Getting Home: Diary of a Traveler in the Pandemic
A journey of hope and love and the kindness of strangers.
April 8: Quarantine — Day 13.
Probably should have started this thing a while ago, but like so many others in this situation I have been three-quarters pissed since entering mandatory 14-day Quarantine: I’ll call it Q as I can’t be bothered with all those letters. It’s amazing how lazy you become after a couple of weeks of doing nothing. My husband, Andrew and I have slipped very easily into this hedonistic lifestyle. We’ve been loving on a constant diet of alcohol deliveries and 1980s soap operas, streamed directly into our ever-decreasing brains.
I imagine this new lock down life would be magic if you were young and in love, uninterrupted by the outside world, free to indulge in a hotbed of passion. Instead we’re more like a couple of old boots.
We’ve got no symptoms and can leave Q in two days, so I guess it’s time to sober up and get our shit together. Haven’t had a Police check since day 3 of Q and not sure if we need documentation as proof of Q, or if we will get a big fine if we don’t. Rang the National Covid Hotline as well as the Police — no one knows. Things really are getting made up as we go along. Do we need a pass before we head home? What if we need medical clearance? So confused. At least I have the permit for our vehicle to enter Queensland as residents. This gives us the title of “essential travelers.”
But then there’s another problem: we need somewhere to live. Our home is rented out, so we can’t go there. I’ve asked friends, but they are wary of having us stay with them — even though we’ll have done Q. I can’t really blame them, but it does make me feel like I’m being shunned.
We must get back though, and quickly. I just heard my mum has cancer. She been diagnosed with two types and has surgery in a week. She must be so scared. My Dad is trying to cope by himself, but technically he shouldn’t even leave the house at his age. They’ll need our support. She is already very frail, I am worried.
I hope our little car can make the trip at the speed required. It’s over 10 years old and only a 4 cylinder that we figured could cope with around 400KM a day. We’ll just have to cross our legs and hope for the best.
I feel Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been paired back to the very basics.
April 9: Q — Day 14.
I think we’ll be sober by our leave day. I wonder what it’s like out there. I see pictures on the news of deserted streets. I also hear stories about travelers getting abused in the streets after they’re interstate licence plates are noticed. Angry locals abuse them for buying all their food and toilet paper. I’m nervous about our trip back East. I have images of angry villagers coming at us, wielding pitch forks. I kept dreaming of a beautiful dinner and night out after Q, kept forgetting nothing is open. It will be a different world we’re returning to.
Finally got through to someone helpful. Although he didn’t know any answers to my questions, the nice policeman from the local station has found out all the info needed to pass through each state. We need to go through three borders: South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. Each state has different regulations, but now we’ve got it sorted. I’ve joined a travelling Facebook page for people who have, or who are doing a similar trip to us: the long trek home. They offer help, information and advice. It seems very supportive, not like other FB pages I’ve seen.
When we first set off on this trip at the end of February, I never thought in a million years we would be in this situation. It looked so good on paper: a slow drive from Brisbane to Perth, spend a few days with friends, then fly to South Africa for two weeks before heading home on another epic road trip, just in time to take up a series of house sits before a six month stint of house sits in England. Perfect. Then the virus (or the ‘rona as Aussies like to call it) hit and it all went pear shaped.
We were lucky to get on the last flight out of South Africa to Perth before the borders closed and the country went into complete lock down. And I mean complete. People can’t even buy any alcohol at all. That would never do. I heard there are still many people stranded there who did not manage to get on a plane. God knows what they’ll do.
Yesterday I had an idea to find a home. I reached out to some Airbnb hosts, offering them reduced rent in exchange for some labour and explained we needed to be near my parents. After about 10 rejections, we have a home!! What a relief. It is on 4 acres, not too far from my folks and we can get it cheap for a few months in exchange for gardening, landscaping and some help with the alpacas. I’ve never met an alpaca before.
Just heard on the news that the Queensland government has just change the rules. We need different permits. What the . . .?
April 10: Q- Release Day
Freedom!! It felt very strange heading out after two weeks in a scungy flat (that’s all we could afford, and we arrived a day after the Govt started putting people up in 5-star hotels).
It was surprisingly disorientating. It took us ages and a few crossed words to figure out if we had to turn left or right out of the driveway.
What struck me most is how normal everything is. People walking, driving, getting take-away coffee. There was even a fellow filling up his boat at the petrol station. I guess this is all allowed. No police are around telling them off.
We had to pass through one check point out of Perth city. I felt my heart jumping out of my chest as we approached. Although I didn’t want to mention South Africa, I had our passports, boarding passes, and Airbnb receipt as proof of Q, but I knew that all it takes is one arsehole cop having a bad to make a case for a $50K fine, or 12 months prison. They’re tough in Western Australia.
