Not glad, not stoned, just Gladstone

People fly for many reasons. Some fly for work, some because they seek adventure. Others fly just for the joy of being in the air. And some fly because they have no choice. That’s me right now.

It’s been a long time since I last visited my family in Central Queensland, six and a half years in fact. Even longer since my last stay in Gladstone. I would still have been of primary school age then.

We had no intention of visiting Gladstone, but Cyclone Debbie filled the catchments and the Fitzroy rose, flooding the airport. So I contacted Qantas via their web chat and rebooked our flights to Gladstone. Then I booked us a night and changed the car hire.

I was tempted just to cancel the whole thing, but familial duty stopped me.

In the weeks leading up to this trip I have actually been quite excited about the prospect of flying. But with a few days to go my subconscious interfered again. It is incredible how visceral reaction it is. I actually felt really bad. The stress hormones act on my guts, my sleep. I feel ill, but I know that it is me and I know that I am wrong. There isn’t anything to fear but I can’t seem to stop it.

I didn’t want to write another post about my fear of turbulence, but I would be mischaracterising my experience if I painted a simple happy picture.

This morning I feel physically ill, to the point of dry retching. Food tastes bad, I just want to curl up in bed. The wind is gusting and dark grey clouds skid across the sky. Will I have to fly through them? I don’t want to fly through them. Bring back the clear blue skies!

At each point of the day if I could pull out I would. But I can’t. And I know that it won’t be anywhere near as bad as my subconscious makes out. I will be able to cope. My subconscious doesn’t believe me.

It’s B and Alex that stop me from quitting. I can’t stop because of them. We catch the bus to the station, the train to Domestic, walk to Terminal 3. I have already checked in using the Qantas App, changed our seats to over the wing. I put our one checked bag in under my name, now if I quit the others can’t fly without my bag being unloaded.

Through security, my bag of electronics is pulled aside as usual. Walk up to the Qantas Club, Alex insists.

The others eat a late lunch. I just sip drinks. Maybe it would be easier if I drank alcohol. I don’t. I’m not going down that path.

Time to go down to the gate. I want nothing more than to quit as I watch aircraft landing from the north in front of the bitter grey rain clouds. But there are patches of blue the other side. I try to hope.

Our aircraft is a Qantas Boeing 737-800, the workhorse of the fleet. The 737 recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday, a remarkable achievement. New models are still under construction.

Our aircraft has a refurbished interior. Gone are the faded grey and yellow hexagon fabrics, now charcoal and deep reds. The majority of 737s, including this one, are without any inflight entertainment apart from small fold down ceiling screens and seat sound. However, earlier in the week Qantas unveiled its first 737-800 with fast WiFi Internet onboard. It’s a pity it isn’t this one, though they hope to roll it out to the entire fleet by the end of next year.

The gate agent asks Alex his age and as we board we are handed a small activities pack by the flight attendant. A luggage tag, pencils and a puzzle book.

Our seats are just ahead of the overwing exits. There’s no recline, but we don’t use that anyway. On the plus side we get two windows to our row.

Breathe deeply. Now it is time to relax.

The aircraft fills quickly, every seat taken, and it is time to push back. The screens fold down from the ceiling and support the flight attendants in their safety demonstration as we taxi out towards the third runway.

Alex is already falling asleep.

We thunder down the runway, heading south into the blustery winds of the huge low that is right now threatening New Zealand, towards those deep dark clouds. Quickly we make a left hand turn, but we cannot escape.

White envelopes us and the winds shake us. Of course it is not as terrible as I feared, but I can still feel it. I can feel the aircraft turning through the clouds. They thin, they thicken, they thin again and finally we are through.

I have survived. Of course I have. Now there is blue sky and the puffy threats are all below. Now I can admire their beauty, and I do. There is something magnificent about a cumulus, a cumulonimbus. They are made of nothing but tiny droplets of water, yet they contain such power.

Now I can relax. I take out my photo and listen to music. I start with “Adrift”, the music that really relaxed me last trip, but I don’t feel I need it. A random selection works better.

We are handed a box of snacks. Inside are rosemary crackers, a block of vintage cheddar cheese and a pack of salted caramel popcorn biscuits. I haven’t had lunch and am actually hungry, so I eat mine. Quite nice, though my stomach is still a little uncertain about “savoury”.

The clouds thin and I can see patches of coast. Long beaches and small towns.

I feel our descent before it is announced. Below us a Qantas jet takes off far below us from Coolangatta Airport. I recognise the shape of the landscape and the mouth of the Tweed River from our flights to Japan from there.

North Stradbroke Island appears, complete with a sand mine wound as we cross over Moreton Bay. Great sandbars sweep below us, while white horses dance across the blue-grey surface, replaced by the shimmer of the Sun as we turn to face the south on final descent.

The aircraft fights the crosswinds as we touch down in the golden light of the late day.

As we taxi I look across the airport and see more dark clouds. I hope they will not interrupt our next leg, especially as it will be on a turboprop.

