A Dunedin couple on the adventure of a lifetime got more than they bargained for – after their travel agent sent them to a country they never asked to visit.
Devon Kilkelly and Tomas Woodford Webb booked their trip to Africa through STA Travel’s Dunedin branch.
They were off to visit the Malawi nursery school Devon volunteered at in 2015.
Since coming back to New Zealand, she's continued to support the village and last year won an ASB Good As Gold Award, including $10,000 which went towards a second school building, and a playground donated by a New Zealand business.
"I was so excited to share the trip with my parents and Tomas and for them to meet the people that had such an impact on my life and see where I lived for six months, and why Ngara holds a special place in my heart," Devon said.
Devon's parents booked their travel through another agent, using the STA itinerary and the final destination was the same for all of them – Victoria Falls, Zambia.
"You could see it from miles away, just a mist of water in the air," says Devon.
"It was just an incredible experience," adds Tomas.
But that incredible experience came to a crashing halt – after the group arrived at the airport in Livingstone, Zambia.
"We got there, and we walked up and they said, 'Oh, can we see your itinerary?' And we handed it over and they said, 'Oh, look, I'm so sorry but that airline doesn’t fly out of here. You're flying out of Zimbabwe'," says Devon.
The group quickly worked out what had happened.
They'd asked to fly out of the airport closest to Victoria Falls, Zambia – that's in Livingstone but had been booked to fly out of Victoria Falls Airport, Zimbabwe.
"We were just in absolute shock, we just, we just couldn’t believe it, and we just didn’t know what to do."
What they had to do – in just two and a half hours – was try to get to the border, complete exit and entry visas for Zambia and Zimbabwe, and then get to a different airport on the other side.
They missed the flight by 10 minutes, and when they asked STA to try and negotiate new flights on their behalf, they say they were told to deal with the airline directly.
"I feel like we’ve kind of been abandoned," says Tomas.
"It was just terrible, it just felt like it's almost their fault that they ruined the end of our trip."
They were stuck in a country they had no intention of visiting, with no US cash – the only currency of use in Zimbabwe – and every ATM had been maxed out.
"We were stuck, we knew… there has been a lot of political unrest. We had no help when we were there...It was just horrific," says Devon.
Missing their first flight meant missing every connection home – and with no help to rebook travel, the group had to fork out for new flights. It cost Devon and Tomas more than $5000.
When the couple approached STA about the stuff up, they were told they should have checked their itinerary.
"[There is] no mention of Zimbabwe on the final itinerary. So the itinerary said Victoria Falls Airport, which is why we assumed that Victoria Falls Airport was going to be in Zambia, where we asked to be booked out of, not Zimbabwe," says Devon.
The SafeTravel website lists Zimbabwe as a country to exercise caution in – with political unrest, and high levels of crime.
Yet there was no mention of this, nor of any required border crossings and visas, on the itinerary supplied by STA.
Every other place the couple were visiting was listed on the itinerary – by their country name, not by their city.
After Fair Go got involved, STA had a change of heart. In a statement, the company said: "We would never knowingly put any customers in a position where they were unable to travel and we take any problems of this nature extremely seriously.
"For this reason we do ask that customers check their documentation closely and alert us to any queries or concerns."
STA refunded the couple for their flights and costs, and added in the tax back that they were eligible for on their un-used flights as well.
Devon and Tomas are delighted.
"Thank you so much!" said Devon, who has promised to put the money towards the school in Malawi.