The Loneliness of a Long Distance Pandemic

by Fiona Harper

The title of Alan Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, has long been both an inspiration and a carrot-dangling menace.

Ten years ago when I was training for my first marathon, I found a respect for long distance runners that sustained me through excruciating long runs that hitherto had seemed impossible. I both loved and loathed the challenge of running further than I ever had considered possible.

Running on my own also meant there were no witnesses to my lonely failures as I battled with the voices telling me I wasn’t a runner and what the heck was I doing running anyway?

But running soon morphed into an addiction, with long-distance running the antidote for physical and emotional challenges.

Like the former smoker I was who craved nicotine, I recognised the signs of the addict I had become.

Running books were piled up next to the bed competing for attention with running shoes multiplying alarmingly by the front door. I gravitated towards friends who ran, planning weeknights and weekends around where, when and how far we would run.

Long distance running became the tonic for my gin, the yin for my yang, the reason I dragged my butt out of bed at 4am.

While Silltoe’s free-spirited protagonist used running as a physical and emotional escape from a dismal life, I quickly found long distance running exhilarating once I found my running tribe.

By the time Queensland slammed shut its borders in late March I’d scratched the red pen through work trips to Norway, India, Malaysia and a family reunion in Vietnam.

In temporary accommodation having sold my house, my gypsy heart wasn’t troubled by living out of a suitcase even as the travel writing industry spiraled into freefall.

I remained hopeful that Greece and the Athens Marathon in November was feasible.

Unexpectedly with more time available, I ramped up my training plan.

Days, weeks, months slipped by and the world imploded.

Cairns, already isolated from the rest of Queensland, wider Australia and the world beyond, with the airport firmly closed felt like a pandemic-free bolt hole.

With family distanced on the other side of the country, and implored to remain distant from all but our immediate household members, loneliness was unavoidable for those of us living alone.

The introvert in me rejoiced in a world gone quiet.

The social junkee part of me had never felt so alone.

Running became my savior, despite group runs and events being cancelled.

Colleen and I had trained together for triathlons, marathons and multi-day mountain bike rides across Cape York.

Now limited to two-person gatherings outdoors, runs with Colleen became my only social outing.

Ever increasing the length of our runs to sustain the social connection running shoulder to shoulder, we signed up for a virtual event to run 42km in 42hours along with thousands of others across Australia.

Invigorated by the physical challenge along with the link with others running to combat social distancing rules, we signed up for the virtual Gold Coast marathon, enjoying the novelty of plotting our own 42km route across Cairns.

Long distance running became the link to combat loneliness.

It was nothing to run a half marathon before breakfast if it meant a couple of hours to chat and laugh and wave to other pairs of runners.

Running too allowed us to briefly forget the pandemic unfolding beyond our north Queensland bubble.

Completely addicted once more to the endorphin high that runners know well, a couple of half marathons, 3 marathons in 3 days on one crazy long weekend and another marathon were soon in the bag, increasingly accompanied by other runners as restrictions eased.

Running five marathons in seven weeks helped combat the loneliness of the requirement to keep our distance from each other.

As we now see some parts of life to return to a new post-covid-19 normality, my addiction to running is once again under control. For now.

Though I don’t think I can really hang up my running shoes until I’ve seen the ancient ruins of the Acropolis and run into Panathenaic Stadium to complete the Athens Marathon.

2022, I’ve got my eyes on you.

A Year Without Ollie

By Lee Mylne

In mid-March 2020, I was in Melbourne, combining some work with the chance to spend precious time with my grandson Oliver and his parents.

At the end of the week, my daughter Sophie (with Ollie asleep in his car seat) dropped me at Melbourne airport for my flight home to Brisbane.

As I made my way to the departure gate, I sent her a photo of the empty terminal building, not a soul in sight along usually crowded gate lounges. “Wow!” she replied. “So eerie.”

It was the last time I would see my first-born and my only grandchild for a year.

As state borders closed, our world changed. Sophie and her partner Liam had already had the call from their respective workplaces, telling them they would now work from home for the foreseeable future.

They faced that challenge to adapt while juggling caring for and entertaining an 18-month-old.

As Melbourne’s Covid-19 crisis worsened, childcare centres closed, re-opened and closed again. Uncertainty was the new normal.

