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ER of international travel during the coronavirus pandemic (part 2)

This is the second part of my travelogue/ER about travelling between the UK and Australia during the coronavirus pandemic (the first part can be found here). I’m writing this post on day 5 of our enforced 14-day home quarantine period following our return to Australia.

This second week began on Monday 23rd March and you might recall that we were now based in Aberystwyth on the West coast of Wales. The day started with news from Cathay Pacific about our new return flight option, that being a departure from London on 18th April and only getting us back as far as Sydney as their routes to Melbourne were stopping completely. We suddenly felt like mid-April was a long way away given how fast things had changed in just the previous seven days, so we decided to look for alternatives to get us home earlier. (As it turned out, Hong Kong would soon announce the banning of transit passengers through its airport so these new return flights with Cathay would never happen anyway.)

Looking for flights back to Australia, we spotted some Emirates options via Dubai and booked new flights departing London on 1st April, costing almost AU$3000 for the two of us. This process wasn’t straightforward as these newly-announced flights were selling so fast that the website didn’t respond well to the load and we missed out on flights for several other earlier dates as the transactions failed part-way through. At least 1st April didn’t feel so far away and we felt comfortable waiting it out for a week-or-so in Aber before we could return home. With the flights booked, I refocused on my Quest work for a while before we made the most of the lovely sunny day with a walk along the Prom and South Beach. We bumped into my Mathematics PhD supervisor from all those years ago, Alun Morris, and his wife Mary while walking and it was great to see them. They stopped for a chat (at a distance, of course!) and it was our first interaction with someone we knew since we’d left Australia. Alun looked in great health (it’s that Aber sea air!) and seeing him again was a fillip to our morale. Lunch back at the apartment gave way to more work in the afternoon.

Work was soon interrupted, however, by an announcement from Emirates that they were suspending operations from 25th March (and, as it turned out shortly afterwards, Dubai would be prohibiting transit passengers), rendering our newly booked flights useless.

We were really disappointed and again looked for alternatives, this time coming across flights with Etihad from Manchester via Abu Dhabi to Melbourne leaving the next day. We booked these flights, accruing another AU$5000+ on our credit card, and started to make our plans for leaving Aber (including informing our host that we would now be leaving earlier than expected).

Now thoroughly distracted, we headed out into the late afternoon sunshine and took what we thought would be a last chance to climb Constitution Hill. The stunning views over this pretty town and coastline never fail to impress and we soaked them in, before again watching the starlings doing their thing at sunset over the Pier. Back at the apartment, we cooked up a big meal to use up at least some of the nice organic veggies we’d bought at the Farmers Market. It was shortly after devouring this feed that the news came through that Abu Dhabi (as part of the United Arab Emirates) was also banning transit passengers with almost immediate effect, so our latest flight booking was again rendered useless. Our host came up to see us about our early departure and, luckily for us, she was very understanding about the fact that we would yet again have to change our plans and stay on. We were thoroughly exhausted by the end of the day after all the ups and downs.

View over Aber from Constitution Hill

We woke early on Tuesday morning to read the news that Australia was enforcing a complete travel ban, even on its own citizens (this was an escalation of the previous restrictions on entry) so we resigned ourselves to the fact that we were in for the long haul with our stay in Aber. We considered ourselves fortunate to be in stable accommodation in a familiar place and my ability to continue working meant we were under no financial pressure. Many other stranded Aussies were in far worse situations across the world.

As resignation set in, we tried to reset mentally and I buried myself into work again. It was another sunny and very mild day so we enjoyed a nice walk back out to Tan-y-Bwlch beach (which was completely deserted) before returning for lunch in our apartment. Back into work in the afternoon, a strange Twitter DM arrived from Qantas re: a new flight option to replace our previous Emirates booking. This new flight would be via South Africa, leaving on 27th March. This was very confusing in light of the news we’d heard around border closure in Australia, so we called the Australian High Commission in London in the hope of gaining some clarity. It turned out that the new restrictions were only on Australian citizens leaving Australia and that citizens could still enter if they could find a flight to do so. The poor communication by Scott Morrison (Prime Minister) on this was unhelpful, but we were at least comforted that we could return to Australia if only we could find a way. We took up the option of the new Qantas flight through South Africa and were pleased that they waived the ~AU$3000 change cost on these new flights thanks to my Frequent Flyer status. We reset our plans and expectations yet again around a departure from the UK at the weekend.

