After our tour of Ethiopia, we travelled on to New Zealand. Since our return tickets to London were via Dubai, it seemed sensible to do this. It would save time and money, and mean that we would reach New Zealand in their summer, and enjoy the craziness of the Sevens weekend. All in all, a good plan, but there were a few hitches along the way.
Stage 1: Addis Ababa to Dubai
We checked out of our Addis hotel at 9am on Tuesday 28 January. A car was coming at 1pm to take us to the airport. This meant we had the morning free, and the plan was to meet up with the brother of a former colleague from Ethiopia. But first, we had to change the local currency we’d been given in place of the dollars that were stolen. An easy task, we thought, but we were wrong.
There was a foreign exchange bureau in our hotel, but they did not have enough dollars. We tried a nearby bank, but were told that the lady with the key to the relevant safe was not at work that day. At another bank, the teller insisted that we had to produce airline tickets. When we pointed out that (like everyone else these days) we had e-tickets, she said we’d have to talk to the manager. And the manager said they could not exchange money unless we had an account at the bank.
Getting desperate, we asked a lady in the tourist office for help. She made some phone calls, and said ‘a man was coming’ to do the exchange. After waiting, we were ushered to a nearby shop where a young woman (with no knowledge of exchange rates) said she had only $300, but could give us that in exchange for all our birr (worth over $450). We declined. We phoned the local tour company for help, but after some time they called back to say they’d tried banks but none were prepared to exchange our money.
Luckily, in the tourist office, we met a Canadian lady (Maggie) who had recently arrived in Ethiopia and was having problems using her card in an ATM. She was on her way to a big hotel where there was a forex bureau. We went with her, and the man in the bureau was willing to change money for us – but, he said, government rules specified a maximum of $150. Since there were two of us, we were able to get $300, but still had more birr.
We got a taxi and went with Maggie to her hotel, where we did a private exchange. We arrived back at our hotel at 12.45, and the car for the airport was already waiting. We’d wasted the whole morning, and lost the chance of meeting Tilaye’s brother. Still, it was just as well we didn’t rely on changing money at the airport. After lunch there, we still had some local currency left. The airside exchange bureau was closed, and when they re-opened, the man refused to change our money. He told us to go back landside, where there were two banks – but neither was prepared to give us any useful currency (dollars, sterling or euros). The rest of our birr went in a charity collection box.
Stage 2: Dubai to Sydney
Claire had booked us staff travel tickets from Dubai to Sydney, and Sydney to Wellington. These are standby, so no guarantee we would be allowed on our chosen flights. At Dubai, there was another problem. We’d discovered that we needed Australian visas, even though we expected to be in Sydney just a few hours. We applied for them online early the previous day. Ian’s was confirmed very quickly, but Sandie’s was still listed as ‘in progress’ when we arrived in Dubai. Goodness knows why, as we’d applied for both at the same time. But the airlines will not allow you to fly to Australia without one!
The woman at the Emirates desk phoned the Australian immigration people, who said it could take up to ten days for Sandie’s visa to come through. At that point, we almost gave up, and returned to England. But we were told to talk to people on the Qantas desk, and the man there obviously had a hotline link, because he was able to get a visa instantly approved. We had to pay, but it was a problem solved. And we were accepted on the first flight out of Dubai, heading for Sydney.
Stage 3: Sydney to Wellington
The flight from Dubai to Sydney took over 13 hours. We landed at 10.30pm local time, and the flight to Wellington was at 9.35am next day. Luckily there was a good hotel just opposite the terminal, which gave us the opportunity for a much-needed sleep and shower.
We returned to the terminal next morning, and encountered another problem. We’d focused on getting to Wellington, thinking that we could arrange our return flights while there. But we were informed that we could not fly into New Zealand without onward tickets. Fortunately, a quick phone call to Claire solved that problem: she booked us tickets from Wellington to Sydney, and called us back in five minutes with the details.
But later we were told that there was no room for us on the flight. Under the impression that there was only one Sydney-Wellington flight each day, we thought we would have to wait 24 hours. This would mean spending another night in the airport hotel, and missing a business lunch which had been arranged (at short notice) for Friday. Doomed! Luckily, we were informed that there was another flight at 5.30pm, with plenty of space, so we were checked in immediately.
Rather than spend the whole day in the airport, we took the ultra-modern and efficient train into the city. We walked all round the harbour, and through the Botanical Gardens to the viewpoint (Mrs McQuarrie’s Chair) where you can see the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House together. We’d done it before, but enjoyed seeing the picturesque city again on a beautiful summer day. We had lunch sitting by the harbour – very pleasant.
All in all, our visit to Sydney was an unexpected bonus. The only problem was that we’d booked a studio apartment in Wellington, and were supposed to be there by 6pm. With our revised flight time, we were not going to make it much before midnight. Early attempts to phone or email the hotel were unsuccessful. But while sitting in the Customs House (Sydney library, with free wifi), we managed to make telephone contact, and the lady emailed us instructions for finding our key and letting ourselves in.
The flight from Sydney to Wellington took only three hours, but with a two-hour time change, we landed at 10.30pm. In addition to the usual immigration and customs procedures, New Zealand has ‘biosecurity’ checks. You have to declare any fresh food you are carrying, and also if you have recently walked in rural areas elsewhere; if you say yes, then your boots are inspected. We had last hiked in Awash National Park, and there was mud caked on our boots which we had been unable to remove. They were therefore taken away and returned to us several minutes later, all traces of Ethiopian soil completely gone. So we entered New Zealand with clean boots!