The Beagle has landed

Almost a year and three quarters since I last touched the skies. It was probably the longest period between flights since I began flying again in 1991. After the pandemic struck and we were forced to stay home there were many times when I missed flying. The escape, the isolation, the distant horizons. I realised how much of my life was organised around flights. My music and movie libraries, full of titles and tunes that embodied that sense of slow and dreamy times alone with my thoughts.

I looked to the skies and imagined returning. But our first attempt to fly in January was stymied by another COVID-19 outbreak closing the borders to Queensland. With time the memories and dreams of the skies have become hazy, less about the flight itself and more about the destination.

When we made those January bookings, we booked flights for the Easter holidays as well. Just as we have made a point of stopping by Japanese gardens across New South Wales to assuage our inability to travel to Japan, so have we sought out Malaysian food in memory of B’s birthplace and another favoured destination.

However humid it may get, Sydney is not in the tropics. Darwin is and, as host of an international laksa festival (not running due to COVID), has potential Asian food cred to match. It also has a family connection on my side with both my parents having resided here.

The closest I have come to visiting Darwin before was a transit in 2010 when Alex and I flew onwards to Singapore, never stepping outside the airport. B flew direct.

It’s a decent distance away too, four and half hours scheduled end to end. Enough to get a decent flight in.

I should be excited, eager to be up in the air again. A great high sits over the continent. But the anxiety is back. My sinus and teeth have been playing up and I’ve been miserable. The day before our flight I try to get into the mood by flying the route on the new Microsoft Flight Simulator, which includes an option to look out of a passenger window and let the AI pilot do the flying. As we approach virtual Darwin we hit high cloud, then a dark grey band of storm clouds, lightning flashing. The AI pilot gets lost and, after some manual intervention, it lands us off the runway.

That is vision I didn’t need. I try to visualise the number of times I’ve landed in tropical storms without suffering unduly, but then I recall the times we hit the scarily unpleasant bumps.

I go to karate for the final lesson of the term, but my heart is not in it. When I return the guppy has died. It’s not the first to do so, but this is my fault for not seeing him when he was accidentally scooped out of the tank. By the time he was found and returned it was too late. He fought, but ultimately succumbed. There are too many echoes of Kita, so I retrieve him from the bin and bury him with our beloved dog. I do not feel rational tonight.

I can’t sleep. I’m too anxious. There are too many little things left to do. Eventually I drift off, only to be woken by the alarm at a quarter past five after maybe only an hour asleep.

The bags are mostly packed, though I empty out a few items from mine. Decide to travel lighter. Then we head out in the dark along the M5. Shortly after switching to FM radio in the tunnel we hear a warning that the exit to the airport is blocked and have to make a sudden detour. The traffic on this Good Friday morning is reasonably quiet, but there is confusion as we enter the domestic airport to search for our pre-booked parking as dawn begins to break over Sydney. The QR code won’t scan to let us enter until after I get out and call, at which point the gate opens.

There isn’t even the option of taking public transport. Nothing runs early enough.

We mask up for our entrance into Terminal 3. Not everyone else does and it doesn’t even appear to be a certain demographic. I’ve checked in online and our bags have smart tags, though our second bag appears to crash the automatic bag check in and we have to approach a Qantas uniformed ground staff member to get a receipt printed.

Security is a bit of a kerfuffle, with the lady in front needing to take off her heels and sort out aerosol perfumes and other business. Then we are through, airside at an airport again for the first time in a long time.

Alex urges us to visit the Qantas Club lounge. It is the emptiest I have seen it for a morning and we can find seats by the windows. Down below, destined for Perth, is a Qantas Airbus A330-200, a very familiar aircraft. It is VH-EBC, which once flew for Jetstar as the only white skinned A330 in their fleet. I caught it a few times, from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney and to and from Japan. The A330’s were replaced with Boeing 787-8 aircraft and EBC is back with Qantas.

Our own aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 VH-VXT, is yet to arrive at the gate.

Gone is the self-service food bar and the jars of Iced Vovos and liquorice allsorts. Attendants now hand out pre-plated meals. Alex chooses boiled eggs, cheese and ham, while I have a bowl of fruit salad, a tiny blueberry muffin and a glass of orange juice.

