The one in which Neil loses his phone at 38,000 feet…
‘Do you come from a land down-under?’
What with a world-wide pandemic and the wide-spread paranoia surrounding any form of overseas travel, the spring of 2021 could not have been a worse time to plan a permanent move from up-top to down-under; but in the end, irrespective of the plans and timescales, projections and promises we had made to ourselves and others, circumstances dictated that there was an imperative for this to be the time we left the UK. And like so much of what has influenced my life’s direction of travel, that imperative came about because I had cocked-up. Potentially, pretty badly. Let me give you some of the background to our story.
By way of an introduction, my name is Neil, and I am married to Heather. We first met when we were 11 years old and in the same high school class; but what we would have never guessed then is that we would marry 39 years later (although Heather claims that she did know, all those years ago). That journey is a story in its own right; but for now, what is useful for you to know is that in the intervening years between us leaving school at 16 and our re-meeting at the age of 42, Heather had married, emigrated from the UK to New Zealand and gained her citizenship; then moved to Australia and gained another citizenship. Subsequently, she returned to the UK. I would like to say that she fled into my arms. Less savoury and more truthful is that in fear, she fled for her own personal safety. Such is life.
The fortunate outcome of that for me was two-fold: the first was that after we fell in love in 2002, I got to marry my soul mate in 2010; and secondly, thanks to Heather’s Australian citizenship, I was privileged to obtain a Permanent Residency visa for Australia in 2015, and we started visualising what living in Australia might look like. A three-month working visit that year triggered and validated my Permanent Resident and Resident Return visas; and then another three-month spell in the country working on the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games prompted us to think more seriously about the logistics of moving. But first, I needed to finish my part-time, self-funded PhD in the UK, which I did in 2019; and then buoyed-up by a contract to cover the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games with the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), and with the requisite elapse of four years following the granting of my Permanent Residency visa, at the first opportunity I lodged my application for Australian citizenship. Which was exactly when our plans starting unravelling.
First-off, thanks to Covid-19, Tokyo 2020 was cancelled. This was bad news because it meant a big hole was punched in my income, during a year when everything else in my line of sports work had already stopped due to the Corona virus, with very little else filling the gap; and then, my Australian Returning Resident visa, renewable after 5 years, managed to expire without me realising it. Whilst my Permanent Residency visa had been granted without a time limit in 2015, that was not the case for my Resident Return visa; and the first time I properly realised the implication of this was when my citizenship application was turned down for two very good reasons: not only was I not currently living in Australia, the immigration department also helpfully pointed out that I didn’t even have a valid visa to return to the country… It had expired a week earlier. My rapid and somewhat anxious application was impressively quick in being returned, but the renewal only resulted in a 12-month extension, which meant that the clock was counting down from the moment it was granted: I needed to be in Australia before that new Resident Return visa expired in July 2021; and I couldn’t leave it to chance a second time.
Thankfully, in early 2021, Tokyo 2020 was re-scheduled, and I was re-contracted. It was a much-needed financial boost and fitted-in well with our time frame – and I had permission from OBS to fly to the Olympics from Brisbane. We just needed to arrange the safekeeping and forward earning ability of our UK business interests, to pack up our home and then get ourselves into Australia – a country that had made the decision to close its borders to the rest of the world.
The act of getting here
Leaving our home meant more than simply packing a couple of suitcases: our estate agent, Rice Chamberlains, encouraged us to rent the property unfurnished; and so not only did all of our furniture have to come with us, I also needed to bring all the equipment from my sound studios, which occupied two of the upstairs rooms at the back of the house. This included a ridiculously heavy professional voice booth that had required expert assembly when it was installed. The same guy that had fitted it nine years earlier came back with a team of two others and made light of the heavy lifting down the stairs, and carefully wrapped and laid the panels onto a pallet in the garage.
The removals took place over three visits; the studios being the last thing to go, as they stayed operational so I could continue to earn money whilst we packed. Little by little, the house progressively emptied; and as a room was cleared, our decorator went in and re-painted, re-plastered and re-papered. Peculiarly, it slowly stopped feeling like our home; the place that Heather had spotted and suggested we buy as our first house as a couple. As with any decision we make together, her choice was astute.
Clockwork Removals, all the way from Sheffield, were an excellent recommendation from a friend in the commercial shipping industry, and the order they made out of our chaos was impressive; even if with every box that made it on to the truck, it reinforced in me the notion that it would be utter mayhem unpacking it all at the other end. What with Heather’s three industrial sewing machines, a professional sound studio and even our fireplace finding a place on the van, I had to put blind faith in Heather’s optimistic gee-ups to me; and remind myself that emigrating for Heather was akin to Bradley Wiggins’ winning gold medals at four consecutive Olympic games – because this would be her fourth time of packing a home and moving its contents overseas. What I couldn’t say out loud was that her methodical calmness was totally unnerving me.