A nice walk along the Prom and South beach late in the afternoon and a tasty dinner made up of food from the Parsnipship and Anuna bakery rounded out our day. We called it a night believing our luck had changed and we’d be right to get home fairly soon thanks to these new Qantas flights.

It was a frosty, clear and sunny start to Wednesday and forecast to head right up to 18C, beautiful! An early start secured a good few hours of work in the morning before we headed out for a walk, this time to try and find a modernist-style house we’d noticed from almost every vantage point over Aber. It turned out to be towards the top of Cae Melyn and it was great to see this unusual piece of architecture up close, we could only imagine what the 270-degree views out across Aber must look like from inside the place. A stroll through the lush greenery of Penglais Nature Park was great for our spirits and we walked back to the apartment along the Prom in time for lunch. Returning to work in the afternoon, we soon spotted news that South Africa was heading into lockdown from 26th March – of course! We failed to find any information on the impact of this on transit passengers so sought assistance from the Australian High Commission in South Africa. They were also unsure and suggested we ask our airline. We contacted Qantas and, you’ve guessed it, they suggested we seek government advice. By now we were exasperated and had no confidence that this set of flights would happen either. Desperation was certainly setting in as we searched again for any remaining options for flights from any UK airport to any Australian airport.

The only flights we could find now were with Qatar Airways via Doha. We’d seen their flights before but dismissed them based on long layovers in Doha, scared that regulations might change during the layover and leave us stranded somewhere we really didn’t want to be. We were encouraged, though, by the fact that some Australian relatives had successfully made the trip back with Qatar just the day before so we decided we’d book flights with them, from Birmingham (as the closest and easiest airport to return to from Aber) to Melbourne via Doha. Demand, of course, was really heavy for their flights as they were basically the last option flying into Australia so the flight prices were very high at around AU$5000 each. This presented us with our next problem. We’d been transferring cash over to our credit card as fast as we could, but the timezone difference to Australia meant that this basically took a day each time. We didn’t have enough credit left on our main card for both flights, but could cover one. A call to our bank asking for an emergency credit limit increase fell on deaf ears as it was during the night in Australia with no-one available to authorize such a request. I did have one more credit card in my wallet, unused for years and with enough of a credit limit (from memory) to also cover one ticket, but would this go through? We tried booking one ticket with this card… and it went through successfully! We could then book the other on our usual card. By now, we’d spent close to AU$20,000 on flights in a few days (and no refunds in sight, as Qantas/Emirates and Etihad all want to issue credit notes and not cash refunds), so this really was our last gasp attempt. (The eventual cancellation of our Qantas flights via South Africa was not communicated to us until after we left the UK, by the way.)

With our new flights in place, we needed some fresh air and we headed to the Treehouse to grab some supplies to sustain us on the very long trip home. They were doing a great job of continuing to service the community via their “shout your orders through the door” approach! We came away well armed with enough snacks to keep us going. A final (maybe?!) walk along South beach and the Prom on this lovely clear Spring afternoon was delightful, Aber looked resplendent in the sunshine. Dinner back in the apartment was an exercise in using up what supplies we already had open in order to save waste (we’d already decided to leave most of our haul of vegan organic goodies with the host, as a small token of our appreciation for her help and flexibility). She popped up later in the evening and we said our farewells (maybe?!).

View of the Old College, Prom and Constitution Hill

We had to make an early start on Thursday to pack, tidy the apartment and make the trip to Birmingham. It was with some trepidation that we first checked SMS and email, as well as the latest news updates, to see if Qatar had decided to end transit overnight, but all seemed well.

