Christchurch Airport at 4am- Control tower and new terminal building
Flight SchedulesIt takes about 13 hours of flying time to get from Christchurch to Hong Kong, including one stopover (i.e. 2 flights) lasting anywhere from 3 to 12 hours. By and large, this is the same regardless of which route you take:
- Auckland (i.e. 1 hour domestic Air NZ 737 + 12 hours Cathay A340),
- Singapore (i.e. 11 hours 777 + 3 hours 777-CrappyShuttle),
- Sydney (i.e. 3 hours Jetstar A320 + 10 hours Qantas A380).
However, there's one caveat I didn't mention: timing
- The flights via Auckland are all over-niter flights, so you could head up to Auckland mid-afternoon, BUT you'd end up arriving in Hong Kong at 6am likely groggy (i.e. it's always
harderclose to impossible to sleep on the outward-bound first leg) and facing transport and hotel check-in woes. However, at least you stay in the same timezone until you land in HK.
- The flights via Singapore allow the most humane boarding times (11am boarding = 8am at airport). However, be warned that by the time you arrive in Singapore (5/6 pm "Asia time" = 10 pm NZ time), you'll actually be feeling quite buggered by the time you get to board the 3 hour flight to HK in 2-3 hours time. In fact, I think that was the first time in my life where I got offered a plate of food, and had very little appetite to finish it off (IIRC, I only got halfway through that meal). Then again, it should be noted that taking two flights with the same carrier within the space of 24 hours, and being offered essentially the same food for both these trips (and with an older/crappier/dirtier cabin on the shorter leg) is a bit of a spirit dampener. Finally, on top of being completely exhausted by the time you get to the airport, you find that everything at the airport has actually closed down for the day. Including the majority of the transport options out. However, fortunately there's only a single time-zone change involved in this itinerary, as Hong Kong uses the same time zone as Singapore (aka what I've deemed "Asia time"
- The flights via Sydney offer the worst boarding/travel times of the three, but have the triple redeeming characteristics of (1) price, (2) time on an A380, (3) optimal time blocks able to be spent at destination. The rest of this post will go more into the details of this itinerary.
Departing Christchurch AirportThe flight out of Christchurch was due to depart around 6:30 am! However, check-in requirements mean that you have to be at the airport about 2 hours earlier (i.e. 4am). To make a 4am start and factoring in a 1 hour wake up grind, that means you're looking at a 3am start to your travels. And err... no realistic chance of getting any sleep at all that night. In my case, I was flip-flopping on my bed for 2 hours (it had been quite warm that day, and the heat stubbornly lingered around inside the house that night), and wondering why I even bothered to get changed into pajamas if I wasn't going to have any hope of sleeping anyway and having to also make up my bed as well. After a year of ninja-training, I'd come to learn that it's actually bearable to not "formally sleep" overnight if you just allow yourself to have a really decent 1 hour "power nap" somewhere if/when you really need it later (and have the ability to have some proper uninterrupted sleep later in the day, which is possible on a long haul flight if tired enough).
In any case, there I was at Christchurch Airport at 4 am, on a typically crisp and chilly Christchurch morning (though the cab on the way out to the airport was boiling hot, such that hot air was blowing off the body as I grappled with the door handle)...
View of airport coming out from the parking building/drop off area: Terminal (left) and control tower (right). Both are lit with LED lighting which periodically changes colour.
Short of terminal building with better exposure so that the colours can signage can be seen more clearly.
Control tower and the sculpture that sits on the lawn beside it. IIRC, this commissioned work was only installed in the past month or so, and was meant to reflect our relationship with Antarctica or something like that (similar symbolism is also present in the terminal, with "Canterbury Plains" inspired carpet in International Departures).
Triangular peak of terminal building
The airport has been engaged in a rebuilding/redevelopment programme for several years ago. This was the first time I'd travelled through the redeveloped airport terminal, and also the first time I'd left Christchurch since the earthquakes. As can be seen from these photos, our new airport facilities look quite nice (especially true after seeing the state of some other *cough* Sydney *cough* *cough* terminals).
Sculptures mirroring the installation outside the terminal. These metallic blue structures were quite eye catching, especially in the darkened and empty terminals.
