Finally home: How 2 years away from Australia made me appreciate it more than ever
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Breakfast might be the most important meal of the day, but in Australia, they take it to the next level.
Forget your standard greasy spoon with some short-order slop on a plate with a cup of weak filtered coffee. Down Under, breakfast is practically a religion whose sacred symbols might include masterful latte art, perfectly spherical poached eggs and a sprinkling of edible flowers for good measure.
In my experience, even the fanciest cafes in London don’t really know how to nail a perfect a la carte breakfast.
But as I tucked into my first smashed avocado, with heirloom tomatoes, a torn basil salad and roasted pumpkin puree with a za’atar crust served with a smile by friendly Aussies on one of my first mornings back in Australia, I knew I was well and truly home.
It was quite a journey to get here, though.
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As an Australian citizen living in the United Kingdom, I have been technically able to enter Australia at any time during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the combination of an expensive mandatory hotel quarantine, limits on international arrivals, constantly changing entry rules for individual states and territories and inefficient (and, in my opinion, overly onerous) testing requirements has meant that, despite my best efforts, it hasn’t been realistic for me to return home for most of the pandemic.
Fortunately, the COVID-19 situation in Australia seems to have stabilized significantly since the Christmas holiday period, when new cases had reached all-time highs due to the omicron variant. So, I figured now was as good a time as ever to return to Australia and see my family for the first time in two years.
Traveling to Australia isn’t like just popping from the U.K. down to Spain for an impromptu weekend away. I usually spend at least six months planning the trip. This trip, on the other hand, was put together in less than two weeks. Basically, there was a good chance of something going wrong between the constantly changing entry and testing requirements, and now, the European airspace closures.
The first thing to lock in was flights. I’ve done the marathon journey between Europe and Australia in coach many times before, but with only time for a short visit and plenty of work to do on the ground, I was eager to travel in comfort. Cash fares were very high (as is normal) in premium classes, so it was points and miles to the rescue yet again.
I found business-class award availability and redeemed 80,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles to fly Qatar Airways’ Qsuites from Doha to Brisbane, and then back from Adelaide to the U.K. for 85,000 AAdvantage miles on the return, plus minimal fees and taxes — and none of those frustrating fuel surcharges.
I consider this to be one of my personal best uses of AAdvantage miles.
If you are struggling to find Qatar business-class award availability into Australia, check flights to Brisbane — award availability has been excellent on this long-haul route recently compared to other Australian cities like Melbourne and Sydney.
The first hiccup came before I even left London. I had booked my predeparture COVID-19 PCR test at a nearby clinic I’d used for travel before that promised results by 2 p.m. the next day (and charged accordingly). At midday the next day, as expected, the email came through with the test result attached.
I opened the attachment to see my result: Retest.
My stress levels went through the roof as the whole trip seemed to fall apart before my eyes. What did this even mean? Was the result inconclusive? Was the sample not taken properly? I contacted the testing provider immediately who explained that, occasionally, a single test, or a batch of tests, needed to be retested and they would do so free of charge. They couldn’t tell me the reason, or if it was only my individual test being reprocessed.
I asked how long this would take and was told, “Up to 24 hours.”
My first flight was at 7 a.m. the next day, though, and I needed those test results in order to fly.
I explained my conundrum — and frustration — and the provider gave the unhelpful suggestion that I could go and find an emergency test elsewhere, because its retest result might not come back in time. I wouldn’t know for sure until tomorrow, and it wouldn’t be refunding me the cost of the first test, despite not meeting the promised delivery time.
At this stage I was so anxious, I felt nauseous.
I started madly researching emergency test providers who were both exorbitantly expensive as well as very unavailable. The flights had taken me days to find and organize; would I need to reschedule the whole trip because this testing provider couldn’t do what I’d paid it to do?
Fortunately, at 4 p.m. that afternoon as I was trying to juggle meetings, packing, potential airline change fees and finding fresh award availability as well as available emergency testing providers, my retest came back as negative. Phew.
I didn’t allow myself to believe I was really going to Australia until my flight from Doha to Brisbane actually took off. There were just so many things that could’ve gone wrong between booking my flights and actually boarding them.
There was a palpable sense of excitement in the Qatar Airways cabin as we departed for Australia just a few days after the long-awaited border reopening. Or, perhaps I was just sensing the excitement of flying what I believe to be is the world’s best business-class product.
The British passenger in front of me was traveling to Australia for the first time. Her son and daughter-in-law had moved to Queensland early in 2021 for work in the medical field and had a new baby. She was very excited to meet her grandson for the first time and had been looking forward to the borders reopening ever since his birth. After I heard that heartwarming story, I shared a Champagne toast with her to commemorate our significant journeys.
And after the stress of the last few days, I allowed myself another glass — or two.
Feels like home
The first real reminder I was in Australia was when I walked into the arrivals hall in Brisbane. I had no friends or family organized to meet me there (they all live in other states), but even in jeans and a T-shirt I felt immediately overdressed among the very casual crowd. Queenslanders are laid-back to the core, from the speed at which they speak to the way they dress.
The hall was filled with people wearing tiny rugby shorts and flip-flops (or “thongs,” as we call them). The standard greeting for all arrivals was a very Australian, “Owya garn?” (Translation: “How are you going?”)
