16-22 November: Survival learnings for Howard Springs: We’re released!

Author: Mrs A

Location: Block D1, Donga 6A, Howard Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

And so we have finally reached the end of our two week sentence, and are about to board a flight to Sydney. woo-hoo!

Time during this second week seemed to crawl by in contrast to the first, Sunday seeming never to arrive. We can hardly imagine how the poor people in South Australian quarantine felt last weekend when, upon reaching their final day were told a staff member had tested positive for Covid-19 and they therefore had to quarantine for another two weeks in another hotel! No wonder one of the ‘inmates’ had a severe panic attack and ended up in hospital! The deadline of our flight is all that has got us through this period.

We had our final Covid-19 tests on Thursday morning, the rather unpleasant stick down the throat and up the nose. Give we have heard nothing about those results, we are told that ‘no news is good news‘, so can assume we are negative for the virus. I’d be rather worried if we tested positive, given we’ve not been anywhere for two weeks!

Early morning pilates is interrupted for a C19 test

So as we prepare to depart this facility, I have been thinking about what advice I would share for someone coming to serve time here at Howard Springs resort in the coming months. I share some tips under the following categories:

  • Exercise
  • Mealtimes and food
  • Laundry and cleaning
  • Social contact
  • Entertainment

Exercise – given the revised instructions that you cannot leave your deck (unless you’re going to the laundry or the rubbish bin), it’s pretty hard to get much exercise done, but it is possible. When the internet is working, it is possible to stream classes online (I have done a couple this way, also using my phone as a hotspot), but I wouldn’t rely on this. Primarily we have played pre-recorded classes which do not rely on being online or do our own thing.

You’re allowed to order goods from BigW and KMart, which will be collected by workers from Howard Springs and delivered to your room – we ordered two yoga mats ($10 each), giving us a clean space to exercise on outside. There are regularly bush fires around the area, and the deck is always covered in a thin layer of brown ash. You’ll notice that in no time when you look at the soles of your bare feet – you’ll be pleased to have an easily cleaned rubber mat as a safe haven to stand on!

Mealtimes and food: 24-hours worth of food is delivered in bags at around 6pm – that is a hot meal for the evening, breakfast and lunch for the following day. The food here is not too bad considering they are catering for around 1,000 people, workers included. They manage quite well with dietary needs (I am dairy-free), though the food choices are not necessarily what I would eat. Monday night is chicken parmigiana for the ‘normal’ people, so I get the vegan version – polenta with vegan cheese. I have honestly never eaten anything so unpleasant! The lunches are usually some kind of salad, and unfortunately the leaves do not survive the night, and by the following day are limp and unappetising. Thursday night is chicken and prawn laksa night – everyone’s favourite!

Top left:Food delivered to your doorstep around 6pm Top right: Mr A’s Wednesday night pasta night Bottom: Tuesday night’s delivered meals for the next 24 hours – barramundi curry for dinner

I recommend supplementing with your own food. You’re allowed to order deliveries from Coles supermarket with a minimum order of $50. Given it is an alcohol-free facility, endless cups of tea (black tea bags and instant coffee is provided, we brought our own herbal teas) and plain cold water get a little tiring, so we ordered sparkling water, fresh lemon and a couple of bottles of Diet Coke to add some variety. Food wise, we bought some fresh mangos, avocado and a bag of ‘superfood coleslaw’ (chopped beetroot, kale, cabbage, carrot and others), plus some chilli sauce and mayonnaise to add some flavour – each room has its own fridge. Of course there were a couple of packets of crisps and the odd bar of chocolate too, but we didn’t go too crazy on the junk food!

A good mix of healthy and unhealthy food purchases for our stay

Plates and cutlery: reading in advance we saw that all the food comes in takeaway containers with biodegradable cutlery. We decided that as food is such an important part of the day while here, we would bring our own cutlery (knife, fork and spoon each) and plastic plates and bowls. These add a little more normality to our eating. We use our Stanley mugs for water rather than the paper cups. They keep cold drinks ice cold for a long while. Mr A has his new Leatherman wave multi-tool so we have a knife, and we brought along a light. flexible chopping board for preparing those juicy mangos. Apparently you are not allowed to buy knives in your shopping once you are here.

Not fancy or expensive but do the trick and give us a little smile each meal time

Laundry and cleaning: Over the two weeks, we were allocated four days where we could do our washing. Mark and I made sure we took advantage of them all, just for the exercise – though some of our neighbours just washed items in their bathroom sink and dried items draped over their balcony rail. There are plenty of washing machines and dryers, plus a rotary washing line. Washing powder is provided in your welcome pack.

There are no clothes pegs provided, so we brought our own. We also brought a pegless washing line from our camping kit to stretch out over the deck to dry underwear, towels and so on.

Top: an approaching storm hastens the bringing in of washing off the line Bottom left: the washing-drying machine bank – tip – put powder into the barrel rather than the powder tray Bottom right: bring pegs for the washing line

Cleaning: On arrival you are provided with a welcome pack with antibacterial surface spray, plenty of disposable cloths, bin bags, soap and other toiletries, plus bucket and dustpan and brush. What is not provided is anything for dish washing. We brought a little pot of dishwashing liquid, a sponge and a tea towel.

Social contact: When the internet is working, it’s great to be able to chat with friends to pass the time, even if they are making you jealous with their freedom to roam! While we cannot move around our courtyard and socialise with neighbours, we do make sure to have a chat where possible. Mark’s totted up hours of conversation with Lloyd in the donga opposite me discussing topics as diverse as music, archaeology, travel and history.

We’ve set up a messenger chat group with two girls also in our block, Claire a super smart doctor, expecting her first child, and Bridie who has been quite unwell while here with ulcerative colitis which has resulted in her spending a few days in the Royal Darwin Hospital. Being able to remotely check up on each other has been great, keeping spirits high and sharing stories. We’ve even played a version of online Pictionary (Gartic.io) which has given us a few laughs.

