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Have passport, will travel: Cyclone causes last minute change in travel plans for Jim and Jane Hildebrand


Safe and sound in Johannesburg

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The last few days have been hectic. Jane and I had moved to the village of Chemin Grenier in the southern part of the Island of Mauritius and have been anxious to explore its’ charms.

The weather hadn’t been cooperating. Cyclone Ava had not come close to Mauritius, however we were getting periods of rain and wind as it ravaged Madagascar. We kept checking the weather reports hoping the weather would clear. We noticed far to the east another storm was starting to form. This depression was the beginnings of what is now being called Cyclone Berguitta. It was still very far to the east, but in Mauritius we were still getting periods of torrential rain and very strong gusts of wind. The weather stations were warning of strong seas and advising people to stay out of the water. Reports came in of Berguitta strengthening and moving on Rodrigues, an island 600 kilometres to our east. 

Jane and I started to follow the reports and I started checking the cyclone tracking services. It became apparent that the projected trajectory of Cyclone Berguitta was heading straight for Mauritius.  Preliminary reports were saying that we could expect seven-10 meter waves, excessive rainfall and flooding and winds of 100-160 mph. This was getting serious.

I phoned my travel insurance company and initially they said that any move would be up to me since there hadn’t been any weather advisory posted on the government’s travellers website. We were becoming concerned. Jane phoned the Consular Office in Port Louis but whoever answered the phone said not to worry. “We don’t get bad storms like you get in North America. Just stay inside. Don’t go outside or a tree might fall on your head.”

I wasn’t happy with the response. It was laughable. I sent an email to the Canadian High Commission in South Africa asking for advice. Gary Bloom the Consular Assistant responded: “The High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa is currently tracking Tropical Cyclone Berguitta and its trajectory towards Mauritius and Reunion. 

“We are in the processing of preparing a ROCA (Registration of Canadians Abroad) message warning people who could be affected by this Cyclone. 

“All information that is posted to Canadians, will be made so on the travel advisory on https://travel.gc.ca/destinations/mauritius. The decision to travel is your choice and you are responsible for your personal safety abroad. We take the safety and security of Canadians abroad very seriously and provide credible and timely information in our Travel Advice to enable you to make well-informed decisions regarding your travel abroad.

Please also consult https://travel.gc.ca/assistance/emergency-info/consular/canadian-consular-services-charter#assisting with regard to more information on assistance to Canadians abroad during emergencies.”

This was encouraging news for us. I called my travel insurance company as soon as the advisory was posted, and they gave Jane and I the okay to evacuate under the terms of our policy.

Now the “fun” began.  We were searching for flights to get us to Johannesburg since we were scheduled to be there Jan. 25 for the next phase of our vacation. It was now the morning of Jan. 16 and Berguitta was predicted to make landfall in Mauritius then next evening or early on the 18th. 

There were no seats available for the day on South African Airlines but they said we could book for the next day. I phoned Air Mauritius to see if we could leave in the afternoon. Again, there were no seats available and ticket agent informed us that she believed that Mauritius’s Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport could be closed the next day (the 17th) as the country progressed in their cyclone warning system levels. 

It looked like we needed to get off the island right away or we would be stuck. We needed to find another solution. I started to check airlines that were departing Mauritius just to get off the island. We needed to escape and if we could get somewhere safe we would sort the details of getting to Johannesburg later. 

I found two seats on Air Emirates to Dubai and then to Johannesburg. This was going to be over 20 hours on a plane but it would get us to safety. It was Jane who found seats on a flight to the Seychelles in the afternoon and carrying on to Durban the next day. The Seychelles are islands in the Indian Ocean about 1700 km north of Mauritius. We checked to ensure that the islands were out of the cyclones projected path. When we got to Durban we could get a bus or catch a flight to Jo-burg. The trip was going to be a lot easier than flying to Dubai and far less expensive. Jane snapped up the last two tickets available. 

We packed quickly, said our goodbyes and headed for the airport. We didn’t have a lot of time but from then on, everything went smoothly. We were still somewhat concerned that they might shut down the airport before our flight left but lady at the ticket counter assured us that we would be getting out as scheduled. We were relieved. We have seen the havoc that hurricanes can sow. The reports of devastation in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria are examples that Jane and I definitely don’t want to experience.   

It was night time when we landed in Victoria, Seychelles. We booked a hotel room and the next morning we were back at the airport to make the next stage of our trip to South Africa. Jane noticed that the flight to Durban had a stop in Johannesburg and we asked if we would be allowed to get off the flight without carrying through to the final destination. The airlines allowed us to exit in Johannesburg (with stringent flight security we weren’t sure if this was possible). 

We are now tucked away at the Premier Hotel in Johannesburg and had our first day without rain in a long while. From reports I am reading Tropical Cyclone Berguitta should be making landfall on Mauritius as I am writing. Flights to Mauritius were cancelled yesterday. The Red Cross has activated their disaster response. We have met many nice people on the island and we sincerely hope that they will be safe and that there will not be too much destruction. It is an incredibly beautiful place and it is sad that we had to leave on such short notice. I wish them well.

Jim Hildebrand is a former Pilot correspondent who shares his travel adventures with readers. In the coming weeks and months Jim will continue to provide photos from their travels and a glimpse of life abroad as he and his wife Jane explore East Africa and South Africa.

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