In Brisbane, I was facing my own challenges. My part-time job tutoring in journalism at the University of Queensland, which I had held for eight years, disappeared at the end of May.

Contracts for semester one had been honoured, but the need for casual tutors was reduced as online classes were already the norm and enrolments dropped, in part due to the lack of international students.

Tutoring work had provided a regular cash flow to support my freelance journalism, and now both income streams had disappeared. International and domestic travel was frozen and like other travel writers, I was grounded.

My concern for the future of my chosen career path was coupled with enforced isolation from most of my extended family.

Melbourne suddenly seemed far away, but the most vulnerable members of my immediate family were even further, in New Zealand.

Plans to cross ‘the ditch’ in July for my uncle’s 90 th birthday were scuttled by a ban on trans-Tasman travel, and I could only wonder when I would see him, or my 91-year-old mother, again.

And I was missing these precious, irreplaceable chances to see Ollie as he changed from a toddler to a boy.

When would I hold that chubby little hand again, or feel the brush of his soft hair against my face?

Facetime became our friend, but Ollie wasn’t keen on the camera.

Photos and videos arrived regularly, the jangle of my phone becoming known as “an Ollie ping”.

Here’s Ollie… starting to talk in short sentences (“Bye bye, see you soon!”), learning to count, in the bath, eating spaghetti, playing with his new rugby ball, watching the rubbish truck pass by, nose pressed against the window.

And sadly, here’s Ollie crying “No! No!” as his Mama Bear dons a mandatory mask, hiding her face from him.

He’ll get used to it, of course, but at first it’s scary. What’s going through his little mind?

Winter drags by. Here’s Ollie again, triumphantly scaling the bars of his cot, reading a book
about animals, identifying each one and making their sounds: “Quack, moo, neigh, hiss,
woof, meow, roooaar!” So clever! Here’s Ollie hiding in a cupboard, with a truck.

In September, Ollie turned two. The day before, on video, his Mama asked him “How old are you tomorrow?” and we laugh as his clear and confident reply comes “Four!”. “FOUR!? No, TWO,” says Sophie. “FOUR!” shouts Ollie, laughing into the camera.

On the day of his birthday, the Victorian government re-opens playgrounds. “No child in Melbourne is more happy!” texts Sophie.

Ollie loves trucks and his auntie Jess steals the show by posting a giant yellow truck from Brisbane to Melbourne: “Wow!” says Ollie, eyes wide.

His parents buy him a little scooter and helmet and videos arrive of Ollie scooting down a gentle hill, a mix of glee and trepidation.

He’s talking more now, too, and I’m thrilled he seems to know who I am – “Nana!”

I send him books and am rewarded with a video of him reading. “Bluey!” he says, pointing at the pages. “Bluey and Mama.”

Work has picked up a little for me by now. I’m lucky to get assignments within Queensland, and this travel is a welcome distraction.

I’ve kept busy over the intervening months by working on my doctoral thesis, my studies now in their fourth year and nearly reaching a conclusion.

While I’ve used my time productively, I hope, it’s my rapidly depleting savings and the federal government’s JobKeeper program that has kept the wolf from the door and the mortgage payments on track.

The best gift of the year arrives in the post in late October.

It’s a painting on a small canvas, an Ollie original, one of four created – one for each grandparent – as a diversion during the long Melbourne lockdown.

It’s an abstract swirl of pink and yellow and brown, with splashes of green and blue. I love it. It deserves (and gets) a frame!

By November, Ollie’s restricted life is also coming to an end as Melbourne’s strict lockdown ends after 16 weeks.

Here’s Ollie at the beach, out for lunch with Mama and Daddy.

Here he is, joyously dancing to the Wiggles on TV. Oh, and here’s Ollie tucked up in his new “big bed”, those pesky cots bars now a thing of babyhood past.

He’s growing fast, and I’m missing it all.

Christmas is coming: Ollie’s helping to decorate the tree.

We’re not sure if state borders will be open. Melbourne’s ongoing battle against Covid-19 outbreaks continues to mean any thoughts of a reunion might be premature.

We wait it out, and finally the borders between all Australian states open in early December.

Despite that, we celebrate Christmas apart.

Before New Year, state borders have slammed shut again and we’re glad we hadn’t rushed into travelling while everything is still so uncertain.

In early January, Sophie and Liam deliver good news: they’ve booked tickets to Brisbane for March – just in time to deliver the best birthday present I could wish for.