We’ve suggested to the quarantine director that they set up an official Facebook group for new arrivals, and they have now confirmed this has been done for future quarantinees. This should help the right information get out there in advance and offer a moderated platform for asking questions and sharing information.

Entertainment: Each room comes with a TV with all the free-to-air terrestrial channels including digital radio. There are HDMI and USB ports, so if you have a Chromecast device to stream to, you can use that. What you can’t use is the quarantine internet for streaming – not only is it not reliable enough, but it requires a log in via browser, which is not possible on the Chromecast. The only way you can stream to your TV is using your own mifi device. We brought ours over from the UK which has a Vodafone sim with roaming enabled. Unfortunately the signal is also very weak, so it’s just not been good enough to use. The signal works between two rooms (when it is working).

I recommend just downloading content to your tablet or laptop whenever the internet is working, and watch via that.

Bose Speaker – we have a Spotify subscription and music has been our saviour from isolation. We take it in turns to use it in our room.

Don’t forget to bring your Australian charging plugs or a plug that converts your international plug to Aussie – it’s amazing how many people do forget, and it’s not possible to share items or buy any once you are here. We have plugs with multiple USB ports as well.

Another fine Northern Territory sunset

Routine helped us get through the day – starting with our pilates, followed by showers, lunch, then an afternoon of reading, researching or writing, before dinner arrives, sunset enjoyed and an evening of downloaded entertainment, inter dispersed with chats with friends and family around the world.

For me, especially, the nights seemed so long. I write with blurry eyes having had two weeks of jet lag, of insomnia and broken sleep, never achieving more than four hours on the trot, despite resisting the temptation to nap during the day. That has been my greatest challenge, and something I hope stops once I am back in Sydney. Mark tells me his conscience is clear, allowing him to settle into his usual sleep patterns really quickly!

Perhaps wine is the answer? I shall discover tonight!


Woo-hoo! We are released!!!

13-15 November: “Woo… hoo….we’re half way there!”

Author : Mr A

Location: Cell 6B, Block D, Row 1, The Howard Springs Quarantine Resort, South of Darwin, NT, Australia

As Bon Jovi screams “Woo hoo. we’re half way there!”, from the most important piece of kit we travel with, our Bose Revolve speaker, we look forward to the second half of our sentence disappearing with the same rapidity as the first.

Cells D16B and D16A, our temporary homes

Time is a funny thing right? When there’s so little variation in your routine, so few events that punctuate the day, then it seems to zoom past because there are no reference points. Psychologists have found that the subjective perception of the passing of time tends to speed up with increasing age in humans. This often causes people to underestimate a given interval of time as they age. Well that’s my excuse, I think Catherine may have a different perception given she has been pretty much awake non stop since we arrived. Our usual strategy after a long flight is to get out and walk and get some sunlight on the skin. That approach to avoiding jet lag and ensuing insomnia is not available here and she has really been struggling with her sleep.

So what‘s new for us inmates of Cell Block D, falsely accused as we were your honour of trying to import nasty germs into this virtually COVID free country? Yes, the good news is that if we had caught anything from our fellow passengers (two now tested positive) then we would have had symptoms by now, and we haven’t. With the health protocols in place here its very likely we will be getting the ”Hell out of Howard” a week today. The ultimate milestone is when we get our final COVID-19 test on Day 12 (or day 2 as it is confusingly refereed to here, with day zero being release). If we get a negative result, it‘s an exit certificate and off to Sin City! And there will be sinful amounts of fine food and wine consumed I’m sure.

I thought for this blog a Q and A format might provide some variety, taking the most commonly asked questions from friends and sharing our answers to everyone.

Q: So, were the flights free then?

A:“Nope, the politicians seem to skip that bit when they do the “Bringing Aussies Home” announcements. For us $2,200 a head for a one way fare on a “no frills” flight (two meals, 3 films and 4 bottles of water in 17 hrs). There were a few people I understand who were means tested and supported financially.

Q: Do you have to pay for quarrantine?

A: Yes – $2,500 per head, and then your flight back to wherever is home in Australia. Again if you provide evidence of low income (under $50k) you possibly will qualify for some exemptions. Given the hordes of police, army, caters, and health workers on the ground and providing remote phone based support, they wont be making money out of that.

Q: Do you feel lucky to get back to Australia?

A: Well Australians are fond of looking at the glass as half full, very admirable, but I think this is a complex question around the rights of a passport holding citizen to re-enter their own country. In July the Australian government introduced “flight caps” to limit the number of incoming international passengers that would then have to be dealt with in qurrantine facilities. The London based, but Australian born, human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who has defended cases for entities such as Mike Tyson, The Guardian and Washington Post, Julian Assange, presidents and Tasmanian Aboriginals, has just waded in and commented “It is a serious breach if you don’t allow your people to come home, albeit with necessary quarantine. It’s a total failure of government that it can’t allow its people under whatever necessary COVID conditions to come home.” And Geoffrey knows a thing or two.

The President of the Human Rights Commission has also waded in on the issue, concerned that the flight caps “may not be meeting the obligation in article 10 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child” – calling out the many complaints they have had from Australians separated from their children because of these flight caps.

So we have mixed feelings. We understand the Australian government needed to protect the citizens already in the country, and we had been warned in March to “come home or settle in for the long term”, but not everyone was in a position to do that. For instance, we decided it was riskier to travel back than stay put in the south west of England where we knew Catherine had access to quality medical support for her airway disease, never imagining that we were to be barred from returning home. For many people with work and family commitments it was just impossible to drop everything. Now around 36,000 of them are stuck overseas. So yes we feel lucky to have made it back ourselves.

Meanwhile it seems if you have money then you just get to skip around the caps and the quarantine. The same day we landed, last Sunday, the billionaire founder of SnapChat, Evan Spiegal, landed in his private jet at Sydney airport and just skipped around hotel quarantine. You can also buy your way in to Australia when you don’t even have a passport by getting a “Business and Innovation” visa – 485 of these were granted between March and mid September this year to wealthy investors. No wonder there’s some very upset Australian citizens stranded out there waving their passports wondering what the heck is going on.

