Welcome to the bungleI've been trying to get to Costa Rica for five years now. But changing planes three times to reach that exotic jungle paradise sounds such a mission that it's always deterred me. Not this time though. I decided Christmas and New Year spent exploring in Costa Rica would be fabulous. I'd see jaguars and colourful toucans, swing through steamy jungles, climb rumbling volcanoes and watch giant turtles trundling down the beach.
I was bubbling with excitement as I boarded a flight from Johannesburg to Heathrow, before a connection to Dallas then another into San Jose.
But while I was dozing, snow clouds were gathering over London. I landed in subzero temperatures, relieved that my UK touchdown was to be for a mere three hours. Then I joined a bewildered scrum of travellers gazing up at the "going nowhere" list of abandoned flights.
The desperate sinking feeling that befuddles you when you see row upon row of flights reading "cancelled" is horrendous. Collective panic sets in, and we all flailed around searching for someone to help us.
Nobody was there. Or if they were, they were staying out of the way of thousands of manic passengers.
For three hours we stood in a queue that wasn't so much a line as a crush of thousands all converging on the rebooking counters. We shuffled forward slowly, with camaraderie breaking out in little clusters as stranded passengers swapped stories.
Michael the Greek was trying to get home for Christmas. Charlotte the American was heading for a holiday in South Africa. "Don't give up," I promised her, "it's worth it."
We tried to call the help-desk number displayed on the notice boards. But with thousands of passengers dialling simultaneously, there was never any answer. Michael whipped out a laptop, but his effort to rebook online generated a message to ring the call centre. After a couple of hours, our trio hatched a new plot: we'd hire a car and all spend Christmas together with Michael's family in Greece. At the speed Greeks drive, it would only take a few hours to reach Athens, I joked.
Eventually, security officials dismantled the rope railings that had implied some semblance of direction. "No flights are being rebooked," one growled. "Everyone, just go home." Charlotte, Michael and I looked at each other in panic. We can't go home, we wailed, none of us can get there.
Another official advised passengers to join a queue for hotel bookings. After three more hours, I reached the front. I bagged one of the few rooms left in the whole of London - £411 for a night at a Hilton. Breakfast extra.
Darkness had descended hours earlier as I despondently crushed onto a Tube train to emerge, blinking back tears, in a bleak and snowbound city. Instead of swinging through treetops, I was dragging my suitcase through grey slush. Its contents were mostly useless: a bikini, shorts and suntan lotion. But there were a few useful items: sunglasses to avoid snow blindness; hiking boots - originally intended for stomping through thick undergrowth - to keep my footing on the icy pavements. The cotton kanga for wearing at beach bars became a scarf to cover my freezing nose and ears. And the Spanish I'd learnt proved useful for chatting to the hotel barmen.
The next two days were spent planning my escape, but BA still wasn't answering the phone and SAA could only fly me home 12 days later. Then a travel agent found a one-way economy class seat home via Dubai for R10000. I did the sums, realised it was cheaper than the hotel, and whipped out my credit card.
An enforced and lonely stay in London's ice age saw me visit all the free museums, but arrive so cold all I could do was buy hot chocolate in their cafés and wonder whether to drink it or thaw my fingers in it.
I visited the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert and the London Museum. That's a little gem full of doom-and-gloom tales of the Black Death, revolution and revolt. I knew how they felt. In the evenings, I ate at Indian restaurants because the Brits sure cook a delicious curry.
And five days after a single snowfall covered England in chaos, I felt my spirits thaw and soar with every mile of the journey home.
The abortive trip to Costa Rica had costa fortune. I got to see a toucan though: a stuffed specimen in the Natural History Museum.
Published in the Sunday Times 16/1/2011