Cairns, Queensland day 1 Sat 15 May 2021

With Australia closed to international tourism, but most state borders now “usually” open, there have been some great holiday package deals on offer, especially to Cairns in Queensland which is highly dependent on income from visitors. Some many weeks back Bill and I were tempted into booking one. Of course, Murphy’s Law, we then had two Sydney people contract COVID-19 and that had all the other states eyeing us suspiciously. It was very concerning, as genome testing showed that patient zero was a person returning from the USA who was in fourteen day hotel quarantine, but this couple had no form of contact. So there was, and still is, a missing link, but the contagion period has passed with no further incident. It’s pretty neat that our infection rates are so low, and contact tracing is so evolved, that an investigation involving such finite detail can even take place, but one of the reasons for this is our strict quarantine and control measures.

So for every day of the week leading to departure I checked the Queensland Government website for their latest regulation, and it was with some trepidation that I set off for the airport last Saturday 15 May. I can’t remember the last time I travelled by plane, but it was certainly well before COVID-19. We set out extra early in case there were any disruptions to our once-an-hour train service, donned the mandatory mask for the trip, and arrived at the airport a good two hours before departure. On arrival everything went smoothly with contact reduced to the minimum: self-service check-in, self-service bag tagging and drop, and spacing through security. On board, the flight appeared about two-thirds full, nobody seated beside strangers as far as I saw, masks on all the way, except for when they served a beverage and biscuit instead of a meal, and no entertainment screen or magazines. Flight time was a little over two-and-half hours, although with the taxi before take-off taking so long that Bill quipped we were driving to Cairns, we were on the aircraft for well over three hours. At Cairns we were greeted by police who directed us to health authorities. Now came the moment I was dreading, but all we had to do was read a large placard bearing the addresses of all the places the infected couple had visited and verbally declare we had not been there. I already knew these by heart! I offered to sign something, but it was not required – and then we were “free to go” and enjoy our holiday.

The package accommodation is the 5-star Pullman International and as soon as we walked in we were reminded of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. To give you some idea of the tropicality of Far North Queensland, Cairns is -16′ latitude, and our home, Wollongong, is -35′, so we are a long way up in the geographic zone that counts its seasons as wet or dry. A few days before departure we had been advised that the hotel would be undergoing refurbishment and we should expect some noise between 10am and 4pm, and I did read some reviews that the rooms are “getting tired”, but I do hope they will not change too much. While I’ll acknowledge the room decor and slightly-battered furniture dates to the 1980s, the first thing that came to my mind on seeing ours was, how spacious! As well we have a harbourfront view with balcony, and – best of all – a bathroom with strong shower pressure, plenty of vanity space and some mysterious ventilation that ensures the part of the mirror above the washbasin does not fog up! The only oddity there is the cistern is single-flush, something that was phased out in water conscious Australia decades ago, so again, that shows how long the hotel has stood the test of time. Bathrobes and slippers are no longer left as a matter of course, but available on request – which I did, naturally. So despite any potential disruption, I am a contented camper for our six-night stay.

The package includes discount vouchers to a number of restaurants but Cairns was hopping on a Saturday night so they were all booked out. We wandered along the waterfront esplanade boardwalk as night fell with tropical swiftness, until we came to Vitalia’s Italian Restaurant. We struck gold with this choice. Such cheerful staff, bouncy atmosphere and great food. The pizza oven was going gangbusters and they looked very authentic. I started with a refreshing spritzer of gin, limoncello, and soda water. Bill and I shared an eggplant parmigiana, and then both chose a seafood “cup” of reef fish, squid, prawns and scallop. One of the great things about this choice was that it was coated in gluten free flour, so Bill could enjoy it fried. (That’s seafood sauce in the scallop shell. The actual scallop was in the cup).

