Where distance starts to hurt, and empty spaces are too crowded…
Saturday 4th to Sunday 5th April 2020. As journeys go, this one was going to stand out. I remember a lengthy one by coach, travelling back home from the Rhine Valley – and getting caught in traffic snarl-ups around London. I still shudder at the memory. This one would be so-o-o much longer…
It started with a couple of illegal hugs, saying goodbye to Sue Mac, Lizzie and Kato. She’d been a wonderful hostess, sharing her home with us for longer than anyone anticipated, and making us feel so welcome. Elaine had helped out with some meals, we’d done our own laundry, and I’d offered advice on computers and done some washing-up. We stripped the bed and tidied early that morning, so forever more Sue would refer to us as “my servants”. But it was an emotional farewell.
Our trio of cases (“The Three Bears”) had been packed, locked and labelled yesterday. Travelling by a different airline had increased our overall allowance by another ten kilos, but we were well within it, despite being laden with numerous souvenirs. Now the Bears cosied up in the back of Linc’s car, leaving Delamere promptly at 8.30 am. We faced almost a two-hour trip to the airport, a further two-hour flight to Sydney, a second of over fifteen hours to Doha, and a third of seven and a half hours to Manchester. Not to mention the hour-long drive home from there, and all the time spent waiting in airport lounges. We’d have experienced something similar if we’d flown home on 25th March – but what would it be like now, with social distancing measures in place, and the serious threat of picking up a deadly virus that had already encircled the world?
Linc took the scenic route – literally. Kangaroos bowed their heads in farewell as we swept past Carrickalinga and circled the reservoir at Myponga. Elaine blew them a kiss and wiped away a tear. We’d been close friends.
Approaching the City that sunny morning, it was plain the virus was keeping people off the roads. Our journey took twenty minutes less than Linc estimated, and we braced ourselves for an earlier parting. It felt wrong, not being able to give each other a hug, but we were in a public space. The sentiments were still there, and the bond was unbreakable. Our “link” across the miles had been well and truly established, and it was the man from the Cape who recorded the moment as Elaine and I wheeled our charges towards their point of departure…
Our first encounter with the procedures that would get us home was promising. We joined a short queue (1.5 metres apart) to check-in the Three Bears, where a smartly-dressed lady wearing plastic gloves and a fixed smile courteously advised us we’d have to claim them back again at Sydney. No worries, we thought. Security was a breeze, apart from a little shaking of heads over what one guy called a “spray can”, and which Elaine confirmed was her deodorant.
The airport seemed eerily quiet. The bar where we’d sat waiting for our last flight to Sydney was closed. Security police and airport staff were only just outnumbered by prospective passengers, yet there was no shortage of plastic tape.
Our Qantas flight arrived slightly early, and we watched as people coming off queued up to present their passports to police officers and hand in some paperwork. Perhaps we would be expected to do something similar on arrival in Sydney?
Boarding was timely, and we had three seats to ourselves, but two sets of families with young babies nearby. The accompanying noise was a short-term irritation, and while no-one offered free wine this time, the complimentary pretzels, cake and water were very welcome.
Recent news of ground staff at Sydney being hit by the virus proved to be true, as there were even less personnel evident at the larger airport. As for a passport inspection, or handing in paperwork – nothing. The police were occupied elsewhere. We even saw one case of illegal parking of an aircraft (below):
It was at baggage retrieval that the panic began, and the whole journey sunk to a new level. A member of the airport staff called for attention from those of us waiting at the carousel. “Anyone needing International Departures must catch the shuttle bus outside in ten minutes!” We did, and we were. Well – we joined the crowds waiting for a bus they told us only went between terminals once an hour. A vehicle arrived, already half full of passengers and their baggage, to pick up another thirty or so passengers similarly burdened. It was a scramble to get on. Social distance? Hah! 1.5 metres? How about 1.5 centimetres… It took five minutes of stand-off between prospective passengers and the driver before she gave up and drove away. There was barely any airspace between those of us less-fortunates stood in the aisle, trying not to be crushed by “Daddy Bear” suitcases weighing up to 30 kilos. She-Who-Would-Not-Be-Deterred managed to grab a seat. Her hubby clung on to anything he could for the next ten minutes. Sorry madam. You just looked more solid than I felt.
There was worse to come. Now we had to be processed inside International Departures. This involved queuing at a doorway for inspection of our passports and boarding cards by a masked official. It was his job to then open the door and direct us to our next destination. “Do NOT come back downstairs!” he urged each of us. We didn’t ask what the penalty would be.
Upstairs we had the deep joy of discovering the flight Qatar had brought forward one hour had now been put BACK to its original time… Sigh.
That also meant we now had at least five hours to wait before our flight – the majority of which would be occupied sitting around a closed check-in area with another few hundred frustrated travellers, all mindful of keeping our social distance. Elaine and I have been fortunate in our travels to date. Sitting around airport terminals for hours on end with limited facilities had never been part of our experience – until now. This was a blot on our travel CV we’d be glad to see the back of, and even when we did see staff starting to man the check-in desks, our patience still had to be tested. There formed an e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s queue, officials barking at us to “keep one point five metres apart at all times!” The wait went on... and on…
Around thirty minutes of this saw us reach the desk where a smiling and patient lady under the name badge of Fatma relieved us of the Three Bears, and assured us we would reach Manchester united. (Excuse the pun) Free of our charges, we passed quickly through security (spray can? No – deodorant), and went in pursuit of something to eat. Such a huge building, but so few places with anything to offer, and a salad just had to do.
