The Three Bears, The Three Eighty – and the Aussie Cycling Team!
Tuesday 3rd March 2020. I’d waited over thirty years for this day to come. Mum had died on 9th October 1985 at the tender age of 70. Dad had passed away 28 years earlier, aged 43, and their experiences living in Australia for a short while had only been briefly mentioned. Big Sister Sue was four years old when the Veale family left Adelaide in August 1950, so between us that particular period of family history was destined to pass from living memory.
Until Elsie found the letters.
I had a lot on my mind as I dragged the first case out to the car. Just after half past eight in the morning, a light drizzle and around 5 degrees Celsius. We had about an hour’s drive ahead of us, so if we left by nine we should be at the airport in plenty of time before our flight. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance…
We’d even got new luggage – a matching set in burgundy that reminded me of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Baby Bear, Mummy Bear and Daddy Bear. Elaine had done a fair job of loading most of her wardrobe into Daddy Bear, and as I lifted this 23.8 kilo heavyweight into the boot of the car, I realised there was no room left in it, even for Baby Bear! So Mummy and Baby had to share the back seat – locked, stocked and labelled. We would be living out of these three for the next few weeks, so they were going to be treated with as much care as I and the airport baggage handlers could muster.
Driving to Manchester Airport was a familiar routine, joining the M6 motorway at Preston, then driving south to meet the M56 for the last part. Today the rain was persistent, and the traffic busy. Elaine wisely kept her head in a book while I battled with the wipers and the speed merchants to get us safely through the first leg of our long, long journey. But I did let one part of my brain ponder on how we’d come to this day.
Elsie gave me that bundle of letters some months after Mum died, in 1986. “You might like to keep these. I don’t know why I kept them, but it makes better sense that you have them now.” I had to agree with her. Two years before, I had won a national playwriting competition. Writing was becoming as much of a passion for me as performing. These letters were my Mum’s words, penned from the heart and presenting vivid pictures of a time before I was born. I had devoured those words in 1986, my emotions in free-fall as I learned so much about the life my parents led nearly forty years earlier. It took almost another thirty before I had the tools and experience to attempt it, but in 2018 my Mum’s story was finally told in the form of a published memoir, and I was at the right point in my life to follow her path. Tomorrow I would set foot in Australia.
This was to be our first experience of the “Meet and Greet” parking facility. Normally, our holidays were just a week long, and we would leave the car in an off-site park before taking a shuttle bus to the terminal. But this was a special trip, and the car was to be left for over three weeks. All went smoothly, and within minutes of parking up we were wheeling the Three Bears into Terminal 1. Our flight would be Emirates E018, scheduled to leave at 13.10, and we were dropping off our bags at almost precisely the regulation three hours before departure. The girl on the desk was friendly and efficient, but not open to Elaine’s enquiry about potential for an upgrade if the flight wasn’t full… Oh well – we tried. Economy Class would still be a wonderful experience?
Walking through Security with minimal hand luggage was a novelty, and we only had Baby Bear and Elaine’s small holdall for company. Our smallest case was a form of insurance: containing a few “valuables” and a change of clothing, just in case Mummy and Daddy Bear went Walkabout by the time we reached Adelaide. Could we be that unlucky?
We certainly felt relaxed and well-prepared once we’d passed the duty-free gauntlet. Time for a pre-flight drink, so while I was happy for one last pot of English tea, Elaine pushed the boat plane out with a couple of gin and tonics. At the appointed time we made our way to Gate 12, and had our first sight of the A380 aircraft that would take us to our stopover destination, Dubai.
I’d never flown in a wide-bodied jet before, and this even had an upstairs! We’d done our research (courtesy of Google) and selected seats at the pointy end, fairly close to the stairs up to Business Class, but away from the toilets and galley. The flight would be over seven hours, so we wanted to be as comfortable as our default Economy seats would allow.
We did find the experience quite pleasant, with just enough leg-room, and a complimentary pillow, blanket and headphones awaiting us. We had a seven-inch TV screen set into the seat in front, and a vast array of movies to choose from if we wished, while we charged our sundry devices from the adjacent USB port. (Okay, that’s the end of the commercial for Emirates.)