A side-note about another effect of COVID-19. All the staff appeared to be travellers from Italy and South America (under thirty year old’s can have a one-year visa and work) and it seems they got stuck here when WHO declared the pandemic. If these backpackers return to their home country, they cannot re-enter Australia until we re-open our borders, which may be another twelve to eighteen months away according to some projections. I imagine there is some special exemption to their visas, as hopefully our government would not force them to return to countries that are struggling with outbreaks. Despite what must be a great concern and also separation from family, they were all upbeat and enthusiastic.

We wandered back to our hotel via a park that contains The Lagoon. This is a public access salt water swimming facility positioned on the foreshore. Such a facility is necessary because much of the foreshore is mud-flat, and for many months of the year it is not possible to swim in the ocean because of stinging jellyfish (and crocodiles 🙂 ). It was so lovely to see family groups picnicking and swimming under lights, making the most of the balmy evening until it would close at 9pm.

We are no longer late-night people (Bill never was to be honest) and after our early start, we were happy to return to the hotel for our (also-included) free nightcap. Red wine was our drink of choice. Then off to bed with my latest book choice. Ursula’s Story, by fellow Society of Women Writers NSW self-published author Vivien Wilson, tells the remarkable story of her mother, born in Berlin to a Jewish father and Lutheran mother, who works as a translator at the Berlin Olympics (“I could have shot Hitler that day”, the story begins), but then makes her way to England before war breaks out, via work as a nanny, and as a translator with an English circus! – then after a brief romance marries an Englishman who is a friend of a friend, and goes on to rescue her mother and father to safety as well. “Safety” entails the London blitz, and sadly, the death of her newborn daughter during an air raid. The marriage endures despite its unpropitious origin, and when their other two daughters move to Australia as young women, the by then widowed Ursula decides to make Sydney her home. Ursula packed a lot of living and reinvention into her ninety-three years!

As a writer, how other writers tackle bringing family history to life is always interesting to me. At a recent talk Vivien explained how it took twenty years and many different structural approaches before she finally published, and how there were times of despair and near-abandonment along the way. This gives me heart. My attempt has been underway for a good many years now, has been split into two books, and has been told in various structures and from different points of view along the way. Now I am alternating chapters between my voice and background research information; and novelised chapters told mostly from my grandmother’s point of view, and sometimes from my great-aunt’s. The story is all there – just how to make it a page-turner!




38 thoughts on “Cairns, Queensland day 1 Sat 15 May 2021

  1. This trip looks so relaxing and enjoyable to me. I’ve been working hard and locked up and all that for so long. THAT is how my retirement ought to be instead of all this stupid work! Thanks for sharing!

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    • We’re having a lovely time, and hearing reports of the cold snap at home. It will be a shock to return there today. I have your book beside me and am enjoying the little I have read so far. And I saw an article about it being launched at the upcoming Italian festival. You might have to rug up and venture out for that.

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  2. I have looked up your novel, Gwen, several times, but I just can’t get myself to read it. Maybe if I didn’t know you from our blogs, I might be able to handle it. I can only imagine that with your talent for writing, your book would tear me apart.
    I was in the 82nd . I had volunteered for the draft which at that time meant two years active duty, two years in the reserves, and two years on standby. It was the lull between Korea and Viet Nam. I wanted to get sent to Europe and avoid being sent to Korea like most of the draftees were being sent. I figured the Airborne was the best way to get to Europe.
    I failed the eye exam for the troopers in basic training. They sent me to signal school and I again tried out for the airborne. This time I went a day before the physical and memorized what I had to on the eye chart. I passed with flying colors.
    Out of signal school, the 1st ten top graduates got sent either to Paris or Rio. I was the top graduate, but since I had volunteered airborne, I was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I sure showed the army, didn’t I. Maybe Fort Bragg was karma for me cheating on the eye exam.

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    • Karma indeed! That’ll teach ya. I was scratching my memory banks when chatting to this guy yesterday, as I knew it wasn’t Vietnam, but Korea didn’t seem possible mathematically. Fort Bragg seems a good compromise between those two possibilities, even if it’s not exactly Paris or Rio.
      You’re right in feeling my memoir is raw, but ultimately a triumph over adversity. I could never have imagined chilling out in a 5 star hotel in those days! The next work is not so emotional, although my ancestors faced plenty of challenges also.