Come on, Ollie, I’m waiting with arms wide open.

Life in Coronovirus Time

By Shirley Sinclair

CALL me insane but I am grateful for 2020.

This year has been quite the rollercoaster for me and, hands-down, the worst of my career.

Yet, I am grateful because it has given me the U-turn I desperately needed in my life.

The year began with a new job prospect and a renewed zest in my career.

The catalyst was a simple email from a retired friend and former colleague about a part-time job he had declined: sub-editing blogs and newsletter copy for a global travel company.

It could involve some travel writing.

The first meeting went so well, I was discussing the creation of a full-time position with the local company.

Within a few weeks, I had signed a contract, resigned and given four weeks’ notice to leave my position at the newspaper where I had worked for almost 35 years, to follow my passion for the tourism and travel industry.

Over the next fortnight, Australia started seeing the word “coronavirus” begin creeping into newspaper headlines, news feeds and bulletins. People were becoming sick. Dying.

By that stage, I had made public my decision to leave journalism after a lifetime in newspapers and magazines and I remember a Facebook friend commenting: “Interesting timing”.

She was right, of course, as I soon realised.

With panic, lockdowns, uncertainty and statistics building globally, clients were cancelling tours.

Purse strings were tightening everywhere.

My starting date was pushed back a month … and then another two months to the end of June.

Next, the full-time role disappeared. A new contract for four hours a week was signed with a three-month trial, to help only with writing travel content for newsletters, and sub-editing blogs.

(After three months, even that work diminished to simply freelance as required.)

My newspaper graciously agreed to keep me on full-time, pushing back my leaving date until the end of the financial year.

The next kick in the guts came on May 28, when News Corp executive chairman Michael Miller announced the closure of most of the former APN News Media print publications, including mine.

The titles would continue only in the online news space.

I had resigned, so I was not entitled to a redundancy.

I had “lost” more than $100,000 – despite uninterrupted full-time employment since August 26, 1985.

Emotionally, I’ve seen it all.

Tears at the keyboard while continuing to work 10-hour days putting a paper out six days a week.

Breaking down mid-sentence every time I spoke to anyone about the situation.

Shouting matches with my furious husband who had my best interests at heart and wanted me to fight harder for compensation.

Anxiety over our ability to repay a small mortgage remaining on our home.

Concern for colleagues left in worse positions.

Feelings of abandonment. Frustration with trying to meet JobSeeker criteria and uselessness in finding new employment opportunities.

I’m not the person I was at the end of 2019 and that’s a good thing.

That Shirley was always working, cutting conversations short to deal with yet another workplace “fire” that needed troubleshooting, rarely getting out of the house apart from driving to and from the office, making little time to exercise or enjoy simple pleasures such as cooking.

Time always seemed to be my enemy.

Today, I meet up a couple of times a month with various groups of former colleagues.

And I can take two hours to truly get to know them as friends while solving the problems of the world instead of a walk-by chat in the lunchroom.

I’ve found a couple of freelance jobs from home and now have the time to walk to my favourite coffee shop and chat with neighbours along the way.

My stress levels are at 0.

While I loved my journalism career, I knew I couldn’t sustain my commitment to the long hours – sometimes working 10 days straight to cover a weekend editor roster when 11 and 12 hours were the norm to ensure hourly social media posts, that the online beast was constantly fed and Monday’s paper was designed, subbed and put to bed.

Freelance work has given me more time for writing rather than newspaper production, has given me the leisure time I craved and helped me slow down and smell the salt air of the beachside locale I call home but have neglected to enjoy fully for so long.

I have started reading novels again and make time for my husband, two sons and my girlfriends.

I no longer feel guilty bingeing occasionally on Netflix TV series if the house is tidy, the clothes are washed and I can still prepare dinner some nights in the week.

Our faithful cattle dog died suddenly during the final throes of June but as I had been working from home since March, I could spend more time with her than usual – giving her cuddles and treats, constantly talking to her about the ups and downs of my day, feeling her warmth on my feet under the dining table’s stand-up work desk.

She knew she was truly loved.

Hubbie, a tradie, has plenty of work to pay the bills and I have freelance “pocketmoney” to play with.

Most importantly, we accessed our superannuation to eliminate the mortgage hanging over our head.

