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Surfing Covid on a final tour as Australasia shut down


At the tail end of February a friend and I set off for a 33 day trip to Australia, a journey we had planned for approximately six months. Good, better, best butted heads with bad, terrible, and are you kidding as the Coronavirus roared its ugly head. Nonetheless, we survived. And we learned valuable lessons during this month long tutorial, ones we will remember whether we are at home or abroad.

Our Virgin Australia flight Los Angeles to Sydney went without a hitch. In less than fifteen hours, we landed in Sydney and shuttled to our hotel, Castlereagh, in the downtown area. Its location was perfect for walking to the sites of central downtown, Hyde Park, and Circular Quay. The city was alive and vibrant, with only a hint of the Coronavirus running havoc in other global destinations when we tuned in to the evening international news. We joined exuberant fellow tourists for walking tours, museum outings, a harbor cruise, bus outing to Bondi Beach, ferry ride to Manley Beach, a food tour in the Surry Hills District, Blue Mountain Adventures with Anderson Tours, a Ben Folds concert at Town Hall, botanical garden stroll, crafts market shopping, and, oh yes, the highlight for me: viewing “Carmen” at the Sydney Opera House. We found Sydney a delight. If anything fell into the category of “bad,” it would be that we became a bit like Mary Poppins on two of our days there with on and off rain and umbrellas that wanted to take to the sky. Besides that inconvenience, all was a delight.

As scheduled, we flew Sydney to Cairns and shuttled once more, this time to Port Douglas for touring the Great Barrier Reef. Looking at the weather forecast for the four days we were to be there, we anticipated rainy weather. Much to our good fortune, the weather was beautiful. We joined Calypso Tours (calypsoreefcruises.com) for snorkeling the reef and touring the rainforest area of Daintree. Colors popped alive as we snorkeled from their upscale catamaran. Bright blues mingled with yellows and reds of every shade. We stopped at three spots to explore the outer Great Barrier Reef. One of the crew members noticed toward the end of our second stop that I was tiring a bit. He offered to give me a noodle to place around my waist as he towed me in and out of the reef areas for our third dive. Definitely, it ranked among my “best ever experiences.” The next day we went to Daintree Rainforest, the oldest known rainforest in the world, dating back 180 million years. Diversity is an understatement to describe Daintree with its beaches, gorges, rivers, waterfalls, mangroves, plants, pools, and mountains. Two cassowaries joined us on a trail by the public bathroom area. These huge flightless birds look rather like emus but have violent reputations of their attacks with their 4 inches long claws. This ancient rainforest comes alive with these living dinosaur-like creatures. While in Daintree, we took a boat ride to spot crocodiles in the wild. With no such luck, we decided to spend a day at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a park half way between Cairns and Port Douglas (https://www.crocodileadventures.com). Definitely, this park did not disappoint. We were able to feed crocodiles, snap photos of their antics, and thoroughly appreciate their savagery. During our stay in this area, a few fellow tourists and guides mentioned the Coronavirus, mostly in a half mocking way that it was perhaps being unduly hyped by the press. We shrugged off these comments, not thinking much about them in the surreal environment of The Great Barrier Reef.

Next our itinerary called for us to fly to Melbourne. Every imaginable kind of restaurant surrounded our hotel, Brady Hotel, just a block away from the busy meeting spot of the State Library. Greek, Italian, and Turkish selections joined walls to kitchens of Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese. One could claim to have enjoyed a trip around the world simply by indulging in the very reasonably priced gourmet concoctions in downtown Melbourne. Similar to our stay in Sydney, we enjoyed a food tour, a walking tour, street art tour, a ghost jail tour, river cruise, tram journey to St. Kilda Beach, and a concert by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A highlight was our day trip to Healesville Sanctuary (https://www.zoo.org.au/healesville). Reaching this beautiful protection area for endangered animals (many affected by the brush fires) was a snap using Zoobus (zoobus.com.au). The hour’s drive weaves out of the city by the suburb of Fitzroy and past luscious vineyards and palatial homes. Veterinarians dedicate themselves to the wellbeing of the animals, many stranded or rescued from the recent fires. Caregivers passionately protect their charges. A feeling of serenity welcomes all who visit. I fell in love with the mom, Mani, and her baby, Chimpu (Good Fellow’s Tree Kangaroos). They are an extremely endangered species from New Guinea, brought to Healesville as part of a breeding program. Chimpu would poke out his head ever so often from mom’s pouch, only to be shoved back in by mom after a quick view by the gathered visitors. Their color is warm reddish-brown, and their fur looks very thick and luscious. It was a good way to end our stay in Melbourne, giving us a sense that with the help of one another, most often life will endure.

