March 26, 2020
Well, our wonderful 7-week Western Australia and Bali adventure has come to a different ending than planned. Early Thursday morning, March 26, Tony & I arrived at LAX on the LAST international flight allowed to leave Brisbane, Australia. The night before, we flew all night from Perth, WA to Brisbane on the LAST Qantas flight allowed out of Perth. Getting onto those two flights was nothing short of a miracle, facilitated by a network of guardian angels, to whom we shall be forever grateful (including dear friends Mary & Marty Landau who filled our fridge with food since we are now quarantined for 14 days)!
While some people would question our decision to continue with our road trip from Perth to the far north Western Australian town of Exmouth, we reconsidered it every single day and inched forward based on that day’s reports on the pandemic. Our dilemma was that our itinerary included dropping off our rental car in Exmouth and getting a one-way flight from a small airport in Exmouth back to Perth, connecting to Brisbane and then back to LAX. It was like a domino game, with so many coordinates needing to all work together – and, we had thousands of dollars worth of pre-paid hotels, tours, car, etc. to consider.
The other complication hindering us was that we had flown from Perth to Bali to spend 12 days with our daughter, Lyndall, and son-in-law Justin, who are living in Bali. After our return to Perth, the Australian government instituted strict travel restrictions for anyone who had traveled anywhere in or out of Indonesia, including a 14-day quarantine. So, we were not even allowed to fly anywhere until we had completed that 14-day period. Although not required when we arrived in Australia, we complied with the spirit of the quarantine just because we knew it was the right thing to do. We were very relieved when we finally had reached the milestone where we would be allowed to fly – that was March 24.
The areas we traveled to in Western Australia are very remote with great distances between scattered tiny towns. The beaches were deserted so we felt safe from the virus – either driving in the car or spending a few hours on beaches all by ourselves. We certainly were practicing ‘social distancing’ and still managing to enjoy our trip. The only time we interacted with anyone was ordering take-away dinners most nights and checking into hotels, which mostly was just picking up a key in a lockbox – most reception offices were closed to protect their employees.
The farther north we got, the more the tiny towns were shutting down so getting groceries and dinners was getting harder and harder. We felt our best option was to continue northward, away from populated areas, and Qantas kept assuring us our flights were still ‘safe’.
Everything changed Tuesday evening, March 24, when we got an email from Qantas saying that our flights were cancelled, offering no assistance on how to get back from the far north of WA. The pandemic in Australia was escalating quickly and every state and territory was shutting its borders in the next 24-48 hours and they were stopping ALL international flights in and out of Australia. Calls to Qantas for help indicated a wait time of over 2 hours and our cel phone reception was constantly cutting out. Now we were scared!
We woke up Wednesday morning and knew we needed to start driving south and try to reach Perth that night, which turned out to be an 11-hour drive. Our plan was to go straight to the airport and try to get on any flight heading to the East Coast and then hopefully a connection to LAX. Luckily we made sandwiches to eat on the road as we did not have time to stop other than for gas and bathroom stops. The car and my lap became ‘mission control’ and I started making phone calls as soon as we hit the road. I called the US Consulate in Perth to see if they could help us get onto flights out. Our dear friends in Perth, Robert and Luisa, called their local Member of Parliament to ask for help on our behalf. I was talking to our travel insurance’s emergency assistance hotline as well as numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact Qantas. We were brainstorming with Robert & Luisa throughout the day, as they were making all kinds of calls for us.
Finally, I decided to call an old friend who is a travel agent in Sydney who I toured around Europe with 41 years ago, Sue Myers. She said, “Give me a few hours to see what I can do”. Not long after, she called and said she had MIRACULOUSLY placed a hold on two flights – Perth to Brisbane at 11:35pm THAT night and then Brisbane to LA the next morning. Our GPS said we would arrive at Perth Airport at 9:00pm. Pedal to the metal!
My cel phone service was going in and out, since we were in what Aussies call ‘Woop-Woop’ (aka “the middle of nowhere”). Sue and I were calling back and forth making the arrangements and suddenly she said she needed copies of our passports. Luckily, we were about 30 kms away from the only biggish town and we found a McDonalds so we could use their wi-fi. (Of course, McDonalds had their whole dining room boarded up with sheets of plywood to keep anyone from entering their dining area – you could only walk inside straight up to the counter to order to-go.) Finally got a wi-fi connection and sent the passport copies and credit card info (washed our hands in their bathroom, of course) and then back on the road to Perth!