Projects I have been meaning to start for ages – including my family tree research – have begun in earnest.

And I’m even now planning a year-long world tour in 2022-23 to celebrate significant birthday milestones (if COVID-19 plays the game).

The thought of more opportunities to travel is what gives me hope of a full life.

My Armchair Travel series on Instagram and Facebook were started during COVID-19 lockdowns across the globe purely to help those people feeling the same way.

There’s no monetary gain for me, it’s time-consuming but truly fulfilling to reminisce about my adventures so far and share those memories or help create bucket lists for others.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we must live our lives to the fullest.

I wasn’t doing that.

It was clear that I needed a change in my life.

My full-time workload had become unsustainable.

The change that occurred wasn’t what I thought. But I’m much better off than many.

My heart aches for the people who’ve lost loved ones, businesses, livelihoods and their health in 2020 as a result of this global scourge.

I am especially grateful that apart from social distancing, the travel restrictions and washing our hands more, life in Queensland has had little impact from coronavirus than many other states and most countries around the world.

I hope this life reset forced upon us truly makes us all take a good hard look at ourselves, how we interact meaningfully with loved ones, important people in our lives past and present … and those we’re yet to meet.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, John Lennon sang.

And for me, that’s been 2020 all over.



Did You Master Baking Banana Bread During Lockdown?

By Lynn Gail

What did your first day out of lockdown look like?

Were you able to master the downtime so many people cherished during isolation?

When restrictions were lifted across Western Australia, I caught a train and headed into the big smoke of Perth City (more a little puff really, when compared to most capital cities) to meet up with photography friends.

Freedom was scrawled across the last week of June in my empty diary.

A trickle of people confident enough to burst their isolation bubbles, were also making the journey.

Train trips often bring reflection, and during the half hour ride I began to process a slow replay of the past, what had it been? – barely three months.

At times, lockdown had seemed permanent – like having your worst relative visit for a few days then ends up staying indefinitely.

As a constantly on-the-go travel writer and photographer who covers remote destinations, I had initially welcomed the break.

It was an opportunity to put my footloose feet squarely on ‘terra firma’, to take pause, ‘sniff the roses’, and soak up the Indian Ocean’s ions while sunbathing with a good book to shield the sun.

Just five minutes’ walk away, the beach became my sanity drug.

As the clinically cleaned carriages slowed into each station, people sidled onto the train.

Furtive glances put a stamp on our new normal as passengers scanned for empty seats surrounded by extra empty seats.

As the train pulled away commuters relaxed, releasing stale air behind their sagging mouth guards.

But as we sped up to slow down, one question nagged at my sub-consciousness – had I mastered lockdown, how was I coping?

Others, it seemed, had relished closed doors, reduced societal contact, and weeks spent at home.

I was becoming unstuck.

Six cancelled trips.

Departure dates scrubbed from my diary.

Daily links to virtual travel videos showcasing restricted destinations only made the ache more acute, while empty suitcases gathered dust.

Social media posts, one after the other, boasted images of banana bread baked 50 different ways – it seemed if you didn’t bake – you clearly were not locked down tightly enough.

Then there were the: ‘cleaned out the cupboards’, ‘replanted the garden’ and ‘rebuilt the house’ type posts.

My cupboards were still full, my garden still weedy, and the house still had a lengthy to-do list nailed to its timbers.

Any attempts to fit the stay-at-home mould were fast proving feeble.

Weekly ‘Zoom’ sessions with fellow writers and photographers eased the stay-at-home drudge as we played musical instruments, donned silly hats, and mastered screen selfies of us nestled in our pigeonholes.

Phrases like, “I’m writing 2020 off,” or, “I can’t wait to get back to normal,” have become standard.

While I too am counting the days until I hear the long awaited announcement, “please make your way to gate number 3, we’re now boarding for Kenya,” to write a year off, which changed our forever history, and the paths of almost everyone on the planet, seems yet another disposable waste.

Surely the silver lining to all the pain and suffering must be to take stock. To look at our world with a renewed focus, and nurture Mother Earth.

Without her, we are a dissolving mass.

It is fair to say conquering cabin fever has been a colossal challenge for myself and my colleagues.

And even with the recent Covid-19 cases and setbacks in the state of Victoria, as a nation we are still much healthier and stronger than our counterparts.

