The one in which Heather and Neil play Bonnie and Clyde…
‘We’ve not had that spirit here since 1869…’
The Sydney InterContinental Hotel might only have been a couple of blocks away from our quarantine hotel of the previous two weeks, but the five-star service, surroundings and sensation were a world away from the institutional functionality we had become accustomed to at The Marriott.
Although it only opened its doors to paying guests in 1985, the building that the InterContinental occupies has a much longer history of public service: although a thorough refurbishment transformed it from its original purpose as the Treasury Building, when it was built in 1851.
The British came to occupy what would become Sydney in 1788, just a few thousand years after the Cadigal people of the Eora Nation did; and although it is precious little compensation for their loss, the Cadigal are at least recognized now as the traditional custodians of Cadi, the land on which the Treasury Building was placed, and where the hotel stands today.
The Aboriginal people of Australia are acknowledged as one of the oldest living cultures on earth, and Sydney itself was built beside waterways and on land that was quickly and unceremoniously stripped from them in the name of Empire; the pristine Royal Botanic Gardens situated directly opposite the InterContinental for instance, occupies a site that is more correctly known as Wuganmagulya – a place where the traditional ceremonies and initiations of the indigenous community were conducted.
Memories of this swashbuckling period of legitimized plundering sit uncomfortably cheek and jowl with the clean, cutting-edge architecture of modern high-rise construction and colony-period warehouses and stores; and then there is, to my eyes, the rather beautiful 1930s design of the Museum of Modern Art Australia. At one time, this was the Maritime Services Board building that was originally planned in 1937; but it had its construction halted for the war in 1940, and finally opened in 1952. When the Maritime Services Board moved to a larger building in 1989, this fine sandstone building was donated to the Museum by the New South Wales government.
A large bronze statue of Captain William Bligh – he of mutiny on the Bounty fame – stands in the gardens at the front of the gallery, erected to commemorate him being one of the colony’s first Governors; yet it also serves to remind us that it wasn’t only on the Bounty that the deeply-disagreeable Bligh managed to arouse revolution in his men: whilst Governor, he managed to alienate his militia-style New South Wales Corps, who as well as finding his personal disposition and conduct inappropriate, resented his attitude in the power struggle between the civil and military elite of the colony. The so-called Rum Rebellion of 1808 didn’t end well for him: Bligh was deposed and imprisoned for two years in Australia’s only coup d‘état. So far.
But on our first night of freedom from isolation, restraint not rebellion was very much on our minds: a quiet dinner and some drinks with good friends in the Hacienda (not the infamous ‘Madchester’ nightclub, but instead a chintzy tapas bar alongside the harbour), looking out at two of the most recognizable landmarks in the world – the bridge and the opera house. It was very much just what the doctor ordered – well, this one, anyway – yet this usually teeming part of the city was strangely muted: the popular wine bar we were in, just like the other harbour restaurants around us, was uncharacteristically quiet. We arrived a little after 7pm and perhaps only two other couples were already there, at distanced tables; but by 8:45 we were all being asked to finish our drinks as the establishment was closing for the night. Unthinkable in the Sydney I remember.
With no option to ‘go on’ elsewhere, it made for a short, but still immensely enjoyable, night out. The cost of Covid continues to spread its increasingly obvious tendrils of economic misery, eating deep into the tourism and hospitality industries; a topic of conversation over dinner with our companions – one a Travel Agent, the other an Event professional. As we happily turned in for the night, Heather observed that on the plus side, an early close of play meant that there was neither opportunity nor temptation for me to make-up for a fortnight of abstinence all in one go. It is this ability to see the positive in every situation that makes me love that girl so much.
The next morning – our first full day in the open – Heather and I took full advantage of our freedom and took an early morning walk around Circular Quay after waking and watching a stunning dawn; taking photographs looking back up to the Marriott, and the obligatory selfie with the bridge in the background. Then a pre-arranged breakfast date gave me the opportunity to catch-up with a colleague I had met many times in pixel, but up to that point, never in person.
As we walked towards The Rocks area to choose a café for our breakfast, he pointed out the shops that had been forced to close as people increasingly stayed away from crowded environments and communal experiences. Covid – the gift that keeps on taking – had taken those businesses; and it was about to take from us.
One night in Sydney… Can mean a fortnight in a Queensland town
Walking back to the hotel after enjoying breakfast in the historic docks area, a ping on my phone was a message from my chum of the previous night, sending an urgent message. Knowing that we were planning to leave for a 3-day, coastal road trip north after spending an hour or two with another friend in the city, he’d sent me the unexpected announcement made by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk at 11am that morning: Queensland was going to operate a ‘snap’ closure of its border with New South Wales, from the end of the day. If we didn’t get into Queensland today, we would have to quarantine again when we got there, in a hotel, and at our expense.