It was surprising to see the number of people who were already at the airport, but also the number of cafes and stores in the second-floor food court area that were already open and serving customers. "Gee..." I thought, "How do these people get up everyday this early?" (unless of course, these stores were open 24 hours a day - possible, but I'm not sure if that's the case). Heck, over the two hours I was there, I watched more and more people arrive, shops opening up for the day (with staff starting to prepare and lay out food), and even the domestic departure security screening gates open for business. At one point, there even seemed to be boarding calls for 6am (!) flights. Amidst all of this, the first signs of daylight appeared over the horizon...
Sunrise out the window, with reflections from inside the terminal. This is all SOOC, not a composite.
With under an hour before takeoff, it was finally time to head through security. Let's get one thing straight: I hate going through airport security. IMO, by and large it is a lot of wasted effort that has almost zero chance of catching the "next big" terrorism threat should terrorists really be so inclined to find holes in the armour, while making travel for everybody else with no such inclinations hell. The queuing up, "laptops out", watch zapping (I've had/seen a few watches mysteriously stop after passing through the metal detectors, once even immediately after such an encounter. Another later ended up needing to be "demagnetized" by a watchmaker, after I'd thought the battery had died after my trip) and "Liquids, Aerosols, Gels" limits/restrictions are particular pet peeves - at times, it's hard to not feel that this was all just a big ploy by the bottled water manufacturers to make you buy their overpriced offerings at each and every airport. "Big Water for the Masses!"
After passing through security, there was customs/immigration to pass through. Firstly, kudos to anyone who worked on the SmartGate system, which uses some awesome Computer Vision face recognition tech to let New Zealand Passport holders in/out of the country with much less waiting times. The system is a two-step process: Firstly, you slide your passport (specifically the digital card part) into a touchscreen kiosk and collect a little ticket. Then you queue in front of five automated gates - there are foot pad indicators on the ground to ensure that people stand in pre-calibrated locations, thus simplifying the processing that needs to be performed by the facial recognition (and perhaps even height validation?) algorithms which work off a photo taken by the booths (NOTE: they aim to ensure flat/even lighting with minimal shadowing artifacts by lighting up two light tubes either side of the camera while taking the photo). This system seems to work quite well, though I'd have to wonder a bit about women who wear "heavy" makeup...
Finally, once through to the other side, you're plonked squarely in the middle of a duty free shop, with the only exit being in a far corner of the store, past all the shelves of chocolate, wine, perfume (and not much else). As I came to understand a few days later, this appears to be a basic tenet of modern western airport design philosophies (Hong Kong airport bucks this trend with an excellent food court instead, with brilliant tenants. More on this in due course!).
Sadly, once past the bling of DFS, we're still just left with the rather bland-looking departure lounge. Sure, they've tried to get all "cultural" and made use of a carpet that's supposed to resemble the Canterbury Plains (much like those city-map/street mats for kids that they used to make). However, this effect was not very effective in practice. Then again, what should we expect from an airport at "the end of the world" where people only ever depart (and don't have any chance of hanging about in transit).
JetstarThe flight over to Australia was a Qantas code-share flight, which was actually operated by Jetstar. On a day of firsts, I got to add a few extra "feathers" to my travelling cap so to speak, as it was my first flight on Jetstar (previously I'd never have considered it) and my first on an Airbus manufactured plane. Previously, I'd only ever flown on Boeing planes, and had admittedly looked down on those from Airbus for a while. Finally, to cap off the firsts, I was seated apart from my travelling companions, and seated beside a couple with a baby! (*GASP*). As such, I don't actually have any shots from this part of the journey, even though I'd have liked to try and grab some shots of Christchurch post-quake in the early morning sun (NOTE: in any case, it turned out that I was on the wrong side of the cabin for that).
Surprisingly, this combination was actually a lot nicer than expected. Perhaps it helped that I was seated in the aisle seat (so had leg room to the right), or the fact that there were no seat pockets on the backs of the chairs laden with stuff (i.e. less stuff for knees to dig into), or the guy in front of me being a good chap and not reclining his seat to within centimeters of my face. In any case, there seemed to be a surprising amount of leg room available, and the cabin didn't seem as cramped as planes always feel after not having been in one for ages (i.e. the seats usually look like they've shrunken another few cm's in every direction after a long time not seeing them).
