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East coast road trip: travelling during the pandemic

Going on a road trip on the Australian’s East coast from Melbourne to Cairns, is not something I thought I’d be doin during a pandemic. But when the first lockdown eased up a bit, it was an opportunity to get away. We encountered unusual challenges during the trip, but also met generous locals willing to lend a helping hand during a difficult time for all.

Three-day marathon drive to Sunshine Coast

From navigating a state border crossing with police checkpoints, to being denied accommodation based on where you came from, it was not your normal road trip. However, I realize how lucky we were to be able to do this trip while most of the world was in lockdown. Now I wish I was still camping out in a giant tent trailer, by a beach somewhere in north Queensland. Instead, I’m back in Melbourne, where winter and a second outbreak of the virus has grasped the city.

We left Melbourne on a Saturday, with a three-day marathon drive to Sunshine Coast. My partner took the wheel first in our rental car, for a one-way trip to drop it off at the Sunshine Coast airport. Our friends will then pick us up and take us to our “work away” in Noosa Heads. A key part of our strategy to get across the Queensland border.

Crossing the Queensland border

We pulled up to the police checkpoint at the border between Queensland and New South Wales, nervous to be denied entry, but prepared. After having driven around 1300km in two days, we were eager to make it across the border, with still another 500km to go. Plus, we had to get this rental car dropped off.

We purposefully went to the border crossing further inland, after hearing stories of traffic jams and backpackers being turned away at the Pacific Highway crossing. The more popular and touristic route along the coast from Sydney up through Byron Bay. Instead, we took a route inland up to Dubbo, NSW, where we stayed in a classic old Aussie hotel. Our chilly, barebones room was above a pub that turned into a nightclub and blasted music until 4am. Great start to the trip.

The police officer at the checkpoint asked where we’re going, we explained we had a job trading work for free accommodation and food, and had a letter from our host to prove it. We also had documents proving where we lived in Melbourne and what we did for work while in Melbourne. In order to show we were self isolated being at home and not working in Melbourne.

Satisfied with our documentation, the officer let us on our way. A huge sigh (more like a shout) of relief as we drove off into the Sunshine State. As we’re driving away the young officer jokes to his colleagues, “this guy was tactical!” Yes, we came prepared. The letter we had from our host in Queensland, a very nice lady who without her and her letter, we would have not be able to cross the border.

Weird time to be travelling

After spending our time at our “work away”, in Noosa Hinterland, we were all set to start our road trip. Our friends had fixed up an old camper trailer and bought a 4×4 to tow it. The tent was huge, able to sleep all over of us (two couples), as well as store all our food and gear for the trip. We called it the Taj Mahal. It will be our home for the next 4 weeks.

For our first stop, we tried to camp at a spot still in Noosa Heads, a cute little surfing town. At the campsite, the receptionist asked where we came from. I told her the truth “Melbourne” (because I am Canadian). Wrong thing to say. After calling her boss, she denied us entry since we were from Victoria. That was the start of a challenging vacation in the middle of a pandemic.

Many of the campsites along the way were closed or accepting only bookings so you needed to plan ahead your trip. Lot of tourist activities were also shut or were just starting to reopen so sometime it was a bit challenging for us.

Airlie Beach for example, it felt a little like a ghost town. Many of the bars, restaurants, and clubs were closed down even though the lockdown was over but because of the borders closed the numbers of tourists was really low.  We had this feeling pretty much everywhere as most of Queensland towns rely on the tourism. It felt sad for those businesses but at the same time we know we were lucky to have those places almost for ourselves.

Being Grateful

Going on a day trip on a boat into the Whitesunday and walk on Whitehaven beach with only 10 other people. Not having to queue to take the famous Selfie on top of Hill Inlet, snorkel on the great reef barrier with turtles, sharks, rays and giant fishes almost by yourself, sleeping in a 140 million years old rainforest in one of the few campsites opened, see Avatar Tree and walk on the beach by yourself in Cap Tribulation, share a trail with dozens of koalas in Magnetic Island! That was a blast. We felt so grateful to be in Australia, able to travel. We recognized that there are worse places to be during a pandemic, and how fortunate we were to be on a beach in shorts and flip flops.

The more north we were going and the easier it was. Life was (almost) back to normal. In Cairns where we settled for few days and we definitely lived our best life. Bars, restaurants were packed during the weekend no Covid-19 anxiety, a ‘normal life’ feeling, socializing again. I wanted to stay there forever. This east coast road-trip during the pandemic was challenging but an unforgettable experience.

 

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