Sunday, 1 August 2021

It's Coming Home

As the sun dawns on another Blaugust, it finds this correspondent already up and waiting in a queue to check my baggage at the airport. After a seemingly endless series of changing plans and flights and covid precautions, mad rushes and cries for help answered by so many friends, in just another 90 minutes we'll be on a plane home from the UK, for good.

Maybe not forever. We've met too many people that we love too much not to visit again (and hopefully soon) but after six years we're finally giving up pretending to be British, and sitting in an airport terminal in Heathrow surrounded by other Aussie accents, I can almost believe we're home already.

I wasn't planning on Blauging this year, but as old mate Pichy pointed out to me last night, it's not like I have anything else to do during the coming two weeks in mandatory quarantine. We'll start with this unedited description of a day in the life of a traveller in Australia's repatriation flight system, and then we'll play the rest by ear, jetlag and internet connection permitting. Will this be compelling reading? No, likely not, but it will go some way toward filling the long hours, so I hope you'll all bear with me.

Wake two minutes before our alarms go off in our budget hotel room in Heathrow, feeling like very accomplished traveller types.

Stumble onto a local bus. Despite signs and the website claiming that buses are free inside the Heathrow zone, apparently that's been cancelled. Thankfully, we haven't cut up our UK debit card just yet. I only fall over in a pile of suitcases once, to the disappointment of the early-morning airport employees commuting to work who seemed to be expecting more of a show.

On entry into terminal three from the mercifully short travellators (they were longer in my memory), we find a long line of obvious Australians. Thankfully, this government-sponsored flight is the only one in the whole area, as the queue snakes it's way around all on the flight desks on two different zones, around the escalators and off into the distance. It's not moving.

Make it to the check-in desk after a final temperature check, being assigned stylish apricot N95 masks and a festival wristband. One of our bags is slightly over the weight limit, but the attendant doesn't seem to mind, which is a great relief. Repacking the tightly-squeezed-in detritus of six years in England while everyone else watched might be more than I can take this early in the morning.

Through security, where as always I was pulled aside for additional checks. I guess even behind a mask I just have one of those faces. The apricot mask is nowhere near as comfortable or as sealed as my faithful cloth one. Guess I'm just not wearing my glasses or seeing anything for the rest of the trip. Breakfast toasties and coffee while we wait for our gate to open, with enough time to message the family anxiously awaiting any snippet of news that we can send them and to sit down and start the blog.

Through to the gate, in the sight of a plane with flying kangaroo livery. Starting to feel very real. These gates never have enough chairs at the best of times, and with half of them out of commission for social distancing (which seems pretty unneccesary given that we're all about to be sardined onto a plane) , we're fortunate to get seats.

They've opened additional seating in the next gate. And there was much rejoicing. Boarding time, 8:20, in theory. That's looking unlikely. Time for another airport selfie for the social media.

The inevitable response of the air traveller. When the boarding for the first ten rows is called, the whole gate gets up and moves as one mass. Humans, eh?

Successfully boarded and we've somehow won the lottery and scored an exit row. We will be making friends with three toddlers, but at least for now that's feeling like a very good deal indeed.  Some of our fellow travellers are still awaiting the results of their covid tests, so we're going to be delayed for a while to give them a last chance to get on board. They were brought right through to the gate before they were split off from the rest of us, though, which feels less than ideal.

Safety briefing complete. If oxygen is required, we have to remove our masks to put on our other masks. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, I teared up during the overture of "I Still Call Australia Home" at the end of the briefing. Toddlers one and three start screaming as we begin the taxi.

Toddler one is really going off. The despair in the eyes of the person in the seat next to her at the prospect of another 16 hours of this is soulful. Toddler three seems fine now. Toddler two has been asleep the whole time.

The shock of takeoff (an hour after schedule) has proven a welcome distraction for toddler one. A peace settles over everyone in the nearby rows. One gets the sense that the reprieve will be short-lived. My NHS Covid app is pinging angrily at being turned to flight mode.

The crew close the curtains and little windows between us and the folks in the premium economy seats. The proletariat in the front few rows stage a minor riot at being separated from their bags, none of which were able to be stored anywhere near our seats. Feeling sorry for the flight crew, who are all in full PPE, glasses, visors, gloves and ponchos over their usual kit.

Despite having been told beforehand that the in-flight entertainment wouldn't be available, it all seems to be working. This is good news for passing the fifteen and a half remaining hours, but bad news for my possibility of finishing the copy of Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed that I bought with me. All three toddlers are currently in thrall to their screens, to the great relief of everyone involved.