The baby was not that bad either (and in fact, was quite delightful), considering that there were a few others/kids on the plane around me. One of the others was seated (or shall I say, located, as babies were generally double-strapped onto their mothers) two seats forward that was frequently crying and being openly breastfed by its mother, right then and there - ugh! Another two were seated on either side of the row behind me, with the one immediately behind me a bit on the restless side by the middle of the flight. who were also a bit restless. And finally, an annoying little aussie boy who spent 3 hours watching the "Wizard of Oz" with volume audibly turned up, who drove his mother crazy as he squeezed back and forth behind her when it came to disembarking ("Get back to your seat! It's no use if you try to go before me, I still need to go back to grab our bags").
Back to the baby beside me: this little girl was quite happy and also quite cute, with all stand-uppy hair, curious little hands, and frequent smile. Perhaps that came with the calm parents, or maybe it was all down to one little Big Bird doll - but by and large, this was a pretty cool baby. That is, until it came to baby-food time. The first was a tupperware container of some unindentifiable brown sludge, which looked like mashed potato and gravy gone bad, which didn't go down all that well (basically, baby refused to eat it... I wouldn't blame her ;) Later on, she took interest in a jar of packaged baby food (Watties Blueberry and Apple Crumble or something like that IIRC), eagerly grasping it with her little hands. However, by the time the jar was open, the previous spoon was cleaned, and mummy and daddy were trying to spoon this into baby's mouth, she would have none of it, instead opting to cry everytime the spoon went near her mouth. This continued for a few minutes. There were moments when it looked like I might become an innocent bystanding target for one rejected glob of yellow-brown slop, with some 15 hours of travelling ahead of me still... oh the horrid thought of being stuck in clothes which reeked of this stuff for so long... *ewwww* (BTW, I'd think twice about the tray tables, as it may have been used as "baby platform" on a previous flight ;) Fortunately, the baby eventually fell soundly asleep, and stayed that way right through the descent into Sydney. I probably owe my hearing in my left ear for that, as it's said that babies are particularly sensitive to the air pressure changes during descent...
Anyways, the kids on this flight were by and large bearable. What wasn't so bearable was figuring out how to pass time. Sure you could buy food and/or rent ipads preloaded with content during the flight, though you probably wouldn't want to spend money on that. Instead, those three hours seemed to take forever (in contrast to the 3 hour Singapore <-> Hong Kong hops, which were takeoff > food > nap > land): naps only seemed to last 30 minutes at a time, while baby-watching could only last so long. Fortunately a previous passenger had left an inflight magazine in the pocket (located behind the headrest instead of down near the knees) which occupied about 20 minutes, and some sandwiches packed the previous night solved some one of the sudden intense hunger pangs that arose frequently that day.
To cap off a relatively nice flight, we had a very smooth landing - a nice gentle touchdown. At this point, I was somewhat impressed by the calibre of pilots that Jetstar had (TBH, I really wasn't expecting much, and was perhaps even expecting a really heavy thumbing landings). As for the takeoff, unlike Air New Zealand's 737's (and many other smaller jets), the full throttle acceleration down the runway up to V1 speed wasn't that bad, and only mildly pushed you into your seat, though it was still a long way away from the nearly acceleration free 747's. I'm probably wrong about this, but perhaps this has a bit to do with the shape of the fuselage and also the bulk/size of the plane? Theoretically you'd expect that speed was the issue, though AFAIK if anything, the takeoff speed of small planes is actually slower (150~180) than those of heavier/larger ones like A380's (~220).
Sydney AirportFirst Impressions - Aliens Ripe for Fleecing and Lockdown
The first impression that many visitors to Sydney Airport are likely to have (at least those just in transit), is of a drab security-paranoid prison, which also happens to be home to a generic Westfield megaplex clone.
After leaving the airbridge (taking the down ramp, with the up-ramp blocked off), you are directed down a long narrow corridor. On the right hand side (at the start of the corridor), there are a cluster of toilets, which are a popular destination for disembarking passengers (you know a flight has just landed when you hear the hand dryers going for 5-10 minutes). On the other side, there is a bin, with "Dispose or Declare" written in big imposing letters above a photo of enough food to bring most buffet restaurants to shame, and accompanied with the obligatory warnings of state violence. Who knew that even the Aussies had their own flock of biosecurity nazis?! What, with all the snakes, rats, and cockroaches already in the country (I still have vivid memories of that encounter with a dark coloured cockroach with a white spiral on its head from my last visit to Oz a decade ago to the month). Then again, there was the whole fireblight or whatever it was thing against NZ apples that just won't die :P
Back to the story. On the left hand side of this corridor beside this bin, there is an elevated travellator to save some walking (though IMO its purpose is a bit moot, given that you've likely been cramped in a tiny seat for several hours and are now probably in need for a bit of leg stretching, and would still have to stand while it slowly drags you down to the end of the corridor). A large ANZ bank ad hangs alongside this on the wall advertising some or other service for travellers.
