SUNDAY TIMES - A funny thing happened when my plane came down
Sunday Times Travel By Charmain Naidoo, 2017-03-19 00:00:00.0

A funny thing happened when my plane came down

The plane was flying low, really, really low - skimming the water. The wing on my side wobbled, the sea rushed up towards us, closer and closer.
Image: Piet Grobler

Hong Kong airport was once reputed to have one of the world's most hair-raising landings. Accidental Tourist Charmain Naidoo can confirm that it was well deserved

"Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen in Hong Kong," Vita Sackville-West, the famous English garden designer, poet and novelist wrote in the 1880s.

So I'm sparing you the boring detail of my delicious visit to Hong Kong, where the pace is fast, as is the food, and the girls have a genius sense of style.

What I will share is my terrifying arrival in this densely populated city characterised by its ridiculously tall skyscraper skyline. This city is both a major port as well as a global financial hub.

My trip to Hong Kong ended with heart-stopping panic. "Early morning light fog," the captain said, announcing that it was going to be a drizzly day.

I looked out of the window, desperate for my first view of the city, enshrouded below me in a thick, white mist.

I'd long wanted to visit Hong Kong. I became obsessed with the handover of the Asian city - from the British back to the Chinese on July 1 1997.

I was engrossed in the tabloid tales of the life and lifestyle of the 28th and last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, his wife Lavender (there's a name for you) and their daughters Laura, Kate and Alice.

It seemed a fairy-tale lifestyle - Hong Kong's first British family leading a life reserved for emperors and kings.

Laura, Kate and Alice made regular appearances in the society pages and on the front page of the tabloids.

So it was 20 years overdue, my visit to this, Asia's New York.

The plane came in lower, I held my breath in anticipation of that moment when it breaks through the cloud and the twinkling lights below mark the outline of the sleeping city. But there was no earth below us. I screamed although I can't remember a sound coming out of my mouth.

The plane was flying low, really, really low - skimming the water. The wing on my side wobbled, the sea rushed up towards us, closer and closer.

We're going to crash into the sea. My friend Johan, on his first visit to Hong Kong too, looked alarmed. I crossed myself. Twice. I began to say The Lord's Prayer: Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

If I was going to die, at least I wanted to be in the safe category of those allowed entry into Catholic heaven.

To die praying, my catechism instructor, Sister Angelica used to tell us six-year-olds, is to guarantee a place in heaven.

Well now was the time to test that theory.

And then we were down and there was that familiar bump as the plane hit the tarmac, just metres away from the pounding fury of the ocean. Not much room for error. I felt for the pilot!

Pilots will tell you that it's a scary landing airport, though it used to be worse. In 1998, Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport was closed because planes trying to land had to avoid skyscrapers and mountains. Apparently the Runway 13 approach was a particularly terrifying experience for everyone on board, passengers and pilots.

It required the manoeuvring of the plane over the harbour and then over the high-density living area of Western Kowloon.

In a Heath Robinson-esque move, once the pilot spotted a hill with a big red and white checkerboard he made a 47-degree right turn to line up with the runway and land.

That, the slender Chinese man across the aisle told us, was scary. I winced. He laughed. I didn't think it was funny.

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