As the world resets its sails and we can to drop anchor and dive into cleaner oceans, the sensation will be so much more satisfying.

As the train pulls into Perth station, I feel I have landed in some faraway destination as the sweet sensation of absorbing life post lockdown soaks in.

Others it seems are feeling the same.

There’s a definite spring in their steps, a keen sparkle in the eyes, and an excitable din of chatter as they ease their way out of the train and step onto travelators to carry them into the city’s bustling malls.

The sun is smiling. Talented buskers are plying their trade outside cafés filled with Covid safe numbers.

And the city comes to life.

It feels like a festival, a celebration of life, and a reminder nothing is permanent.

In the distance I spot my fellow photography friends, and a new normal begins.

Mindful Moments in Manly

By Angela Saurine

When I first heard the term Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, I could immediately relate.

Coined by nutritional biochemist, Dr Libby Weaver, it describes the modern malaise of always being busy.

The constant juggle of work, grocery shopping, housework, social commitments and getting children to and from day care or school, as well as sport and other extra-curricular activities, is something many of us struggle with.

If there was one silver lining to the recent coronavirus-induced lockdown, it was the fact it gave us time.

The rushing stopped.

We were literally able to stop and smell the roses – and many other types of flowers in our case – and spend quality time with our closest family members,  without the usual pressures of everyday life.

Sure, at times it was hard.

But I am confident we will look back at this unexpected period of our lives with fondness in the years, and decades, to come.

My two-year-old son Oliver and I are extremely lucky to live in a beautiful locale – Manly in NSW.

Set on a peninsula, with Sydney Harbour on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, I was well aware that there were many worse places in the world to be forced by the government to self- isolate.

The area is blessed with lovely walking tracks, parks, bushland, and beaches.

While I thought I knew the area well, I soon realised there were so many more places to discover.

With playgrounds closed, and exercise one of the few reasons we were permitted to leave home, I was determined to find different places for us to go, within walking distance, and abiding by the social distancing rules.

Some days I pushed Oliver on his scooter to North Harbour Reserve at Balgowlah, along the Manly to Spit Walk.

Once there, we’d stop so he could climb on a rock and onto the winding branches of a big old tree, and have an afternoon snack.

We’d kick a ball around for a while so he could burn off some energy, or meander along the creek and over mossy rocks to get up close to the waterfall at low tide.

As we strolled along the path back, Oliver would point out boats on the horizon, and sometimes cruise ships and planes, which became less common by the day.

We discovered another large park, surrounded by water on three sides, on the site of the old gasworks at Little Manly Point, and ventured up the hill to North Head Sanctuary, where we found swamps and World War II military fortifications.

On weekdays, when it was less crowded, we’d follow the sun to Shelly Beach, pausing to watch water dragons, and a cormorant that can often be seen standing on a rock drying its outstretched wings.

Sometimes, we’d walk to Manly Lagoon, where dogs splashed about in the shallows.

On warm days, we’d explore the rock pools at Delwood Beach at Fairlight, looking for fish in the water, touching periwinkles and playing with seaweed.

On the way home, we might stop to see a cockatoo perched on the railing of our building’s front balcony, and look for strawberries and tomatoes growing in the communal garden.

It was the ultimate staycation.

It’s a shame, in a way, that it took a pandemic to make us more mindful.

But I, for one, am grateful that the experience has given me a new, enlightened perspective, and I have vowed to incorporate some elements into our daily lives.

The story originally published in the winter 2020 issue of Out & About with Kids.

The Final Farewell

By Kirstie Bedford

I was in my local park under a towering gum tree next to a golden wattle bursting in neon yellow flowers, watching on video call as my father’s breathing tube was taken out.

An hour later the phone rang. It was my cousin. Dad was deteriorating quickly. It was time to say goodbye.

She turned on the video and held out the phone. The nurses were gone.

Dad’s partner of thirty years sat by his side holding his hand. His siblings stood by the bed.

My husband and I sat together and watched through an iPhone as my 74-year-old dad took his last breath.

COVID-19 didn’t claim my dad’s life. He had a massive heart attack but the virus took my ability to be with him.

It meant I had to whisper my last words to him to a room full of family, via my cousin’s phone. It robbed me of holding his hand.

My father was hospitalised on the first Monday in July and died three days later.

