Escape from Perth

Swansea pool
Frans swims laps in Swansea. Photo credit: Karen Kao

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization formally declares Covid-19 a pandemic. On that day, Frans is swimming laps at our seaside resort in Swansea, Tasmania. Countries begin to close their borders.

Other countries go into their first lockdown. On 12 March 2020, Frans and I are hiking Douglas-Apsley National Park. My phone lights up with messages from my brother-in-law in Milan.

He wanted to convince us to stay in Tasmania to ride out the coronavirus storm. He’s sure that NL will be in chaos within the next 2 weeks as NL is tracking exactly the developments in Italy. So total lockdown, no movement in or out of the country or maybe even within the country, schools closed, public events banned. Plus the panic that goes along with that including hoarding.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 13 March 2020

The race is on to get ourselves out of Australia and back to Amsterdam by way of Perth.

Stocking up

The shops in Swansea are sadly stocked even under the best of circumstances. You’ve got to buy your produce on Mondays, once the weekly deliveries arrive, or make do with wilted everything. So I’m surprised to find surgical face masks at the local pharmacy. For the first time on this trip, I see other shoppers point at me and whisper. I wonder whether I’ll get abuse as others have once I put a face mask onto this Chinese face.

Meanwhile, we see clips of grocery stores in Amsterdam with empty shelves. Fistfights break out in Australian stores, too.

On 15 March, we fly out of Tasmania. I score two bottles of hand sanitizer at Melbourne Airport, the most any shopper is allowed to buy at one time. Australia announces that, effective midnight, all arrivals to Australia must quarantine for 14 days.

We arrive in Perth, at the far western end of Australia, a city on the edge of the middle of nowhere. By some strange fluke, we know a few people in this city. We make arrangements to meet Emanda at Sculpture by the Sea. Our other contact, Joris, declines our invitation. His girlfriend already has co-workers who’ve tested positive for Covid. Joris and his girlfriend have decided to retreat into their bubble.

The US travel ban has just been extended to include the UK and Ireland. Every morning, I check my emails for news that our flight home has been cancelled.

Karen Kao travel journal entry for 15 March 2020

In the petri dish

Swan River Perth
Pelican on the Swan River, Perth. Photo credit: Karen Kao

On 16 March, we find our hotel swarming with senior citizens. Apparently, their cruise operator decided to unceremoniously offload them at the port of Perth. Find your own way home is their goodbye instruction.

The senior citizens crowd the reception desk in search of help. I refuse to eat at the hotel breakfast buffet. I try not to breathe inside either.

The first nation to shut its borders, either partially or completely, to limit the spread of the coronavirus was North Korea, on Jan. 7, 2020. More countries began to shutter quickly after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11. The biggest spike was on March 16, when 77 countries issued partial or total restrictions on entry, among them Russia, Germany and the United States.

Mary A Shiraef, “Closed borders, travel bans and halted immigration: 5 ways COVID-19 changed how – and where – people move around the world” in The Conversation, 18 Mar 2021

There are no direct flights between Australia and continental Europe. You have to transit via Singapore or Hong Kong, Dohai or Dubai. My kids tell us to fly to China to get behind the wave or go back to New Zealand to ride it out. We stick to our plan of flying from Perth to London.

Meanwhile, on St Patrick’s Day, all of Perth celebrates with green beer, full pubs and no face masks. We’re tired of travel, no longer interested in new sights. It feels like all we’re doing is killing time. I try to change our Qantas reservations to an earlier flight. The automated message begs me to hang up unless I’m flying within the next 24 hours. In that case, there’s a 5 hour wait for next available service representative.

Go home!

Perth is not a pretty city. Or maybe I just don’t have the patience any more to see. We hop the train to Fremantle for art museums and galleries.

The trip to Fremantle is almost a disappointment. This suburb of Perth looks impoverished. The streets are deserted but for a handful of Aboriginals who might very well be homeless. There’s a lot of rough sleeping in Perth, whitefellas and blackfellas. Unlike Perth, Fremantle doesn’t have the glass towers and the big hotels to hide the inequality.

Karen Kao travel journal entry for 18 March 2020

For the first time in our trip, a woman yells at me in the street. Go back to where you came from, she screams. I want to scream back, believe me, lady, I’m trying.

On 19 March we head for Perth Airport. The transit hub is a ghost town. It seems as if our flight is the only one departing Perth that day. One female passenger wears a face mask but she hasn’t read the memo yet on covering your nose and mouth.

The Perth-based crew is almost as restless as we are. They murmur among themselves. Could this be the last flight between Perth and London, they wonder. I wipe down my tray table, arm rests and screen.

Perth Airport
Happy passengers at Perth Airport. Photo credit: Karen Kao

17 hours later, we land in London Heathrow. The contrast between Perth and London could not be greater. Heathrow is as busy as always. No face masks, no social distancing, no worries.

Our last flight — London to Amsterdam, our last train ride from Schiphol Airport. On 20 March 2020, we use our house keys for the first time in 7 months.

While we’re in flight, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand close their borders to non-citizens. One week later, all escape routes from Perth close.

Talk about just-in-time delivery.