At the end of this corridor, you're left with two choices: keep walking to pass through immigration/customs to enter Oz (more on this later), or proceed to line up in a long snaking queue for immediate security scanning to enter the transit lounge (NOTE: you need to pass through this if you want to get to the transfers desk, which is needed for getting boarding passes for connecting flights, but don't expect to be able to get boarding passes until at least 3 hours before departure). There's just one catch: from miles away, you can hear them yelling at some poor bleary eyed passenger to take out all LAG's (*) and laptops, and repeating this message to every passenger placing their bags on the trays. This is in addition to the videos on continuous loop in the waiting area, and further plaques on the wall warning of further state violence for "non-compliance".
(*) In case you missed the significance of this, let's review the regulations for flying in Oz: loosely speaking, you can only carry liquid containers smaller than 100ml, either filled or empty. A typical water bottle holds 500ml. That is, water bottles, either empty or bought from within the secure area of yet another airport (i.e. bought at a premium price, previously cleared for flight, and which had already safely flown from that destination to this airport) are now deemed "a safety risk" (refer to plaques promising state violence). With perhaps a few hours in transit before your next flight, you can now add "get Aussie currency and find vending machine selling water" to your list of things to do ;)
The net result of these regulations is a very interesting phenomenon (in retrospect, it would've been nice to get a shot of this, but probably unwise to try within meters of a heavily fortified "sterile screening facility"). Just short of the transfers screening area, the airport had thoughtfully placed a row of seats. Behind these was a lounge of some sort, complete with venetian blinds and an outside-facing window looking at whatever Qantas jet was currently parked at Gate 24 (or so I presume - more on this later), which I later heard was apparently the "home-base" departure lounge for Qantas flight crews. On the opposite side of the corridor, there was a large long poster (much like the ANZ ad earlier) with a green background, featuring a detailed photo of a crocodile with a caption along the lines of "The largest crocodile captured was 8.1 m long". Facing the tail of the giant croc, on the first seat, was a pile of water bottles of various brands and containing varying levels of liquid within them.
After clearing security, you are presented with the Transfers desk - a long strip of counters, behind which one or two representatives from Qantas (and on occasion Jetstar) can be found - tucked away under the escalators to and from the main departures terminal on the floor above.
A Generic Megaplex... with a view
Ok, now that we've gotten all that out of the way, what's there to see in the rest of the terminal? Well, having spent over 3 hours there waiting for the flight out to Hong Kong, during which I managed to walk the full length of most of the terminal, let's see...
Firstly, heading up the escalator from the transfers desk, you are presented with the central atrium:
Another interesting part of the terminal area the toilets:
Infinite recursion ftw!These were long narrow rooms, with large mirrors mounted on the walls facing each other. This results in a very interesting effect if you stand and stare at the mirror. Check the corresponding gallery for an example.
The rest of the terminal is spread out like a long tube with kinks and branches. To the right of the atrium, there is a massive duty free shop (the larger of the two I saw), with shelves upon shelves of chocolates, wines, and perfumes.
Looking down behind the DFS store from a mezzanine level where Qantas lounges are located. The strong clear lines in this area looked quite effective.
At the far end of the atrium pictured above, there is a McDonalds and McCafe. They had signs advertising smoothies, but apparently weren't serving them at the time (NOTE: it was only afterwards that I realised it was probably still only somewhere between 7-10 am at the time, or "breakfast" time in Australia). Instead I settled for an Iced Chocolate from the cafe, which had a very strong "dark chocolate" taste which was nicely offset by the whipped cream on top... hehehe ;)
Behind the cafe was one of the viewing windows with an interesting view:
The "multi-national" window behind the cafeFrom here, you can see a wide range of jets (and mostly 747's too) from different countries. View this full size to check out some of the planes parked out on the tarmac in the distance (e.g. the Singapore Airlines A380).
However, just around the corner, there was an even better view!
