Reporter’s Notebook: Returning to ‘Fortress Australia’

Because of my own country’s unyielding boundaries, I’ve felt a yawning gulf between myself and my family, as have hundreds of thousands of other Australians living overseas. As I chatted with more and more Australians on the same stranded boat, I realized how many of us had the same sense of loss and desire, as well as a profound sense of irritation that we’d been kept out of “Fortress Australia” for far too long.

I’ve missed funerals, marriages, babies, and priceless moments with my old grandparents after two years. Australia’s stringent border regulations, on the other hand, have aided in keeping citizens secure and have saved many lives. While other nations dealt with overburdened hospitals and high mortality tolls, my family in South Australia and Tasmania have had little experience with what pandemic everyday life is like for so many others.

Due to strict limits on the number of passengers allowed each week (about 3,000), several commercial airlines have been raising ticket costs and canceling flights on a regular basis. The few monthly government-operated Qantas flights frequently sell out in under 20 minutes, and one of the most recent flights out of London sold out in just seven minutes.

I was fortunate enough to obtain one of these “golden tickets” home after waiting by my laptop every morning for several weeks for the lottery-style government trip offer to appear in my email.

Then there was a pile of paperwork to deal with. Pre-departure quarantine, a PCR test, and a slew of online health screening paperwork are all part of the process of entering Australia. We were advised to arrive at the airport more than three hours early and to purchase food and bottled water before boarding in order to prepare for the bare-bones service on the 17-hour flight. We were instructed to place our trash in bright yellow biohazard bags.

When I arrived in Darwin, Northern Territory, the emotion of my fellow Australians-in-exile was palpable: welled-up eyes, sighs of relief, and laughing bursts forth.

Rory, who sat in front of me, said he hadn’t seen his girlfriend in two years and had only seen her for three months “I’m speechless and weary. It’s been a long time coming. It still doesn’t feel real. When I sit down in the quarantine, phone her, and tell her I’m home, that’s when it’ll truly kick in.”

The Howard Springs quarantine facility, our home for the next two weeks, is a 25-minute drive from the airport. This enormous, walled camp, known as the Center for National Resilience, can accommodate 3,500 people. It used to accommodate construction and mining employees before COVID.

A two-week quarantine for one adult will set you back approximately $1,800. Alcohol is absolutely prohibited. There will be no care packages. They also advise against bringing contraband into the country since luggage can be inspected.

Each room, known as a “donga,” has a very typical design, although there is a large porch to relax on anytime you like. After being in a hotel quarantine where you couldn’t open a window, having the ability to breathe in as much eucalyptus-infused fresh air as you like is a huge advantage. The sunsets in the Northern Territory are a sight to see.

When the meal is good, it is truly excellent. The lamb korma and locally caught Barramundi are standouts.

Every morning at 8:30 a.m., a tiny staff in hazmat suits knocks at my door to take my temperature and assess how I’m managing with the scorching tropical heat — and the solitude. During our stay, we take three PCR tests.

There are also designated laundry days. On my most recent trip to the laundromat, I saw numerous families with small children who were dancing about on their porches to the Spice Girls. “You’re having much too much fun for quarantine,” I screamed from beneath my mask to one of the moms, who answered, “Shh, don’t tell anyone.”

I reflected on the word “resilience.” Many of these folks have been through a lot of pain and have been trying to go home for a long time.

In September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally recognized the frustrations of Australian ex-pats and hinted at the possibility of families reuniting for Christmas: “By suffering and going through those trials, you have saved lives, so thank you — I appreciate it, and your fellow Australians do as well.”

Authorities are now allowing them to return home, as promised. On Friday, the state of New South Wales announced that beginning Nov. 1, all vaccinated Australians and their families will be welcomed back without the requirement for quarantine.

lgnews-Reporters-Notebook.gif22For the tens of thousands of Australians currently living in exile, the news has ushered in a new age of optimism.

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