It was the best of flights, it was the worst of flights.
Actually, it wasn't baby's first flight. While my wife was in her 2nd trimester we also flew Jetstar to Japan
. But this was baby's first trip overseas out of the womb. Only 10 days after baby Alex's birth I spotted really cheap fares to Japan and couldn't resist booking. I was determined that having a child would not mean the end of doing what I loved.
Why Japan? After six previous trips it was a destination that we were familiar with, one that we knew to be clean and safe for a child. I love the country and had recently renewed my studies of the language with a private tutor.
So here we were four months later. The intervening time had seen changes. No longer was travel the total obsession it once was. Now I had a wonderful son who I loved dearly. Still, it was good to start planning a holiday again, pouring through books, brochures, timetables and websites in order to get the most out of the two weeks.
However, as the departure time grew nearer I found myself with many things left to organise, but almost no time to do so. A big project at work played its part, but also my son's changing sleeping patterns. As he began to sleep though much of the night the evenings were the only times I could interact with him, precious time. There was also a dog that needed his fair share of loving and my wonderful wife as well.
On the day before our flight I was still booking hotels. We had to take my mum and the dog up north to my brother's place in the morning and attend my niece's birthday party. It was early afternoon when we returned and time to give the other granny her last look at bub for two weeks.
Just before we finally departed home a big storm hit. We drove home in heavy rain. I had yet to finish packing, so I did my best and hoped that the storm would blow away quickly.
My original plan was to spend a relaxed evening in a hotel by the airport the night before our flight. We would catch public transport out there. However, the packing was taking forever, it was dark outside and still raining heavily. Friends and family couldn't drive us because of the need for a baby capsule, so I called for a taxi.
Meanwhile Alex was cranky, probably worn out by all the attention at the birthday party. We were unsure if he was sick as he had a cough. Maybe swallowing his drool or the after effects of Monday's vaccinations.
At 9pm the taxi arrived and we were shocked to see that it was only equipped with a booster seat and not a baby capsule as requested and "confirmed" over the telephone. The driver didn't understand the difference.
For once, I was glad that a taxi driver kept well below the speed limits and slowed before every traffic light. Alex was crying his head off and the trip cost over $60, but at least we got there safely, if uncomfortably.
Taxi ride through the M5 East tunnel to the airport
I hade booked the Formule 1 on account of its price ($40 cheaper than its closest competitor) and location next to the domestic airport and eateries (even if that was a McDonalds and Krispy Kreme). Other than that there was nothing to recommend it. It's not like I was looking for luxury, but the Formule 1 just felt ugly... and the other patrons seemed rough. Honestly, I wish that I had paid the extra for the nearby Ibis or the Stamford, though the latter was cold and snobbish when we stayed there prior to an earlier trip to Japan.
While B was feeding Alex I went out to get us some very late dinner. Surprisingly, despite the late hour, the Krispy Kreme was far busier than the McDonalds.
The Iraqi PM
's A300(?) was sitting out on the tarmac and I watched it taxi away. Despite our proximity to the airport it was the only spotting I did. Plus it was almost curfew time.
Fortunately Alex slept through the night. Unfortunately, the night was too short. We checked out at 6am, rolling our luggage behind us as we walked to the domestic terminal under black skies. Alex was on my chest, in the Baby Bjorn carrier, as we had decided not to take a stroller with us. At 4 months old he was too young for a small umbrella strollers.
I have to confess that I was not in the best mental state for the day's flights. I was exhausted by too little sleep over the past week and the past night especially. The was also a lot of concern over Alex. It seemed like he might be sick and we had never had to deal with that before. I was also scared of encountering turbulence on the flight. I hate turbulence at the best of times, really hate it, but I can always reassure myself that I have survived through some moderately rough rides and that the plane itself can handle much worse. But what about our baby? Just the week before there had been injuries on a NWA flight on descent into Tokyo. The thought of Alex flying up into the ceiling or suffering injuries to his still weak neck as we shook terrified me. We didn't have a suitable baby capsule to bring on-board (we used a convertible seat that had been professionally fixed in the car when driving), had not hired one and paid for his own seat. All he would have was an extender belt which, according to the safety authority literature, would not offer substantial protection in a crash or severe turbulence.