But we were greeted by a cheery chap who seemed in need of a chat. He was very easy going and just wanted to see our driver’s licences. OK. Breath.
Got to Coolgardie, still in Western Australia, around 560KM from Perth. The distancing measures are clear now: only one person in reception at a time, no contact room service at the motel. Had a bad night of Covid-19 dreams: heart racing, stomach in knots. In one dream I was stuck on a cruise ship. Should really start rationing how much news I watch.
April 11: Road Trip — Day 1
The roads are quiet. We share them with trucks mostly. Did see an old man, in his 70s at least, cycling somewhere between Norseman and Coolgardie, literally in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps he’s off to live in the bush for the duration. Probably not a bad idea.
Remember when we used to watch Doomsday Preppers and laugh at them? Well guess who hasn’t run out of toilet paper or pasta?
Heading to the true outback today — the Nullarbor Plain. It stretches along the southern coastline of Australia for more than 1000 km, dotted only by a few basic service stations. We’ll be camping tonight. Glad we didn’t watch Wolf Creek during Q.
This is the stretch I worry about the car most. The fact that it started making a slight rumbling noise isn’t helping. Maybe I should just turn the stereo up until we get closer to civilization.
It will be good to get away from the news. The Australian government has announced free childcare to all, and now a friend tells me, there’s been an avalanche of snotty nosed kids landing in creches and most of the mums aren’t even working. They are struggling to cope and worried about the spread of infection.
America has started burying their dead in mass graves on Heart Island. Where will this end for them?
April 12: Road Trip — Day 2
My dad turns 80 today. Not quite the celebration he was hoping for, but I guess that’s happened to lots of people.
Camping was great last night. Such a feeling of freedom. The stars performed and the moon hung low and bright in the sky. We ate a tin of tuna and drank wine for dinner.
Today was like being on Safari again. We saw dingoes, emus and many wedge-tailed eagles. They were right there on the road. I think the lull in traffic has something to do with it. Also took a moment to visit the Great Australian Bight: the cliffs that are the very edge of Australia. It felt slightly naughty to indulge in some sight-seeing, but if we must do another 14 days Q, I am making the most of this trip.
Turns out though that the few service stations along the Nullarbor have shut up shop due to the ‘rona. You can buy fuel via a console and the toilets are open, but you can’t get a drink or anything to eat. Andrew doesn’t believe in machines, so we trudged on in hope. Nearly 350KM along we found a petrol station open. The very helpful man there told us we’d need to Q again once we are into Queensland. It is the new rule he said. The Facebook group has no mention of this.
Made it to the other side of the Nullarbor and passed through the South Australian checkpoint. With my stomach in my throat we approached the border gate. A cop emerged with a clip board and I dreaded him asking too many questions. Even though South Africa has had very few cases, I just think small minds would jump to all the wrong conclusions.
I need not have worried. No hassles, no aggression, just provided our licences and the cop gave us a travel permit to allow us safe passage through the State. He was actually very friendly. I think he’d been bored stuck out there all by himself. Breath.
Got take away fish and chips. There were about seven other people in the shop, all standing well apart, looking nervous as they waited for their orders. People are really complying here, even in this little town of only 2000 people.
April 13: Road Trip — Day 3
A big 600 km day today. Still feeling sore from camping. Maybe a few layers of towels and blankets aren’t enough when you hit a certain age. Note to self: invest in a mattress if you plan on doing that again.
On one hand it’s good to hear Boris Johnston is out of hospital, but very sad to hear Tim Brooke-Taylor has died of the virus. He was a big part of my childhood joy. A sad day.
Not a big fan of this part of South Australia. It is the direst state in the driest inhabited continent. Sights on offer: vast brown plains with nothing but sheep and crows interspersed with ghost towns and ruins of old farmhouses. The town of Peterborough where we’re spending the night is cute though, lots of old stone buildings. Sadly, the bottle shops were closed. I reached out to my Facebook group and was immediately offered a bottle of wine by a fellow traveler in Peterborough. See, people can be so great in these times of need.
April 14: Road Trip — Day 4
Spain has eased the lock down, while France is extending theirs until May 11. Really? Spain is still recording more than 500 deaths a day. The Victorian government also extended their lock down until May 11, Australia recorded no new deaths overnight. Meanwhile USA had more than 1500 deaths this day.
Heading to Broken Hill today. Always wanted to visit this town. It’s been the set for films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Mad Max and Wake in Fright. The streets were pretty quiet, and not many shops open so went to look at the old silver mine on the hill.
There are a lot of wild goats around these parts. They look very healthy. They must be smart because I haven’t seen one as a roadkill victim on the side of the road, as opposed to the dozens of ‘roos.