Much like the British greeting, “You right?” it doesn’t make complete sense. And the usual reply is just to say, “Owya garn,” right back with neither person actually answering the question.
While I have plenty of Australian friends in London, and what I think is a fairly noticeable Australian accent myself, the Australian twang always sounds so much stronger when I’m in Australia. The sights and sounds of the arrivals hall made me smile broadly, and the torrential rain and high humidity outside the terminal completed the very authentic Queensland-in-summer experience.
My Qatar Airways flight was sadly one of only six international arrivals to Brisbane that day; a fraction of the normal number of flights the busy international gateway would normally see.
The flight to Melbourne the next morning felt like any flight there before the pandemic (save for the mask mandates and vaccination certificate checks).
Melbourne airport was packed with domestic travelers — as busy as I had ever seen it — and I was also pleased to see virtually every gate at the international terminal occupied with foreign aircraft from around the world, from Emirates to Vietnam Airlines and Xiamen Airways, with plenty of other arrivals still to come that day.
With the relaxed entry restrictions, foreigners are flooding back into the city, even if Australians are still slow to travel abroad.
There were some subtle ways I noticed Melbourne has changed during the pandemic. But, it was overall a wonderfully familiar experience that made me feel like I’d never left. Melbourne had, at one point, been voted the world’s most livable city for seven consecutive years by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and it’s not hard to see why: great weather, excellent cafes, bars and restaurants and major events.
I stopped for plenty of flat whites (Melbourne in particular is known for having some of the best espresso in the world thanks to the arrival of Italian and Greek migrants following World War II, who brought their European espresso machines and impeccable coffee standards with them). No burnt sludge streamed into a cup in 10 seconds like you might find in London.
In Australia, having coffee is a social activity to be savored, not something to toss back as you rush to your next activity.
Starbucks has only a few locations in all of Melbourne and they’re largely just for tourists — the average local wouldn’t be caught in a chain like this.
Reunited with family
My emotions went through the roof before my next flight — a Qantas domestic service to Adelaide (ADL) — even took off.
The Qantas safety video featured iconic moments from the airline’s history to celebrate its 100th year, and this included a throwback to one of its most successful advertising campaigns. Back in 1998, Qantas gathered members of the Australian Girls Choir and Australian National Boys Choir and flew them to famous Qantas destinations including London, New York City and Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territory. Together, they sang Peter Allen’s “I Still Call Australia Home,” a song so beloved by Australians it would be readily accepted as our national anthem.
Even a small snippet of that iconic advertisement had me tearing up as we were taxiing away from the gate — and I have goosebumps even thinking of that advert as I’m writing this. If you do not understand why Australians are so loyal to the flying kangaroo, watch the performance now.
When I landed in South Australia and my parents met me in the arrivals hall, I was a complete blubbering mess. I started sobbing as soon as I saw them, and my mother sobbed just as much as I did. Though my father was far more stoic, he seemed extraordinarily pleased to see me.
My parents have said they may never again be able to make the journey to visit me in Europe because of increasing health issues (they typically visited once a year before the pandemic), so I am determined to see them again before the end of this year. Even with the testing mishap, my trip was easier than I expected and I hope PCR test requirements for travel are removed in the coming months.
A few folks said hello as I walked past them on the street in South Australia. I did a double-take, thinking I knew them personally, but they were just being friendly and approachable, as most Aussies are. If someone said hello to me on the street in London or New York City, I think I would run the other way.
I’ve swapped stories with friends and family about how they coped during the pandemic. Melbourne’s experience was not unlike the United Kingdom’s with long, harsh lockdowns that seemed to drag on forever. In South Australia, their experience was much more mild. They have only really been wearing masks since Christmas. They were fairly horrified to hear mask mandates had virtually finished in the U.K. now and that I doubted I would be wearing a mask much once I returned to London
It was a pretty bizarre experience to go and pick up my niece and nephew from junior primary school in Adelaide and be required to wear a mask outside to do so.
I’ve had plenty of lows during the pandemic; it’s been hard to stay enthusiastic about working in the travel industry when, at times, it has been literally illegal to travel.
This trip was unlike any of the others the last two years, though.
For the first time in my life, I haven’t been able to just jump on a plane to see my family whenever I wanted to, or whenever I urgently needed to. It wasn’t as simple as booking a flight and heading to the airport with a passport. So it was absolutely worth every PCR test (and retest), document, time zone change and the unplanned 2 a.m. jetlag-driven insomnia.
My internal clock is still out of whack right now, but who cares? I can sleep when I return to cold, gray London next week.
Being back in Australia right now is like slipping into your most comfortable shoes or having a loved one cook you your favorite meal. There is something just so familiar and reassuring about life here. It’s a great destination for both tourists and locals and, despite my years living in London, Australia really is home. This trip drove that sentiment home more than ever.
As much as I enjoyed the delicious 2006 Bollinger rose Champagne served aboard Qatar Airways and all those fancy cafe breakfasts I’ve been devouring since I landed, it has definitely been seeing my family that has been the highlight of my entire journey.
I will never again take for granted the ability to get on a plane at short notice and return home, and I definitely won’t be waiting another two years for the next trip. This was a whirlwind 10 days of work, reviews, interviews and trying to squeeze in as much time with my family as possible, but still so worthwhile.
That said, my next visit will last at least two weeks so I can slow down and reconnect even more.
Featured image by John Crux Photography/Getty Images.
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