Things changed very quickly. On the night before we were scheduled to fly to Tasmania for eight days, the government cancelled Melbourne’s Grand Prix. This notice came at 2 am in the morning. The race was to begin around 8 am the following day. All at once, crowds were not to assemble. All at once, restaurants closed. All at once, we heard that tours would not operate. Coronavirus was not a press hyped event. It was to be taken seriously. But, we were soon off to Tasmania, an island off the southern coast of Australia, a rather isolated place that seemed to be immune from worldly cares or dangers. We flew without any problem from Melbourne to Tasmania and shuttled to our b & b in Hobart, The Edinburgh Gallery, for an overnight stay. The inn was filled to capacity, and no one spoke of COVID-19. We walked the trail to Cascade Brewery, stopping for a tour and a two-person play that depicted the plight of women inmates at the Cascades Female Factory. And early the next morning we were off with Fun Tassie Tours. We joined five others plus our guide/driver named Carl, a gentleman heaped in knowledge and passion for Tasmania (funtassietours.com).

For the following six days we truly were in La La Land. Convicts built much of Tasmania. Our minds could not help but wonder how. They were displaced from their homeland of England, forced to endure hardships and struggles and discrimination, and often placed in physical isolation for infractions. Yet they did more than merely survive. The like of the lads from Charles Dickens’ novels came alive as we learned about Point Puer, the juvenile boys prison. When not leading a tour for Fun Tassie Tours, Carl works as a guide at the Port Arthur World Heritage Historic Site. He told us tales of convicts meticulously placing stones in its beckoning church, its warden’s home, and its blocks of cells. A horse or two graze in nearby pastures, and flowers and shrubs decorate the gardens with their colors. Later, we would cross bridges constructed by convicts—still standing strongly in historical awe. It boggles the mind at the spirit of the individual even in the harshest of circumstances.

To further our La La Land experience, we sample chocolate, wine, cheese, oysters, ice cream, smoked salmon, and honey. We snap photos of orange colored boulders at the Bay of Fires. We stroll along the pure white sandy beaches at Binalong Bay. We visit gorge reserves and drive through stunning farming and pasture areas. We learn of Tasmanian devils and those aiding their rehabilitation efforts. We feed kangaroos without any hint of social distancing. We visit blow holes and wait for penguins to track to their nests. In Cradle Mountain, we enjoy our walk to Glacier Rock and onward to Enchanted Walk to see beautiful cascades and the Pencil Pine waterfall. Button grass plains, Eucalyptus forests, majestic mountains, and spectacular lakes are in every direction. Probably my favorite spot was Nelson Falls. Its rainforest engulfs its visitor in an ironic mixture of serenity and power. In less than thirty minutes, one leaves the parking lot and is delightfully swallowed in a world of pristine nature. Nearby at Mount Field National Park the three tiered Russell Falls tries to compete. Indeed, it’s a close call. And The Wall in the Wilderness Art Gallery in Derwent Bridge leaves its guests speechless when gazing at the massive wooden sculptures depicting the heroic struggles of the men and women who settled in Tasmania a century or so ago. We were pretty much immune from news of the world. Or so, we were until we arrived back in Hobart.

Hobart smacked us with reality. We were dropped off at our same b & b, The Edinburgh Gallery. Only now, we were its only guests. The borders into Tasmania had been closed except to its residents. The owner was glad to see us and our hearts ached for him as he predicted financial woes for many months. Our scheduled Hobart City Tour was canceled. The Salamanca Food and Arts weekly market was postponed. Our boat trip and entry to MONA, the state’s controversial art museum, were likewise canceled. And Virgin Australia went ahead and canceled our return flight Melbourne to Los Angeles. To put it mildly, we had set forth the week before on a tour, one we will long remember and cherish, only to return to a completely different atmosphere and an unknown as to our next ten days or so.

