Travel

Amid Covid-19, cyclones and closures, a family holiday takes more than one turn for the cursed. By Mark Dapin.

A Christmas series of unfortunate events

Currumbin Beach was closed earlier this month due to ex-tropical cyclone Seth.
Currumbin Beach was closed earlier this month due to ex-tropical cyclone Seth.
Credit: AAP / Jono Searle

We squandered Christmas morning in the car, lurching along in a traffic jam that spasmed towards a drive-through Covid-19 testing centre.

It was boring, miserable and ultimately pointless – and it turned out to be a high point of our family holiday.

We had bought cheap tickets to fly to the Gold Coast, where I had planned to write a breezy, excitable travel story about all the great new cafes, bars and restaurants that had apparently opened while Queensland had been closed to the rest of the country. My partner and I thought we could distract the kids with adventure watersports such as parasailing and jetskiing.

At Christmas Queensland required anyone who entered the state to show proof of a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours earlier. We had booked to fly out on December 27. We were told on Christmas Day that we would receive our test results within 48 hours.

We didn’t, of course.

Every testing system in the eastern states had collapsed under the weight of sudden, unexpected demand – which could only have been anticipated if Christmas were a popular and established national holiday that fell on the same date every year.

So we had to cancel our tickets.

However, Queensland had secretly altered its border controls to an honour system. Travellers did not really need the result of their PCR test to enter the state, so long as they had seasonally appropriate good intentions: that is, the authorities would not turn you back without a result, provided you had taken a test.

This handshake agreement was so successful that a couple of days later it became the law. And from January 1, 2022, you didn’t even need to pointlessly take a PCR test – you could pointlessly take a rapid antigen test instead.

We rebooked the flights and arrived at Coolangatta on New Year’s Day, when most of the cafes and restaurants I had planned to visit were closed.

Watersport operators were also closed.

The next day, we discovered that everything was either closed or booked out for the rest of our mini-break, too, since Queensland’s tourism industry had been battered by a perfect storm of staff holidays, a labour shortage and a pandemic surge.

This metaphorical storm was quickly followed by a literal storm.

We drove to Currumbin, where we hoped to try the new Barefoot Barista cafe. But advertised hours on the Gold Coast hovered between aspirational and fictional and the cafe was, in fact, closed.

We parked in the surf club car park, but the beach – like most other beaches on the coast – was closed.

Ex-tropical cyclone Seth approached from the east, whipping the sand against our skin and into our eyes as we sat defiantly on our towels.

That night, we went for a meal at a new place in Surfers Paradise. At 7.30, I made to order dinner, but I was told the kitchen was “closed” until 8pm, because customers were complaining that their food was taking too long.

The cocktail bar was closed, but a staff member told me I could order a cocktail at the main bar. Once I reached the front of the queue, I was told they had stopped serving cocktails because they, too, were taking too long.

So I had a Double Big Mac from McDonald’s, and it left me constipated for 36 hours.

The next morning, every beach on the Gold Coast was closed. The ex-tropical cyclone blew a shipping container into Currumbin Beach surf club car park and a king tide washed away the car park.

On the last morning of our holiday, a midday parasailing slot became miraculously available at Marina Mirage. My son and I took an Uber across the Gold Coast and arrived 30 minutes early, as requested.

Half an hour later, the parasailing was cancelled due to weather conditions.

We tried to save money by taking the light rail back. We walked for half an hour in full sun until we found a tram waiting at a G:link station. We sat on board for 20 minutes until it was announced that a power failure had brought the whole network to a halt.

We alighted the tram and walked a further half hour to a cafe. As we reached the door, the proprietor closed up.

“We’re finished,” he said.

It was 1.30pm.

Power had been restored to the light rail network and our tram sailed past us.

So we walked to the next stop and boarded the next service.

We travelled smoothly for about four stops, then the tram came to a halt in the middle of the highway. The power had failed again.

“Get me out of here,” mumbled a neatly dressed old man. “I’ve had enough. I’m going back home. I’d rather the plague than this.”

I knew how he felt.

“Story of my life,” he said. “I nearly got there.”

Other passengers became restless. He seemed to be speaking for all of us.

“What would you do if you had a crowbar right now?” he asked. “I tell you, I’d be out that door quick smart.”

He pondered this briefly.

“A screwdriver, even,” he said.

Although he was talking to himself, he came to realise that he had a wider audience.

“Even Toohey’s would be sounding good at the moment,” he said. “That dogs’ beer.”

“That was a good one,” came a call from the next carriage.

After about 15 minutes – during which the old man speculated that he could make money as a barber offering haircuts on stranded trams – the service was resumed.

Then our flight home was cancelled.

We were moved onto the last flight of the day, which gave me one more chance to salvage my original story idea. A highly regarded chicken shop (who knew there was such a thing?) had opened near our favourite beach and we still had time to pick up a takeaway dinner before we headed to the airport.

At the counter, I ordered a delicious-sounding “handmade” chicken, brie and cranberry roll and waited.

And waited.

Other customers dropped in, ordered, picked up their rolls and left.

I just waited.

After about 20 minutes, I knew I would have to face the truth.

I gingerly stepped forward and asked the server, “Did you, er, forget about our order?”

It did not seem possible.

But she had.

So we went to Gold Coast Airport without any dinner.

At the airport, the automated baggage tag recognition system refused to automatically recognise our baggage tags, and we clogged two conveyor belts with our bags until ground staff overrode the controls.

At last, we reached the safety of the Virgin Australia lounge, where I managed to successfully order a tasty plate of tandoori chicken salad and a cold tinnie of Balter XPA.

It was wonderful. When I had finished, we still had 20 minutes left before boarding, so I ordered another beer.

Immediately, the airline made a boarding call. The server said it must be a mistake, but insistent staff rounded up every guest in the lounge and demanded that we proceed to the aircraft.

I picked up my beer but was ordered to leave it behind.

We boarded an almost empty plane 20 minutes early, then took off 15 minutes late.

The man in the next seat – and why on earth was there a man in the next seat? – turned to me and said, “I was hoping to sit next to a pretty German woman.”

Tell someone who cares, mate.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 22, 2022 as "Closed for the holiday".

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Mark Dapin is a journalist, novelist and historian. His latest book is Prison Break: Shantaram to the Bangkok Hilton, The World’s Most Wanted Australians.

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