It was a simple, uncomplicated idea: three weeks in summery Australia at the dreary end of the U.S. winter, a long overdue visit with my son, Chris, his wife, Kerri, and two of my three granddaughters, Scout and Saylor, who are living in Brisbane, Queensland, for two-three years for his work. I hadn’t seen any of them in 15 months.
What could go wrong?
The flight over was long, God knows it was long, but mercifully uneventful. A mere 30 hours after leaving Annapolis, Maryland, I was deposited by Virgin Australia into the Brisbane airport at 6 a.m. the next day, or the day after that, who could possibly know which after a cross-country flight to LAX, crossing the international date line and a 13-hour leap to sunny Brisbane? Through my comatose fog, I heard my son say we were off for three days to Noosa, a breathtakingly beautiful beach and national park a couple of hours both of Brisbane on the aptly named Sunshine Coast. Swimming and surfing and eating and sipping commenced, more or less non-stop, for the next 72 hours. The weather was perfect, there were Koalas in the eucalyptus trees, probably sharks and other deadly things in the warm, soothing water, and an 80-mile-long deserted beach on which my son let his 9 and 11-year-old daughters violate all local laws and common sense by driving his four-wheeled SUV at lunatic speeds through the silky sand. No one turned an eye as we went by. When in Noosa.. .
The next two weeks in Brisbane were a delightful blur: lunches with Chris in the glass-and-steel, high-rise central business district, which gives Brisbane its derisive nickname, Bris-Vegas; rides on the City Cat ferry up and down the wide Brisbane river, a couple of strolls along the cleverly-designed Southbank, with its museums, Ferris wheel and rain-forest walk (really.) A couple of rounds at the Bulimba Golf Club, which features pig racing with pari-mutual betting on Sundays and one round at the hilly Victoria Park Golf Course, with spectacular views of the downtown skyline.
Evenings featured kid things: an almost professionally-run, weekly junior swim meet, with, mercifully, beer, wine and food for sale to the parents and grandparents, especially the grand parents; two sixth-grade basketball matches, silly games of HORSE with the girls on the basketball court in the neighborhood park, that sort of thing.
There were a couple of fun weekend trips to the Gold Coast and, on the Sunshine Coast, the wonderfully-named Mooloolaba Triathalon, where parents and children, thousands of them, biked, ran and swam along a beautiful beach. Important information: the crispy salmon at the Mooloolaba Surf Cub (temporary membership free when we were there) is outstanding. Don’t miss it on your next trip to Mooloolaba.
MEANWHILE, the world was tuning on its axis , making a mess, as usual, Biden was up, Bernie was down, everybody else was gone, Super-Tuesday seemed to cement it, but there were Joe and Bernie debating one Sunday night (Monday morning for us) on CNN, to no discernible consequence. AND, from China, and South Korea, Iran and Italy, of all places, came reports of some virus thing. Trump said not to worry, but I was down under and Australia does a lot of business with China, with a great deal of travel between the two nations, so I did worry a bit, despite the President’s cavalier dismissal of the whole fuss. The Australian government’s not-inspired response to the crisis was to quarantine the returnees from China on Christmas Island, off the south coast, for 15 days.
THEN, all hell broke loose, especially on the airwaves and internet. Quarantines, national shutdowns, travel bans, schools, bars and restaurants closed, businesses shuttered, people told to stay at home in Europe and, gradually, the U.S. President Trump finally realized this virus thing is not going to go away and may, annoyingly, be serious. From my home of Annapolis, MD, comes word of a general shutdown! Not down under. Australia initially barred gatherings larger than 500, but the schools , restaurants and businesses remained open. Life goes on. How long before Australia catches up?
I was scheduled to fly home on Virgin Australia (great food on board,) when country after country was closing its doors. No one was moving. I went to the Brisbane Airport and indeed, it was unusually quiet. BUT, my flight to Los Angeles, connecting to Washington DC, was packed. A long, anxious line of hopeful passengers snaked around the boarding gate. These were Americans, not sure they would get home at all if they didn’t get out of town. The passengers had cut short cruises, tours and personal travel to return home while the returning was still possible. To a passenger, they were concerned that Trump was going to shut them out and air travel to the U.S. would be suspended. As a result, the flight was virtually full, prompting me to pony up for Business Class, where the three-course lunch comes with a crisp Chardonnay and a lovely, light New Zealand Pinot Noir is served with the cheese course. Eight hours later, coffee and crumpets for breakfast. This may be a world-wide crisis, but there is no reason to suffer.
When our Virgin Australia 777-300 ER (Extended Range) landed at LAX, we were shuffled through immigration and customs by officials wearing masks and gloves and sent to the Delta Customer Service desk to rebook on-going flights since the Virgin flight was nearly two hours late and most connections had been missed. For me, instead of a direct flight to Washington and home, I won the prize of a stop in Detroit.
When I finally reached Reagan National, it was 7:15 p.m. on March 18, the same day I had departed Brisbane 36 hours and four airports before, and the terminal was deserted. The Uber driver told me on the way to Annapolis that everything was shut down, bars and restaurants closed, Washington’s famous rush hour was a thing of the past. “I haven’t been in a traffic jam all week,” he said glumly, almost as though he missed it.
The moment I arrived home, my wife, Susy, made me launder all my clothes and shower from head to foot. I then began a self-quarantine that continues to this day, mostly staying home and walking the dogs.
Frankly, it was more fun in Australia.