Continue forward we did. We flew Hobart to Adelaide, with a transfer in Melbourne. We sat as the lone passengers in our shuttle from the airport to our hotel in the center of the city, Hotel Grand Chancellor. The management welcomed us with virtual open arms, even lending us a microwave to use in the room. We scooted around the pedestrian only shopping area, noting food only available as take out service, and few people out and about. The next morning we enjoyed a city walking tour and visit to the great anthropological museum. Then we received a disappointing email: our trip scheduled for early in the morning to Kangaroo Island was canceled. Captain Cook Cruises and Sealink held out until the last minute to do so. We shed a tear or two, faced the reality, and headed off to Hertz Rental Cars to change our reservation for the final week of our stay in Australia.

Bravo is an understatement for describing the employees at Hertz. We were set with a relatively new Toyota Rava Adelaide to Melbourne, with stops at Grampians and The Great Ocean Road. Since there were only two of us and we had been in Australia for more than 14 days, quarantine requirements were not imposed upon us. We were to keep to ourselves as we walked trails and adhere to social distancing rules. Our checking in at the motels would be via telephone. We would not be given room service during our stays. These restrictions were such minor inconveniences that they meant nothing to us. So, off we drove for close to six hours to Halls Gap in The Grampians National Park.

In our planning stages for visiting Australia, we anticipated crowded conditions in Halls Gap. After all, it is a small town of approximately 300 permanent residents and 6000 beds. We booked our accommodations at Gariwerd Motel months in advance. To put it mildly, there was no need for doing so. The manager lived onsite. One other couple spent two nights there. And we occupied the second motel room. But enjoy Grampians, we did! We visited the petro station and market soon after settling in to our room. Few people were out. This, however, did not halt the congregation of wildlife. Large white cockatoos flew and landed everywhere, squeaking their squeak and pecking up seeds. Kangaroos met like clockwork at 5 pm at the downtown park, as if ready to play soccer with two joining emus serving as referees. They dutifully hopped around, ventured close to us for inspection, and then turned to their fellow teammates to go ahead with their game. Two days of hiking and more hiking filled our bill in The Grampians. More than 150 kilometers of walking tracks dot the Grampians, ranging from half-hour strolls to overnight treks of difficult terrain. Every so often we spotted Aboriginal rock art while traipsing to waterfalls, overhanging ledges, or sheltered groves. Easily, we were protected in this outdoor paradise.

We felt we had mastered swerving kangaroos by now so we continued our trip to The Great Ocean Road, staying at Portside Motel in Port Campbell. The four hour drive matched the pastoral beauty of ours from Adelaide to The Grampians. A few towns dotted the roads, good for bakeries for easy to grab takeout food. Our checking in at Portside duplicated the procedure at Gariwerd. Soon we were off to see the town and sites west. Easy access is provided for many views in Port Campbell National Park. Sheer limestone cliffs tower over fierce seas. For thousands of years, waves and tides have relentlessly sculpted the soft rock into a fascinating series of rock stacks, gorges, arches and blowholes. We walked down the stairs at Gibson Steps, glad concrete ones now replace the 19th century hand-carved ones into the cliffs. The Twelve Apostles kiosk and trail was closed. Loch Ard Gorge proved to be my favorite. We read of stories of shipwrecks here of more than a hundred years ago. Powerful waves dart to the sand, soft and warming beneath one’s toes.

The next day we explored more of Port Campbell National Park, with trails skirting the ocean’s cliffs as well as a bit inland. It was a beautiful clear day, with waves below us laughing and gurgling at one another. Yet, we realized that at close by Cape Otway many ships had smashed open against the ocean’s force. We drove toward Apollo Bay, on the average stopping about every thirty minutes at a lookout at scenes that are, indeed, indescribable.

