You can’t get there from here!

Well, actually, you can get there, but not real fast.  It is 8.292 miles from Raleigh to the compact and beautiful Skukuza Airport in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, a trip I have made regularly for 27 years.  If an RDU/SZK nonstop flight existed, I could theoretically be there in 16 hours or so.

The reality is that connecting flights—my only choice—take at least 25-26 hours on a serendipitous schedule, and on my most recent trip a month ago, I was 67.5 hours en route. That’s nearly three days from the time I left Raleigh until arriving Skukuza Airport.

Returning home Skukuza to Raleigh last month took a mere 32 hours by comparison.  Still long, but less than half the time.

Why did it take so much time?  After all, Singapore Air operates the world’s (current) longest nonstop over the 9,700 miles EWR/SIN in 19 hours, and Delta’s Atlanta to Johannesburg nonstop flight is just 16 hours long, covering 8.425 miles.

The answer is that on this trip I used 180,000 AAdvantage frequent flyer miles to travel in business class on Qatar Airways to get to Johannesburg, connecting to Qatar’s gateway cities in the US via American Airlines. My outbound route was Raleigh-Philadelphia (AA), Philly-Doha-Johannesburg (Qatar), returning Jo’burg-Doha-JFK (Qatar), then JFK-RDU (AA).

The only award travel schedule available included almost 16 hours of layover in Doha going over. That was the best I could do after working through AA rez agents over several weeks eight months in advance of travel. So I took it because Qatar business class is a great way to fly.  Doing so, I chose to sacrifice time for comfort.

How did I endure a 16-hour layover?  I arrived Doha Friday on time at 400pm local (900am Raleigh time). After a shower and change of clothes in the huge Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge, I snagged a hard-to-get “quiet room” (like a small hotel room) in the lounge to take a nap. That took the sting out of the long layover.

Later I traipsed all over the enormous lounge—as big as many regional U.S. airports—and did a lot of reading and dozing. I also left the lounge early to explore the fascinating, gleaming Doha airport, slowly working my way to my connecting flight’s departure gate.

After a nine hour flight from Doha, I arrived Johannesburg late afternoon, too late to fly to the Kruger National Park, so had to overnight at an airport hotel and then fly Johannesburg to lovely little Skukuza Airport (SZK, a 50 minute flight covering about 284 miles) on South African Airways the following morning.

Skukuza Airport is actually in the Kruger National Park, and nearby Skukuza Camp is the park headquarters. Once on the ground I picked up an Avis rental car which I used for the nine days and eight nights I spent in the Kruger.

Returning to Raleigh, connections were short, and the total time fast. Traveling on any airline’s frequent flyer awards means taking what I can get, and thank God going home was quick. I left Skukuza at 330pm on South African Airways, then a 3.5 hour layover in Johannesburg waiting for my Qatar Airways flight to Doha, then a reasonable 2 hour layover in Doha, and finally a 2 hour layover in JFK, arriving Raleigh at 530pm (+ 1 day), which was 1130pm (+ 1 day) in South Africa. Thus, only 32 hours total Skukuza to Raleigh. That’s less than half the time it took me to get there and about as good a schedule as possible.

Measuring going home to RDU just from Johannesburg, that was a blazing 27.5 hours.

Raleigh to Johannesburg could be cut to a short 19.5 hours if I had flown Delta to Atlanta, then the Delta nonstop (16 hours) to Johannesburg.  I’ve done that a number of times. However, that flight gets in to JNB at 500pm local, too late in the day to fly to Skukuza, so I’d still have to overnight in Jo’burg. That would add another 18 hours to get to Skukuza, making it a total of 37.5 hours since leaving Raleigh.

Using the Delta nonstop going home would be comparable: 19.5 hours from Jo’burg, or a total of 25.5 hours from Skukuza to Raleigh.

Point is, the Kruger National Park is tough to get to from Raleigh because, despite being just six time zones later than the US east coast, it’s in the Southern Hemisphere and more than eight thousand miles away.  Add to that the fact that neither Raleigh nor Skukuza are US-South Africa gateway cities, therefore requiring connections, plus the challenge of connection frequencies at convenient times, and my theoretical 16 hours of RDU/SZK travel time becomes—best case—26-38 hours.

One more contrasting travel time example: Over our daughter’s Spring Break this year (2018), we flew Raleigh to Kunming, Yunnan (China), which is 12 time zones away from Raleigh. But because Kunming is in the Northern Hemisphere, we flew from RDU to Detroit, then a short layover, Detroit nonstop to Beijing, then another short layover, and finally Beijing to Kunming, all in just 27.5 hrs. Point being, you can do 12 time zones pretty fast if you don’t have to also move from the northern part of the world to the southern part and when good flight schedules permit.

Long travel time challenges between Raleigh and Skukuza notwithstanding , I will return to the Kruger National Park for as long as my health and pocketbook allow.

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