Q: Whose room is the tidiest – yours or Catherine’s?

A: To be fair, we have never been asked this question, but there has been a lot of banter between us living in our small spaces in caravans and motorhomes as to who is the source of any untidiness.

Mr A’s room
Mrs A’s room

I rest my case your honour…I understand there will be an appeal lodged by Mrs A on the grounds that she had only got up. I have shared evidence with the claimant in the form of a time stamped photograph at 12.45pm. lets see how the case progresses.

Q: How do you spend your time? (A popular question!)

A: Other than writing these blogs? Well we are not allowed out for exercise, unlike the early flights, who had two 20 minute slots allocated, plus pool time! However, incidents of Australians abusing these privileges made it to social media, and then to the police, and hence now no outside time off the balcony is permitted. So a daily walk 2 metres to the rubbish bin, and a heady 10m metres to the laundry twice a week, our only “outings”.

Rubbish bin providing a daily “excursion “ opportunity

Pilates on the deck kicks off our day to an ab screaming start. After being very disciplined in lockdown at doing this 2/3 times a week, once we were back in our tiny Truffy (motorhome), it was just impractical. So we are feeling the pain! Then we are both working on different projects. Catherine has her voluntary work for the support community she administers, as well as the research work she is running or supporting for multiple doctors and universities around the world.

For me it‘s catching up on Australian news, and reading to broaden a mind dulled for so many years by an expectation at work of only being able to answer one question. “Ando – whats the forecast sales revenue this week?”

While we we were in the UK we strictly limited our news intake intake for mental and physical health reasons. Yes – physical health as well. Research is indicating that cortisol, produced when we are stressed – for instance when watching “Doom O’Clock” (as we called the daily briefings from Boris), or the latest antics from over the Atlantic from Trump, can cause a range of health issues when elevated for long periods. For a most readable analysis of the potential impact 2020 is likely having on our mental and physical health check out this Psychology today article from last week. So we have spent little time following events over here, in fact missing the introduction of flight caps completely, and despite registering on the Australian governments SmartTraveler web site, had no communication about them.

It‘s actually been a breath of fresh air to settle back into reading the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News apps. Somehow the BBC seems to have lost its way, and I’m finding a less sensationalised news content here. Obviously steering clear of Murdoch Lies Inc. and it was such a pleasure to read about the Climate Change Bill introduced last week from our very own independent MP for Warringhah the multi-talented Zali Steggall. Olympic athlete, solicitor, mother, and all round goodness as far as we can see. Anyone who can wrest away a seat from that climate denier fool Tony Abbot, well done! For an interesting write up on the bill see The Conversations’s article from last week .

Zali Steggall – MP for the Division of Warringhah – our turf

Zali even took the time to return an email I sent her concerning the flight caps, and her office has been super helpful since. The only disparaging story you will find about her is from…..of course The Daily Lies/Telegraph, a Murdoch paper. How predicable. If you haven’t seen this brilliant clip of a former Australian prime minister (Malcolm Turnbull) lay into the editor in chief of Murdock’s evil enterprises give it a watch. Even if you’re not Australian it will give you a good sense of how battle is done in the colonies.

Q: What’s the internet like?

A: Closely related to the above question! Well it’s been hit and miss to be honest, and that really needs sorting as they plan to double the current number of people coming through Howard Springs, and if you are confined to quarters then it really is important to keep connected.

‘No Internet Connection’ all too common a message

Q: What’s the food like?

A: It depends on what your comparison point is, as always. To a meal that Catherine would cook – not great. Compared to the diet of more than 690 million people around the world who go hungry – fine. Everyone involved in this facility is clearly really trying to do their best. The caters must have a tough job. There’s currently around 560 of us on the international blocks of this this facility, we are strictly “Cyclone fenced” away from the domestic detainees, who are far less likely to be COVID positive. The food has to be packaged up and wheeled around on trolleys in the baking afternoon sun, when temperatures have been regularly over 35 degrees centigrade (95°F).

We were advised to bring our own plates and cutlery, as everything is served in take away containers with wooden, disposable utensils, health protocol I assume, or a concern sharp knives might be used by those not derailing with the isolation? These plates and cutlery have been a blessing, and Catherine insists on doing the washing up so it’s done “properly”. We also get an advance bit of Christmas cheer with our plates. Small things…small things.

A little cheer in our lives…

Q: Are you allowed to mingle with others “doing time”?

A: Well if you call a shouted conversation across 4 metres of yard while wearing a mask mingling, then a bit. However, most people are inside the majority of the day, it‘s just too hot to sit around and our balcony in sun all afternoon. There is a Facebook Group started by a detainee for Howard Springs residents, which had some very helpful content on it we checked before we arrived (like “bring plates and cutlery!) . Sadly now the keyboard warriors are out in force with some really disrespectful comments, I‘ve left it. It appears to be no longer moderated. I started a little group message with a couple of people in our block instead, and that’s been helpful I think. Its so isolating for people here with one call a day from a remote tele-health service, and that’s it.

As mentioned earlier, some of the previous residents were caught breaking health protocols, so they have really clamped down on any opportunities for mixing. The few covidiots ruining life for the many – a familiar story. Three lads were caught pushing one another around in a wheelie bin for instance, wearing no masks and close together.