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  3. Oh I think the hotel looks lovely with all those high ceilings. They immediately give it a fresh and airy quality. And, I laughed as I read your comment about how Australia’s ‘contact tracing [is] so evolved’ as here in the UK it’s still pretty rubbish despite now passing 160,000 deaths. But, my goodness, being met by the police off your flight, well, nice to know it’s all so efficient, but still quite scary. Hope you can now have a calm and relaxing time and enjoy the warm weather.

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    • The greeting was all very civil (and no one was shot on sight), and it was kind of nice to have direction on arrival, even though we weren’t expecting the police 🙂 . I am loving the hotel and staff are all very friendly. The restaurant is closed most nights (another COVID-19 casualty) so that is a nuisance, but there are plenty of alternatives and you can have a bar food menu or room service if you are need of that. Weather is variable but usually warm. We are doing a mixture of sight-seeing and down time. We went to the art gallery yesterday and of course I thought of you all the time. Hopefully I’ll write about it in the next week or so.

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      • Well, it’s just nice to read about somebody going somewhere and doing something different and seeing photos of blue skies and blue sea and sunny weather. You’re taking a vacation and touring for the rest of us. I have now managed to book a visit to the Ipswich museum, no joking, it’s going to be my highlight for this month!

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        • I do feel for you. Your lives have been so much more restricted than ours. There were many months when Queensland was completely shut off to New South Wales, but now they have reopened, the government is actively enticing tourists to come.

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          • Yes, tourism generally has been massively hit by the pandemic, but the situation has enabled people to reassess their expectations of travel and perhaps appreciate it rather than take it for granted. Spain and Italy are on UK’s amber list at the moment so tough for hoteliers etc as most Brits won’t be visiting this summer.

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          • My 95 year old Italian born auntie returned from Italy six months ago. Said she didn’t want to die there. Which is kind of amusing in a black humour way, as that is the reason she returned to her birthplace in the first instance. But ending your days on account of Covid is nothing like slipping away in your sleep, so I would be wary of travelling to high risk places at the moment.

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          • Yes, agreed dying of Covid, horrendous way to go. Currently news cycle here is all about did they or did they not initially go with the ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Obviously none of them thought it was going to kill them or their loved ones as the great and good live forever. 🙄

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          • Somewhere on my computer I have a document where I compiled our to and fro comments at the outset. Way back then I thought it might comprise a little historical story, but the actual situation overtook that idea.
            I don’t feel any doubt that was our conversation. The UK got off to a slow start. I lost a very dear friend almost immediately. He was an orderly in a London hospital and only lasted a week after showing symptoms. Even then, his wife and child were not tested by the NHS. Her employer paid privately.

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          • Oh Gwen I am so sorry to read that. I didn’t know, my sincere condolences. Yes, all the frontline NHS workers have been so brave and amazing in the face of this disease and sadly many have died this past year. The testing was atrocious to begin with and even now the national test and trace is still not working properly. The Good Law Project are bringing several cases against the government for their poor performance in responding to the pandemic and tales of corruption particularly over PPE. It is all very ugly.

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          • I didn’t broadcast it at the time. It was all too raw, and new unknown territory. Only weeks before he’d texted to check we were okay in the bushfires, and then when I texted about his health in COVID I didn’t get a reply. All his personal effects, including his mobile, were impounded by the hospital as they didn’t have enough “whatever” to disinfect them. His wife went through hoops to find my number to contact me, and I’m so glad she did, as the very next day the lead article on my newsfeed was London NHS hospital nurses and workers protesting the lack of PPE, holding up a sign with seven names of deceased on it. And his was the seventh. You can imagine what a shock I would have received if I hadn’t been forewarned. The twelve month anniversary has already passed. It hardly seems credible.