I can’t decide whether I’m queasy or hungry. I haven’t eaten anything other than  a couple of slices of fruit since a meal at McDonalds at 3pm yesterday. My appetite disappeared, but I was hungry at midnight. Now a fruit salad is perfect, cold and sweet.

We head down out of the lounge a little early, take a short wander around the terminal, as if reminding ourselves of what we have missed. Boarding has already started when we return to the gate. Small bags containing antiseptic wipes and a couple of facemasks are provided at the gate and the family ahead of us are not allowed to board until they put their masks on.

I walk down the gangway and into the aircraft with a neutral feeling. No excitement at starting a journey, but without the abject terror that has haunted some of my trips. Then we head down the aisle and take our seats to the right, the row behind the second over wing exit.

The seats are diamond patterned black cloth and there are no seat back screens, only a holder for tablets with a suitable cover. At the base of the gaps between the forward seats are two USB ports for charging, making for a total of four between the three passengers sharing the row. 

The aircraft is equipped with free satellite wifi and, despite the information on the Qantas website, the Qantas entertainment streaming app appears to work as well. The movies look exactly the same as on our last flight!

It doesn’t really concern me as I have brought my own entertainment in the form of music and movies on my own devices. I expect I’ll be staring out the window anyway, though I have fantasised about watching one of my perfect-for-flight movies in my library as well.

I organised the seat pocket, which only contains a safety card now, with the required devices and push my bags under the seat. Alex and B do the same and are soon staring at their screens as if they were at home on a normal day.

The morning sun is reflecting off the wing, the sky bright and clear but for some wisps of high cloud. I try to relax and listen to music while the rest of the passengers board. Once the cabin doors are closed small screens fold down from the ceiling and a safety demonstration is performed. The safety video is a celebration of Qantas’ 100th birthday last year, a terrible year for such a thing. I note that the brace position has changed since I last flew.

We push back. Our taxi takes us around and past the domestic terminals, where other 737s, 717s, A320s, A330s and Dash 8s arrive and depart. There are a few changes since last time. The Tiger A320s are gone, leaving Jetstar as the only operator, and REX have joined the 737 club.

A couple of planespotters are waiting at Shep’s Mound as we pass by the control tower on our way towards the southern end of the main runway. Ahead of us is VH-EBC and a Singapore Airlines A350. I wonder how many, if any, passengers it is carrying.

All too quickly it is our turn. I get my phone ready to video, am distracted as the force of take-off pushes me back into my seat. The international terminal disappears out of the window, then the Cooks River, as we pass our driven route in.

Suddenly there is a sharp shake and gasps from the cabin. Wake turbulence from another aircraft, I guess, but it is a very unwelcome reminder so early. 

At the base of the Blue Mountains, pools of brown water besides the Nepean River are evidence of recent flooding. The dam wall is visible further up the river. I had never noticed that before. 

There are a few more shakes as we cross the boundary over the mountains, their great sandstone ridges showing up against the dark green. Then we are beyond, over the brown plains from where we looked up in January. I check the Qantas Flight View, a satellite map that shows points of interest below, and am shocked to see that we are already approaching Dubbo, how quickly we got there compared to driving. 

Boxed meals are served. The options are Greek yoghurt with fruit salad or a smoky chicken sausages with scrambled eggs. I choose the latter. There is a tomato relish and a couple of soggy hash browns as well inside. It’s a good feed and I eat it all. Alex doesn’t and will regret it later.

The land outside is now red. Somebody on Facebook asks me if I am flying over Mars, and indeed that is what it looks like. I realise that we are following much the same path as on my last series of flights, to Singapore back in July 2019, only more of my view is blocked by the wing. 

I’m very tired and find myself drifting into microsleeps. But as I shut my eyes my other senses heighten and I can feel the niggling bumps that have been accompanying us most of the journey. I decide that I prefer the A320 to the 737-800 and wish that Jetstar had better times to Darwin. Yes, the low cost over the full service.

Even better a wide body. Looking through the interior of the aircraft it is very difficult to delude myself into imagining that we are on another epic intercontinental journey rather than an interstate hop. This will be my longest flight in a 737, though I’ve done further in Jetstar A320 single aisle aircraft.

