The Aussie Journals, Ch. 3
The thick packet from the Go Ahead Tour company arrives not long before the trip is to begin. I shuffle through the pages and pages and pages of information, a Go Ahead travel bag and name tag on a green ribbon, finally arriving at a folder marked “Tickets and Travel Guide.”
Inside are my e-tickets, exactly what I have been awaiting. I am to leave Anchorage, Alaska, at 9:30 a.m. on April 30, flying first to Seattle, then to Los Angeles where I will join up with the rest of the tour participants. Then, at 10:30 that same evening, we board a Qantas Boeing 747 for an overnight flight to Sydney, Australia.
So far, so good, I think. Then I notice another flight scheduled immediately after arriving in Sydney. Another flight? The fourteen and half hour flight from LA isn’t enough? No, two hours later we board a Boeing 767 and fly three more hours to Cairns, situated along the northeastern coast of Australia. I go back to the pre-LA flight itinerary and add up the hours. The final sum is staggering: just under 24 hours of flying time, plus eight hours of layovers in terminals. Twenty-four hours on airplanes in steerage class boggles my mind. My joints start to ache in anticipation.
And, that doesn’t take into consideration the time needed to get to Anchorage, almost a hundred miles away, before my first flight out. I decide to drive the near hundred miles into Anchorage the day before, do some last minute errands, and stay overnight at Patti’s. She will keep my truck at her place while I’m away, and pick me up at the airport when I return.
I chuckle at the idea of 32 hours of travel time, because Fiji and New Zealand lie almost directly south of Amchitka Island in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands where my husband and I lived for a year while working a construction job there. Additionally, in the days before the long range flight capabilities of the Boeing 747, Anchorage billed itself as the “Air Crossroads of the World.” Almost all of the planes flying to and from foreign countries passed through Anchorage to refuel, then resumed their routes over the North Pole, which were much shorter than flying horizontally around the globe.
April 30th finally arrives and so do I in Los Angeles. I wander around the airport, dragging my wheeled duffel bag and two carry-ons with me, trying to figure out in which terminal my Qantas flight originates. Finally I approach two TSA agents and ask.
“Doesn’t your itinerary tell you which terminal,” asks one.
“No,” I respond as I dig out the thick sheaf of papers and point. Oops. There it is: Terminal 4.
The agent points. I’m heading in the right direction, but need to go a ways farther.
Idiot, I tell myself. Read the paperwork.
Finally I reach the right terminal, the right check-in counter, and the right gate. I am inordinately pleased that my checked luggage weighs only 43 pounds. I am allowed 70 lbs. Because the seasons in Australia and New Zealand are opposite those in the northern hemisphere—it’s autumn there when it’s spring here—packing the right clothing had been pure guesswork: shorts and summer tees, a pairs of jeans, the slacks I was wearing, rain jacket, sun shirt with SPF protection rating, Teva sandals, sneakers, and a more dressy pair of shoes. Add to that a somewhat dressy pair of slacks and a few somewhat dressy tops, and I called it quits.
My carry-ons were a very small backpack and a travel bag recently given to me by friends in Halibut Cove. That travel bag had oodles of zippered and zipperless pockets and I was still trying to learn what lived in each of those pockets. That meant every time I wanted something, I had to search each pocket until I found it.
I was entertaining myself with one of those searches when my friends arrived at the gate. This trip was their idea; I had begged to accompany them. First, my friends Kathy and Katie, whom I met forty years ago when we all worked at a ski resort in Girdwood, Alaska. Kathy and Katie have known each other since kindergarten. Then there were Kathy’s two sisters Julia and Kristy, as well as Katie’s identical twin sister Missy, and their other sister Charlotte. With them was Katie’s husband Norman, who has come to be know as the group’s token male. They have traveled the world together for many years. The other four were new to me: Jan, Joyce, Bev and Pat. All of them, with the exception of Charlotte who lives in Seattle, are from the LA and San Francisco areas.
Twelve of us, traveling as a group, and joining 27 others from the U.S. and Canada, were about to invade Australia. But before that we had to survive fourteen and a half hours of flying over the Pacific Ocean.
I checked my seat assignment. Oh, no! Not the middle seat—the torture seat! I requested another. No more windows or aisles, I was told, so I opted for a seat down the center row of four seats abreast, but even then the aisles seats were taken. Well, hopefully I would have an empty seat beside me.
I kicked off my shoes and donned the gray socks that were in the courtesy bag handed to all the passengers by the Qantas flight attendants. After inserting the bright orange foam ear plugs I’d brought with me, I put the seat back tray table in the down position and set my small backpack on it. The teeny airline pillow went on the backpack, and my inflatable neck cushion on the top. Then I wrapped my arms about the mound, laid my head on it and went to sleep.
That worked for a while, until my shoulders locked up and started complaining. The next step was to move the whole pile to the empty seat beside me and, with the intervening armrest up, lean against it and go to sleep. When various body parts had had enough of that position, I slept sitting straight up. With those three positions available to me, I passed most of the fourteen and a half hour flight.
Then I was rudely awakened by all the cabin lights coming on and the attendants serving breakfast. Criminy, I was sleeping pretty well, I thought, and we still had three hours until we landed. I’d slept through the hot towels, too.
We landed in Sydney and found the gate for the flight that would deliver us to Cairns. That hop was only three hours. Nothing. We were seasoned fliers now. Simon, our guide for the next 25 days, met us at the airport in Cairns and gathered us all together the way a good shepherd would.
By the time we reached our hotel in Cairns, I’d been in transit for forty-five hours since leaving home in Moose Pass, and felt surprisingly rested and ready to go. Simon called us all together for a “group hug,” his term for a short meeting. We introduced ourselves to the group, and received a forty page document from Simon that detailed our itinerary, and also contained maps, brief summations of the history, culture and attractions of the three countries we were going to visit, restaurant and shopping suggestions and other tips.
He gave us instructions for the next day’s trip to the Great Barrier Reef, telling us when to show up for the coach transport and what to bring, including what Aussies call “swimming costumes.”
Then he passed out envelopes containing our room keys, and reminded us to appear downstairs in the lounge for a free welcome drink, with a dinner buffet to follow.
Once we reached our rooms, we changed into shorts and tees and returned to the lobby to catch the hotel’s shuttle to downtown, a mile or so away. In downtown Cairns, which we quickly discovered was pronounced “Cans,” we hit the first ATM we found and withdrew Australian money. We’d seen signs at the airport and in town that suggested U.S. dollars and Australian dollars were pretty close to par with each other. When I later checked my bank account online, the $400 AU cost me $374 US, plus a $5 fee.
The Australian dollar, we were told, was quite strong because the Chinese and other countries were buying all the various mining production of the country. None of this meant much at the time, because so far our only exposure to Australian prices were the few shops in the area, and Woolworth’s, which was the main grocery store and carried other sundries and merchandise.
At last, we were in warm and sunny Australia.
May 27, 2008