I almost feel the following text should come with a warning similar to the ones they put out on TV before a ‘soap’ is broadcast… You know the ones that include the wording “some viewers may find upsetting”? Forget all the stuff about keeping your distance. Imagine being crammed into a long metal tube with 366 other unfortunates (it was full) for fifteen hours with the doors tight shut. You’re sat in the middle row of four with arms and feet jammed up alongside two complete strangers. To add to your misery, you’re sat immediately in front of the busiest part of the whole tin can (sorry) aircraft – the toilets and the galley. There. I did warn you. And it gets worse.
My companions to the right were both wearing facemasks. The absurdity of this was amply illustrated once faced with an in-flight meal… “Shepherd’s Pie, sir?” “Er – yes please” I say. I don’t know about the shepherd, but something went astray. Meat, maybe.
You’ll gather by now I was not endeared by this, my first impression of Qatar Airways. The screen in front of me offered a similar range of entertainment to Emirates, but I had little appetite for it. Take-off had been more or less on time, shortly before ten at night, and my brain was telling me it was time to go to sleep. But there was a problem: despite closing my eyes and wearing earplugs, nothing could rescue my body from being aware of where I was and what I was doing. Fifteen hours… The screen stared me out. As I followed our slow progress out of Australian airspace, I discovered Qatar Airways were proudly boasting of being ‘Airline of the Year’ on five successive occasions. I know that because they kept telling me. Over and over again. Had the judges ever passed through the curtain and visited economy? I doubt it.
I looked to my left and noted Elaine trying to watch a movie, struggling to get rid of the constant presence of Arabic subtitles. I looked at my own screen, where smiling models were invoking the delights of Doha. Now I was being advised to remain seated while praying. “Get me out of here!” said my lips silently. But I stayed where I’d been put.
Our intermediate destination materialised at around 4.30 am local time. Like Dubai, Doha airport is a vast affair in steel and marble, but unlike our experience a month ago, the crowds and the shopping experience were almost non-existent.
We noted the huge teddy and the curious artworks, the Harrods restaurant (open) and the jewellery shops (closed). No water fountains available, so we had to buy a bottle for the equivalent of four British pounds. The plus side? Being able to move about; to breathe air-conditioned air at 23 degrees that just might be purer than the stuff we’d endured during the night; to know that the longest part of the journey was over, and the next leg was less than three hours away.
It is with some humility I take back what I said about Qatar Airways. Well – some of it. The next leg of our journey saw an improvement. Contrary to my earlier comments, I had managed to snatch some sleep overnight, giving me a brighter mental frame of mind to face our daylight flight to Manchester. But the real boost, to my mind, was in finding our aircraft (a Boeing Dreamliner) only about a third full. Socially distancing? Tick!
We were in the air around 8.30 am local time, and soon enjoying our second breakfast of the day. The air was more palatable, light streaming through large windows, and a quiet hum filled the spacious cabin. Nightmares were a distant memory – apart from finding Elaine’s touchscreen had somehow been desensitised, and we were still invited to pray while remaining seated. I wondered if it would say the same thing inside the loo? (It didn’t)
Europe was underneath us. Australia many, many miles behind. Ahead lay the UK, a mass of people huddled together on a small island riddled with a disease that could kill. Were we really sure about this? Strangely, yes. We’d been away longer than we intended. Our little Yorkshire Terrier (Ollie) would be waiting for our arrival, looked after by Elaine’s daughter Rosie. We’d have to keep our distance, of course, and faced another two weeks in self-isolation. The good news was that Aussie weather awaited – temperatures of around 18 degrees in pleasant sunshine, similar to Adelaide yesterday. How lucky were we?
It was a bumpy landing, just after 1.30 pm, and then we faced delays disembarking while we waited for the depleted airport staff to handle a flight from India that arrived minutes before. It gave us a moment to think. Would there be government officials handing out instructions for quarantining? Would we face questions by the police about where we had been? Whose air had we breathed? More importantly, would we be reunited with the Three Bears?
We were, but no to everything else. It took a little queuing to progress through passport control, not unusual, and we suffered no questions at all. Walking through those familiar corridors felt strange. It was as if there had been a mass evacuation but no-one had thought to include us, and it was a relief to find our car still there. I had one last hurdle to get over: this wasn’t the Jackaroo. It had two pedals, not three – and surely someone had swapped the indicators with the wipers?
Another surreal experience awaited us: empty motorways. No – really empty. An hour’s journey home and we passed only a few dozen HGV’s. Traffic management signals flashed their warning ‘ESSENTIAL TRAVEL ONLY’. They almost made me feel guilty, but we had to get home.
There was Ollie, trying to wriggle out of Rosie’s arms. Pooh to social distance from his point of view! And who were we to argue? We had just travelled twelve thousand miles, been on a trip of a lifetime, and couldn’t wait to tell everyone of our amazing experiences meeting some wonderful people.
Now you know.
Thank you for sharing the journey.
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