The fact was that Alex was far less likely to be injured by turbulence than suffer an injury in the previous night's taxi ride. But it's difficult to convince your mind of that.
At least my scrying of the turbulence charts had indicated that we were probably in for a reasonably smooth ride, at least until the jetstream over Japan.
Terminal 2 was surprisingly busy this early on a Sunday morning. I had been unable to check us in online and couldn't use the automated kiosks either, so it was off to stand in the short queue. The Jetstar representative was very cheerful and the process quick. My earlier calls to the Jetstar call centre to organise bassinet seat requests and meal orders had also been pleasant, with the good humoured reps happy to help.
We could only be checked through to Cairns, where we would change to an international flight to Narita, so we would have to carry our luggage and get new boarding passes in the tropical city.
Being a domestic flight there were no immigration formalities, though passing through security was a real pain. I had to remove the Baby Bjorn, my belt and the laptop out of my bag. In the complicated process I forgot to pick my belt up on the other side.
Terminal 2 is really quite nice, considering that it hosts the "low cost" (sorry, "new world") airlines of Virgin Blue and Jetstar. A number of the eateries were still closed. But we had little time to admire the terminal or to eat a quick breakfast before we were boarding our Jetstar A320 to Cairns. I like the A320. It's a very solid looking aircraft, more so than its competitor, the Boeing 737.
0710 - 0920
Seats 3A, 3B
It had been a few years since we travelled domestically with Jetstar and it was nice to have our seats pre-booked rather than the scramble before. The black leather Jetstar seats were surprisingly comfortable, the legroom okay, the cabin looked fresh. My wife, B, was in window seat 3A while I was next to her in seat B. A quiet young Japanese lady sat in the aisle seat. I normally go for the window seat, but B needed the privacy it afforded to breastfeed Alex. It was also my job to get up and change Alex's nappies. Fortunately, the toilets, with change table, was just in front of us.
The sun was just rising in an almost clear sky as we taxied out to runway 34R, passing Terminal 3 with its collection of Qantas jets and QantasLink Dash 8 turboprops. The crew performed the safety demonstration, then retired to their jump seats. B began feeding Alex as we had read that this is a good method to help equalise the pressure on a baby's eardrums during take-off and landing. As the pilot increased the power the engines adopted their distinctive whine. Jetstar's A320 is one aircraft I can easily identify from sound alone when they fly overhead.
With the acceleration pressing us back into our seats we lifted off the ground and out across a Botany Bay of gold waters shimmering in the dawn sun. To our left were the factories, warehouses and container port of Botany and the Eastern Suburbs. Then we made a sharp left hand turn to track northwards along the coast. The air was clear and we had wonderful views of Sydney's CBD from our window as we ascended.
North of Sydney were the forested ridges of bright Hawkesbury sandstone, still shadowed valleys filled with early morning fog. An hour into the flight and we had crossed the coast and we flying up through inland NSW and Queensland. The landscape below had changed from green bush to yellow grasslands. We declined to make any purchases from the meal cart and also to hire a video on demand player. I believe that the latter was only offered because the flight time was around 3 hours, but users were warned that they would only have a limited time to use them (ie don't try watching a couple of long movies).
We had quite enough to "amuse" us. While a beautiful day outside was racing past, Alex wasn't sleeping. He was feeding, and by the end of the flight, he had pooed his nappies twice. It wasn't until we had less than an hour to go that he finally fell asleep on his mother's lap.
From above we could see the wet consequences of the recent heavy rains across Queensland. Whole fields were under water. Those that weren't were bright green with tropical growth. After many delayed Jetstar international flights I was surprised to find that this flight was actually running early. With half an hour to go we began our descent towards Cairns, the captain announcing that it was warm and overcast.
Landings in Cairns always seem to involve overshooting the city, then hooking back to land from the north. We descended through the clouds, which stopped at the coast, a thin line of yellow between the blue ocean and the dark green jungle of the mountains. As we got lower the waters changed to a muddy brown, no doubt the result of silt stirred up by a recent cyclone. The flight became a bit bumpy, as expected, as we felt the flow of air off the mountains. We dropped over the coastal settlements and the winding brown riverlets and accompanying mangrove swamps, the home of crocodiles.