Today Catherine had a knock at her door and two police officers and a guy in an army uniform asked her if she knew “the gentlemen in the unit next door”, as clearly we had been seen nipping in and out of each other rooms. They thought this row was for singles. It’s good that they are on it. I can just imagine though, some observer of us going, “What’s that old bloke doing hanging around that young shielah‘s donga ? “ I should explain a “donga” is not a body part – it’s a miner’s cabin – pre-fab – desk, bed, bathroom 🙂

The police are very assertive about mask wearing, even when there is absolutely no one else around. I was told off this afternoon as I briefly put my head out of my donga door mask free, but with it dangling in my hand ready to put on. I was shouted at (no armchair manner with this particular officer) “PUT YOUR MASK ON., ITS NO GOOD IN YOUR HANDS!”. I could have rejoined “Well, it would be no good on my face either would it as there is no one within a 20 metre radius?”. But there would be no point. I have heard there have been some very rude and even violent detainees. It would be a tough job, walking around in full kit in this heat, and must be draining even if you are acclimatised. Again I have to say what a shame it is that a few idiots just ruin it.

Well, I hope that gives you a flavour of what’s going down /up here (depending on where you are reading from, geographically), any other questions just fire them in. We have time to answer 🙂 So today is day 7, and a week today its all over, we hope. And really what’s two weeks? For hundreds of asylum seekers in Melbourne it will be 6 years since they were locked up . So yes we’re very lucky.

This is what accommodation facilities for refugees on Manus Island looked like.(ABC News)

10-12 November: …When you’re excited about a trip to the laundry…

Author: Mrs A

Location: Howard Springs Quarantine Centre, Howard Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

We have just finished day 5 of quarantine and it’s incredible how the time has flown.

Our first couple of days were consumed with calls to and from the IT team here, trying to get us fixed up with internet. Being online in a situation like this is second only to having water, electricity and food. Fortunately we didn’t have to move rooms, and have a working connection now.

Then we had the excitement of our yoga mats being delivered from our BigW online order. Now we have added an early morning pilates class to our routine and intermittent bouts of press ups, yoga and stretches throughout the day.

 « Please let me get some sleep tonight »

Nine am we either have a face-to-face visit from a team of medicos in full PPE (combat trousers, hiking shoes, long sleeve shirt, blue latex gloves, apron, orange masks that look like Donald Duck beaks and clear visors) or a phone call to check on our overall health, looking particularly for COVID symptoms and to record our temperatures.

There are a lot of staff here. Our cabins are two cyclone fences away from where the Australia Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) nurses, doctors, army personnel and NT police are all staying. We get to spot them on their breaks as they mingle in the ‘green-zone’ (we are in the ‘red-zone’) mask-free, laughing about the football results and getting to know one another.

Must be a shift change for the AUSMAT team….

Although we are treated a bit like criminals by most of the police, the AUSMAT workers are all quite friendly and chatty (from a safe distance,) and we learn that most volunteered for this job and hail from all parts of Australia. Many also had to endure quarantine before starting their jobs here, so are sympathetic to our predicament.

Mr A feeling relaxed, as evidenced by his armband monitoring health app

I have really struggled with jet lag. Normally I reboot into the right time zone quite quickly by getting out for fresh air and exercise during the day, following my usual habits to familiarise my brain with the new time zone. In quarantine that hasn’t been possible. Outdoor time is limited to the deck outside our cabins – at least we have two of those, but due to the high temperatures (36 degrees most days, with a ‘feels like’ temperature of up to 42 degrees!) we’re not out that frequently or for too long. Last night I finally managed 9 hours of intermittent sleep – much needed after four consecutive nights of three or less hours. Hopefully have broken the back of it now – the pilates seems to help. Mr A usually struggles with jet lag, but seems to be back to his normal sleep rhythms already.

Six pm is the exciting time when our food for the next 24 hours is delivered in paper bags to the steps outside our cabin. A hot evening dinner, designed to cater for required dietary needs, plus a cold breakfast and lunch for the following day. It’s a frenzy of activity, getting the cold foods into the fridge before dashing back out to the table to eat dinner before it loses the last remnants of heat. The food is not exactly what we would usually consume, but it fills a hole. I don’t think we will be gaining any weight here!

Our evening food bag delivery is on its way…
No date-books here, and what on earth is plum powder? I didn’t find out…
We’re allowed masks off to eat! Tonight was a laksa – not too bad! We’re pleased we bought our plastic Christmas plates and bowls plus metal knives, forks and spoons so we don’t have to eat out of the takeaway containers with disposable cutlery.

The food is ‘ok’. I don’t think I have finished a whole meal yet, with last night’s tagliatelle with some sort of mince and tomatoey-pesto sauce being the tastiest so far, but still with way too much pasta which became sticky and gluggy after a while. It must be hard to cater for 300+ people with all different needs though, and given those constraints they’re doing fine. We’re certainly not starving, and there is often an accompanying vegan and gluten free dessert to fill up on if dinner is not to your taste, plus plenty of fruit.

Today, day 5, was our allocated day to visit the laundry, a whole 20 metres away. We had almost forgotten how to walk! It felt amazing to stretch out the legs on the way up there, and hanging out our clothes and towels allowed us to see something new of the area we are in. We felt so guilty as we stepped off our cabin steps and walked up the building…almost expecting one of the overzealous police to come and tackle us to the ground…though given we are seen as potentially harbouring an unwanted viral visitor, perhaps it would be a cattle prod instead!

Escaped the cell! Washing day has never been so exciting….

Either way, our washing machine visit went without incidence and resulted in clean and very quickly dried clothes. Our memories of struggling to dry our washing in Truffy on those wet autumn days in the UK are already fading in the hot Australian sun.

This afternoon it was the excitement of a tropical thunderstorm. We saw the sky darkening as we took our crispy washing off the line, and it wasn’t long before we heard the first deep tones of thunder and thick, heavy drops of rain falling on the tin roof. It wasn’t as torrential or long-lasting as the weather forecast had warned, but cooled the temperatures down slightly and gave the novel aroma of hot summer rain to our environment.

The weather warning sounded much more exciting than the actual storm!
Hurrah! The rain is here!

