Sydney: Borders and flights

Seas of unfathomable uncertainties obstruct the hugs, help and small pleasures of family life. With the threat of internal border restrictions looming, and with them indefinite isolation from her daughter and grandchild, Karen Lethlean patiently navigates the choppy new logistics of lockdown, with human hopes in mind.

A text message is my first hint. Natasha, my daughter is employed at the Northern Territory airport, she knows people, who know these things first.


NT are closing borders 4pm Tuesday 24th March.

Any interstate arrivals will be required to self-isolate for 14 days.


Confirmed by a similar message from the administrator who organizes my casual shifts at a nearby school. Plus media announcements. Chief concern is the virus will affect isolated indigenous communities with limited health workers or facilities.

Photo by Alfie Temple Stroud


My flight, Sydney to Darwin was booked for Saturday 28th. Not a top-end tropical holiday, not an outback adventure, but rather an attempt to assist. Be a helpful grandma, while her husband is on a military deployment overseas. General tasks associated with caring for 15-month old. She’s been a solo working parent for over a month and I wanted to be closer. There ensued a flurry of Facebook activity to see if anyone could define what such self-isolation would entail.


…separate room. Separate bathroom.

…meals left outside, passed under the door. No outside activity. No visitors.

…in same house, but you’ll probably need to be in different areas.


All doable except for a little boy, not able to understand why Nana can’t come out and cuddle him. I imagine his insistent bashing on doors. Plus based on my whole reason for travel, I would not be of any assistance. Rather, filling these requirements created a hindrance.


Our next contact included phone calls. Airline already changed my journey arrangements twice. Progressively earlier in the day, I’d been scheduled to fly more than a thousand kilometres further south, to Melbourne, then take another flight to Darwin. I understand these changes. With very few passengers, logical to pool travellers through two other major cities and combine numbers, make up a plane full. Plus ever earlier flights allow sufficient time for transition of luggage.


We can’t see any alternative so Natasha and I talked about cancelling the flight.


‘I don’t want you to put yourself in any unnecessary risk.’ She said.

‘Yes I was worried about progressing through another airport. Increasing my risk of coming into contact with the virus.’

‘Then what if you did get sick, I couldn’t stand thinking you’d passed it on.’

‘Not sure what I can do.’

‘Maybe, better not to come, mum.’


I hear emotion in her voice. No adult child wants to cry for their mummy’s comfort. Neither of us can sleep. I want to be there, know she needs me. But don’t want to be responsible for anyone getting sick. While everyone else sleeps we message over Facebook, thus avoiding text message alerts. I promise to contact the airline and see what can be done to change my travel date.


'Neither of us can sleep. I want to be there, know she needs me. But don’t want to be responsible for anyone getting sick.'

Initial enquiries using airline webpages prove frustrating. Possible to get an altered departure date, but their system won’t let me do so unless I vary both legs of my journey. Any return dates show simply not available. Can’t be right. I am, of course offered an opportunity to call. But… Due to closure of a Philippines call centre, unless you are travelling within the next 48 hours, do not call. Leaving me wondering why not staff a local call centre, especially right now! Border closure does put me within the 48 hour window, so after discussions with my husband, I try. We are up early so I make a call, before 6am, get in a queue. Waiting. Ironically one piece of background music includes lyrics about not being able to get home. I imagine this light blinking somewhere, staff not rostered until at least after 8am. Operational hours of this call centre are not announced. No one sees, no one knows, I so desperately want to help my child. When my call is answered, and the clerk realizes my travel date is several days away, her initial reaction is to cut me off short. She is dismissive, abrupt and annoyed with my non-compliance to the 48 hour rule. I tried to explain I need to travel to assist my daughter. Not helping. I tell her about borders closing. She is still yet to switch on any empathy. Finally things start to drop into place when I explained I must travel tomorrow or at the very latest, Tuesday. This latter option risks a delayed flight and arriving outside the, I want to say, curfew. So I pay extra, much less if I take Tuesday’s option. But now I don’t want to risk any further delays. Added bonus, a direct flight. She also allocates me seat 7A. Never been that close to a plane’s pointy end.


I am on the way. Amid other travellers racing back before border closure. (Later I hear a similar tale of a self-employed man who went south to visit his sick father. Only to drive the return 3,000-plus kilometres, a day later, in order to cross soon to be closed borders) On my plane only aisle and window seats are occupied. Ensuring social distancing compliance. With so few passengers extra snacks are served.


I can cuddle the baby on arrival. I can be there for my daughter.


Any tourist opportunities long fallen by the wayside. Even popular night spots like Mitchell Street with its bars and backpacker accommodation are eerily silent. Only bottle shops remain open. Unless blessed with a window to passing trade and therefore an opportunity to offer take-away food restaurants remain closed, tables and chairs stacked away. Or wrapped in an acreage of calico fabric like popular Casuarina Shopping Mall. I’ve seen similar in Sydney. And know drastic action is being taken.


With minimal air traffic and closure of terminal businesses, Natasha’s job looks more precarious with each passing day. Adding an extra dimension to her worries. At least I am present during an angst ridden staff meeting day. She hardly slept at all. Stress is written in those eyes. How will she manage? I tried to negotiate with my bank, hopeful to assist financially. Tide her over until this global madness settles down. Appears they want to punish me for potential generosity rather than assist. Faced with this barrier, I cannot be helpful by drawing on my funds.


'She hardly slept at all. Stress is written in those eyes. How will she manage?'

She returns with news that new executive management decided to, ‘take a little from a lot of staff, in order to keep functioning.’ Many have agreed to fewer days, working from home, and taking pay cuts so that when normality returns experienced staff will remain. Great, at least one burden is lightened.

No good news, though with her husband’s deployment. Faced with travel restrictions, any replacements cannot be assigned. Only gossip circulates about a potential repatriation. Hovering from, forced to remain, to back only a few weeks after the initial deployment date, a compulsory fourteen day self-isolation to be added. The most extreme option is a non-conclusive, he will return some time following depletion of virus concerns.


My airline, shortly afterwards announces cancellation of many domestic flights. I hold a totally useless return ticket. They knew well before! Never mind, I am stuck, but can help. Hold my grandson, show him birds outside, chase Max cat around inside, listen to a little boy’s ever increasing language skills, and just be with family. Deal with, or redirect attention away from Karen Lethlean

some of my daughter’s worries.


This story was shared by Karen Lethlean, a retired English teacher, writer and triathlete who lives in Sydney, Australia.


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