Up close and personal - unobstructed view of 747's tail sectionJust as I rounded the corner, a 747 was doing its pushback from the terminal, stopping in front of this window, APU exhaust vent spewing out torrents of hot air. What a sight! Where else in the world can you get within meters of such a sight - close enough to really feel and marvel at the sheer size and beauty of these great flying machines? Even better was that it paused here for a while, allowing me to line up this shot straight behind it. Sure, there is a pair of travellators passing in front of this window, but by and large, those aren't really used, providing unobstructed views of the planes parked outside in all their glory. However, this was only my second favourite viewing window, as you'll soon see in a moment.
Past the end of this window, there is a second bend, and yet another stretch of walking before you end up in a second duty free shop (though much smaller than the first/main one). Passing through this, you get to another food/shopping area. However, compared to the central atrium, this is much quieter, and seems to service a different set of carriers (i.e. it seems that this is mostly used for Air New Zealand flights). Particular destinations of note in this area include: a fast-food style Chinese restaurant, and a little bridge/walkway that apparently commemorates some aspect of Aboriginal culture/people. Overall, this part of the terminal seems like "the forgotten appendage" - though in all fairness, parts of it were "under redevelopment" at the time.
Now, back to windows with a view: what was my favourite viewing window at Sydney Airport?
The "Qantas" window
Here we can see a jet that's just taken off from the main runway (center), an A380 being prepared (right), another plane between flights (left), and what seemed to be a cargo or so jet parked in the distance. We can also see CBD in the distance (with a nice bell-curve distribution)
Here we can see a jet that's just taken off from the main runway (center), an A380 being prepared (right), another plane between flights (left), and what seemed to be a cargo or so jet parked in the distance. We can also see CBD in the distance (with a nice bell-curve distribution)
This window is situated to the right of the escalators up from the transfers desk (i.e. near the lifts) and situated between a Japanese restaurant and a Chinese Restaurant (with Dim Sum and other dishes, though slightly on the expensive side), and with a large number of tables and chairs thoughtfully arranged in front of it for added comfort. From here, you get quite a nice view of the Qantas jets and the various service vehicles which dash to-and-fro.
In particular, you get to watch the preparation of the A380's at Gate 24. For example, here is the "Reginald Duigan" Qantas A380 (i.e. the one I travelled on to HK) being prepared for boarding...
The Qantas A380 being prepared for its flight to HK at Gate 24
Here you can see two catering trucks servicing the plane - one for each deck. Note how high the taller of the two stands on top of those stilts or whatever they are. Also note the platform used to load luggage into the cargo hold beside these. It was quite interesting watching this in action, as the surface of this has a very neat mechanism which allows luggage bins (i.e. those silver block-like items in the lower left corner) to be rotated and/or translated in place with a high degree of dexterity and accuracy, all of which can be remote controlled by a technician standing on the edge of the platform.
Something I don't get is why there are so many names listed on the side of this plane though. Any ideas?
Some of the hundreds of names written on the side of Qantas' "Reginald Duigan" A380
Another one neat things about this spot is that you can watch the planes taking off. Or more specifically, you can actually hear and feel the rumble of the engines of jets taking off before you see them, as they fly just alongside the tip of the terminal (nearly over the terminal in fact) with a loud rumble before you see them passing by retracting their landing gear. Watching these for a while, you realise that those suspicions you'd had for years was by and large true: small planes look like they're moving much faster and attack their ascents at much much steeper angles than larger planes like 747's and A380's. Instead of a comfortable 30 degree or lower takeoff, these little things sometimes go for >= 45 degree takeoffs.
A380Ever since I first heard about the A380 a few years ago, I've been curious about getting on one and seeing/feeling what they're like in flight. However, for many years it seemed like this was very unlikely to happen, as they only flew on routes that I wasn't likely to fly on (i.e. XYZ to Dubai). So to find out after booking that the Qantas flights to and from Hong Kong were going to be on these planes was an added bonus.
A380 at Sydney Airport (Gate 24) - Three boarding gates are used: One for First (the closest one), one for Business/Premium (the top one), and one for Economy (the hidden one - behind First, about halfway down).
Once again, Sydney Airport showed signs of being a bit less organised than it should be (though thankfully still light years ahead of LAX). Boarding was initially delayed for half and hour (from just before 11 to 11:25). However, arriving at the gate (Gate 24) at this updated time, there was already a long queue that stretched nearly back out to the shopping areas (e.g. past the Optus Free Internet booths). After 5 minutes of attempted boarding the last few rows, they suddenly announced that they were still not ready, and told everyone to find somewhere to sit until 11:50 or so. Bleh!