The Northern Territory is famed for its wildlife, which on past visits up this way we have greatly enjoyed. From our 6×2 metre combined decks we crane our necks to spot anything we can. Morning is when we are most likely to see a pair of black kites circling the nearby highway, looking out for roadkill from the previous night. During the day we hear (but are yet to see) rainbow bee-eaters hunting for insects, and sunset is when we spot families of noisy white cockatoos squawking across the sky, more graceful black cockatoos calling as they pass overhead, large flocks of ibis and fluttering pairs of lorikeets and rosellas chattering their way to roost for the night. All very exciting. No snakes, spiders or anything furry so far.

Ibis (top) and cockatoos fly home for the night as the sun sets

We’re getting lots of reading done, loving our chance to have long video-calls with friends and even had a great Zoom call with our book club yesterday, with members present from the UK, France, and the east-coast of Australia. What initially seemed like a long and daunting two week prison sentence is not going to be so bad after all. We’ll do our time, and before we know it will be out and back on our next flight across to Sydney.

Another fine NT sunset
No parties on D-block
The sky is on fire

8-9 November: Hello from Howard Springs

Author: Mr A

Location: Howard Springs International Quarantine Facility, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

A number of my friends won’t be surprised to hear that on entering Australia yesterday I have been detained at the pleasure of the Australian government, whilst assessing my potential health hazard to a largely coronavirus free country . Oh yes, Catherine’s here as well, even she couldn’t bat her lovely eyes out of this one!

Flying over the Northern Territory on our descent into Darwin International Airport
All the processing – passport control, temperature checks, interviews, C19 test and provision of room passes all happened at the RAAF side of the airport
A mini-bus drives us to the facility at Howard Springs

For fourteen days we are locked up in a quarantine centre just outside Darwin in the Northern Territory, with the very best medical support on hand should the two tests we have had in the last 3 days prove to be wrong, and we actually have caught coronavirus from one of the 300 returning Australians on the Qantas flight, all of whom have had, like us, a pre-and post flight test. However, the breaking news is that one of our fellow passengers tested positive upon landing in Darwin, so clearly there’s room for this sneaky virus to make it through screening and into Australia. So super vigilance is required and we support the rigour of the process. We cross our fingers over the next few days I guess.

We have been given these wearable devices to monitor our temperature and heart beat which synchronises with an app on an iPad to a central team who are monitoring the output.

We do love a good gadget, as you know! This one is surprisingly comfortable

We should get an early alert if things go south. I envisage being given an electric shock from the arm band in the middle of the night and having a voice come through the iPad speaker “Alert, alert, your temperature has risen by one degree and we detect zero flatulence”, just as hazmat suited health warriors break my door down.

Let me back track though about the facility we are in. Originally a camp built to house workers for a Japanese mining company, it has been adapted to now provide a quarantine centre where at least 5,000 Australian citizens returning from overseas can be securely ring fenced from each other (each flight stays in groups) and separated from those domestic travellers coming inter-state, as they are also quarantined here.

Prisoner cell-block D – our home for the next two weeks all going well
The other side of that fence is where the medical staff and NT police hang out on their breaks, and stay while they are stationed here

It is staffed on the health side by an organisation I had never heard of, but should have, called Australian Medical Assistance Teams (Ausmat). They are drawn from state and territory health services across Australia, and have provided a rapid response capability to emergencies such as Samoa‘s measles outbreak last year, then that dramaticThai cave rescue (yes that was them!), and a host of other humanitarian efforts internationally. Now Australia needs them here in the Northern Territory to provide support as a number of these repatriation flights, like ours, are bringing in folk with the virus. It must be contained.

We had a long old day yesterday, with 16 hrs on the flight, then another four going though an admissions process , more tests etc. Finally getting to our room, we were wished a another “welcome home” from the well intentioned AUSMAT staff. Opening the doors to our little huts, it was hard to keep a smile on our face. A place less like home it would be hard to imagine..

A blue swan awaits us on the bed
A welcome pack on the desk containing hand sanitiser and snacks sits beside our medical iPad and monitoring hardware. In the corner the all important kettle, tea bags and paper cups.
A neat little bathroom with a very powerful shower

We spent what was left of the day unpacking and trying to get our internet working. In the latter matter, a day later the IT contractor running the set up here remains unsuccessful, so we have heard we might be packing and moving again tomorrow. Ah well it passes the time I guess, as long as our stay doesn’t reset at day one in our new accomodation!

It’s interesting watching events unfold here, a bit like we are in a low budget Australian dystopian movie. With police and wire fencing everywhere, hazmat outfits, and these drab, prefab huts. Last night we decided to try and sit on our balcony with our flasks of tea. The police across the “other side of the wire” were watching us intently enough to shout out “Masks on”- we pointed out we were drinking, and the reply was, “put it on between drinking”. There was not another soul about and we were at least 5 metres and two fences away from them. We are on a balcony by ourselves, but that’s what they have been told to enforce after the previous tomfoolery. There’s a YouTube video of a “rave” going on up here when residents were allowed a little more freedom. Learning from what happened in Victoria (a major outbreak that locked down the state for months was traced to a poorly enforced quarantine regime) everyone’s a little nervous, and we have to respect that. Over zealous maybe, but better be safe than COVIDed.

No crocodiles sighted yet – the police with their guns would soon see them off – just plenty of chirping geckos dashing around the lights outside our cabin, munching on insects

We just need to think about what awaits us on our release. Friends in Sydney already have been planning our social schedule for when we finally arrive back , making our mouths water and our throats dry. The food here is shall we say, adequate. We aren’t going to starve, far from it. The wastage must be enormous. Millions around the world would be grateful for three meals a day of anything. And there is no alcohol allowed at all.