This was a real blow – we’d not yet collected the hire car and we had three expensive hotels en-route, pre-paid, for overnight stops. But there was nothing else for it; we had to check-out of the InterContinental pronto, collect the hire car and high-tail it across the border as fast as possible. That meant 900 kms in less than 12 hours – a tall order by any stretch of the imagination – but in the spirit of a Top Gear challenge, not out of the realms of possibility… Our lunch date, Andrew, was our life-saver. He immediately offered to pick us up from the hotel and drive us straight to the car hire office, about 15 minutes across town. Andrew had taken to driving for Uber when he moved across from New Zealand a couple of years before, and this local knowledge, plus his wonderfully calm and irrepressible spirit, kept my sense of rising panic at bay. I was calm, I was breathing, we were on schedule.
When we got there, the car hire office was shut.
The sign on the door basically said ‘Due to Covid restrictions, this office works from home. Thank you for your understanding’ and gave a mobile number to call. A cheerful voice at the other end said they’d be with us in 30 minutes; I pleaded our case, and they were there within 15. With the paperwork out of the way, we relied on Andrew to path-find our way to the right road out of Sydney… But shortly after leaving him, I still managed to put an extra loop on the route, missing a by-pass thanks to a slow response from Google maps. I wondered if that extra 30 minutes I’d added to the journey by missing the turn would come back and haunt me. If you’ve ever seen ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ (and if you haven’t, you should), that was my John Candy moment. Heather meanwhile somehow managed to retain her patience, composure and dignity. (I do actually believe she is an angel sent to watch over me.)
When we were almost on the right road, our phones started to ring constantly, as concerned folk asked repeatedly if we had seen the news – but one call was particularly helpful. Our son-in-law had plotted us a route that didn’t follow the obvious choice of the Pacific Highway.
Heading North to South along the coast, this road forms an integral part of Australia’s Highway 1, and at 780Km (485 miles) long, it is the most direct route between Brisbane and Sydney; but just two hours after the announcement, it was already showing signs of backing-up with traffic; and it would surely only be worse in 10 hours’ time. How frustrating would it be to be within sight of the border, only to have our time run out sitting in a stationary queue whilst everyone’s papers were checked? (That is right – to leave the state everyone had to have a ‘permit to travel’, issued by the NSW government, with a QR code and everything… For each passenger.) We had requested ours through the online portal as soon as the news broke and thankfully they arrived by email by the time we were moving.
Instead, our son-in-law had cannily looked at the shortest distance to the border, and this involved a much less obvious tactic: diverting inland, taking the more meandering New England Highway, up, through and over the Granite Belt mountain passes to reach the border at Wallangarra; albeit more than 250Kms from Brisbane. He promised spectacular scenery by day, treacherous roads by night, and as it is scarcely used since the Pacific Highway was upgraded to motorway, if we hit a Kangaroo – a very real nocturnal possibility – or popped a tyre, we might be waiting quite some time, in the dark, for assistance. However, it was our best chance to make the crossing in time, and we had one go at getting this right.
I was a latter-day Odysseus; and this time, Penelope was beside me in the passenger seat – and only the need for a wee, to fill-up with petrol or to buy some chocolate was going to interrupt my quest: to get my wife home to the bosom of her family.
Luckily, we were able to do all three essential tasks at Servos along the way. (*Note to self – include in another blog post the adding of ‘o’ to the end of a word in Australia… ‘Servo’ = a service station, ‘Reg-o’ = the road fund license, ‘The Salvos’ = The Salvation Army, ‘Bottle-o’ = an off license, etc. etc.)
In fact, we only stopped twice in over 8 hours of motoring, but I would not let the fuel reserve dip below half a tank. Some years ago, on my first road trip down-under, I ignored a sign that said ‘Last petrol for 180 Kms’ and laughingly dismissed it as a form of Australian bravado. It was not. And after a sphincter-squeezing last 20 clicks, we made the next Servo with just petrol fumes in the tank, and the only thing showing on the ‘clock’ was the maker’s name. So no sir, that was not going to happen today. Not on my watch.
The really spirited driving started when we diverted off the A1 Pacific Highway just before Newcastle, and took the winding B51 north-west towards Quirindi, joining the A15 New England Highway just before Tamworth. Once on the A15, we were back in full-throttle mode: on a wider road than the B51 had been, but it was still only a single carriageway. Place names came and went on a roller-caption of progress, and if it had been odd to head north-west from a town called Newcastle to reach a place called Tamworth, what followed was geographical hilarity: from Kentucky to the highest town in the southern hemisphere, Armidale (1,277 metres above sea level); through the Black Mountains to Llangothlin, then from Glencoe to Stonehenge, on and on, past Stratford, Dundee and then the Bald Nob turn-off; which it certainly sounded like to me.
