When a once in a lifetime trip meets a once in a lifetime pandemic.
If you have ever travelled with me, you will know that turning back is something I just don’t do. Doubling back on yourself is painfully inefficient, and boring of course. In fact, that is at least half the reason we are doing a full lap of Australia. The efficiency of knocking the whole thing out in one go is too tempting to turn down. Doing two smaller trips might sound more manageable, but it is a heck of a lot more driving, fuel and expense. On March 16th, after six weeks on the Big Lap, turning back was becoming a very real possibility. Calamitously inefficient.
Ten days previous we left Perth with the mindset “okay, this might escalate and stop our trip at some point, but let’s cover as much as we can, while we can”. It was predominantly a China flu story with a bunch of cases in northern Italy and handfuls dotted around the globe. Stay away from cruise ships and hold three rolls of toilet paper instead of our standard two. Lessons learned. Over four thousand kilometres away is a city called Darwin and we considered this might be our forced hang out spot for a month or more. I was actually excited at the idea. Warm weather, swimming pools and swanky spacious AirBnB. We would have no choice but to indulge, right? Wrong.
Ten epic days on the west coast followed this routine. Wake up and check the infection rates globally and locally. Check messages from five WhatsApp groups. Go snorkelling and have a blast. Repeat steps one and two. Go to bed.
This routine prompted guilt. People around the world were in panic mode and we were snorkelling the Ningaloo reef with gentle beasts of the Indian Ocean. Each day was more shocking than the last. Reading the figures and comparing restrictions by country only fostered anxiety. The number of memes was becoming untenable. Like an Australian bushfire, more bad news and more bad memes relentlessly tore through the world’s media and social network, suffocating and destroying everything else. It felt like only a matter of time until our glorious journey through isolated lands would become terminally impractical, followed by a witty meme.
On Monday March 16th, St Patrick’s Day eve notably, we had packed up and were about to hit the road for Karijini National Park. This was a highlight on the Big Lap according to many who had gone before and while the trip was arduous, hot and fly infested, it was exciting. The weather ahead was hitting forty degrees Celsius most days, about five degrees warmer than what we had grown accustomed to and crucially no coastal breeze. Honestly, it was those sauna like temperatures that really made us think twice about what we were doing. Roa too. The remaining distance to Darwin was over three thousand kilometres, a week away if we drove five hours a day and skipped through a lot of what we were actually there to see. The media were reporting interstate borders may be shut down and we needed to cross into the Northern Territory from WA. All the figures and logic seemed to be against us and when we talked it through. It was undeniable, impassable. We were turning back.
Go back (L), or power on (R).
Ironically, we were leaving one of the most isolated areas of the world and driving toward the only known cases of coronavirus in the state. Perth was just two days away and we could take our time knowing that accommodation, supplies and cooler temperatures awaited. We had secured a nice AirBnB on a one month deal. As we drove south every caravan and motorhome that drove the opposite direction was like a smack in the face. Are we being overly cautious and screwing up the trip of a lifetime?
We arrived to Perth on Friday the 19th, by Sunday new restrictions were announced and mass closures began. Campsites chains such as RAC declared their sites closed and the Northern Territory announced they would close their border to WA. The same border we were initially due to cross. Cases in Australia had jumped from four hundred to nearly two thousand. Would we have made it to Darwin if we stayed the course? I’m not sure but one thing is certain, anxiety levels would have been sky high and that is something I’ve done everything to avoid since we arrived in Australia.
“So what happens with you lot then?”
A service station cashier asked us on the way back to Perth. We didn't know how to answer that fully and we have to get comfortable not knowing for the next few weeks because there is no clear path forward. There are countless scenarios and I’ll ponder those and sketch them out in the comfort of isolation in Perth (eventually choosing the wrong one). We are grateful for that comfort. Grateful not to be dependent on regular income for food and a roof. Most of all we are grateful to have good health and have healthy family and friends to Zoom with.