The following day we departed Port Campbell to return to Melbourne in anticipation of our flight to Los Angeles, which our travel agent had re-routed on Air New Zealand through Auckland. We fell in love with the small town of Lorne, squeezing itself between the waters of Loutit Bay and the bush of the Otway Ranges. Locals detest them and try to shoo them away: large white cockatoos by the dozens that crowd on the town benches, railings and beach pathways. In contrast, we adored them, chatted back to them, and reassured them of their beauty. The town of Anglesea winds around gum-green Anglesea River, a very tranquil bush setting. Then comes Torquay, where even park benches are surfboard shaped in Victoria’s surf capital. We knew we had to visit Bells Beach, just 7 kilometers west of Torquay for its legendary reputation of its powerful break and annual world-championship surfing contest. We gazed down upon the literally deserted beach: two lone surfers in their paradise.

Our scheduled time was soon coming to an end and we drove back to Melbourne to stay the night at the Holiday Inn by the airport in anticipation of our morning flight to Los Angeles. We returned the car and repacked our suitcases for the next day. We had checked a number of times with our travel agent that all was set. We were advised a few days before that our flight Melbourne to Auckland had been pushed up a day, and so we modified our plans for this revision. We traipsed to the airport, located the Air New Zealand counter for checking in, and were told, “You cannot board this plane. You have a U.S. passport. Only Kiwis are permitted to enter the country.” I told the airline’s representative that our travel agent had told us that we could be taking this plane because we would be on a transit in Auckland and not be staying there. I showed the email affirming this. And, so a phone call was placed between the airlines agent and the travel agent. I had sent our travel agency information about two weeks before a copy of New Zealand’s shutdown, only to have them reassure us that our booking was valid. Much to my chagrin, the travel agent came across as arrogant to those working for the airlines, as if it were her duty to set others straight about their government policy.” This is where it gets bad: when someone sitting at a desk in the United States does not apologize for their error and try to rectify it, but rather blames a person and a country half way around the world. I was embarrassed to be an American who had enjoyed the beautiful country of Australia opening its virtual arms to us even in the chaos and misery of COVID-19.

Air New Zealand recommended that we telephone the American Embassy to discover how we were to return to the states. We did so quickly and learned that United Airlines had one flight each day Sydney to San Francisco and then we could fly to southern California from San Francisco. We called United, booked a flight in two days, and caught a domestic flight over to Sydney. We stayed again at the Castlereagh Hotel, welcomed back by the staff we left there about a month before.

To say we learned much from this trip would be an understatement. Australia is a beautiful country, and we came to appreciate and love it and its friendly people. Additionally, we learned things that affect our attitude toward travelling from this point on:

1. Realize that even the best of plans can change. Don’t get upset with others who have no control over the situation and are doing the very best they know how to do, especially with circumstances that are not in their control.

2. Double up on the compliments to those in the travel industry who are under stress and trying their best to accommodate others – and keep smiling while they do so, even if it be at a distance of 6 feet.

3. Travel with someone who can roll with the punches. I have travelled a number of times before with Dorothy, a good friend of mine for over 30 years. It doesn’t hurt too that she has fantastic songs on her phone, faces challenges with grace, and realizes that if need be, we could always rent an apartment on The Great Ocean Road until the travel restrictions lifted.

4. Appreciate that our setbacks were, indeed, simply setbacks! We always had gas for the car, food for our tummies, beds for our sleeping, and clean water for our showers. Social distancing was easily doable. Many in the world do not enjoy such luxuries. Yes, we need to view them as luxuries!

5. Carry in your heart a prayer and empathy for those less fortunate. This decade it might be those affected by COVID-19; another time it might be something else that rears its ugly head. We are in this world together and to help one another together. In other words, give plenty of virtual hugs.

6. Establish an attitude that “This Too Will Pass.” Be optimistic. Be cheerful. Don’t give up on travel. The industry needs you! It will bounce back with your help!

I am home now safe and sound from wonderful Australia. I’m keeping my distance when I venture occasionally from home. I’m confident that we will conquer this dreaded virus. Perhaps a trip or two might have to be postponed. But, let’s do what we can to assist those in the travel industry. Circumstances will lighten up. Travel destinations will seek your support. Together, “We’re Going to Get Through This.”

 

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