Trip Report:  SA Express Walvis Bay to Johannesburg

SA Express Flt 1702  WVB to JNB
Boeing 737-300, Economy
Sched. Dep. 2:45pm   Sched. Arr.4:55pm
Actual Dep. 3:00pm   Actual Arr. 5:18pm

This is part 14 of my series exploring my March 2017 trip to South Africa and Namibia, which started here.

So this was a very strange flight.

Swakopmund doesn’t have its own airport with commercial service, but the Walvis Bay International Airport is not very far, about a 40 minute drive away.  I had pre-booked a transfer, which came just on time, and the owner, a German Namibian woman provided me with some interesting commentary as we drove down.  The drive is actually quite pretty, as there are picturesque sand dunes on the left and the ocean is on the right.

Dunes en route from Swakopmund to WVB

Walvis Bay is Namibia’s largest airport outside of Windhoek.  Walvis Bay itself has actually only been in Namibia for 23 years, as it was a South African exclave for many years – and before that British.  The terminal is actually brand new, and looks very weird as a tiny airport in the middle of the desert, inland from the city of Walvis Bay itself.

WVB – An airport in the middle of the sand

Walvis Bay International Airport

The airport is served by both Air Namibia and SA Express to Cape Town and Johannesburg, and Air Namibia to Windhoek, with a total of 6 flights a day.  The time of the SA Express flight to Johannesburg worked better for me, so that’s what I booked. SA Express is a confusing airline;  it is, like South African Airways, owned by the South African government.  But it is not a regional subsidiary of SAA.  Rather, it has a “strategic alliance with South African Airways,” and is a Star Alliance affiliate member.

SA Express check-in line at WVB

When I arrived, there were only two counters open for check-in, one for the SA Express flight to JNB and one to CPT, and the lines were inexplicably long and slow-moving.  Well, inexplicable except for the fact that it was Africa.  The wait wasn’t helped by the fact that there was no wifi and my cell reception as very weak. In terms of facilities, there was one souvenir shop before security and passport control.  Through passport control, the remainder of the airport was tiny.  The first floor had about 20 seats and a small souvenir shop.  The second story was a bit larger, with a snack bar, and a larger gift shop/newsstand.

Second floor waiting area at WVB

I had just settled in upstairs with a Diet Coke when the fire alarm started going off, and people started evacuating.  My favorite part of the evacuation was when a passenger asked me, “Are you boarding?” “No I’m evacuating.”   The entire airport exited through one set of doors – the same doors for boarding.  We waited for fire trucks, which came fairly quickly.  In the meantime, inbound and outbound passengers mingled freely, which wasn’t particularly confidence-inspiring.

Evacuation at WVB

Once the all-clear was given, I headed back inside, without any sort of screening or document check. I hit up the mens’ room, but even though the building was only a few months’ old, the sinks and urinals were flooded (with clean water).  On the plus side, there is a “VVIP Lounge” being built.

The VVIP Lounge is coming

My flight was scheduled to board at 2pm, which was silly, since the inbound aircraft wasn’t even supposed to arrive until 2pm. The announcements were very hard to hear, but at around 2:15, the arrival of the inbound flight was announced, and around 2:30pm those passengers arrived at the terminal. At 2:40pm, boarding began – which just consisted of the whole flight having boarding passes scanned and then allowed back outside for a looooong walk to the plane.

My blank Star Air Cargo 737

Something seemed weird as soon as I saw the plane.  It was a completely “blank” white plane.  And it was supposed to be a CRJ-700, but it was a 737.  I was supposed to be in Row 4, but when I got on board, there was no Row 4.  The flight attendant’s response was to just sit anywhere, and it eventually became open seating.  That was a predictable mess, especially since some people decided open seating meant they could sit in business class.

On board Star Air/SA Express 737

The plane itself was very old and in shabby condition.  It turned out that it was a leased Star Air Cargo plane – a company that basically just leases out planes to African regional carriers – hence the blank livery.  There was also Chinese lettering throughout the plane, so I correctly surmised the plane had started with a Chinese carrier. Sure enough, when I looked up the tail number, I saw quite the history- starting in China in 1994 – 23 years ago, spending many years with Shenzhen Airlines before making its way to South Africa, starting with now-defunct LCC Velvet Sky, going over to SA Express, then SAA-owned LCC Mango, before making its way to Star Air.

We pushed back only about 15 minutes late.  Legroom was very tight but the middle seat stayed empty, so it was fine for a two-hour flight.  (Given that the plane was upgauged, it wasn’t a surprise that the plane was half-empty.) We started with a pesticide spray of the cabin, followed by a lunch box twenty minutes into flight.  It was more snack size, but was pretty decent, with a cold beef salad, cheese and crackers, and a Danish.  The beverage cart came through shortly after, with wine and soft drinks.  I stuck with Coke Light, served in a South African Airways plastic cup.

Lunch box, SA Express Economy WVB-JNB

I dozed for about an hour, and soon enough we were on the ground at 5:18pm.  Half the plane stood up before we were even parked at the bus stand.   Once at the JNB terminal, the majority of the plane went straight to international connections, and I was one of the few who headed to immigration.  About 25 minutes after landing, my bag rolled onto the belt, and I was off to the Gautrain to Sandton, which was super easy.

Arriving at JNB O.R. Tambo International Airport

I bought my ticket at a stand in the airport staffed by Gautrain employees, which cost 151 ZAR plus 15 ZAR for the card itself. The trains run every ten minutes, and there was plenty of room for luggage, and lots of security.  It turned out there was a taxi strike at JNB that day protesting Uber, and blocking the roads, so Gautrain was definitely the way to go!   Next up, stories from the last leg of the trip in Johannesburg.

Gautrain at JNB

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