It was sunny and frosty as we headed out onto the deserted streets of Aber at 7.30am and loaded up our hire car. The drive over Pumlumon Fawr was just stunning with frost-covered paddocks, an abundance of newborn lambs and clear blue skies. The familiar drive back to the Midlands was effortless with so little traffic on the road so we comfortably covered the distance in under three hours including a fuel topup before returning the hire car to Budget at Birmingham airport. The agent at Budget mentioned that her only customers recently were people just like us, returning way too early (we still had sixteen days of our prepaid hire to go) and to the wrong location (we should have returned to Brighton), resulting in over three hundred early returns and basically no cars going out. Wandering down to the terminal, it showed all the signs of being closed – no cars, no passengers walking around, no signs of life. Even after entering the terminal, it was still deadly quiet and our Qatar flight was basically the only sizeable flight departing during the day. Check-in was easy at about 11am, leaving us no rush to make our 2pm flight. There wasn’t too much in the way of distraction during our wait, with only WH Smith’s and Boots being open in the entire terminal (and nowhere to source even a coffee!) The flight unsurprisingly left on time and the six-and-a-half hour flight down to Doha was very comfortable – and we experienced awesome service from an airline voted world’s best in recent times. As we’d booked our flights less than 24 hours before departure, we couldn’t order special (vegan) meals for this first flight. We notified cabin crew when we got on and they promised to look into it. We got amazing personal service from Melina who cobbled together a tray of vegan goodies from other meal trays to keep us going, then later delivered us a delicious vegan meze plate from business class. Impressive attention to detail and we actually felt like she cared about us, very much appreciated under the circumstances (and hopefully her employer does something nice for her based on the feedback we’ve given to them).

The flight arrived into Doha early at 11.20pm local time – and the airport was packed! It was strange to see so many people – for the first time in a couple of weeks – and attempts at social distancing during the lines for security checks weren’t very successful. Many people were in full hazmat gear from head to toe, we had no protective equipment at all as our attempts to source even a face mask in the UK had failed. On entering the main terminal, we were impressed by the spaciousness and feel of the place, but very surprised again to see all shops and eateries open seemingly as usual here, certainly in stark contrast to Birmingham airport.

As we passed into Friday in the airport, we had around twenty hours to kill before our (hopefully!) last flight from Doha direct to Melbourne. We managed to find a quiet spot with comfortable seating we could fashion into a makeshift bed and tag-teamed short spells of sleep. We had power and internet too, so could pass the time on our laptops even if most of that time was spent  following the latest news updates in the hope that nothing scuppered our plans during the long wait.

Of course, it wasn’t too long before another potential problem arose with the news that all arrivals into Australia would soon be subject to 14-day quarantine in hotels of the government’s choosing (to replace the existing home quarantine scheme). The messaging around this change of policy was again inconsistent and confusing – some reports said this new scheme would be in effect “by midnight on Saturday 28th” while others said it would take effect “from midnight on Saturday 28th”. We were due into Melbourne at about 6pm on Saturday so this small difference could potentially make a big difference to us. We didn’t get clarity on this point before the time finally rolled around for us to board the flight to Melbourne after our long, long wait.

The flight left Doha on time and landed early into a deserted Melbourne airport at about 5.30pm on Saturday. We still didn’t know what we’d find as we left the plane and headed to immigration. Thankfully, we had a lucky break and were one of the last flights from which passengers were allowed to head home to begin their 14-day quarantine period, so we were very thankful for that!

The journey home had been long but we were grateful to finally get back to our little house on the beach to begin our quarantine. The ups and downs of the previous few days had taken their toll and, five days later, we’re still adjusting to the new normal. Looking back on the events of last week while writing this blog, it almost doesn’t feel real and it feels all the more remarkable that we actually made it home at all. Attempts to obtain cash refunds from Qantas and Etihad continue…

There were many issues that made the process of finding a way home more complicated and stressful than it needed to be. Firstly, the information on changes to regulations coming out of government was not clear or well-communicated – the complete closing of the Australian border and the timing of the hotel quarantine scheme were two examples of this. Sourcing precise information in both of these cases was difficult as news outlets and even trusted sources like the High Commissions didn’t have consistent or reliable information at hand when the announcements were made.

