5 June 2012. Spent a good 7 hours flying from Dubai to Gatwick airport. Even though I had my UK visa, I couldn’t help being slightly nervous going through border control. All I could think was “please let me get a nice immigration officer” and hoping that I had all the required documents with me in case I was asked to present them. I noticed that whoever had a British or European passport was asked to stand in a separate, much shorter, queue from everyone else. Everything seemed to go rather quickly though, and I was happy to see that there were so many immigration officers. If it were South Africa, you’d probably only have 2 at most, meaning you’d be standing forever in that queue.
I was delighted to have gotten such a nice immigration officer too. She barely asked me anything. When she wished me a good trip and handed my passport back to me, the next thing that immediately came to mind was “alright, where are the bathrooms?!”.
Phew, what a relief.
Next: I needed a train to Russel Square. Nuleen, my neighbour since I was 5, whose been living in the UK for nearly 10 years, advised me to use the normal slow train rather than the fast Gatwick Express, which was much more expensive. This was the time to test whether my bank had “opened” my credit card for use overseas. If they hadn’t, I would be screwed. Thankfully, it worked. My ticket was around £16, and the attendant advised me to take the train to Victoria Station, change over to the Victoria Line, stop at Green Park, and change trains again to the Picadilly Line from Green Park directly to Russel Square. I was exhausted but my mind was racing. All those years of dreaming of being in London and here I was, without having slept for at least 24 hours (I had barely gotten 3 hours sleep on the plane), showered, or brushed my teeth, heading out on my own to start the trip I’ve always dreamed of doing.
After some traversing through Gatwick airport, I found some other tourists who were also looking for the Southern Line, and decided to follow them. I found the entrance to the platform I needed to be on, and didn’t bother confirming with anyone (I was that confident) before heading out to the platform. I had to first catch the airport train to the actual overground station. This was a rather wide shuttle train that transported all passengers to the Gatwick station.
Upon stepping on to this train, I got my first real glimpse of England. And it was a typical English day – overcast and chilly – but I loved it. I had officially arrived.
I hopped on to the platform where my train to Victoria Station would be arriving. It seems like they use the same platform for multiple trains going to different destinations. So I had a mini panic attack when I saw the display for my platform suddenly change to a different destination, but I knew the time of my train and when the display changed back to Victoria Station, I knew that yes, I was definitely at the right place.
The journey to Victoria station took approximately 30 minutes. I was super excited when I arrived there, just at the sheer size of the station. It was something else standing in the middle of it all, being surrounded by high ceilings, takeaways like Burger King, the train timetables, and the bustling atmosphere of hundreds of locals and tourists scurrying around to get to where they needed to be.
As much as I was enjoying myself, I still dreaded having to still lug my bag around. It was fine until I found that Victoria station didn’t have a lift; at least, not for where I needed it to be. So obviously this meant I had to perform the awkward (not to mention noisy) task of dragging my bag down the stairs. Thank goodness there was one at Green Park station, so that helped a hell of a lot.
Finally, I reached Russel Square. I knew exactly where to walk from there because I had memorised the map before I left home, and knew that my destination was a mere 1.2km from the station. I don’t know if I made it there quicker than I expected because I had a new form of energy from the excitement, or because it was actually less than 1.2km. Either way, it was very easy to find the Royal National Hotel.
Unfortunately, I had arrived 4 hours too early for checkin. Shit! Really? There was nothing I could do. It was 10am and checkin was only at 2pm. I became slightly flustered because I really needed to shower and make myself presentable, but no matter what I could say (and there were several things I thought of to say), it was not something I could bypass. Therefore, I had to sit in the lobby and exist for a while.
There were quite a few people around and I noticed an unusual number of them on their laptops and tablets. Then I realised hey, does this mean WiFi? Yes, it did! And free too! Too bad my cellphone was on the brink of dying, but it had enough battery power left for me to email my PM at work to let her know I had arrived. She also said she would give my parents a call to let them know that all is well. I then remembered that my power adapter was on the inside lid of my bag, as well as my charger. Thank God! I shifted myself and my big bag towards the wall near the hotel’s bar area, and plonked myself down, cellphone charging. What a relief that was. Connecting to the world and my phone would live!
Nuleen, who I was now Whatsapping, said that the British Museum was literally 5 minutes walk from where I was, and that it was free to enter. Woohoo, which idiot would pass that opportunity! I knew very well what the British Museum looked like, well, at least the entrance hall, so I was thrilled that I was so close to it. Plus, I’m a huge Bollywood fan and knew that there was a huge part of a song shot in the main gallery, but of course, Hrithik Roshan dancing on those steps didn’t cross my mind at all. Uh uh.
Even though I looked like hell (I’m sure reality was much worse, but I actually hadn’t seen myself since I landed), I had about 3 hours left to kill by then, so I decided to just take a walk and go see the museum. I didn’t know what I was gonna do for lunch because I was kind of hungry by then too but I would never allow myself venture into town looking like a hobo. Upon exiting the museum, I came across a hot dog stand and decided to have one. It came with a Coke too. Much needed!
Back at the hotel, at 1:45pm, I could not wait any longer and I noticed some people queuing for checkin, so I joined in. When I got to the front, the receptionist said I had to actually checkin at the Contiki basement first. What the f***? Why didn’t the other receptionist tell me that earlier? Anyway, I came out of the reception, walked round the building and went down to the Contiki basement, where I was asked to fill in some forms and checkin online on the contiki site. Once that was done, I received some vouchers and had to take that back up to the main hotel. I was then given the key. Joy!
I knew I had asked to be paired with someone on the first night, but I didn’t know if they actually did find someone, but just in case, I locked the room door cos I didn’t want anyone coming in while I was in the shower. As I was getting my stuff ready to get into the shower, there was a loud bang on the door as if someone was trying to force it open. My room mate for the night had arrived.
As soon as I opened the door, there was a slight look of horror on her face – she also hoped that they wouldn’t have found someone to share with her. Sigh, poor us. The strange thing was that she, Tiffany, was also South African, and she had actually responded to a question I posted on the Contiki forums asking about the tour. She was on the same one! After chatting a little and having a shower, Tiffany then introduced me to Mpho, another South African whom she had met earlier, and so the three of us tried to plan with her as to what to do that evening since it was our first night in London. We headed off to a pub around the corner from the hotel, where Mpho ordered fish and chips. After that we thought we’d maybe go into town or walk around a bit, but it started raining and it was pretty cold, and we were so exhausted anyway.
By then it was time to head back to the basement to meet our group. All I remember was seeing a hell of a lot of blondes, and mostly girls. There was one red head too with very dark mascara and eyeliner – her, we were a little scared of. It was great finding out that our tour manager, Steve, was South African. He was so happy to see our green passports. And he was from Durban too! Awesomeness!
After that, Tiffany wanted to go back to the pub, but then I realized that I was pretty hungry (one hot dog for the day just didn’t cut it) so we went to the pizza shop right outside the hotel. I had a vegetarian pizza there which was pretty good, and the most divine, tall cappuccino. It was just the drink I needed.
By the time it hit 10pm, we were struggling to keep our eyes open. Mpho was on a different tour (one of the camping ones) and hers was to start the following morning as well. Her tour was to leave an hour before ours, at about 6:30. After saying bye we both headed back to your rooms. I was completely knocked out, until Tiffany came back at around 2am from the pub, slightly tipsy and giggling as I opened the door for her.
It was definitely time to rest up before the big day on 6 June, when our tour was to begin…