So aside from the paperwork required to apply to enter Australia, the paperwork required to import three motorcycles into the country, the paperwork required to rent a property in Australia, the paperwork required to rent out our property in the UK, the paperwork required to arrange the removal and shipping of all of our possessions by sea container, the paperwork required to insure all of our goods, the paperwork required to arrange our flights and the paperwork required to prove our Covid-free status, all in all, you might say that getting to Australia was a pretty straightforward affair.
But Australia’s uncompromising stance towards closing its borders to protect its citizens from Covid-19 – delivering a health record envied by governments all around the world – meant that our over-arching challenge in the end turned out to be us making the quota of incoming travellers allowed into Australia each week. Close to leaving the UK, we entered a period of sequentially cancelled trips with only hints of a vague future departure date: the flights we had booked to Brisbane with a major carrier were firstly re-scheduled from May 31st to June 1st , then to June 6th, which then turned into the vague promise of a flight on July 17th; completely inappropriate as I needed to quarantine for two weeks before leaving for the Olympics on July 13th. This was further compounded by the fact that we were now living with friends, as our house was about to be rented to tenants. So, we had little choice but to agree with our ever-obliging and incredibly patient travel agent Trailfinders, when they suggested that our best option would be to change airline and change our destination in Australia. By doing so they were able to secure us two seats, but we did have to stretch ourselves even further financially: flying business class with Etihad from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi, and then on to Sydney, the state capital of New South Wales.
I’m Julia, fly me
It was our first experience of flying business class, and frankly it was completely, and indulgently, delightful. Having been exposed to the nice little extras that come with this premium ticket – and there are plenty, including exceptional personal service – it is easy to understand why this class of passage is so revered by experienced and frequent travellers; and I’ll be completely candid with you – from now on, I only ever want to turn left when I board a long-haul aircraft.
Even this comfort was not without incident, though; and again, it was all down to me… With a tight turnaround to our connecting flight in Abu Dhabi – an airport I was unfamiliar with – I inadvertently managed to leave my brand-new mobile phone on-board the first flight. Tantalisingly, I realised this almost as soon as we disembarked. The ground staff employed by the airport were somewhat sympathetic, but frankly, unhelpful. I knew it was my own fault, I got that; but it didn’t help my disposition towards my own carelessness that had it been allowed, I could have got straight back on the plane and picked it up, right there and then.
In contrast, the Etihad cabin staff when we boarded our next flight were not only sympathetic, they could not have been more helpful. Julia, the aircraft’s Purser, introduced herself to us as we boarded and reassured me that I shouldn’t worry: my phone had been located, it had been identified as belonging to me almost as soon as we had left the aircraft, and it had already been entered onto the airline’s Lost and Found system. But better still, whilst she couldn’t promise, there was an outside chance that they might be able to reunite me with it before we left Abu Dhabi… Meanwhile, would I like a drink before take-off? Shallow as I may seem, that glass of champagne, and Julia’s kindness in taking ownership of my problem, softened the rather low opinion I’d developed of myself.
As it turned out, it wasn’t possible to pass the handset to me directly due to the airport’s security policy; and of course, with an inward grimace, I had no choice but to respect that. But the way in which Julia and other behind-the-scenes Etihad staff handled the situation showed me how a company’s courtesy and commitment to customer service worked in practice, when it extends more deeply than a catchy slogan in a glossy magazine. The phone was shipped to me at our quarantine hotel and arrived a few days later; and Julia contacted us (via Heather’s telephone, obviously) to ensure that all was well. In between the phone arriving, and even though she’d supervised a flight back to Abu Dhabi the next day from Sydney, then headed off to Istanbul the day after that, Julia still took the time to message Heather personally to check on progress. Truly an exceptional level of personal service from an Etihad member of staff; and, dear airline, I promise you it won’t be forgotten… In such ways is customer loyalty established.
For international travellers, these are very strange days. Another thing I shall never forget is how as a wide-eyed émigré arriving in a new country, I was welcomed at Sydney airport by friendly immigration staff, a cheerful medical screening team and courteous, efficient police that arranged us, ushered us and delivered us by coach to our quarantine hotel. It had been a long trip from London’s eerily quiet Heathrow airport to get here. It had been an even longer trip from our much-loved Birmingham house; but here we finally were, in Australia… And just 14 days and a thousand kilometres from our new home in Brisbane.
Still to come…
Stay with us on our journey as we discover ourselves, explore the country and share the characters we encounter in this travelogue. It’s good to have your company; and as Julia would say, it’s our pleasure to welcome you on board.
Cover picture: the house is all but obscured by the removals van; it felt symbolic and sad. The view from Poulton Close. [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.