Secondly, a number of IT systems had clearly failed to account for load and automated systems haven’t accounted for changes along the way. We have numerous examples of such problems, from the Emirates booking system failing part-way through flight bookings to automated “online check-in is now open” emails from Qantas just today about a flight already cancelled almost a week ago. The icing on this particular cake, though, has to go to Qantas again who sent us this SMS about a rescheduling of our South Africa-routed flight after it was cancelled due to the lockdown (asterisks and bold are mine):

We’ve now rebooked you onto flight QF9324 on Fri * Apr from Johannesburg at 10.00 arriving Fictitious Point at 11.00

It feels like we’re actually living at Fictitious Point right now, but we’re home and safe and, so far, feeling healthy. If there is a moral from this story, it’s probably that travelling during a pandemic is not a great idea!

ER of international travel during the coronavirus pandemic (part 1)

My next couple of blog posts are not my usual subject matter, but I wanted to tell this story (and, honestly, it feels cathartic right now to do so). These posts are perhaps best described as travelogues, serving as experience reports of what it was like travelling between Australia and the UK during the pandemic. I’m writing this one on day 4 of an enforced 14-day home quarantine period following our return to Australia.

Late last year, we were pleased to learn that a good friend in the UK was getting married in April 2020 and so planned a month-long trip from Australia to attend the wedding, do some travelling around the UK to catch up with friends and family, and take in a few events along the way.

As we looked for good flight options, Cathay Pacific offered a good deal and we were happy to use them given good experiences in the past. Since we would be transiting through Hong Kong, I decided to take the opportunity to break the trip there and go spend a few days in Quest’s Zhuhai office as I was long overdue a visit there anyway. For the rest of the trip, I planned to work a day or two a week during the trip to minimize the impact of my absence on Quest.

We built an itinerary of about a week in China followed by three weeks in the UK, mainly based in Wales then finishing up with the wedding and a few relaxing days in Brighton before the long trip home just after Easter.

The first spanner in the works came with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak in China, meaning a visit to the office was too dangerous (and also, as it later turned out, pointless as all our staff would be working remotely during isolation). So we changed our plans slightly to transit directly through Hong Kong, tacking on a few days in London to start the trip to replace the planned time in China.

As our departure date approached, the coronavirus news of course became much worse as the spread continued around the world. The UK seemed to be faring well, though, and Boris was persisting with his “keep calm and carry on”/herd immunity idea so we risk-assessed and decided to still make the trip, arriving in London very early on Monday 16th March.

It was a beautiful sunny & crisp day in Hyde Park as we killed time before checking into our hotel, La Suite West (with its very own vegan restaurant!). Exploring the local area again, Notting Hill was noticeably quiet but most shops, cafes and restaurants were open and it felt pretty much like “business as usual”. We were really tired by mid-afternoon and opted for a very early dinner at the excellent farm-to-table vegan eatery, Farmacy.

Back at the hotel by 5pm, we tuned in to the first of Boris’s daily missives to the people of the UK – and this is when everything really started to change. In this first speech, he announced that pubs and other places of social gathering would be stopped, the real start of social distancing in the UK.

We decided to avoid all forms of public transport for the rest of our time in London and so explored locally on foot on Tuesday. The Design Museum, housed in an amazing building in Kensington, was an excellent start and then we took in part of the glorious Victoria & Albert Museum, thinking we could come back to explore some more in the days ahead. There were quite a few people in the museums but their vast size made it feel safe in terms of keeping well apart from each other. We headed to the Brasserie at Cloud Twelve in Notting Hill for dinner at about 5pm, a lovely quiet and relaxing organic vegan eatery. We were warmly welcomed with very friendly service – we later found out we were their first customers for the day. We left with a pile of free vegan cakes, walking back through the very quiet local streets to our hotel for the next installment from Boris – this time finding out, among other things, that all the museums would now close, so much for our V&A revisit! If the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops the nation in Australia, Boris’s daily speeches quickly became those that stopped the UK as people tuned in to hear of the latest disruptions coming to their daily lives.

