RwandAir review: Eternity on the runway

RwandAir has a reputation for militant punctuality. Its flight attendants hunt around airports, trying to coax their clients into the departure lounge a full 90 minutes before take-off. I was once on a RwandAir flight which took off 15 minutes early!

This may be a record in aviation history and is certainly a testament to the plucky nation’s proud efficiency. Such fanatical time-keeping is admirable, but awkward if you forget there are no toilets in the departure lounge…

RwandAir direct route between London and Kigali

I was happy to see that RwandAir had opened a new direct route between London and Kigali, at a pocket-friendly price. Without troublesome stopovers, there would be no more expensive wandering around Istanbul airport, paying 10 euros for a small, weak lager; or, worse, finding no lager at all in some dry Gulf kingdom’s sterile transit lounge.

The Kigali-London route is not quite direct, as RwandAir has a historic relationship with Belgium (for better or for worse) and so there is a brief stopover in the former master’s territory – when one is frustratingly close to journey’s end. However, this pause on the Belgian runway was not nearly as frustrating as an earlier adventure when we were still in East African airspace…

I was flying in from Entebbe to Kigali, before boarding the London flight. That small step proved more of a challenge for the airline than the intercontinental leap. It was a 06:30 EBB-KGL flight and, being as chronically time-conscious as RwandAir itself, I was at Entebbe airport at 03:00.

Entebbe to Kigali RwandAir service

I had worked late and not slept a wink – nor had food crossed my lips for years (or so it felt). Eating at airports is almost always an unsavoury extravagance, so I resolved to wait for my in-flight meal – however humble it might be.

I walked past the various airport cafés with fists clenched tight in pockets, straight to the departure lounge like the loyal, punctual RwandAir customer I am. This later proved to be a painful, starvation-inducing mistake.

We boarded in excellent time, as always with RwandAir, hosted by the most charming and attractively-presented hosts and hostesses.

I snuggled into my seat and, stomach rumbling loudly, awaited the snack and drink that would surely come after take-off. My eyelids drooped, but I was determined not to sleep, lest I miss this important complementary morsel. The bird-like twittering of two bourgeois dames seated across the aisle lulled me towards lala-land, until…

Suddenly I was jerked awake by another lady behind me saying loudly: “Oh! Are we here already?” I looked around, confused. We were on a runway. The same runway?

Or had I slept on the flight and missed take-off, landing AND (God forbid) the precious in-flight breakfast?! One of the two dames opposite leaned over and said to the equally-confused lady behind me: “No dear, you’ve been asleep for a while, and we have been waiting here an AWFULLY long time.”

Her elegantly plumed companion started warbling loudly for attention: “Heeelloooo! What’s happening? Excuuuuse me?! Why haven’t we taken off yeeet? What’s going oooon?!” A hostess finally came over and said that they had announced the delay on the tannoy and that, in any case, we would be off in 5 minutes.

It is always a disaster when one tries to cover up a mistake by swerving responsibility or putting the blame on the victim. There is nothing more guaranteed to ‘add insult to injury’.

In this case, the dames reacted to the hostess’ excuses with righteous indignation: “Announced it on the tannoy? Did you indeed? Maybe you pressed the wrong button then!

Because we heard precisely nothing! We’ve been sitting here for hours and are wondering whether we will EVER reach Kigali!” The poor air hostess retreated backwards under this high-pitched barrage, mumbling and groveling.

5 minutes passed, then 10 minutes, until the warbling started up again: “5 minutes she said! What a joke! These people are beyond the limit! Let’s go back to Kampala!”

I was actually grateful for the warbling. I rarely complain out loud, unless things are really bad and it felt wonderful to hear my silent grievances uttered with such withering humour by two outraged, colourful grannies.

Finally, the plane rumbled off the runway and my stomach rumbled in unison, in anxious anticipation of the in-flight meal and maybe a cheeky breakfast time beer. But, though I strained to stay awake and satisfy my hunger, the meal never came. Not even a biscuit, nor a humble cup of tea! I consoled myself with the promise of a naughty luxury: since I had an 11-hour stopover, I would leave the airport and hang out with friends for the day in Kigali.

At Kigali International Airport

After landing, I dizzily walked up to the visa desk, where an alarmingly long line had formed. Sometimes Rwandan bureaucrats can take their job a bit too seriously.

The young man charged with processing the weary travellers had a small moustache, slow movements and a painstaking attention to detail. He seemed to take around half an hour to inspect a single passport.

When it came to my turn, he asked me what I was doing in Kigali, who I was meeting, what was their phone number, why I was leaving the airport when I had a connecting flight that evening, etc. After this interrogation – a shocker: a transit visa was $50 – the same price as a 3-month visa! All this trouble for a few hours in Kigali…

By now, however, I was so hungry I felt I could eat literally anything; and if the ‘conversation’ with the border official went on any longer, I might resort to cannibalism.

So I paid up and sprinted out of the airport straight to my favourite budget accommodation: Peace Motel, just off Sonatubes in Kicukiro. Although it has recently (and inexplicably) been re-spelled ‘Piece Motel’, it has not changed its excellent chef.

The food is not posh or fancy, but well-made, substantial and homely. They also have a lovely garden, where I used to sit many a long afternoon, working in serenity with a flask of their fine black coffee.

An embarrassingly short time after eating the huge breakfast omelette, I went on to a lunch date at Chez Lando, where I polished off a delicious rabbit in mustard sauce, washed down with a litre of cold Mützig.

This was by far and away the tastiest stopover I’d had in my life. Tipsy and full, with the gentle buzz of Kigali life around me, I reasoned that if I had spent 11 hours in the airport, I might easily have spent the $50 visa fee on overpriced food and drinks anyway.

The flight to London was nearly empty and I stretched out blissfully, with three seats all to myself. As my eyelids closed, I thought back to the famished stress of that early morning and smiled.

The situation had been enervating and avoidable (why no in-flight breakfast?) but a happy ending makes the tribulations of the day seem almost worthwhile.

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