I point out to Alex the Bombardier Q400s taxiing around us.

“Our next flight” I tell him.

Then we are out at Brisbane Airport. It feels like a long time since I’ve been here, yet it is all so familiar.

B wants to shop, Alex wants the lounge. B wins and we explore as far as the entrance into the “airlines other than Qantas mainline” section.

With our next flight approaching we turn back towards the gate and the lounge. But when I check the departures board it says that our next flight is cancelled.


The Qantas service desk is adjacent, so I ask them.

Indeed our flight has been cancelled and we’ve been rebooked on to a later flight. The good news is that it is a jet. I think I hear that it’s a 737, at least I assume so. Must be the demand with Rockhampton airport still closed. I can easily forgive Qantas for this, as the airport’s reopening is a day by day proposition.

The good news is that we each have a $20 food credit to use at any eatery in this section. That’s $60 worth of food. There’s dinner sorted.

Alex chooses Subway, his favourite. We double the size and add extras, bringing the price to $19.50. Not bad!

B and I have Vietnamese inspired Roll’d, which is nice because my stomach would rather eat salad like food now.

Then we head into the Qantas Club lounge, which is extremely busy and in the middle of a refurbishment. While B and Alex help themselves to food, I just eat a few sweets and take advantage of the wifi.

By the time we reach our gate, down in the “other airline” section boarding has already commenced. I look out expecting a 737, but am surprised to see a T-tail. A Boeing 717? Unfortunately (for Alex) it’s not. This QantasLink flight will be operated by an Alliance Fokker 100. The last time we flew on one was our last flight out of Rockhampton.

I’m a little concerned as we are seated in row 8 and the centre of gravity of this aircraft is quite far back. My fears were unfounded however, as row 8 turns out to be quite far along in this smaller jet.

I recall that this aircraft was quite the pocket rocket on our last flight, and this heartens me as it shouldn’t take us long to get to cruise and above any clouds.

There’s a real country Queensland feel to the passengers aboard this aircraft and even the captain sounds like an older fashioned country bloke. On our flight up from Sydney there had been a mix of passengers, though the man opposite drinking XXXX gave his heritage away.

It doesn’t take us long to make our way to the runway. Right before us a huge Emirates A380 touches down, a massive contrast to this jet.

It is a short sharp take-off into the night sky. As we climb and bank we are treated to a spectacular display of the Brisbane CBD beneath us with the just risen full Moon in the background.

There are a few bumps as we ascend through some light cloud and the seatbelt light is left on for a long time, with the captain reminding passengers not to use the facilities, though food packs are handed out.

We aren’t very hungry, so I stash some of the food away for later. The contents are quite eclectic compared with Qantas mainline. Rice and soy crackers, Blue Cow cheese, a salami stick and a chocolate.

The moonlight on the sea gives away the coastal outlines as we cruise through the dark sky. There are a few little shakes now and then, but nothing major. Breaks in the cloud, which is quite thin, reveal the amber and white stars of townships below.

This is a shorter journey than by turboprop and I can soon feel the aircraft pitching down as we begin our descent. Again we are treated to a city display, though Gladstone is an industrial port city rather than Brisbane’s commercial and residential nature.

Many ships sit off the coast, no doubt waiting to be loaded with coal stalled by Cyclone Debbie. Gladstone is a hub for this highly polluting source of energy that is steadily, but not quickly enough, declining in popularity.

There is also the aluminium refinery, the fields of red bauxite that stand out so prominently as the last sight of the Queensland coast when flying north to Japan from the Gold Coast hidden by the dark of night.

We loop low around the city, a scenic night tour from above, before coming down to rest on the tarmac of Gladstone Airport.

This is my second time here. The first was on a milk run to Brisbane from Rockhampton, strangely enough also on board a Fokker, but this time an Ansett affiliated F50 turboprop. That aircraft stuck in my head after my father telling me about the old milk runs he caught on Fokker Friendships.

A Virgin ATR72-500 also sits on the tarmac, along with the Skytraders Airbus A319, a rare sight! I wonder if it is a mining charter.

While B waits for our luggage, I go to the Budget counter to pick up our hire car. The lady is so friendly and upgrades us.

This is our first 4WD, a Nissan X-Trail. B is excited, but I am less so, concerned about the fuel usage. It takes us ages to get out because the car is equipped with a foot parking brake rather than the handbrake we are familiar with.

Eventually we get going and make our way to the Mercure hotel. After a day like today I am glad we are treating ourselves. We are frequent users of Accor hotels and it was nice to find one in Gladstone. In comparison, Rockhampton lacks most of the big chains, is more downmarket. Even the big Iwasaki Resort has closed.

It is a nice hotel room indeed, though the Amino television set top box is rather underpowered. I think Alex broke it and we had to get a staff member up to fix it. Not that it was an issue as the staff are very friendly!

Tomorrow we drive up to Rocky and back to a period of my past. Today’s flights were both very good. I just wish I could get over the anxiety associated with it. Practice makes perfect.

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