As we taxied along the runways and waited for another Jetstar A320 to vacate our gate there was time to admire the varied aviation scene that is Cairns. Waiting at the International Terminal was a Cathay Pacific A330. There was a red and white Dornier 328 from Search and Rescue, the big Shorts SC
-5 Belfast and Boeing 727 of HeavyLift Cargo and QantasLink Dash8-300 and Boeing 717. The Japanese girl next to us suddenly noticed Alex sitting up on our lap and said "kawaii desu-yo" (so cute!), announcing that she was a preschool teacher in Japan.
The three hour trip from Sydney to Cairns had passed quickly on what had been quite a pleasant flight.
Whilst we disembarked through a jetbridge we were soon walking on the ground through the construction site that is currently Cairns airport. Alex didn't mind, going from a whinging baby on the aircraft to flinging out the hugest of smiles to anyone who looked at him. Once we reached the old, but busy domestic arrivals and departures area, we swapped Alex into the Baby Bjorn again. Then it was another hike to collect our luggage from the belt, involving a trip outside the terminal.
There we met up with the preschool teacher again and her friends and while we waited for the luggage they admired our bub. Hadn't made it to Japan yet and already he was pulling in the chicks!
A mostly covered outdoor pathway connects the domestic and international terminals in Cairns. The check-in area looked new and we didn't have to wait long for the very cheerful Jetstar lady to check us in, ensuring that we were given bassinet seats for all subsequent flights. Then it was time to yet again change Alex's nappies and feed him in the parents room just down from the check-in desks. When I emerged from the parent's room I got some strange looks from one guy sitting opposite, but hey, dads have a right (no, a duty) to look after their babies too.
There being nothing to do landside we went up the escalator to the first floor and the departures area. I removed the Baby Bjorn once more and we passed through immigration and security with no problems.
The departures area looked virtually unchanged from 2006, when we were last there, especially the acquamarine, navy blue and yellow squiggly carpet. There are only three eateries, a Japanese place, a generic hamburger/fried food joint and a coffee shop, but there are a number of other shops, such as duty free, clothing, sunglasses, a newsagent and ample seating. I have to admit that I really like Cairns' airport. It has a very tropical decor and a slight sense of tropical decay, even adventure, that gives it character. My fervent imagination views Cairns like an old colonial outpost in tropical Asia, Africa or South America. In reality it's nothing so exotic as that, but it's fun to dream.
I know that most people seem to prefer direct flights, but I was glad that we had broken our journey in Cairns for 3 hours. It was a chance to look after Alex off the aircraft and to stretch our legs. While B relaxed on a chair I took a walk around the terminal. International operations were pretty quiet, our flight, a Jetstar A320 to Singapore via Darwin and I watched an Air Nuigini Fokker F100 taxi up to a gate. Our aircraft, VH
-EBC, was distinctive amongst the Jetstar aircraft, for its white rather than silver coat of paint. We had flown it back from Kuala Lumpur in February the previous year.
Seats 23A & 23B
Boarding for our aircraft was called 40 minutes before departure, with Star Class passengers invited in first, followed by the rest of us. As we walked down the jetbridge we could feel the humid tropical air, that frisson of tropical adventure again. The fear had also returned. This time we would be couped up in the air for about 7 3/4 hours, passing through a familiar route that had always provided turbulence before. It's sad that I should feel this way. Once upon a time I felt insulated from the outside world while flying, now I felt besieged by it.
We took our places on the left hand side of the aircraft, in seats 23A and B. These face the partition that separates economy class from an exit, the galley and Star Class. The seating is 2-2 and each set of seats has their own bassinet mounted on the partition. There are also LCD
screens on the partitions as we can't view the overhead screens and additional leg room. Tray tables emerge out of the armrests (the covers of which refused to stay properly closed).
The downside of these seats is that you cannot store your bags under a seat in front of you and, as such, they must be inconveniently kept in the overhead compartment. Furthermore, the only window is right by the window seat passenger's head, meaning that the aisle seat passenger (me) had very little external view.
As we taxied out to the runway the crew started their safety demonstration. This time they had the support of the video screens. It was the old Qantas demo "Subtly, every flight is different. Today you are flying...".
With engines at full thrust the elegant A332 lifted off the ground and into the cloudy skies above Cairns. There we the usual shakes as we punctured the clouds hovering beyond the coast. Below, the brown outlines of coral reefs were visible beneath the waters. Besides me, Alex suckled.
