isn’t Heathrow Terminal 2. Getting through customs is an ordeal. There is a very long queue, and though I feel like a traitor standing in line for ‘non-South Africans’ (I’m travelling on my British), I also feel justified in cursing the authorities. Only 24-hours earlier my husband and I were queuing for a different reason; to sort out the affadavits required if he needed to fly out with the children – a new regulation of the South African government.

The short-haul flight to Durban on South African Airways is an altogether different experience to the sombre London-Frankfurt leg. The hills are greener than they were in August, the Umsinduzi River isn’t bone dry, it’s noisy and not-yet noon but people ask for wine with their snack. As we are preparing for landing, the pilot announces:  “It’s a warm South African welcome to a beautiful afternoon in Durban. The sun is shining and it’s 34 degrees. Have a wonderful holiday. Thank you for flying SAA. We hope to see you again soon.”

Seconds after we touch down as we are taxi-ing across the runway, people unbuckle, stand up, turn their mobile phones on, and start to unload the luggage compartments. The microphone crackles for another announcement: “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m still seated and the safety belt signs haven’t yet been switched off”.

The currency may be collapsing and the president appears to be steering the country further into crisis, but still people laugh, even me; it’s 2 pm and my mother is just being wheeled into theatre.

This is what relief feels like

It is indeed a sweltering South African afternoon; the north-easterly wind so hot that it burns the eyeballs. I find a bit of shade and wait for my cousin’s husband to arrive. On the drive home, past Paradise Valley and up Fields Hill, he tells me about the severe water restrictions that have become necessary up the north coast because of the massive property development – with all those golf courses – that have been given the green light without any real planning.

My little brother, who has had to made some big decisions this week, meets us at my mother’s house, which feels strangely empty. We head immediately for the air-conditioned bliss of the private hotel-like hospital that, unlike so many others in South Africa, she is lucky enough to be in. A nail-biting hour later, she is wheeled out of theatre, weak, thirsty, a lot thinner than she was the last time I saw her, but alive.

When I leave the hospital that evening, with my older brother and nephew, it’s storming and the rain is hot. We get a takeaway and drink cold beer on the verandah, listening to the crickets and the call of the buff-spotted fluff tail. It reminds me of my first trip home in the early 1990s, after surviving my very first European winter. I had arrived to a sub-tropical summer evening, like this one, and a storm. I remember taking my shoes off and walking barefoot on warm, wet grass. Now I know that this is what relief feels like.

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