Whatever the Lewa marathon throws at me at the end of my six months in Kenya, it is hard to imagine it being more challenging than the journey to get out here.
On the Saturday before we left, a tonne of snow fell across England bringing the country to a standstill. We thanked our lucky stars we weren’t flying until Monday.
Come Sunday night, however, all flights from Heathrow were still being cancelled. I went to bed hopeful after hearing that no further snow was forecast and that Heathrow was expecting to be fully operational the next day.
At about 4 o’clock in the morning, my youngest daughter, Uma, came in to my bedroom wanting to do a wee. I stumbled sleepily out of bed, picked up her and then stopped. Outside the window it was snowing a blizzard. The cars, our carriages to the airport, had disappeared under two silent mounds of white. I went back to bed but couldn’t sleep.
At 8am it was still coming down. The road was buried under two feet of fresh snow. We weren’t going anywhere. We wouldn’t even get the cars out of the drive. I tried ringing the airline but the number was constantly engaged. Sitting in the kitchen, endlessly hitting redial, as my children talked excitedly about being on the aeroplane, after all we had done to get to this point, was heartbreaking.
“Let’s just go,” said Marietta. It meant dragging my parents and Marietta’s mum, Betty, who were all giving us lifts, as well as the three children, on a perilous, if not impossible, journey up to Heathrow airport, to sit with 500,000 other demented people wondering how to go about rebooking a flight when the airlines wouldn’t even answer the phone.
There were stories in the press of late-night drunken fights as families tried to sleep on the terminal floor. On Radio 4, Simon Calder said: “It’s grim. But it will only get grimmer.”
It felt as though the whole project was unravelling. All those plans, all that excitement, being slowly buried by the gentle, beautiful snow that just wouldn’t stop.
But my Dad, game for the challenge, was out clearing the drive. Marietta was packing up the last bits and pieces. We had to go. We had a flight to Kenya booked that night. It had cost me £4,000. We couldn’t afford not to try.
The drive to Heathrow was intense. Abandoned lorries littered the carriageways like dead cows in an icy drought; the endless, ominous whiteness lay over everything, contemptuous of our efforts. The radio talked of Heathrow being so full of flightless passengers that police were stopping people entering the terminal buildings. Would they even let us in?
The children were coping amazingly well with all the glum faces and the talk of impending catastrophe, eating Marmite sandwiches and describing to me in intricate detail the way cars fit on a car transporter. I nodded blankly. “Amazing,” I said.
Eventually, despite the slippery roads, we made it to Heathrow. We walked in past long cues of tired people leaning on overloaded trolleys. Marietta went up to the first desk she could find and asked the man if he knew where we could check in. “I’ll check you in now,” he said. Just like that. Ten minutes later we were waving goodbye and waltzing through an almost empty security check into the departure lounge.
It was still not certain whether the flight was going to leave, but it was not listed as cancelled on the board, unlike many others. So we found an empty row of seats by a big window and hunkered down to wait. The hours went by and the flight kept being delayed, but still not cancelled. The uncertainty was sending an aching craziness though my veins. I paced back and forth, occasionally kicking a chair, or gently knocking my knuckles together. To add to our problems, Uma came down with a fever and fell asleep. Lila, the eldest, after some reading and running around, settled down to watch Peppa Pig on the internet.
Little Ossian, meanwhile, was having the time of his life. He drove his toy cars along the endless rows of empty seats. Then he climbed on the seats. He looked out of the window at all the trucks whizzing by with their flashing orange lights. He ran up and down the moving floor. He was in heaven.
Eventually his fun was ended when they finally called our flight. I could feel the tension easing from my limbs as the plane finally, after endless taxiing, lifted off into the sky. Marietta looked at me. We had done it. Somehow, we had actually done it.
That, of course, was just the beginning of our adventure.