I was only meant to be in Hong Kong for three hours. But due to a volcanic eruption 6,000 miles away in Iceland, it turned into a two-week stopover. 

Volcanic consequences

This is an account of what happens when a volcano decides to blow off while you're trying to get home. As it turned out, I was lucky....

It all began in Osaka on April 15, 2010. I was scheduled to depart Kansai airport at ten in the morning, arrive in Hong Kong early afternoon and catch my connecting flight to London at 3pm. What could be simpler? 

As I waited at the departure gate in Osaka, it was announced that the flight was delayed until 4pm due to "an inoperable engine" - the kind of fault you're glad they find prior to taking off, rather than at 38,000 feet. 

The airline, Cathay Pacific, handed out some meal coupons and off I went in search of an early lunch.

Flying bumpily in to Hong Kong in heavy rain early that evening, I chatted briefly with the Japanese gentleman beside me. 

"I've never experienced a delay as long as this. Six hours late!” I said. “Glad to be finally arriving, though."

My late arrival at Hong Kong meant that I had missed my original connecting flight to London. Once off the plane, I was issued with a boarding card for the next flight, departing just before midnight.   

Volcano problems

Little did I know that thousands of miles away a then little-known volcano – one that looks like it was named by someone who fell asleep on a keyboard – was about to cause havoc in European airspace. And consequently to my travel plans. 

About an hour before departure time, I learned that volcanoes have the potential to cause travel disruption on a massive scale. Flight cancelled. 

The 300 or so passengers at the boarding gate were mostly Brits, many flying home from Australia,  transiting in Hong Kong. We were separated into two groups: those in transit, and those starting their journey. 

Those of us in transit were the lucky ones. Cathay employees explained that we would probably fly the next day, and for that evening we'd be put up in a hotel.

I was paired up with a guy called Dan, who'd just finished a six week tour of south-east Asia. He was flying back to be best man at his friend's wedding. 

Hong Kong hotel

The hotel was a plush affair, situated in downtown Hong Kong. We kept up to date with information via the BBC World channel. On that first evening, President Obama popped up on one of the news reports, talking about the future of the American space programme. "He's talking about going to Mars but we can't even get to London," Dan quipped. 

One night turned into two, and by the third, it was evident that Eyjafjallajokull had no intention of sizzling out. 

According to the news, hundreds of thousands of passengers around the world were stuck, including 30,000 Brits trying to get home. It would've been 29,999 if it hadn't been for that inoperable engine.

Over the next few days, faces became familiar at the hotel buffet. The atmosphere was relaxed and most people were really rather enjoying the experience. 

One guy called Chris told me that the last time something like this happened to him was when he was coming in to land in Phuket in 2004. At the last moment the plane was diverted because the runway was flooded. A short time later he discovered the tsunami had just hit Thailand. 

Had I been someone staying in Hong Kong and going to the airport in the hope of a flight, I would've been left with the dismal choice of either sleeping on the floor of the terminal building or heading back into the city in search of an overpriced room, many of whose prices had mysteriously tripled overnight.

Each day Cathay Pacific told us we could be flying the following day. Each day the news told us differently, with UK airspace staying shut. 

After a week, things seemed to be moving. The volcano appeared to be taking a rest and some flights were being allowed in and out of parts of the UK. 


On the Monday, Cathay told us that, all being well, we'd be flying Wednesday morning. So, with one free day left, myself and two fellow Kiwi travellers also en route to London, Val and Patty, decided to make the most of our last day and so took a trip by boat out to Macau. 

Returning to the hotel that evening, I was struck by how quiet it seemed – as if all the passengers on my plane were no longer there. When I collected my key, the receptionist told me that all the passengers on my plane were no longer there. This was more than a little alarming. 

Missed flight

Our flight had left early. Without us. Furthermore, we would have to check out of the hotel in the morning and would no longer be in the care of Cathay. Of all the passengers on our flight, we were the only three to have missed it.

So now we had no seats and no accommodation. Our only defence was that we'd been told we were flying Wednesday, not Tuesday. We arrived early at the airport at 6am Wednesday morning and could immediately see hundreds of weary looking passengers sleeping around the terminal. These were passengers not in transit. 

There was obvious tension in the air, and some people were understandably irate, having been offered only water by Cathay. A BBC reporter turned up to interview some of them.

Val, Patty and I were told to stand in line with hundreds of others, to wait for a standby ticket. Only about two people were getting on each departing flight, so it'd take forever to clear the backlog. This could take weeks!


The three of us approached a member of staff and explained why we'd missed our flight the previous day. To our surprise, they kindly offered to squeeze us on a flight to Rome leaving that day, or the option of staying in the airport hotel for two weeks – which was the earliest they could guarantee a seat. 

The problem was, according to the news there were thousands still stranded in Rome, so it could've been a case of flying from the frying pan into the blazing hot inferno of a volcano, so to speak. Plus I didn't fancy paying for the cost of getting from Rome to the UK, having already paid for a flight to take me there. 

I opted for the hotel. Val and Patty risked the flight to Rome (I later learned they got a connecting flight to the UK on the same day).

During the second week I made daily visits to the terminal building to check on the fight situation. I also took some trips around Hong Kong Island, waiting for everything to blow over, so to speak.

Come 28th April, still with a week's worth of hotel buffet vouchers waiting to be used, I was keen to resume my journey onwards to the UK. 

It'd been something of an adventure, and I was grateful that it turned out the way it did, but if I'm honest, my stomach was beginning to turn at the mere sight of that (once delicious) buffet, and I really had a hankering for a plate of fish and chips instead.  

I managed to get a standby seat on a flight out of Hong Kong on 29th April, bringing to a close the longest three-hour stopover I've ever experienced.

Home  -  Photos  -  Japan photos  -  Japan to UK photos  -  Tear sheets