Granite structures now towered around us; and for good reason this is known as the Granite Belt of the Great Dividing Range of mountains. It was approaching dusk as we traversed the most spectacular passes, climbing heights that revealed panoramas I was unable to take in, such was my concentration on the road; but surrounding us was 500kms of beautiful gorge wilderness, with waterfalls and rivers. A silly quibble over stopping for photographs gave a hint to my concern – we were about to enter darkness on deserted mountain roads known for their wildlife with suicidal tendencies; I needed to keep our speed up, but at night, our average speed would appreciably start to drop – it had to if we were to remain safe.
About an hour out from the border, the road had become seemingly tighter, twistier and I was aware that I needed to remain vigilant for any signs of fatigue. I was obviously tired, but fine, and glad to eventually tuck behind a large truck that had joined the main highway, at the foot of one of the mountain passes. At first I had resented this obstruction to my path onwards; but I quickly came to appreciate that with the driver’s obvious knowledge of the road, the immense power of the 18-wheeler unit and searchlight-like headlamps, we made a cosy couple playing follow-my-leader for the remining 80 Kms or so to the border at Wallangarra. The truck’s average speed was actually higher than ours had been when we met; and there were times that I throttled back to keep to the speed limit, but hopefully not so far back that a Kangaroo could choose to jump between us and the truck – the lorries here have Roo Bars, Toyota Camry’s generally don’t.
I should say a word or two here about the Toyota Camry we had hired from Avis; it was an extremely comfortable, large luxury saloon car that demonstrated impeccable manners even when it raised its skirt and made a dash for it; perhaps only on two or three occasions did the car feel unsettled on loose gravel, at speed, at the edge of a corner, and then it only momentarily wiggled its hips a bit. I commented at the time that to have elicited such comfort, performance, economy and safety out of a car like this would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago – the quality of our motor vehicles, their technological development and overall design integrity is without doubt a remarkable wonder of modern mass-production.
I lost the truck shortly after we passed from the darkness into the light and drove past the border signs at Wallangarra, unchecked and unimpeded. There was no border presence at all. But then, still breathing deeply and not quite believing we had crossed the state line, two other lights filled my rear-view mirror – the red and blue flashing lights of a police car. I was pretty sure I had dropped off my speed appropriately as we hit the suburbs – whilst the lorry had pressed on – but of course it is always the case that you wonder ‘was I speeding?’
We were stopped because we had New South Wales number plates on our car and we had obviously crossed the border – did we have our travel papers available to inspect? Yes! Yes, we did, and they were all in order; and so I got breathalysed for good measure, too. It was all conducted amiably; but it certainly burst the bubble we had been in since 11 o’clock that morning. It was now 8pm; we’d made Queensland, and it was still another 3 hours to Brisbane. In the dark. The overwhelming decision was to stop somewhere for the night, have a relaxing meal and a drink, celebrate our Great Escape and arrive fresh in Brisbane the next day. Stanthorpe looked a likely spot on the map to find a motel and stay overnight.
It took three goes to find a place for the night, but the Apple and Grape Motel had one family room left. It was expensive for just the two of us, but we were past caring. We checked in, parked the car, unloaded an overnight bag and hit the town for a celebratory meal. It did not go well. It might only have been 8.30pm, but everywhere was shut. The Pub, the cafes, all shut; and not a ‘we’re putting the chairs up on the tables to start clearing-up’ kind of shut, or a ‘we’re dimming the lights because we’re about to close’ kind of shut; this was a proper lights-out, door’s bolted, nobody’s home, go to bed, bon soir. I was gutted. I might have moaned. A bit. I probably did a little bit, but I do not fully remember. By now, the angel beside me had patiently explained that we were in farming country and farmers had to get up very early.
But I do fully remember that that night we feasted on a complimentary biscuit from the room’s tea tray, an apple, an orange, we shared a packet of cheese and onion crisps and drank a fruit juice that was left over from our stay in quarantine. The last words that left my lips that night was ‘tomorrow, I shall eat my body weight in bacon and eggs’.
Stanthorpe by night. Well, early evening anyway.
‘Today I shall eat my body weight in Bacon and Eggs‘
I was puzzled that in the advertising blurb for the Apple and Grape Motel, it said ‘warm rooms’; and at the time I had thought this to be a rather unusual thing to say about a Motel in Queensland – my experience of being so close to the tropics meant I’d never imagined needing to put a duffle coat on. But next morning I understood why. When I awoke, I felt the cold. And I mean a bone-numbing, see your breath as you lie in bed kind of cold. When we checked-out, we discussed the local climate with Edith – unbelievably, an energetic and glamorous great-grandmother, who had spent all of her working life in hotels and had bought this motel several years ago, with her husband, as their retirement present.