With an unknown number of delays ahead, and potentially longer before meal service, there was enough time to head off, buy some chips and fully consume them before they resumed boarding again.
Finally, close to 12, it was finally boarding time. The airbridges in Sydney have three doors - one for each boarding class (labelled on the glass doors for those sub-bridges). One of the first things you notice about the doors on this plane are that they are a comfortable size, with lots of big, chunky locks around the side ;)
Bags of ciabatta bread rolls served during lunch, and stowed in one of the galleys you pass when boarding. These were quite nice - IIRC, somehow I ended up with two of them ;)
However, this was not the end of the delays. Once on board, there was apparently some paperwork issues with some Korean tour party which took a further 30 minutes to resolve, during which time clusters of cabin crew walked back and forth and the airbridges were redocked.
EDIT: while confirming the flight numbers for a later post, I noticed that once again the Saturday QF127 flight was "delayed", with takeoff reportedly 12:10 (scheduled for 11:45). /me wonders if this is a regular occurrence for this day of week...
It was about an hour after the original departure time that we finally left Sydney.
It was a long, slow taxi out to the end of the runway, which seemed to be a narrow island-like strip of land flanked by water on either side. Along the way, you can catch sight of a few of these airport buildings.
Control tower - old red brick buildings like this turn out to be not as common as yellow brick buildings in Oz
The Radar dome - I can't remember if this is for ground, weather, or approach radar, but nevertheless, this is quite a distinctive feature on the edge of the airfield.
After a short acute turn at the start of the runway, at long last, it was time for takeoff.
Lining up at the start of the runway as seen via "Skycam" (i.e. a camera mounted on the tail of the airplane). The resolution and contrast of this were a bit on the crappy end though.
As the engines started to spool up and the plane began to creep slowly down the runway, there was lack of that uncomfortable feeling where the G-Forces force you deep within your seat to the point that you're basically plastered to your chair and barely able to move a limb. This is common/standard on most smaller aircraft, including 737's and 777's, and makes you feel like you're strapped to a rocket into oblivion. On the 747's, it is less pronounced, but still sometimes noticeable. However, here it was completely absent. In fact, even as the world outside seemed to pass by at an ever increasing rate, it often seemed that we were only ever on a leisurely roll down the street.
After building up speed for a few seconds (it does feel a bit longer than on other planes, as AFAIK the V1 speed needs to be higher on these), the plane effortlessly lifted off the ground. Often it's not clear (at least when looking out the window) that a plane has lifted off the ground. However, you're usually left in no doubt about this fact, as you'll usually feel a characteristic "squish" about a second or two after the plane leaves the ground and starts getting carried by an updraft or so, where it seems like the pressure above and below the plane is trying to even out. Not on the A380's. No squish. At all. Heck, if you weren't looking out the window, you may have been mistaken to think that you were still on the ground! Perhaps instead of the entire wings flexing (as in other planes), only the wing tips flexed here (by the 4m claimed by some sources), lessening this effect?
As for the engine noise? I wouldn't describe it as "quiet" (if there's such a thing when flying), but it's best to say that it was at no stage "deafening", which again can't be said about 737's, 767's, and 777's. (As an aside, previous to this trip, I'd practically only ever flown on Boeing jets and a couple of small regional turboprops - they were probably those French-made ATR's - and had for many years looked down on Airbus planes. However, I must say now that Airbus planes can actually be quite nice to fly on).
Seated right above/beside the wing, and with a lot of cloud out the window, there wasn't much to see for much of the flight. However, I did catch sight of the following interesting phenomenon:
A thin wavy wisp of air/vapour passing over the wing at high speeds as we passed through the clouds. Note its curved path over the wing, and how it seems to go from being tight/compact at the start and dispersing towards the back.
Normally people are generally quite critical of airline food. Indeed, some of the food served on some flights can sometimes be so-so (aka slightly larger versions of "microwave dinner" quality meals). However, I must compliment Qantas catering in Sydney on some nice touches in their offerings on this flight, which I'll mention in detail soon (NOTE: this strictly applies to the Sydney to Hong Kong leg - flight QF127. The return/overnight flight QF128 serves a different menu, which is unfortunately of a different standard).