It was another sunny day on Wednesday so we kicked the day off with a long walk in Hyde Park around the Serpentine. There were plenty of people out exercising but respecting the social distancing rules. Heading to Kensington High Street, most of the shops along this usually busy street were closed but Wholefoods was doing good business and was a little too crowded for comfort but we stocked up on some supplies there while we had the chance. We had a relaxing coffee stop over at Cloud Twelve again (still very quiet and remarkable that it was still open) before walking back to the hotel along Westbourne Grove, which was eerily quiet but for a few food shops staying open (including the excellent Planet Organic where we gathered more supplies). We noted that Farmacy had signage to indicate even more reduced opening hours (closing at 5pm) so we made sure to head back there for a very early dinner at about 4pm, enjoying another excellent meal. It was almost empty  and we enjoyed nice conversations with the manager as he sought to work out what to do for the best in terms of staying open or closing up indefinitely. A post-dinner stroll in Hyde Park at dusk revealed many others making the most of the fresh air but the vastness of the park made social distancing very easy.

By now, it was clear day-by-day that more and more facilities and events were being cancelled around us and Boris’s daily updates clearly indicated stronger and stronger restrictions on what could stay open as well as limits on personal movements. All of the events we had planned – a Status Quo tribute band gig in a pub, Francis Rossi speaking in Aberystwyth and the “Only Fools and Horses” musical in the West End – were already cancelled and the postponement of our friend’s wedding, though not officially made yet, seemed likely.

Based on what we were seeing and hearing, we decided to cancel the various touring around the country we had planned to do and instead extend our stay in my old University town of Aberystwyth in Wales until our scheduled return date (14th April). With lower population density and no confirmed cases, Aber seemed like a good spot to take safe haven in familiar surroundings – I had the good fortune to live there for seven years and have returned almost every year for the last twenty years too. Cancelling our existing hotels and so on was straightforward and we could extend our AirBnB stay in Aber easily as all of the host’s other bookings had already cancelled for months ahead.

Our last full day in London on Thursday was a more typical drizzly, damp cold affair but we still donned our walking shoes and enjoyed a stroll around Little Venice, an area we’d discovered some years ago on a previous trip to London. It was a quiet locale with only a few locals on the tow paths around the canals. A return to Hyde Park followed and what would be our last coffee stop at Cloud Twelve, remarkably staying open while almost all around it had already closed indefinitely. We also stocked up on some more supplies at Planet Organic on the way back to the hotel. Our area was much quieter than even the previous day. Dinner was again taken early at Farmacy before they closed at 5pm, this time closing indefinitely. The manager was clearly upset at having to stand down all of his staff at this great restaurant. A final dusk walk in Hyde Park rounded out our outdoor time in London and we packed up ready to leave on Friday. Restrictions on the numbers for social gatherings such as weddings confirmed that our friend’s wedding would need to be postponed.

We had already booked a hire car to pick up from Heathrow on Friday as part of our original itinerary, so we opted to spend the extra for a private taxi back to the airport rather than travelling by tube. Terminal 3 was almost deserted as we caught the empty Budget car hire shuttle bus to collect our car. It was a lovely clear day for a drive and the roads (especially around Heathrow itself) were really quiet, so it was a relatively easy, if long, drive to Aber via the M4, Severn Bridge, Abergavenny, Brecon, Builth Wells, Rhayader and Llangurig. It was late afternoon by the time we concluded our almost five hour drive but we were relieved to be in Aber and our AirBnB apartment was great. Its central location, full kitchen and strong wi-fi boded well for a comfortable (and, if need be, longer term) stay. We figured we had enough time to make it to Dragonfly Bistro, a nice vegetarian eatery near the Castle, so headed there for a coffee and ordered lots of takeaway food to help us see out the coming days. Boris was giving his latest speech while we waited for our takeaway food and it ironically included the news that cafes and restaurants would now also need to close (apart from those offering takeaway and/or delivery services).