Under normal circumstances, I would have travelled to Auckland from my home in Melbourne and been by his bedside on the Tuesday but the only flights were from Sydney and, even if I could have found a hotel room to quarantine in (I was told there was a shortage), I would have been confined to those four walls long after his funeral.

My dad’s name was Terry Keith Davis. He was the life of the party. The jokester who would do anything for anyone.

The sort of bloke who wouldn’t pass a country pub without stopping in for a pint and a chat. He had a few health issues but no one predicted this.

When the call came to say he was in the intensive care unit, it made me realise how truly bound I was to these borders.

His whanau (extended family) swiftly moved into action. A funeral director was appointed and his body was taken to the family property at Mataora Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula.

They sat with him for three days, singing and recounting stories of his life, and buried him at the family cemetery on a verdant hill overlooking a perfect blue bay.

There was no better send-off. But I wasn’t there.

Now, as everyone talks about life getting back to “normal” and count down the days of stage four lockdown restrictions, I am filled with anxiety knowing I have to go back to my homeland and face the reality that I will never see, hear or hug my father again.

I will drive to his house knowing he will never come to the door and stand at a gravesite where no one else is mourning.

But I am not alone. There are thousands of people facing the same fate.

Louise Friend, a Sydney-based specialist grief and loss counsellor and certified bereavement practitioner, says many of those who have lost loved ones during this pandemic may be at risk of prolonged grief disorder (PGD).

“It’s because they are dealing with the day-to-day practicalities and stresses of the pandemic and don’t have the space or time to grieve their loved one, which can delay their grief,” Friend says.

Attending a funeral with family and friends, she says, helps us accept the reality of their death. But there are things we can do to help with the grieving process.

“It’s important we create our own rituals,” Friend says. “Something as simple as lighting a candle with loved ones at the same time of day can help you connect and acknowledge that loss.”

It’s healthy to also accept there will be triggers, such as a song that reminds you of that person, and it’s important to be able to sit with that sadness and know it’s perfectly normal.

My trigger happened the day I found a voice-recording from Dad. He said he’d called my husband to talk to him about the rugby and a woman answered the phone.

He’d chuckled as he queried if he’d got him into trouble. I could see him so clearly then, his eyes filled with the mischief that never left him, even in old age.

It was a tragic reminder that I’d never get another message from him. I’d never have a conversation with him again.

It’s likely to be well into 2021 before I can get back to New Zealand and I know it’s going to be hard but my final farewell is something I need to do and COVID can’t take that from me.
See you then, Dad.

2020 – The Year I Came Home

By Christine Retschlag

In a parallel universe I am crouched in a parched paddock, contemplating the crepe paper face of the female Jordanian goat farmer I am interviewing. Her crinkled skin is as thirsty as the land on which we are squatting.  A calico wrap, part modesty, part heat protection, sashays around my shoulders before completing a final twirl and resting on my head. There’s the briefest whispers of a breeze I barely notice, as I’m too engrossed peeking behind the veil on this trip, attempting to unravel the mystery of my modern Middle Eastern sisters.  Who herd goats.

In this alternate universe I have just returned from Thailand, pausing briefly at my Queensland tin and timber cottage to write, unpack, wash and repack. The travel writer waltz. In the Land of Smiles, amidst the cloying humidity of Chiang Rai which puts Brisbane’s summers to shame, I have just slept in the world’s first jungle bubbles. These gargantuan see-through balls of glass, fashioned like Venetian souvenirs into hotel rooms, have afforded me one of life’s ultimate luxuries – to slumber among the elephants of northern Thailand. I surrender to sleep amid the gaze of these gentle giants and the imaginary clang of the Golden Triangle upon which I am perched.

I already recognise this feeling from a month before, where, in this year of sliding doors, I have literally experienced the deepest sleep of my existence. Four metres under the ocean in Australia’s first underwater accommodation, I burrow like a stingray in the Great Barrier Reef’s ReefSuites. The ocean above me gurgles in big, wobbly jelly belly laughs and down below, so do I, squealing at my transformation into a modern-day mermaid. Gills not required.

Of course, these sassy stories and dalliances with daring only occurred in a parallel 2020. That fork in the road that turned left, before someone stole the signpost. Incongruously, that path veered right and in March of this devastatingly defining year, I spent days which erupted into weeks clutching a big black marker, striking off stories, cancelling flights, juggling plans which jiggled and collapsed, and struggling to remain stoic. My life became an editor’s red pen of rejection.