There are two meals served on this flight: a main meal "within the first 3 hours of flight", and a "snack" that is served "within the last 3 hours of flight" (more accurately, about 1.5 hours from destination). A nice touch is a little monochrome infographic printed across the bottom edge of the menu showing this. This makes things so much clearer, and helps passengers know what to expect.
There were two options (as usual), and I ended up having the "Chicken and Leek Pie with Mash Potatoes and Sugar Snaps" (the alternative was some "Braised Pork" thing with rice). Admittedly, this was somewhat average if amusing (the "potatoes" looked more like mashed kumara/pumpkin, and "sugar snaps" must be Australian slang for beans).
However, the real heroes of this meal were really the sides they included. As mentioned earlier, this was served with Ciabatta bread rolls (x2 here). In addition, they also had some small Crunchie chocolate bars (yay! I haven't had those in a while). And - saving the best for last - a "Cookies and Cream Mousse". Wow! That stuff is absolutely amazing, and has to rate up there among some of the best desserts I've ever had. This smooth, creamy mousse has a slight chocolate flavour, which is finished off with a light dusting of chocolate cookie crumble on top. (EDIT: see big tub in top left here and here)
As if this wasn't enough, they followed this up with an ice cream/block (last time I flew on Qantas, they had Magnums). Sure, other carriers offer ice creams too (e.g. Singapore offers a chocolate-coated plain vanilla ice-cream stick). But here they included Weis Mango ice block/bars which are really nice Aussie-made treats - I've bought these a few times here, and unlike many other products (especially those with the word "mango" in their name), they actually deliver the promised goods.
For the snack, there was this pizza-stick thing (lotsa cheese + some tomatoes on top). It was quite hot and hard to get out of the box, but was otherwise quite decent.
(EDIT: this was a Monty's Bakehouse "Roasted Red Pepper & Sun Blushed Tomato" "hot, posh pizza subs")
It was close to sunset by the time we reached Hong Kong (and early evening by the time the flight landed). IIRC we made a few turns while above the clouds (such that while the sun would enter the cabin from one side, blinding everyone on the opposite side of the plane, one or two turns later, it was no longer a problem for anyone, etc.), and were probably in some kind of holding pattern waiting for permission to descend.
After descending from cruising altitude of > 39 000 ft a bit, we can now see some fluffy clouds lit up by the setting sun.
Making one of several turns above the cloud layer, as seen via SkyCam
Banking towards a uniform blanket of white fluffies
View out the window just before entering the dark layer of clouds - beautiful twilight colours
Moments later, we began out descent through the clouds down to the airport. It was quite a thick, dense layer of clouds (an ominous sign of things to come of the following few days perhaps), which was so thick that at times, the lights on the wings couldn't be seen at all - either out the window, or from the tail!
Descending through thick cloud - This made for a very eery effect watching the lights fade in and out
Perhaps air traffic has really become much busier these days, as planes now seem to descend straight through clouds in a great hurry at a steady rate, and without the bunny-hopping stair-climbing descent style of old, instead waiting high up and circling.
The cloud layer ended up being so thick that it wasn't until we were just about on the ground that any lights started to become visible.
The landing was slightly "bouncy". It felt like we fleetingly gently stroked the ground once before actually landing on it with all wheels. Whereas the takeoff required very little flaps, here we required (nearly?) fully extended flaps.
Here are some views of the terminal as we taxiied in from the runway. Last time I was here, there was quite a long taxi out to the start of the runway, past many planes that had been parked up in rows and rows like a giant parking lot (apparently, all of this was due to that pesky volcano with an impossibly long name).
View of the terminal where the plane stopped
Quick snap from SkyCam as we waited for the airbridges to be connected for disembarking. With many passengers on board, this is bound to take a long time.
Hong Kong AirportWalking off the air-bridge I was struck by the humidity. Boof! It wasn't exactly hot, but it was certainly hard to breathe! Fortunately, this time there was only a short walk from the plane to the immigration area (compared to last time I was here past midnight, where we had to walk down endless corridors, go down several escalators and take a dedicated subway loop to get to the same place).
The second other thing to note was the large number of people gathered in front of the airbridge holding placards for various passengers with connecting flights who had to have new flights arranged.
After a long day of travelling, I'd finally reached my destination. Hello Hong Kong!