Originally from New Zealand, but with stints working in the trade in Canada and the US, Edith explained how apples and wine were a speciality of this Granite Belt region – and that Stanthorpe had one particular honour: it holds the record for the lowest temperatures ever recorded in Queensland. In winter it can fall as low as -10 degrees Celsius or more, a figure I had no difficulty in imagining after my experience that morning of shuffling naked from our bed to the shower cubicle.
Mrs. H posing outside our Apple and Grape Motel room Our Top Gear challenge route
In a bizarre (and slightly disconcerting, Steven King novel kind of way) the Main Street of Stanthorpe was brimming with life and warmth that morning; and still with that prandial promise on my lips, we entered Em’s Café – a likely spot for the kind of breakfast I had in mind. And so with an uncharacteristc machismo beyond any justifiable reason, I ordered Em’s top-of-shop, $27 breakfast called ‘The Beast’. Heather was naturally more restrained, requesting a couple of eggs on toast and a pot of green tea.
‘The Beast’ arrived at our table like a prop for an episode of ‘Man versus Food’ and even caused Mrs. H to snort on her tea. The menu had said 3 slices of bacon – what arrived was three entire sides of a pig; along with two fried eggs, two hash browns, a meadow of mushrooms, a truss of tomatoes, slices of several Chorizo sausage and all delicately finished with a garnish of pea shoot. The room went silent as everyone turned towards our table. ‘Ha, ha, ha! I thought you guys had big breakfasts?’ I bravely, but rather lamely, offered the audience. The locals soon lost interest.
With a bit of help from Heather, I cleared the plate; but with great difficulty. It was fuelled by pride of course, but I swear I’ll never do that again. The last part of our journey home to Brisbane was spent with me having recurring reminders of breakfast – ‘The Beast’ was the gift that kept on giving me indigestion. It was all my own fault.
Then all that remained as we got closer to home was to fulfill the last requirement of our quarantine’s conditional discharge: before we could say that we had finally made it ‘home’, to our new temporary residence in Brisbane, we had to undergo a ‘Day 16’ Covid test; and until that was pronounced clear, we also wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house we were staying in.
Ipswich Hospital, a little to the south but mainly to the west of Brisbane, was the only clinic accepting same-day, walk-in patients; and so, thoroughly jaded with the whole testing regime by now (this would be our sixth swab-fest in the space of 19 days), we went through a registration process that managed to take the best part of 30 minutes. Obviously to put testees at ease, the receptionist had found it a helpful strategy to discuss at great length her thoughts on people’s responses to each of her questions. I felt sure that she was missing her true vocation as a presenter on one of the TV Shopping channels, she seemed so natural at talking inanely about nothing at all. But then finally, we got to have our nose and throat samples taken. Heather got the short straw – or rather the long one – and went first; only to have the operator attempt to push the swab right through her nose and into her eye socket.
I have heard my wife swear before – very, very rarely it has to be said – but never to such great effect; and her sudden and unexpected outpouring of pain, and my shock at her pain, summed up – in an instant, cartoon bubble-pop – the whole, ever-more dispiriting nature of the period that we had been forced to endure.
We ensured we were double vaccinated before we left the UK, and had awaited anxiously for the date of our second jab. Because of the low number of returning Australians and residents the government would allow back into the country, we ended up having to book four different flights, as three of them cancelled us at the very last minute. We repeatedly had to book new Covid tests because the time limit ran out after each flight was cancelled. Ditto for hire cars and airport hotel rooms. We were unsuccessful in securing a flight until we paid outside of our budget for a business class ticket. We arrived in a completely different Australian state than one we intended to. We then paid a considerable sum of money to be incarcerated for 14 days. We took three more Covid tests in quarantine. We came out for one night and immediately next day had the added tension of an enforced exodus. We hired a car. We lost three expensive overnight hotel reservations for our trip home. But perhaps worst of all, we realised that we were now inextricably bound to an all-encompassing programme of 24-hour surveillance and forced compliance.
I lead my hurting wife gently back to where we had parked the car in the hospital grounds; and I held her hand as she sat and softly sobbed.
What a welcome this had been to Australia; and we were two of the fortunate few who had been able to make it back.
You’ll never guess what happened next…
After 24 hours enjoying a heady sense of freedom, and following our ‘clear’ Day 16 Covid test results, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk made yet another ‘snap’ decree: anyone who has been in New South Wales in the previous 14 days must not leave their home for a further two weeks. By now, it’s difficult to believe she’s not personally looking at my travel itinery; because this new round of enforced isolation ends on July 10th. I am due to fly to Japan for the Olympics and Paralympics on July 12th and I still need to obtain two more Covid tests – one at 96 hours, and the other 72 hours, before I’m due to fly to Tokyo.
Cover picture: The last obstacle – crossing the Brisbane river on the Moggill ferry. [All pictures © Neil Hillman 2021]
I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.