Take-off was more or less on time, smooth and very quiet for such a huge airplane. I found it fascinating to follow our progress on the screen in front of me, where I could see outside through three different cameras positioned on the outside of the aircraft. There was also an option to monitor the journey with real-time graphics depicting our route across the globe, including altitude, airspeed and the time left to reach our destination.
The other thing of note had to be the meals. Anyone who flies long distance will tell you it’s all about the food. The reason for this is not necessarily that what’s on offer is of a particularly high (or poor) standard. It is simply that there seems to be so much of it! When you’re sitting in one place for hours on end, trying to keep yourself occupied by watching back-to-back movies, or reading a book, the interruption of offers of complimentary snacks and/or drinks between meals is very welcome. So too are the meals themselves. The Emirates App I’d downloaded weeks before had provided details of the anticipated menus for lunch that we would receive, and soon after take-off the cabin staff handed out cards to confirm the choices available. In our case it was between Chicken Korma and Braised Beef, followed by Strawberry and Redcurrant Crumble. Proper metal cutlery came as standard, as well as a bread roll, coleslaw appetiser and a hot drink afterwards. All very welcome and well-presented – and quite tasty too.
Our flight to Dubai lasted around seven and a half hours, and we landed slightly ahead of schedule at around thirty minutes past midnight local time. Four hours ahead of the UK, we felt wide awake, and were happy to stretch our legs negotiating one of the biggest airport terminals in the world. The décor was impressive – marble, steel and glass, with a “cool” 23 degrees temperature and plenty of neon displays to inform the masses of our onward destination, or to encourage us to spend our dollars at any of the glittering displays of jewellery or high-class food outlets. Elaine was drawn to the former. (See above comments regarding food.)
With neither food nor bargain-basement jewellery to tempt us, the only pennies we spent were in the washrooms before passing through Security (again) to find our next gate for the longest part of our journey. The A380 had lived up to expectations, but the next leg was expected to be half as long again, through the night, and in an aircraft that could not boast an upper deck. How would a Boeing 777-200LR compare?
At the gate we got the first taste of new measures intended to cope with the spread of coronavirus. Until now, we had only seen one person at Manchester wearing a facemask. Here there were three officials with them on, and they were pointing temperature “guns” at our foreheads. A slightly intimidating experience, our discomfort aggravated further by being bodily padded down to check for weapons etc – but all in the interest of maintaining safety standards. It was about thirty minutes before our boarding time, and we found some seats away from the crowd, but soon there were plenty more joining us.
At this point I have to highlight a subtle difference between the two of us: while my strengths lie in the written word, Elaine can talk for England! And she’s very good at it. In fact, Elaine’s friendly nature towards people we met made the whole trip that much more enjoyable, opening up moments to treasure through conversation. Up until now our fellow passengers had largely appeared to be Brits flying on to other far-flung parts (as well as Australia), including one woman who told Elaine she was on her seventeenth trip to visit family in Adelaide. From this point on we would be getting to know some genuine Aussies!
Two men and two women sat on the seats in front of us, each of them clutching backpacks, and wearing identical black sports outfits. One of the backpacks had the name “Hayes” embroidered on it, and Elaine asked if they were on a cycling tour with Hayes Travel? “No,” was the reply. “We’re part of the Australian Cycling Team, and we’re just on our way back from the World Championships in Berlin!”
Indeed, the four were soon six, each with a different name on their backpack, and then around another twenty made their way past the temperature guns and body-searches. We found that their performance at the Championships had not been particularly successful – but then Team GB had done even worse… These were true Aussies: friendly, cheerful and optimistic. The Olympics in Tokyo were beckoning in the summer, so there was plenty more for them to look forward to.
Suitably impressed by our first encounter with the natives, it wasn’t long before we were called (in stages) to board our next aircraft, Flight EK 0440, leaving at 02.00 local time.