The heat is a shock to our temperate climate adjusted bodies, but we have the luxury of air con, so no complaints there. And seperate rooms, as each unit is only big enough for a single bed, fridge, desk and bathroom. So Catherine gets a good night’s sleep with no “wild animal noises” as she puts it, disturbing her little needed beauty sleep. After so much time in close proximity we are enjoying some time to do our own thing. Well I am, Catherine must be missing me like crazy 🙂

We just think of the thousands of Australians who have not had the opportunity to come back. There are some horror stories out there. Friends of ours with two young boys and a flight booking for New Year’s Eve were told by their airline “the flight may or may not go”. They have given up their house rental, sold their car, and have only their suitcases. If the flight gets cancelled like many have 24 hrs before, what do they do? Others are stuck in far flung countries with overwhelmed medical systems. Its a horrible situation for so many Australians who just want to come home. Meanwhile our politicians squabble among themselves, and point fingers at each other, but other than this initiative by the Federal government, things are happening far too slowly to resolve the problem. These people have Australian passports. They are being denied access to the country that expects them to pay their taxes. Of course we need to protect Australia from importing cases, but we surely also owe a duty of care to those who remain abroad and are vulnerable there?

And so we are back in Australia. It was funny coming out of the room tonight onto the balcony for something, then literally a couple of minutes later going out again, and I couldn’t help but shout “Gee, who put the lights out!”. We had forgotten what the tropics is like. One minute its so bright you’re squinting across the deck to spot the croc, then bang, the curtains are dropped in a flash of an often intense sunset, Then it‘s pitch black. Not just darkish..its black. None of that oh so British fiddling around with evening twilight thing. Like everything else here, its distinctive, its dramatic, its Australia.

And so the sun sets on our second night in quarantine….

13-15 August: Crossing the Plenty (of corrugations) Highway

Author: Mr A

Location: Across the Plenty and Donohue Highways – from the Northern Territory into Queensland

Monday: It was a chilly pack up as we left Alice and headed north to the start of the Plenty Highway. Cutting straight across the north end of the Simpson Desert, its a pretty wild and wooly place to travel. But we were as prepared as we know how, and get better as we amass more experience of remote travel.The first part of the road was very civilised bitumen. Then the dirt started. The corrugations weren’t too bad though and we made good time, pulling into our camp by mid afternoon at a huge cattle station (it was 2,750 square kilometres – about the same size as Argentina) that offered a patch of dirt and toilets. Jervois Station didn’t exactly seem to be making an effort to earn their camp fees, and we realised a bit too late we could have saved $15 and just pulled off to the side of the road!

We did take a short stroll up the river, there was not much to see so it was back to our cosy Zone and a lovely veggie Pad Thai.(Photo of our local river name for Jenny Charlton née Marshall – mum/mum-in-law)

Tuesday: The road almost immediately deteriorated as we headed off, and the corrugations were kept company by large patches of bull-dust (deep sand). But we took our time, and kept stopping to check over everything inside and out. We travelled through what is called the Mitchell Grass Downs, Australia’s version of the American Prairies. It looks dry and unsupporting of life, but apparently is home to a multitude of birds, reptiles and mammals, uniquely suited to this biosystem.

All went well and by early afternoon we were again at our planned camp for the night, another cattle station catering for weary travellers.Tobermory Station was a lot more welcoming, with a young lady from Norfolk checking us in. She and her husband had decided to spend a few months here with their children, helping out on their trip around Australia. Its great to chat to these people, to see so many couples with small children taking the opportunity to do something a bit different.

This station has the the luxury of GRASS campsites! It feels almost strange after weeks of red dust underfoot. Even Miss T decided she would venture out.We spent the afternoon checking over everything on the car and van, and nothing we can see has fallen apart, amazing given the hammering on the road, On the Toyota one of the after market driving lights had come lose and worn a hole in the bull bar…that’s it.On the Zone nothing we can see is amiss, and it is pretty much dust free inside. A far cry from some of the Plenty Highway travel experiences we have heard about and read!

Wednesday: We made it back into Queensland!We were treated to a fabulous viewing of a pair of huge Wedge-Tailed Eagles on our journey through the last piece of the journey, along the Donohue Highway – the Queensland end of the Plenty.This was our longest dirt road trip, and to get to the other end with no major dramas was a good feeling. For those in the UK, this is the equivalent of driving coast to coast across the widest section of England and Wales on farm tracks!Now came the clean up! A lot of red dust needed to be disapeared.Three hours later all was done, the sun was setting and it was time for the pub. Of course it was the usual predictable menu options (steak or chicken “parmy”, and awful wine and beer options). But you expect that in outback Australia where there is a lack of competition and a customer base that doesn’t seem to want anything different.

Catherine ordered a “small” steak, me a medium.Frightening…It was cooked well though and we definitely fulfilled our red meat quota for the month!

11-12 August: More spectacular hiking

Author: Mrs A

Location: Ormiston Gorge & back to Alice Springs

Saturday: Leaving our picturesque camp at Redbank Gorge, we drove a short way to Orminston Gorge along the Western MacDonnell Range towards Alice Springs. We parked up and got dressed up to do a hike.

It was a chilly morning – around 9 degrees with a cold wind which cut through your clothes. It just amazes us how it can go from 29 degrees yesterday to a top of about 15 degrees today!

We’d decided to do the Ormiston Pound hike, a walk that takes you into a spectacular flood plain surrounded by high red walls. We’d done the walk when we visited here years ago, and remembered the awe inspiring scenery we came across.The circuit takes you firstly high up onto the walls of the Pound for spectacular views, before dropping down and winding its way across to a dry river bed, where you rock hop back to the beginning via some permanent water holes – like gold dust in this arid landscape.The colours are so vivid in this incredible air, not polluted by traffic or smoke.As the walls begin to close in on you for the last couple of kilometres you begin to appreciate the beauty of the rocks, not just the ochres, reds and salmons, but also yellows, mauves, purples and much much more. As the sunlight hits the walls above you it reflects into the shadows, creating more colour still – an absolute feast for the eyes. Even Mark’s limited visual palette was amazed.We finished by walking past the waterholes – we recall that last time we were here we had seen some endangered yellow footed rock wallabies drinking here, but this time it was a little too busy for these shy creatures.The final green waterhole is apparently suitable for swimming – though any thoughts of diving into its icy depths were far from our minds as we walked past. It is home to ducks, white faced herons and darters, so definitely supports some aquatic life.We concluded our 9km hike with a burger from the cafe on site – well deserved we thought!