Two hours into the flight and the crew remind passengers to change their face masks, handing out new masks where needed. I find the supplied masks quite comfortable. They have made a few announcements during the flight that masks must be worn at all times except when eating, and limiting the numbers waiting by the restrooms to a maximum of two passengers. I observe some passengers need reminding and am glad to see the cabin crew managing the situation.

The red of the land below is broken up with black threads of river systems and the only information the Flight View site provides is the name of the waterholes we cross. I particularly like the Binglebunyah Rockhole, whatever that is.

There are pale salt and claypans of dry lakes. There flooding rains do not appear to have reached them. Mimicking the previous day’s simulation we begin to hit high cloud, the ride becoming shakier as we dance through the tendrils of faint cloud that hide the setting moon that has been watching over us.

The flight is beginning to feel long and I am glad to feel the change in pitch as we begin our descent beneath the next bank of looming clouds. The landscape below is green now, the green of the tropics in the Wet Season. Unfortunately the timing of Easter and the school holidays means we must visit before the end of the Wet, when storms and rain are frequent and some attractions are closed.

Fortunately I cannot see any storms around as we descend. I do see rivers winding their way out towards the bays around Darwin and I know we are close now. Our wings dip and we turn to head out across the water and back into Darwin International Airport from the north. There’s a fair bit of unpleasant shaking that accompanies this and I’m glad we will be down soon.

Finally we touch down hard on the tarmac. Darwin, the Beagle has landed!

Alex notes how red the soil is poking through the tropical green. We have a moderately long taxi past the Airforce revetments. A Qantas 787 waits to head out on a repatriation flight for Australians still stranded overseas. Otherwise you would never see it here.

Though this is a domestic flight, we have to submit to a border interview by Northern Territorian authorities as part of their COVID protection efforts. I already completed the documentation online, so it is quick and we are soon out collecting our bags and hire car.

I thought we were getting a Toyota Corolla class of car, but it turns out to be a much bigger Kia Sportage. We drive straight towards our accommodation. The city is especially quiet today as most businesses are closed for the Good Friday public holiday.

This city looks like nowhere else we have been in Australia. It exudes a real tropical atmosphere, reminiscent of South East Asia, though with more utes. That difference, the hint of the exotic, is very welcome after so long trapped within a single state (plus the Australian Capital Territory, but that doesn’t count as being exotic).

Alex is hungry. Aside from the usual fast food joints I don’t know of anywhere else open. The balcony of our apartment looks down on the fishermen’s docks and I spot a lot of activity. Parking the big car at the apartment is not fun and I don’t trust myself to drive after so little sleep, so I propose we walk.

The air outside is tropically warm and humid, but not entirely oppressive. We pass the offices of the NT News with their crocodile front pages. The docks look like somewhere out of Malaysia or Indonesia, red brown dirt, a few mangroves, nothing like the basalt walls of a NSW port.

There is indeed a fish and chips cafe open. A large portion of their serving seems to be batter, but what fish there is tastes good. I feel sick from the oiliness of the meal. A little further along is Mr Barra, who stock a range of fresh and frozen seafood. We have decided to cook dinner in the apartment, so buy some fresh barramundi and local “salmon” (not the red kind) and a lemon.

The only problem is that we have nothing else to cook the fish with other than some sachets of salt and pepper. The supermarkets are closed.

I find some small stores that might be open in the city and offer to walk.

More and more the city reminds me of Southeast Asia. Even the metal framework of the apartment looks Asian. 

The first place I find is an Indian grocer and whilst I’m sure that an Indian chef could have whipped up a delicious fish dish using the ingredients there, I have no expertise in that cuisine. 

The second is a Korean joint. The strong flavours of both Indian and Korean cuisine are not going to work with these fish or our stomachs. Finally a 24 hour convenience store from where I only buy a bottle of cooking oil. Nothing fresh available, only very overpriced and out of date bottles and cans.

An Indonesian cafe is open selling delicious looking meals, but I can’t find something suitable to takeaway. What to do? In desperation I go to McDonalds and bought a couple of salads.

So that is what we have for dinner. Fried fish with salt and lemon and some salad. Lucky I didn’t buy more on account of the size of the fish fillets, but I think that’s our fried fish quota for this trip!

Here we are in Darwin. It’s funny to think that no only we not travelled internationally since the start of the pandemic, neither have we travelled interstate. You could say that is still true, for now we have only visited the two mainland territories of Australia. At least it feels like we have travelled.

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