Have got our individual passes to get into Queensland in a few days’ time. Crossed into New South Wales: no check point, nothing. Hmm.
I have become disgruntled about how few drivers wave as you pass on remote roads these days, but now even the truckies are waving. I guess the loneliness is setting in.
I am very worried about the operation but can’t say it out loud.
April 15: Road Trip — Day 5
Spoke with my mum. She keeps referring to the ‘Connor-virus’ like it’s something to do with the Terminator chick. I haven’t the heart to correct her. She’s been tested for the ‘rona and is negative. Her op is tomorrow. She’s in good spirits and pleased we will be nearby soon. She should be in charge of America. This Trump guy seems to be unravelling. Yesterday he played a montage video depicting his ‘excellent’ leadership through the crisis. Today he’s halting the WHO funding.
Australian PM has said restrictions can lessen if we all sign up to a tracing app. I think he should demonstrate it to us first with his family for a week or so. The IMF says we are in for something worse than the Great Depression. I really should listen to more disco music. All this is getting me down.
Still at least the landscape has changed now to lush greens and the red soil of real Australia.
Stayed in a strange motel in a little outback town with very paranoid lady on reception. She was masked and gloved as if ready to go into an operating theatre. She doused the room key is sanitizer and gave it a thorough rubbing down as she lamented about all her fears of the virus. When we got to the room, we discovered absolutely everything was clammy and sticky to the touch. She’d obviously taken the sanitizer to the room with a great deal of energy.
Got to see the Big Bogan today. A special day for any Australian.
April 16: Road Trip — Day 6
The country is so green after the drought breaking rains near Warren, fields of yellow wildflowers have blossomed.
We passed through the small town of Gilgandra, where it looks like business as usual. Loads of people going about their business. It was even tricky to find a car park. Same in Coonabarabran.
Got a call from the motel we’re staying at tonight. The bloke was even more paranoid that the lady yesterday. He will have no contact whatsoever. The key will be under the mat and there’s no food option, even though breakfast is part of the price. “Oh”, I remarked and told him how other motels are offering a limited room service. I suggested he might give us a couple of beers in lieu of breakfast. He told me that he had been advised by ‘people’ that the risk is too great. Andrew reckons it’s his wife putting her foot down, so we’ll see what turns up.
I’ve noticed there’s less distance between towns now, the further we head East. The towns are also getting bigger and the streets are positively bustling. There’s also a lot less waving between drivers.
Waiting to hear about the operation.
April 17: Road Trip — Day 7
At the motel we found two beers in the fridge. What a good bloke. We’re saving them until we get to Queensland.
Trump says he’s going to open up the economy, but is this wise? There were 2300 deaths in the USA today, only 14 in South Africa and none in Australia. I was so worried about South Africa after I saw all the ‘informal settlements’ (shanty towns), but it seems OK. I wonder why.
Today is an Autumn day on the road. Up on the New England plateau rows of Poplar trees have turned golden. Just beautiful.
We got to the Queensland border at around lunch time. Both Police and the Army were posted. My heart hastened as I heard all those wise voices from our trip telling us we’ll need to do another Q. I just want to be able to go grocery shopping, or to walk outside again, even for a short while. I would have to cling onto my memories of this trip to get through another two weeks of confinement. I also held grave fears for the state of my liver. I don’t think I could go through that level of drinking again and come out unscathed.
The young solider asked for our passes, then started asking us about where we’d come from and seemed impressed when we said Perth. I tried valiantly not to mention South Africa, but I could never avoid a direct question and so it all came tumbling out. He looked up from the paperwork, eyeing us for an excruciatingly long moment. Then, “youse two seem OK,” and nodded for us to go. We sat gaping at him for a few seconds, shocked at the informality of it all. Deep breath.
Now I feel silly for worrying so much. I had even saved every fuel receipt to prove we hadn’t been dillydallying.
Mum is in ICU. The surgeons didn’t get all the tumour, so she will need radiation therapy. It could be a long road for her.
April 18: Road Trip — Day 8
Talk on the TV of easing some restrictions. Also had some interest from people wanting to re-book house sits.
Arrived at our home, even though it’s temporary. I’ve worked out that since February, when we first departed on our trip, we have driven 10712 km and have been living in a motel room or tent situation since November, nearly 5 months.
It is amazing to have a proper house, with a proper kitchen and the space. It’s so generous of the host to help us and another example of the kindness of strangers that we all rely on from time to time. Although it is also a huge relief to be close enough to help those you love too.
After all of that, Andrew and I are still friends. As the saying goes: “Never go on a trip with someone you don’t love.”
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Some extra photos for you.