This time we were in the middle of the aircraft, getting a glimpse of the glitterati in Business Class as we walked through their compartment at the front to reach our seats. Not envious at all (!), we found a familiar collection of pillows, blankets etc awaiting our attention. In all respects the facilities of this aircraft were a good match for the A380, even down to the “starry” ceiling effect once the lights were dimmed for take-off. The difference this time was in our companions: A friendly Australian couple sat in the row in front of us, and immediately struck up a conversation, asking about ourselves and our plans. We told them the reasons for our visit, and they showed an interest, adding some recommendations for places to visit while we were in South Australia. They were from a town not far from Port Lincoln on the Eyre Peninsula, and they asked if we liked red wine. “Of course we do!” Their suggestion was to head to the Barossa Valley, and to look for a winery called Penfolds – a favourite spot of theirs. While we were chatting two more cyclists sat in the row behind us – and then a third came to occupy the window seat next to me. All of them had big beaming smiles, and we were already beginning to recognise these as an Aussie trademark.
We faced a flight of between 12 and 13 hours, crossing the Indian Ocean with India and Sri Lanka to our left, and then nothing but sea below us for most of that time. Adjusting to the time difference was not easy. Having left Dubai in the middle of the night, I had expected we would soon be trying to settle down for whatever sleep we could manage. But our cabin crew had other ideas, and started to serve us breakfast within the first hour. It seemed slightly surreal to be eating a cheese omelette, croissant and coffee at 3 am local time, but I wasn’t going to refuse it!
Sleep did come eventually, aided by ear plugs, an Emirates eye-mask, and our investment in a pair of special neck support/cushions that worked like a scarf wound tightly round the neck. I dozed on and off for a few hours, glancing at my screen one time to see a graphic of our plane flying over the ocean, but with the addition of a perfectly straight line crossing our path just ahead. It took a moment for me to realise this represented the equator, and instantly I remembered the passage in my Mum’s memoir when SS Esperance Bay had done the same. The Crossing the Line ceremony had been a colourful occasion for all ships in those days, and I had imagined my Big/Little sister complaining that she couldn’t see a physical line crossing the surface of the sea. Well, I could see it now!
The lengthy ocean stretch passed slowly but quietly, with the lights dimmed and most people either asleep or watching movies. I did watch a couple, but the experience seemed uncomfortable, the sound occasionally lower than I would like, and it was just something to pass the time. More memorable was the camera display underneath the aircraft, once we crossed the West Australian coastline exactly three hours before our scheduled landing in Adelaide. We flew above a terrain unlike anything I had seen before. The earth beneath was a rich combination of reds and browns, occasionally marked by yellow-ish streaks I assume were evidence of dried up river beds. Straight lines, indicating roads or railways, were a rarity – and townships of any size were completely absent. We might have been flying over the surface of Mars.
We landed with a bump or two, around twenty minutes early at 8.35 pm local time. We said fond farewells to our new friends, but the cyclists were still to make an impact on our progress. Border Control were masked up for virus prevention, and asked us if we had been to either China or Iran in the last 14 days? Realising it was a trick question, we both answered no. After safely collecting the Three Bears, we found ourselves in a lengthy queue behind two dozen Aussie cyclists as they meandered past more face-masked airport staff collecting immigration forms (we all had to complete them), with their special bikes boxed and crated in stacks on the luggage trolleys. One guy misjudged a corner (not medal-potential then) and yours truly helped him re-stack his load before we were able to escape into the warm Australian air and search for a taxi.
It was now around 9.15 pm, and our ultimate destination was the Glenelg Motel, about a ten-minute journey, so our taxi-ride was brief but door-to-door in a hybrid electric vehicle. The roads were quiet, and the fare twenty dollars (about £10). Undaunted by the gate preventing access to the motel, we and the Three Bears piled out in front of it. Anticipating our arrival “after hours”, the proprietor Kylie had left instructions for us to find our key in a code-protected safe on the outside wall. Everything went to plan, the gate slid open, and humans and bears were soon wheeled inside chalet number 7. It was a large room containing two beds (one a single), an en-suite bathroom, wardrobe, settee and a desk. We also found a fridge and essential instructions to operate the air-conditioning.
We’d been a long time away from our bed back in England. But with an opportunity to get our heads down on some proper pillows for a few hours, it would soon be time for the real adventure to begin.
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