Sue and I were calling back and forth for the next few hours as she frantically completed the ticketing process – all while my cel phone battery was getting lower and lower. UGH! (Note to Self: always carry a car charger or power bank for every cel phone, even when you don’t think you will ever need it!) She didn’t want to process the payment until she knew for sure we were going to make it in time to board the flight in Perth, so that entailed all kinds of pulling strings and calling in favors with her airline contacts all around Australia. And, we still weren’t sure we would even be allowed to transfer to the international terminal once we arrived in Brisbane because they had instituted a requirement for all interstate passengers to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine. So, she didn’t want to process the payment for the Virgin Australia flight from Brisbane to LAX (which, ahem, was an obscene cost, but we were quite ‘happy’ to pay it) until she was certain that we would be allowed to board. I’m pretty sure that Sue didn’t sleep all night – what an incredible friend!
Of course, our rental car was a giant mess with all our beach gear all over the back seat, dirty clothes everywhere, several bags of food we had been stocking up on due to all the shutdowns. When we stopped to top off with gas just before returning the car in Perth, we ripped everything out of the car and spread it on the ground in the gas station parking lot. We just shoved everything into our suitcases (including all those stinky, dirty clothes – UGH! (2nd Note to Self: don’t put off doing laundry till tomorrow when there is a global pandemic going on).
I was walking up to strangers’ cars in the gas station and offering them unopened food – bags of chips, cans of veggies, a bottle of wine, spaghetti & sauce jars, jam, ketchup, etc. When we dropped off the car at Avis, I gave the last few bags of groceries to the guys there and they were super excited to find there was an unopened roll of toilet paper amongst the goodies! (TP situation is the same in Australia as in the US)
We literally RAN to the check-in counter in Perth and luckily they did not feel the need to take our temperatures, despite the fact that we were sweating like pigs after driving 11 hours in 100+ degrees and had done our speed-packing in the hot parking lot at the gas station. Even a quick change of clothes at the gas station couldn’t mask my sweatiness – pity the poor girl who sat next to me on the 13 hour flight home the next morning.
But, we made it on the plane! We were on our way home, even though we knew ‘home’ was probably going to be Hellish during this crisis. While still on the tarmac, we suddenly noticed them opening up the baggage hold below and we saw them removing large containers containing luggage. This did not look good….and then the pilot announced that they had ‘removed’ one of the passengers who ‘was not well enough to travel at this time’ and they then had to also remove his luggage. So, despite the border closing at midnight, the Powers That Be allowed us to take off after midnight, under the circumstances. Quick text to Sue, “Go ahead and process our credit card payment for the first flight – we are on our way!”
When we landed at Brisbane domestic terminal, it was like a war zone. There were police and security guards everywhere, even uniformed firefighters, creating human barriers as we walked past to collect our luggage. Once we arrived at the International terminal, the check-in line was the entire length of the terminal, and then wrapped all along one side of the huge building. The flight jumbotron showed 11 cancelled flights and then we saw ‘our’ flight on Virgin with the flashing ‘check-in open’ announcement! Whew! Out of all the flights listed, there were only a few flights still going out, mostly Virgin Australia.
The only tickets we had were on my phone, which was now 100% dead. I snuck out of the long line and found an outlet to quickly charge my phone enough to be able to show the tickets, if needed. When I went to rejoin Tony in the line, I couldn’t find him anywhere. Slight panic, but then he found me to say he had been pulled from the line and sent for interrogation. Turns out Australia had just MADE IT ILLEGAL for Australians to leave the country and they heard Tony’s Australian accent, not knowing he is also a US citizen. So, he was taken aside and he had to prove that he lives in the US or they would not allow him to board the plane. Luckily his California driver’s license, medical card, Bank of America credit card, etc. were sufficient. Back into the line and finally got checked in, just in time to board the plane home. Sent Sue another quick text to let her know she could process the credit card payment to Virgin, now that we were officially on that flight. But then we sat on the tarmac for 2-1/2 hours with no explanation – just to make us sweat a bit more.
Thankfully, everyone on the flight was subdued – mostly Americans very grateful to be getting out on the last flight to LA. We could hear one person coughing throughout the flight, but they were way in the back of the plane. The worst feeling was when I could feel a random sneeze coming on, knowing that I would be considered a pariah by the rest of the passengers for the rest of the flight! I grabbed my jacket and put it over my mouth and hoped it muffled the sound of my inopportune sneeze! (and, of course, I then washed my hands for the zillionth time).
Just when we were feeling sorry for ourselves for having to pay nearly $6,000. to get home, they announced on both flights that the flight attendants were all flying their last flights and they would all be laid off the next day. Sobering moment. Let me just say that EVERYONE is losing something in this nightmare and an unexpected airfare seemed like a pretty trivial loss for us at that point. The pilot asked everyone to ‘be kind’ to the crew and to each other. Good advice for all of us.