International borders were rapidly closing and like a mountain climber I was grasping for purchase. In the last week of March, when Australian borders were clamping bear trap shut, I made one of the hardest decisions of my 30-year journalism career. I was forced to cancel a trip in which I’d be penning the pain and rebirth of Victoria after Australia’s beastly bushfire summer. Mallacoota, which became the unwitting poster child when thousands flocked to its beach for protection from that burnt orange blaze, had beckoned. On the day I cancelled, I hung up the phone and slumped at my desk, sobbing uncontrollably. Big, guttural wails of the wounded writer. I had failed my fellow Australians and failed myself. Game over.

While anxiety became my constant companion, there was also a  quiet catharsis in accepting my career had gone into coma. I spent Easter alone, on my Brisbane back deck, contemplating my future. Had the one true love of my life, my journalism career, finally dearly departed or was it just on life support? I paced the house like a caged lion, tossing up options in my head. The fact I re-read every travel tome I possessed in my home should have given me an indication, had I been willing to listen. But I was tone deaf. Defeated.

Soul searching. Sleepless nights. Financial fears. Isolation. God, the social isolation. Like a Pamplona bull runner, I sprinted the gauntlet in those early dark days. Long, listless nights laying awake, wondering what had happened to the lives of those characters in those stories I was meant to tell. I realised it wasn’t even the travel I missed as much as the stories. That intoxicating world of words.

I walked the Brisbane River in search of light, my mind tracing her Rubenesque curves, an artist sketching a nude model. For the first time in years I had finally come home, but I had no compass. I had lost my true north. Writing.

Despite the darkness, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Not even a writer like me who romanticises life can convince you of that. There was insanity. Hilarity. Like the night I ordered dinner delivered to my home, and in those perilous pandemic days added a note to simply “leave it on my front porch”. I opened the door to find a confused and handsome Spaniard clasping my food. “I thought you meant your front Porsche,” he explained. I cackled like a kookaburra, at the same time desperately missing those lost-in-translation moments you stumble upon on the crazy and complicated road we call travel writing.

In the winter months I shelved my travel writing career, tucking it into the well-worn creases of my life like a love letter in a treasured tome.  A role which would help hoist me back onto my financial feet beckoned and I rose in the dark and stayed after dusk at my desk, dancing the corporate cha cha. My free spirit shackled. We were ill-suited lovers and we parted ways in spring just as Queensland was erupting into bloom and flourishing with possibilities for Queensland writers like me.

Packing for my first trip, that long-forgotten journey to sleep under the ocean on the Great Barrier Reef, I wept with happiness. As the plane soared over Moreton Bay, gasping for altitude, I was genuinely surprised when my ears popped. I’d forgotten about the nuances of travel. But the switch was being flicked back on. That current was running through my veins like the ink in my poised pen. The world and words were waiting for me. And so were my characters.


Sidestepping those rainbow coloured macarons

By Sue Wallace

Walking has been my liberator since the Coronavirus invaded our shores.

Back in March, I laced up my runners – two years old and no sign of wear – rummaged through my cupboard for leggings and a tee-shirt, strapped a Fitbit to my wrist and started walking.

I sauntered through the Albury Botanic Gardens, trudged along the meandering Murray River and around Wodonga’s Belvoir Park Lake with its inquisitive ducks and geese.

Some days I lingered to admire the artistic creations of West Albury’s Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk and on others huffed and puffed up the steep Monument and Mercy Hospital Hills that overlook the city.

I haven’t stopped walking since.

Regardless, if it is wet or glorious sunshine, I clock up more than 16,000 steps a day – sometimes double that – and I love it.

If I haven’t reached my goal at night, a quick sashay up and down the hallway is on the cards. When I am on the phone, I stride out around the house – from the kitchen through the study, into the bedroom and back via the dining room, that’s an extra 100 steps.

A journalist for the past 40 years and a travel writer for 25 of those years, I have travelled extensively and always had my passport at the ready, bags zipped up and laptop packed.

Jitters would set in if I didn’t have trips booked and commissions sorted months in advance.

And I loved every minute of it.

From researching a potential story, pitching it to an editor, the flight – yes, I love flying – to arriving at the destination, it was exciting and addictive.

Often asked if I ever tired of it– I would reply “never.” It is something that gets under your skin.