Alex spent almost the entire flight doing three things: suckling, crying or defecating. He refused to settle in the bassinet. He hardly slept on our laps. As a consequence, we barely had any time to relax. I would hardly have put earphones while he fed on when I would hear the sound of more poo coming out and know I would have to stand up to take him to the bathroom. Each time scary in case of turbulence with us unbuckled.
But that turbulence did not arrive. In fact, had it not been for Alex's unsettled behaviour, of which I am in no doubt was due to his cold, this could well have been the best of our flights to Japan.
The Jetstar cabin crew were brilliant, especially Larissa, who could not help us enough, and Steven, who did his best to cheer Alex up.
As we tracked northwards up the Queensland coast we were served the first of our meals. For convenience (something always important with a young child) we had preordered meals rather than bring our own. There were three choices, pasta, pork curry? with rice or teriyaki chicken with rice. B went for the pork, I for the chicken.
These were accompanied by a potato salad, stale bread roll (they always are on Jetstar) and a bar of Cadbury milk chocolate. We both agreed that the mains were really nice.
Again, we refused the video on demand units and the earphones. I had no opportunity to watch the IFE anyway. The main movie was called Flash of Genius and was about the man who invented the intermittant windscreen wiper. Um yeah.
I would like to have listened to my MP3 player and relaxed, but Alex would not let me, which is a pity because my nerves would have been very grateful.
I managed to get some glimpses of Papua New Guinea through the heavy tropical clouds. A wide brown river winding its way through a valley of tropical green. As we crossed the northern coast of PNG the clouds ended, attached as they were to the mountainous land.
B pulled the blind down to block the sunlight streaming in from that side of the aircraft. I was left to try to amuse myself in other ways. I kept waiting for the turbulence around the equator, around Guam, but it didn't eventuate. Indeed, this was the first jet flight in ages, and certainly flying north, where the seatbelt sign was not illuminated once due to inflight turbulence.
Around 5pm we had our second meal service, the "light" meal. This was just a meat pie with a tab of barbeque sauce. I queried the sauce, as last time we had the pie a very nice tomato and chilli relish was provided. Larissa apologised and suggested that the catering company stuffed up as it was the first time she had seen it. She offered to hunt around for the relish, but I told her not to worry about it - I usually eat my pies without sauce anyway (how unAustralian of me!). One nice thing about pre-ordered meals is that you get unlimited non-alcoholic beverages throughout the flight.
At around 6pm B opened the blind again and there we were flying high above a carpet of clouds. I would love to have sat back and just enjoyed that serene view.
An hour later we had a gorgeous view of the sunset. We were now descending into Tokyo Narita ahead of schedule. The clouds beneath us were a soft grey against the pastel pink sky. Then I saw a dark grey pyramid silhoutted against a salmon background. It was Mount Fuji! The captain came over the PA to advise passengers of the sight and to inform us of the weather in Narita.
Soon we were beneath the clouds and skimming over the lights of Japan. Down, down and landed!
But Alex wasn't finished with us yet. He needed another nappy change! Larissa asked how we were and when I told her about Alex she told me to use the StarClass toilet up front. She told me of one flight where the captain had brought his young child and seven nappies. She required 11, so he was making announcements over the PA asking if any passengers had nappies to spare!
I joined the queue with Alex in my arms and walked to the front of the aircraft. The StarClass toilet was no different to the others, but it was right next to the open cockpit door. I offered the pilots my thanks for such a smooth flight, then rejoined B at our seats to pick up our cabin baggage.
Thanking Larissa again, we finally exited the aircraft. If not for Alex that would have been one of the best long haul flights ever.
As we had docked at a satellite gate we had to catch the shuttle train to the main building. Passing through Japanese immigration was much faster than last time and we were soon reunited with our checked luggage. We withdrew some cash from the Citibank ATM, then found the JR
offices to exchange our rail pass vouchers for the real thing.
It was good to catch the Narita Express (N'EX) into Tokyo. Alex still wouldn't settle, but I had him in the Baby Bjorn and stood whistling to him near the vestibule, where he wouldn't disturb the other passengers. Eventually he slept and B and I could watch the neon lights of shops, advertising and pachinko parlours flash past outside.
I like artificial banana essence!