It was a stunning clear and sunny Saturday as we ventured out early on a shopping run in Aber. Our first port of call was to the newly-opened vegan deli, Iwtopia. Yes, a vegan deli in Aber, who’d have ever thought it!? This would be the last day for Iwtopia for a while so we took the chance to strongly support this great new place and stocked up on a heap of vegan goodies. We enjoyed a very long chat with the lovely owner too, we hope she can survive the downtime and come back to continue offering this great selection of vegan food to the people of Aber. It was especially pleasing to see that lots of the products were local and actively promoting other small vegan businesses. We were a little surprised that the splendid Farmers Market was still on (and practicing good social distancing too) so we also grabbed some quality fresh organic veggies, yummy sourdough bread from Anuna Bakery (and chatted with the owner who relocated from Melbourne to rural Wales!) and interesting food from the ingeniously named vegetarian producer, Parsnipship. Next stop was an old favourite, the stalwart organic shop, the Treehouse, where we stocked up on more quality produce as well as taking advantage of their new bulk supplies store. We’d had a big morning of shopping and felt like we were in a good position to not have to shop again for a week or two. But, more importantly, we’d enjoyed some great conversations with people and felt warmly welcomed – that familiar warm embrace of Aberystwyth was still there for me all these years later. We returned to the Farmers Market to grab lunch from the all-vegan Renegade Kitchen food van and again had an enjoyable conversation with the owner operators while they prepared our food.

With shopping and lunch sorted, we could finally take the opportunity to enjoy a long walk along the Prom and South beach. A hefty storm the week before had deposited some of the beach up onto the Prom. Aber was surprisingly crowded, it felt more like a Bank Holiday weekend than a town in semi-lockdown, but the expansive Prom gave everyone room to spread out (though not all chose to do so). We supported Dragonfly Bistro by grabbing a takeaway coffee and bought a few interesting Welsh ciders from the new Bottle and Barrel bottle shop. As sunset approached, we walked the Prom again and watched the murmuration of starlings over the Pier, always an amazing sight! Settling into our apartment, we assembled a big vegan dinner from our day’s shopping haul.

Some of the beach dumped onto Aber's Prom during a recent stormaber5The murmuration of starlings over Aber pier

Aber turned on another clear and sunny day on Sunday, albeit chilly out of the sun in a cool wind. We drove out the short distance to Penparcau to climb Pen Dinas, with its wonderful views across all of Aber and the Cardigan Bay coastline. A few hardy souls were hiking in this area but again it was easy to keep our distance from others. Heading downhill, we relaxed at Tan-y-Blwch beach, before the climb back to our car. Lunch back at the apartment was followed by a visit to Dragonfly Bistro for a takeaway coffee – and we then learned that the owner had decided that this would be her last day of opening for the foreseeable future. Back at the apartment, we felt like the world was closing around us with the vegan deli and vegetarian restaurant now gone. It was lovely in the sun down on the Prom and we sat there for a couple of hours to again watch the free show put on by the thousands of starlings heading home for the night under the Pier. Dinner back in the apartment was followed by the news that our return flight with Cathay Pacific (on 14th April) had been cancelled and to await news of an alternative flight home. Little did we know then that this would be the start of a series of flight-related highs and lows in the week ahead.

Pen Dinas monumentLooking down to Tan-y-Bwlch beach from Pen DinasThe Ystwyth at Tan-y-BwlchA stunning view of South Beach and the Castle from Tan-y-Bwlch

In my next blog post, I’ll cover one of the most uncertain, stressful and expensive weeks of our lives.