I love telling stories of people and places around the world and seeing it in print or online. Often, I would return home for a few days only to do the washing, catch up on the news, repack and get back on the merry go round again.

My husband would often travel with me on self-organised trips.

Even jetlag was my friend – I don’t need a lot of sleep and I often write in the early hours of the morning.

Then life changed.

I watched as five trips including Ireland, Paris, a European river cruise, Fiji and South Africa collapsed like a house of cards.

It became obvious there were no more journeys for the immediate future and most of the travel outlets and magazines dropped pages and stopped commissioning.

My passport is back in the safe and my suitcase shelved – literally.

Like many who are passionate about what they do, a sense of loss set in, plus the worry of family, friends, the travel community and humanity as the number of COVID cases and deaths hiked across the globe.

But in a strange way I think COVID has prolonged my life – I am a lot fitter now and can resist the power of sweet treats – well almost.

My willpower used to be non-existent. How on earth do you say no to a Singapore Sling and peanuts galore in the Long Bar at Raffles Singapore or a sumptuous afternoon tea in the pretty Palm Court at the Ritz Hotel London?

Refuse a Queen Victoria Fizz at The Goring in Belgravia that’s so close to Buckingham Palace, you may well hear a corgi bark – I don’t think so.

Then there’s that ridiculously rich chocolate torte at Hotel Sacher Vienna and a Campari Aperitivo and tempting canapes at the chic Grand Hotel Tremezzo overlooking Lake Como.

I always avoided the scales, but I knew I carried a little of every trip with me – Italy, France and Austria, literally sat on my hips, as I indulged in kilojoule laden treats all in the name of research.

That type of souvenir isn’t easy to budge as you flip from trip to trip.

So, with travel on the back burner, I started walking.

My diet suddenly changed too – rainbow coloured macarons and chocolate-dipped strawberry surprises didn’t suddenly appear as they did in my hotel rooms.

There was no Michelin star chef at the ready to whip up a signature dish or plates piled high with delicate pastries and rich decadent cheeses.

Instead, it was 1200 kilojoules a day and one gin and tonic a week – albeit a decent one.

Seven months later the kilograms have slipped away, and I have walked more than 1600 kilometres around Albury-Wodonga – social distancing of course.

I like to compare the figures to the length of Spain’s Camino de Santiago which is about an 845-kilometre trek, so I have nearly done it twice. Who would have thought?

And I feel so good.

I know every street in Albury and where dangers lurk – think uneven concrete paths, twisted tree trunks, slippery sidewalks and dogs with barks much bigger than they are.

As I peek over fences, I have discovered lofty trees and manicured garden beds, smelt perfumed flowers and watched cats curl up in flowerpots, looking smug.

I can now name blooms, shrubs and trees and know a pretty peony from a striking Peruvian Lily.

I have become a novice twitcher spotting colourful birds as we wander and am an expert at avoiding menacing magpies that swoop in spring and seem to seek me out.

These days my wardrobe is more about runners and rain jackets, while my fancier clothes and heels are in moth balls – waiting.

Girlfriends are amazed, my husband and I have walked together most days for months, about 150 days straight. They ask what we talk about and I remind them that we don’t talk all the way – sometimes we don’t talk at all.

But we have added a new phrase to our vocabulary – “doing a Dave.”

After I nearly tripped one day on our walk, my husband grabbed my hand and a friend, Dave, happened to be driving by.

He immediately thought we wandered around on our walks, hand in hand, until he was set straight.

So, on the odd occasion we do hold hands, it’s coined “a Dave.”

I continue to write about travel memories and amazing people – telling stories is what I will always do.

My heart goes out to the worldwide travel and hospitality industries and their plight and I wish I could do more to help ease their pain.

I am pleased however many are discovering wonderful places in our own back yard.

“Walking” has become my friend and as we wait out this wretched pandemic, I will continue to stride out.

There’s something therapeutic about the rhythmic beat of putting one foot in front of the other, as I recall so many wonderful travel experiences – what a privilege.

When it is safe to travel overseas again, I will be ready with passport in hand and this time well-worn runners in my luggage.

A cartwheel or two down the aisle won’t be out of the question either.

As for those rainbow coloured macarons and chocolate-dipped strawberries, I intend to stop at just one, with a cocktail on the side, of course.