We have been traveling and I will eventually tell you about the trip, but first I’m going to tell you about getting home.
Our trip home from South Africa truly began, I think, when on our last full day at Gondwana Game Reserve, Don looked up at the early morning sky and saw a shooting star. He later told me he wondered if it was an omen. We hoped it was. We’d had good advice from our travel agents, given the difficulty of finding earlier flights than we had booked, to stay and use the bookings we had. Fluid as the situation was, we ended up asking them to change our flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg to an earlier one, in case things got cumbersome and messy, giving us plenty of time to catch our return flight to Australia. There were two seats left, so the shooting star was doing it’s job! When we arrived early for the flight from Cape Town things were pretty calm and not many people around. In fact when we turned in our rental car the porter said they were only expecting 60 vehicles returned that day, when they usually get between 500-600. So, yes. Things were quiet.
It was a Tuesday and the airline lounge had loads of space when we arrived but a couple of hours later it had filled up. As we were boarding to leave, another Aussie couple in front of us told the story they had experienced Friday, the previous week. They had arrived to take a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg but were told the international connecting flight on to Perth, Australia, was cancelled and they’d have to make other arrangements or be stuck in Jo’burg. No notice, no compensation, just make other arrangements. (It was not Qantas.) Johannesburg is notoriously dangerous, which they knew full well, having lived there many years before. Of course this put us more on edge than we already were, and had been for the entire previous couple of weeks. We were trying to enjoy our much anticipated holiday, but in the back of our minds lived the constant changes in circumstances for getting home.
Once we had boarded the SAA flight to Jo’burg, we looked at each other and breathed a short sigh of relief, knowing we had in front of us two more legs to our journey. Once in Jo’burg the security and immigration procedures were easy. Mostly. The airport lounge had only a few people but again filled up over the four hours we waited. The departure sign indicated we were to ‘go to the gate’, which is nearly always a euphemism for something other than boarding. Usually waiting. This time was no exception, except that 90% of the people were jammed up together in a small area that was not moving and was certainly not practicing social distancing. So, we did our own thing by hanging way back, well out of reach of the others who were waiting. And then we saw that for some reason the South Africans were again searching bags before boarding the plane. It appeared they were looking for large liquid containers. Once the boarding procedure actually continued and was well thinned down to the last couple of dozen passengers, we stepped forward to have our bags searched and were then allowed to move toward the boarding zone.
By the time we got on board the 747 and the Qantas crew greeted us, I leaned slightly toward the crew member nearest me (but not too close!) and said “I’m SO glad to be here”, to which she replied “We’re so glad to have you! We just want to get everyone home safely.” Once again as the plane took off, Don and I held hands as another hurdle had been cleared and we were in the air. Three days after our flight from Jo’burg, South Africa closed its borders. And another day later they have said no one is to leave their home.
The flight was about 12 hours, during which time we ate twice and slept a little and watched a movie. Not knowing what to expect when we deplaned in Sydney, anxiety was still churning through my insides. As we touched down we breathed a deeper sigh of relief, but still, uncertainty hung in the air. As we rolled down the runway the head of the flight crew came over the intercom and welcomed us home, saying that Qantas was proud to be helping Aussies as they have always done for the 100 years they have been in service. “I hope you will appreciate the crew on board have just flown their last flight for a long time (they were all being stood down due to the airline shutting down) This crew have put themselves in harm’s way to help their fellow Aussies and I couldn’t be prouder of them.” By this time loud applause had broken out across the plane, tears filled my eyes and the crew wiped theirs as well. We knew once we were on Aussie soil again, we would figure things out, and now we were there. As we deplaned and thanked each crew member we passed, my eyes continued to be rimmed with tears, and I noticed even the male crew members’ chins were quivering and they swallowed hard to try and maintain their professional standards.
Not for the first time on this trip have we left what felt a relatively safe bubble to venture into the new world. As we walked from the gate and before we entered that visionary land of Duty Free, we were greeted by two figures, one with masks and the other with declarations to sign and instructions for self isolating. But there was nowhere to stop to fill out the papers until after we had walked through Duty Free. There, only three tables for a few hundred people to stop and fill out the declaration forms that we would be self-isolating, where we had come from, and where we would be staying. Huddled together, Don and I produced our own pens as a small token toward trying to stay somewhat separated.
We were instructed to stand in a queue, not far enough apart at first, but at least we had masks this time. When we got closer to the medical team that would take our temperature and individually talk to us about how we felt, and answer questions we might have about self-isolation, we noticed they did have a few lines of tape on the floor about 1.5m (5 feet) apart. But no one had been there to point this out or to encourage separation at first. Eventually we figured it out. I guess they were still on the learning curve just like us.
I quickly discovered a down side to wearing a mask. It was triggering the feelings I get with a panic attack…sweaty palms and shortness of breath. I had to surreptitiously ease the bottom of the mask from time to time to get a fresh breath to keep from fully panicking. I know this kind of defeated the purpose, but I didn’t want to have a full on attack just at that moment. There was enough going on already. And let’s face it, we’d already had a lot of contact without masks.
Once we were in the amazingly short queue for immigration, I lifted the mask so the officer could see that I matched the photo in my passport, and I just never put it back on. We were clear of most everyone by then. After clearing immigration we collected our bags, had declared we had been in South Africa and ‘wilderness areas’ so they could check our shoes for bio-contamination particles, but they only questioned us and moved us on. Having learned about the importance of bio-contamination on the trip, we had both scrubbed our shoes the night before we left Cape Town. Thank goodness. We could scarcely believe it once we were out in the open air of Sydney.
We got into a cab, that was not very clean, I must say, and rode to the InterContinental hotel. We were welcomed and our room upgraded to a harbour view, even without asking. Smack in the middle of that beautiful harbour was a ship, anchored. Waiting. We later learned it had a number of cases of COVID-19 aboard.
We ordered room service and then slept a few hours until rising early to begin the last leg of our journey home. This time the taxi was clean and the driver even had antibacterial hand cleaner.
Once inside the airport, it was clear, things were not normal. There were very, very few passengers and literally no one ahead of us going through security. And once through security we had another surprise, the airport lounges were closed! Previous indications were that the lounges would be consolidated, but open, so we had to forage for breakfast. A few cafes were open with basic food like fruit and yogurt and croissant sandwiches and coffee or tea. But there was no place to sit. In some cases the tables and chairs were taped off limits, in others it was just obvious you were not meant to sit with the chairs and stools atop the tables. The only places to sit were at the gates, and fortunately with few people, we could get some physical separation.
After a couple of hours’ waiting, our flight boarded a few minutes early and all 22 passengers were on. There were 11 people in economy and five of us in business class. Plenty of separation for everyone!
Upon landing in Alice Springs we were accompanied by two different security people into the company of several border force officers and asked again to fill out the self-isolation form, and again, grouped at a table too small for safe separation. But with only 22 of us, we managed, and again used our own pens, for whatever good it has done.
Yesterday, three days after our arrival, we heard the news that all persons returning from overseas by air will be made to quarantine in hotels at their entry point. Two thirds of Australian cases of COVID-19 have been traced to people returning from overseas visits. Hopefully the quarantine will help.
We are now on Day 3 of self-isolation and are starting to get used to the new way of doing things. Thanks to good friends we had our car waiting in long term parking at the airport and groceries in the fridge, with more to come later on. It took a couple of days to go through procedures for getting groceries delivered but we have just taken our first delivery and it all looks good. Don is washing the windows for the first time in our nearly 37 year marriage and so far we are both healthy. Hoping for good things in your homes as well.