Sarah and her sister Jo at OR Tambo International Airport Departures in happier times.
Sarah and her sister Jo at OR Tambo International Airport Departures in happier times.
Image: Supplied

A sexy plate of spaghetti alle vongole eaten as the sun sets over the Tyrrhenian Sea is one thing, but right now what I really fancy is one of those excruciatingly bland but addictive gluten-free mini chicken pies that are a standard offering at the Bidvest lounges. They are best served with a glass of local red, as you huddle on a tatty maroon chair in an under-lit corner of the place.

It may not seem like I’m peddling much of a dream here but, really, the thought of those terrible pies, those chairs, even the escalator next to the loos that leads up to the lounges at OR Tambo International Airport, immediately get my pulse raising.

And I know you understand why. All these things are signifiers that you’re about to embark on an international trip. You’re through customs — next stop, New York, Nairobi, the world!

My sister calls it the “Toblerone effect”. She says the minute she sees those mountainous bars piled high in Duty-Free, the excitement hits. We never buy them or other airport-only wares but, hell, we know what they mean. To wander through the stores dousing yourself in perfume, sampling a thimble of whatever hooch they’re promoting; the joy of picking a holiday read and wondering who shops at the Burberry store at ORTIA — it’s all part of the dream.

When I flew to London recently, this vision was dashed. Almost everything was closed, the airport was like something in a zombie movie — after everyone had been obliterated. It was all piped music, automated walkways gathering dust, and no people. Duty-Free was open but empty, save for a cashier, and the lounges were shuttered. This desolate hellscape made me realise how I loved airports of yore (even the bad ones) as much as I loved getting to any destination.

And then I landed at Istanbul’s new international airport. It was, no word of exaggeration, heaven. This vast new addition to Turkey’s biggest city has been its aeronautical heart since 2019 and, even mid-pandemic, it was a joy. 

Airy, contemporary, thoughtful — at all hours it is throbbing with passengers, colour, and diverting attractions. You can see that it’s meant to be a modern take on a Turkish bazaar and every direction you turn there are cool food stalls, cafés, and luxury stores. Their main business-class lounge is the size of Pretoria and even boasts an automated grand piano on an eternal loop. Istanbul International is the Disney World of airports and I might look into seeing if you can actually have a holiday in it.

By comparison, the usually heaving Heathrow Terminal 3 was sanitised and sad. The salespeople and merchandise at fancy boutiques like Bottega Veneta seemed forgotten; the big restaurants were closed. Thank goodness WH Smith was still operational for mandatory last-minute gift purchases.

Interior view of modern seating furniture in first class lounge of Virgin Airlines at Heathrow Airport in London.
Interior view of modern seating furniture in first class lounge of Virgin Airlines at Heathrow Airport in London.
Image: Getty Images / Visions of America / UIG

In writing this column I asked myself, what is my favourite airport in the world? Where would I, if viruses were vanquished, love to find myself Gibbonsitting right now?

Tenerife’s terminal was surprisingly delightful — as were the tiny baguettes jammed with jamón — almost the only redeeming thing about the tourist-trap island. Frankfurt’s hub is a pretty good spot in which to waste 16 hours, and Miami’s is dire. Tunis airport is where I found two mergoum carpets, which are the best thing I’ve ever bought while travelling and, obviously, sign me up for the shopping at Dubai International.

My winner though couldn’t be less like that Emirates bonanza. Right now, I would love to be sitting at Harare International Airport. In my mind’s eye it’s a Saturday at lunchtime and I’m waiting for the flight home to Joburg. With any luck, the power is on and the aircon is working.

I love that departures building: its ’90s architectural nod to Great Zimbabwe, the always brilliant staff, even the picture of President Emmerson Mnangagwa keeping an eye on you while you try and pick up the Wi-Fi. In pre-Covid days it had a bookshop/antiques store that sold a really interesting mix of African and global literature, and you’d be able to get a couple of bags of wonderful Farfell coffee around the corner. There isn’t really anything else to do except watch people disembarking from arriving flights, but more often than not I’ll run into someone I know (and I’m not even from Zimbabwe).

When this is all over, let’s meet there for a couple of ice-cold Bohlinger’s beers that cost us an alarming number of US dollars. Paradise! 

 Buitendach is Wanted’s former editor, contributing editor to the Financial Mail, and has recently done a lot of googling of cuttlefish.

 From the August edition of Wanted, 2021.

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