There are many more delights in the West MacDonnell Ranges we have not yet seen, plus the eastern ranges we are yet to visit. We will definitely have to be back. We have run out of time this trip.

After lunch we made our way back to Alice Springs – a little over 100km from this beautiful spot – and set up camp in a random tourist park we came across.

We had only been there seconds and a lady with a black dog came over and asked us how we liked our Zone. It turned out to be Wendy and Mel, fellow Zoners from Albury in southern NSW. After we had set up and showered, we popped over for drinks and to exchange travel stories.True to our experiences to date, yet more lovely Zoners.

Sunday: We had originally planned to move on, but with a long list of tasks to do in Alice Springs before leaving made the decision to stop another night.

Tomorrow we commence our journey across the Plenty Highway, a remote and rough unpaved road which stretches across country into Queensland. There will be no phone signal or internet access, and we are planning to take four days to drive the route to Boulia. It’s 814km door to door, the first couple of hundred kilometres are tarmac, and then it gets slower and rougher.Hopefully we will be back on line by Friday to update you how it went!

So, fresh fruit and vegetables purchased, spares and tools acquired, and online research into road conditions done, we are now as prepared as we can be.

We finished our day with a delicious Asian takeaway shared with Wendy and Mel and a couple of bottles of warming wine. Fabulous!

10 August: Into the West MacDonnell Ranges

Author: Mr A

Location: From Kings Canyon Resort to Redbank Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges

Friday: We topped up with diesel just before leaving Kings Canyon Resort and I asked about the road conditions round the Menindee loop road to the West MacDonnell ranges. having had no internet for several days means we were reliant on a 10 year old copy of Lonely Planet…not so good. The young lady behind the counter said “I think its pretty bad, there’s lots of corru…corrug….what’s the word?” I filled in the word that she was struggling to remember…corrugations. She did though brightly volunteer we would need to purchase a pass to travel through the Aboriginal land the road goes through.

Not really knowing what to expect we set off, after a few kilometres of tarmac the road degenerated into a very bumpy track. Corrugated it certainly was. We let the tyre pressures down and I rechecked the suspension settings again. We set off and bounced our way along for several hours, only seeing a few other cars, one trailer being towed and no caravans.By mid morning Google was estimating we were still over 2 hrs from our planned lunch stop, and then…a miracle. We come round a bend to see two graders ponderously chugging up the road towards us, leaving in their wake a lovely smooth surface!

We waved our thanks to the drivers and “sped” off, the odd patch of sand still making the driving “interesting”. We were soon at our lunch destination, a fabulous lookout over an ancient comet crater.You wouldn’t have wanted to be around 400 million years ago when this bad baby hit earth. It was one of those views that we love in outback Australia – no sign of humans on the landscape for 360 degrees.

Back on tarmac now we made our destination for the night, Redbank Gorge, in time for a late afternoon walk. The Gorge is one of several in the West MacDonnell ranges, which spectacularly rise up out of the desert plain and stretch several hundred kilometres. We rocked up at was to be one of our prettiest campsites on this section of the trip, with views down into the gorge. We quickly unhitched and drove down the steep access road, parked up and hit the short trail into the gorge proper.After a bit of rock scrambling we arrived at this little oasis, a pool of water in sharp contrast to the surrounding dry arid land. We spent a happy hour there watching the sun set fire to the walls of the gorge, then retraced our steps.This was a view that demanded a decent glass of red, and we counted our blessings once again to be in the position to watch the sun go down on such a stunning outback vista.

I wandered off to talk to our fellow campers and see if anyone had recently travelled the route we planned to take back to the east coast called the Plenty Highway. I got lucky, a couple had just come over on it last week, and had taken four days on what they described as “badly corrugated” track, espcially on the NT side of the border. Ah well, at least we know what we’re up for, as it is often hard to get a factual assessment. So many off-roaders like to puff out their chest and say “Its not bad mate”. This could mean anything from, ‘it is in fact pretty good (unlikely)’ to ‘it’s practically undriveable’.

You have got to admire the Australian way of minimising problems, the “She’ll be ‘right mate” philosophy, but when you are trying to get factual information to plan driving times it’s not helpful. This couple were very good, and detailed the type of road surface to expect on the different sections of the 650km of dirt we are to tackle in a couple of days time.

Mrs A and I then sat down with WikiCamps and made a few adjustments to our schedule!

7-8 August: Watarrka National Park for more hiking

Author: Mrs A

Location: Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)

Wednesday: It has been a good 8 or 9 years since we last visited this part of Australia, back then flying in to Alice Springs, hiring a Troopie (Landrover made up to include beds and a kitchen) and whizzing down to this area for a long weekend. It’s good to come back and visit at a more leisurely pace and with all our own gear.

We left Uluru by 9.30am and headed off towards Watarrka National Park, a good 300km away. A red dune side lunch spot gave us a break en route, and we arrived at the Kings Canyon Resort shortly before 3pm.

We have a fabulous site with incredible views across the national park, looking out over the 100 metre high red walls of the canyon. We got set up and jumped in the car to do a late afternoon walk in the national park to stretch the legs.We opted for a short and peaceful walk along the dry King’s Creek, an informative track with several birds accompanying us, particularly this ever-so-cute Dusky Grasswren a perky little desert dweller that didn’t seem to mind hopping around the rocks near us.The national park is home to more than 600 species of plant, 10% of which are extremely rare and date back to the dinosaurs. This area has the highest diversity of fauna in any of Australia’s arid zones.

We returned to camp for showers and to enjoy the sunset.The resort has a pub and restaurant so we decided to give it a try for dinner. Unlike so many places we have come across on this trip, this actually had a decent choice of beverages – including Fat Yak and our local Manly, Sydney tipple, Four Pines beer.

