As far as overseas treks go our five day walk between Dana and Petra in Jordan was superb. Treading the paths that biblical characters walked through the ancient lands of Moab and to finish at one of the seven wonders of the world - Petra - was sensational. But then all hell broke loose. Could this be Armageddon, did anyone spot the horses of the Apocalypse. What was it the Book of Revelation said about wars and rumours of wars, pestilence, floods and earthquakes?
Much has been written about the volcanic ash situation being compared with people trying to return to Blighty after the war, or the crowds of people leaving Russia in Doctor Zhivago, but the truth of the matter is that we spent several days trying to get home from a holiday, not a war. It wasn’t particularly uncomfortable, the European public transport service is pretty impressive and credit cards can see you through all kinds of difficulties but the uncertainty of the situation, especially waiting for information from airlines, was wearying, to say the least.
Eventually we became impatient with our airline and the Government’s reluctance to open up airspace, a reluctance I can understand when safety has to be the main priority. BMI, our airline, didn’t answer their phones and when our local tour operator eventually did get through to them he was told we wouldn’t get on a flight until the 29th April, and that wasn’t guaranteed. That was two weeks away and despite their legal responsibilities BMI weren’t paying our hotel and food expenses, we were. The amounts spent were starting to build up. Eventually we took the advice that was being given on CNN news and BBC World - try and get to Madrid, which was being set up as a European hub. Mandelson was quoted as saying the Government would send warships to the ferry ports and a fleet of coaches would leave the UK for Madrid to pick up stranded passengers. According to Government sources there would be Foreign Office and Embassy officials at the airport to advise passengers.
We checked at the airport and managed to get flights to Spain, at a cost of 650 Jordanian Dinars, about £630 each. When we arrived in Madrid there were no coaches, and no officials. Other travellers told us they had been stranded in Madrid for several days, with no hope of a flight anywhere, and there were no officials to be seen.
We weighed up our options. Best to stay in Madrid overnight, and try and catch a train to Paris next day, or else wait in the long queues and try and book a flight to Paris, or back to the UK, although there was still a no-flying ban over Britain.
Eventually we booked a hotel in Madrid ( plus a €20 booking fee per room - we were beginning to experience the blatant racketeering that was going on), and caught a very busy train next day to Hendaye on the French border. We could only get First Class. From Hendaye the French Government organised extra trains to Bordeaux from where we managed to get on another very busy train to Paris. En route we phoned Eurostar and managed to book the last available places on the Paris to London train for next morning. We were delighted, but not with the price - £260 per person!
We arrived in Paris, got a taxi to Paris Gare Nord and arrived there about midnight. We kipped down in our sleeping bags but were roused by security guards who very kindly had arranged for us to sleep in a stationary train. It was the first act of kindness we had met with on the whole journey, the first occasion we didn’t feel we were being ripped off.
After waiting in another angry and impatient queue for the Eurostar we discovered that the girl who had taken the booking on the phone had booked our train for the wrong day. We were furious, cancelled the train ticket and bought tickets for another train to Calais. As it happened three trains eventually dropped us off at Calais where we managed to get on board a freight ferry. The bad news was that we were charged £64 for what is normally a £9 passenger crossing, but the good news was that we could buy a slap-up fried lorry drivers’ breakfast!
Eventually we arrived in Dover with a tear in our eyes, thankful to be on British soil again. But where were the warships the government had promised; where were the fleets of coaches? Where was the official help and advice? Nowhere to be seen. If this Government can’t be trusted on these promises how can be trust them with the economy, or health, or education.
Looking back on it all I think we did pretty well, but we were all reasonably affluent (ie we had credit cards). There are still many people stuck abroad who have no choice but to wait for the flights to get sorted out, take their turn in the queues and wait, and put up with the discomfort of living in an airport terminal for days on end, often with children. Theirs will be an experience from hell.
Our experience was far from that, but it’ll be a while before I travel by air again. I seem to have read somewhere that during the two World Wars those who were caught racketeering were shot! Although the volcanic ash situation wasn’t a war it was, for many thousands of people, an emergency situation, a situation where racketeering appears to have been encouraged. No doubt our politicians will put it down to market forces. We now face our own war, challenging the travel insurance and airline companies for some kind of return on the £3000 or so we have spent trying to get home. We are not holding our breath!