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          • Oh that’s terrible, really terrible and thank god you didn’t just see his name without already being aware of his death. You know, I think at the beginning there was much tragedy and loss that was kept private especially in the face of all the unknown suffering and frightening contagion that families had to endure. We have had daily ‘numbers’ here for well over a year, but except for a couple of news reports from film crews inside a hospital ICU, there hasn’t been the awful footage shown either for Italy back in Feb/March 2020 or the recent nightmare in India. The UK government built temporary hospitals and temporary mortuaries. We saw plenty of publicity showing the hospitals. However, you have to actively search the Internet to find the odd aerial shot of large single-storey storage facilities or a long lens photograph from a distance to see a temporary mortuary. My sister suggested it has been a bit like wartime where moral has been an issue, but it seems as though the UK doesn’t ‘do dying’ only other countries do. Unfortunately, I think this almost ‘state denial’ has made it more difficult for people to grieve their loss especially as so many families who were unable to attend funerals during the peaks of the pandemic.

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          • Every so often I think I really do not have time to continue blogging, and to continue following others and commenting. And then you come along with your so intelligent, thoughtful and insightful comments, and I think … how can I lose this virtual friend? One day, we’ll meet in person over a cup of coffee and become all shy LOL.

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          • Oh that’s so kind of you to say so. Yes, I agree with you about the time consuming nature of keeping up with the blogging world. You know a few years ago when you were here in the UK I wasn’t in a position to meet up, but next time I will definitely meet for a coffee. Life is too short to worry about the irrelevant and to meet in real life after corresponding for nearly eight years will be fun and I can’t imagine for a moment you are ever shy! 😁

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  4. Lovely Gwen – I feel as though I’m there with you! We’ve spent some time in Cairns so know the lay of the land. I’m envious of you two making the break, & doing something & being somewhere different. Wonder if I could persuade my man?!!

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  5. So glad you have made such a wonderful start to your holiday in tropical Cairns. Vivien’s book sounds really interesting – I must get a copy next time I see her. Vivien and her husband are coming to my book talk at the State Library on 27 May with Patti Miller about my memoir Gough and Me.

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  6. Cairns sounds lovely! You lucked out covid wise Gwen. Leaving for Istanbul June 3rd and am gathering all the various pieces of paperwork required, in addition to the evisa and 72 hour covid test :o(…. At least the test in Belgrade is only $100…

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      • Booked my cozy Belgrade apartment for a month through June 2nd. A New Yorker is occupying it then. The plan was to move on in June, but after exploring some outlying areas, I could come back to those later – depending on the covid mess. I’m also considering Athens and parts of Greece – Thessaloniki. I understand that Istanbul is now considered a “red” zone – whatever that means. I’ve personally had no health issues at all and plan to be careful and not attend any large gatherings. I’m slightly concerned about Istanbul transportation, because it’s extremely crowded. Working on a post about Novi Sad, an unbelievably gorgeous place! There is SO MUCH history and religious info to grasp here, it’s not easy. Wish I could be one of those mindless travelers who doesn’t care about really understanding a place – instead, I keep trying to get my head around everything :o( – may be impossible… Tour yesterday was fantastic, and I have several more booked, one on a train – Šargan Eight a narrow-gauge heritage railway in Serbia, running from the village of Mokra Gora to Šargan Vitasi station.

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        • In Australia a red zone declaration severely restricts movement into and out of the area, I’m not sure how it works overseas, but I guess your situation will clarify in a week or so. That upcoming tour looks great! And I remember Novi Sad well from our trip there many years back now.

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  7. So happy you and Bill had a holiday even if it meant going through all the necessary red tape. The book you reviewed sounds like something I would like to read. And for sure your book sounds like something I will read.

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    • You are always so supportive Don, thank you. My first book I Belong to No One is available in the States, but I need to warn you it is not written in the same style/voice as my blog as it is my memoir of my first twenty years which were a challenge.

      By the way, I was talking today to a retired career soldier who spent a lot of time in the States training with paratroopers and I was talking about you (and the 101st and 82nd, etc) and then I couldn’t remember how you came to be a jumper in the first place and how long you stuck with it. So please feel free to remind me! I may bump into him again. Cairns is the kind of place where tourists trip over each other going to the same places.

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