We both had some extremely delicious and perfectly cooked kangaroo steaks, jacket potato and salad. Highly recommended.

Thursday: A morning of getting our sheet and towel washing done was accompanied by a bacon and egg sandwich for breakfast – a fine start to the day. By 10.30am all jobs done and a warm breeze promising to expedite our drying we headed back to the National Park. Today we had chosen to do the Kings Canyon Rim walk, a total of about 8km walking when all the side trips are included.

The hike starts with a 100 metre climb up around 500 steps. I was pleased my legs had somewhat of a warmup this morning running around the campground washing machines and lines!Once you’re up the top of the walls it all gets a lot friendlier, with a lot of red rock hopping over the ancient fossilised sand dunes and sea bed. There is plenty of evidence of the area’s distant past, with fossilised ripples in the rock (they call it ripple-rock, of course) and evidence of the layers of silica in the rock from the drifting sand dunes.The landscape is unlike anything else, the beehive like structures stretching out into the horizon. I found it interesting to learn that the rock here is all actually bright white sandstone – the red comes from a fungi which grows on the rock and through a chemical reaction allows the red sands from the surrounding arid area to stick to it, hence creating the bright red colour which practically glows in the sunlight.While not busy, we were certainly not alone on this walk, several other hikers following on the same trajectory – mostly French, a few Chinese and Australians.

The Garden of Eden is a part of the Canyon with permanent water, attracting birds and harbouring many of the ancient plants, with cycads lining the waterway. It was a diversion along the track that few took, but Mark and I enjoyed a break in the cool shade beside the water.After completing the circuit we returned for a relaxed afternoon, Miss Tassie rolling in the red sand and needing a lot of brushing (which she loves!). I suspect the two events might be linked. Are we being manipulated by a Burmese cat?

Another fine sunset over the George Gill Range completed our day. Off on a new adventure tomorrow.

6-7 August: Uluru National Park

Author: Mr A

Location: Yulara & Uluru National Park

Monday: Riding The Rock!

Catherine had heard that you could now cycle around the rock – one of the many changes since climbing it has been finally banned.

We lost no time after setting up camp to throw the bikes on the back of the car and head into Uluru National Park. It’s only 20km away by road, but we wanted to avoid the testosterone fuelled drivers who are often behind the wheel of a big four wheel drive for the first time after a rental from Alice. Combine those folk with the foreign tourists who have forgotten which side of the road we drive on here (as we encountered driving into the park just as one was driving the wrong way down the park check-in road!)…No…a few minutes loading the bikes was worth it.We left for our ride from the Cultural Centre and followed our noses as there were no signs for a cycling path, but there was this rather large rock to head for.We joined the pain path around the rock and checked the signage, it only showed walkers, but there were bike hire companies around and plenty of tyre marks, so off we went.Riding a bike always brings a grin to our faces wherever we are, but to be riding along under this brilliant blue sky, dwarfed by this towering red rock…breathtaking. We just couldn’t stop ogling this magnificent scenery. Neither of us are in any way spiritual, but we both felt this to be the closest we could get, just sitting quietly looking up at this massive granite monolith towering over us.

Miss Tassie also enjoyed the awesomeness of the Red Centre on an explore of the dunes near where we camped. When was the last time you saw a Burmese cat in front to Uluru, eh?

Tuesday: Visiting Kata Tjuta

A 45km drive in the morning, minus the caravan, took us to Kata Tjuta, which European explorers renamed The Olgas. This area contains an unusual geological formation of a series of large domed granite rocks, which in this crystal clear desert air, looks so spectacular against the almost perennially deep blue sky.The short walk we did here was one of the most enjoyable we have done from a scenic perspective for ages. It’s called the Valley of the Winds walk, and takes you up through the domes and in a 7km circuit.(Below, a friendly Grey Shrike-Thrush which accompanied us on our walk)We could easily have spent a few more days here, but we are now on a bit of deadline, given we have lost a couple of weeks from our itinerary. So soon it was time to pack up and move on.

4-5 August: Travelling to the spiritual heart of Australia

Author: Mrs A

Saturday – location: Arumber

We continued our journey south from Ti-Tree to Alice Springs, arriving late morning. We filled up with fuel and topped up our fresh fruit and vegetable supplies before heading to our campground for the night. We could have carried on driving towards Uluru, but really felt like a break from the car.

Arumber is located about 20 minutes drive outside of Alice Springs, and our destination (Temple Bar Caravan Park) is nestled in a dry riverside location, overlooked by the rugged red of the Western MacDonnell Ranges. We’d chosen to locate ourselves outside of Alice due to the bad reputation for theft within the outback town – and lo and behold, our camping neighbours tell us their friends experienced just that a few days ago.

The campground was full of birdlife, many Major Mitchell’s Pink Cockatoos in the trees, flocking to the grasses to munch on seeds. Several pairs of ring-necked parrots also frequented our camp, reminding us we are in the outback.We had a nice stroll around admiring the scenery and enjoying the feeling of being upright!Sunday – location: Petermann

After a peaceful night’s sleep we took off again on Sunday morning, commencing our journey towards Uluru. We picked up some final supplies in Alice Springs before heading south. It was quite surreal seeing signs pointing us towards Adelaide after all this time – our next big city south.

Uluru is a deceptively long way away from Alice Springs, and we had decided to break the 450km drive in two. Our final stop for the day was a free camp, about 1.5 hours drive away from Yulara.

There were no facilities, just rubbish bins, picnic tables and plenty of flat areas to park up. This didn’t worry us though, as we are completely self contained. Stepping out of the car, the cold and the wind was a shock – it was about 14 degrees centigrade, the coldest we have been in a long while – thank goodness for the diesel heating!

It was fabulous being away from any light pollution though, and before we retired for the night it was a great opportunity to admire the incredible starlit sky which seemed to go on and on forever. I can honestly say I forgot how cold it was in my admiration of the Milky Way – just amazing.