Over Cologne. Resorted to the screen becuase toddler two has woken up and has a piercing wail. After the schmaltzy Qantas ads, I settle down to watch the first episode of His Dark Materials, a series I had a very peripheral job in helping to make, but never got a chance to see.

Halfway between Prague and Vienna. I have taken off my shoes. I wish this show had subtitles, because the choices seem to be missing half the dialogue to the background plane noise or having my ears blasted out. Spotting familiar bits and pieces of Oxford is a lot of fun.

Mrs Owl is asleep next to me and I nodded off about during the final scenes of episode one, too. I've never had a decent sleep on a plane, but I'm going to give it a try and see what happens.

Sleep is elusive so far. Toddler two has set toddler three off and now it seems making noise is becoming a competition. Their parents are doing their best. I could really do with a decent meal.

It's quiet in the plane, but any hope that might engender is somewhat mitigated by the sad but certain knowledge that there's still twelve and a half hours of flight time to go. Oops. Toddler one makes a break through the premium economy curtain, and she's off.

Four hours in the air, twelve hours to go. We're somewhere near Baku. Trying no to think about it how far there is to go. The promised hot meal is yet to materialise. I'be been trying to work through my backlog of the last month's USA Today crosswords but my mind has turned into some kind of pudding.

A meal! A hot beef casserole (and a piece of shortbread) just when it was most needed. Feeling greatly refreshed and encouraged. Our first of many, many meals in takeaway containers over the next couple of weeks, and all packed up neatly in a biohazard bag to be destroyed afterwards. Just ten hours to go!

We're over Delhi now, slightly past half way. Finding myself napping on and off, I've switched from Pullman to an audio book of Matthew Reilly's 'The Secret Runners of New York'. I haven't read any Reilly for more than a decade, but this seems to be a long way out of his usual action-adventure gunfests, but I'm hoping it will just be white noise to help me nod off and distract from the noises of the toddlers who are at least as exhausted by this whole ideal as the rest of us.

Quick break from my chair to stretch my shoulders, which are starting to feel very worse for wear, and to take a bathroom mirror selfie (yes, I'm already looking completely pooped). It's a competition between them and my ears having been squished by airplane headpgones for six hours (my headphones are in an overhead locker somewhere) for which part of me is the most uncomfortable. Passengers are asked not to queue for the toilets to reduce infection risk, but on the wander down there I was pleasantly surprised by how generous all the space on this plane really is. I guess that's why we can't afford to fly Qantas if the government isn't picking up most of the tab.

Began watching His Dark Materials again, since Mrs. Owl has caught up. It feels like it's been dark outside forever. Time is definitely slowing down. Still more than six hours of flight to go.

I am just not cut out for this sort of thing.

We're over Ho Chi Minh City now. Just four and a half hours to go. One episode of HDM to go (in season one). Still haven't done any reading. Four hours seems doable from here as long as the toddlers stay quiet and the transfer at the other end isn't too ungodly.

Everyone is asleep but us chickens. I wish I knew how they do it. I've never been able to sleep on planes

The sun coming up through the strange purple tinted windows gives the whole plane a lurid fuchsia colour.

The lights are on in the plane for the first time since the first couple of hours. Darwin is pretty close to the top of Australia, and Indonesia is pretty close to Australia, so how can we be over Indonesia and still more than an hour away from landing.

There's breakfast!

We begin descent into Darwin. There is a mad rush for everyone to fill out their landing cards to give a government department the same information we've given them at least twice already. My shoulders have set into rocks and I'm just generally a little ball of sad, despite the fact that very soon indeed I'll be home in Australia for the first time in far too long.


Taxi complete. We're disembarking in groups of thirty, so this might take a while. Another attempt at the crossword, I think.

It's likely to be an hour until the first passengers get off the plane. This shouldn't be so bad after being stuck in a chair for fifteen hours, but somehow it feels like a real kick in the guts.

Once we got off the plane the whole check-in and security process was very fast and efficient. Grab your bags from the big pile and then straight onto the thankfully air-conditioned bus. Australia is kind of hot, you guys.

4:38 (13:08 local time)
Off the bus, through the welcoming cordon of distinctly NT accents and we're off to our rooms. Not much to write about, but they have beds, which I'm very interested in testing out in the immediate future. I'll talk about the quarantine facility a little more in the coming days.

All in all, just shy of exactly twenty-four hours since we forced ourselves out of bed this morning until we were able to collapse in our beds this morning. Extremely pleased that it's all gone well, but very glad indeed that we're not doing that again any time soon

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