September 1, 2021 | By Suzanne Hart

Missed part one yesterday? Catch up here.

I had registered with DFAT when I first moved to Bali. As an expat I know the importance of being registered as a citizen living overseas. Someone official would know where I was. I received email updates from DFAT, and these increased as Indonesia’s COVID numbers grew. We were reminded to update our details, and now we had options to express interest in getting home to Australia. Earlier this year I recall seeing commercial charter flights offered through DFAT with both Garuda and Singapore Airlines, from both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. They were in excess of US$2,000 one way. I decided to wait.

A Facebook post a few months ago from an Aussie trying to get home caught my eye. Flights had been cancelled by both Garuda and SIA. Singapore closed to anyone travelling from Indonesia so that option was gone. Australia’s caps for returning travellers were halved; people were getting desperate and anxious. This group banded together and managed to source options for a charter flight departing in August. Some in the group were experienced PR and media people with contacts and ramped up the messages home to the media and need for government assistance.  Some had travel industry experience and were able to negotiate with the charter companies.

That charter flight was filled in 24 hours from Aussies on Facebook. We felt optimistic and hopeful. The cost was US $2,500 per person one way. Then the caps halved and the flight cost doubled. That ruled many of us out.

Shortly after this we had word that DFAT was working with Qantas to arrange the first ‘repatriation’ flight for Aussies in Indonesia. The flight costs were not provided by the government, we paid our way. I considered it to be a bargain at $830 for a one way flight to Darwin. To the Gold Star quarantine facility of Howard Springs.  This had been the top of my wishlist.

There were 300 – 400 priority people registered with DFAT through the Australian Embassy in Indonesia (families, those with medical conditions, financial hardship) who were top of the list for this flight. A further 800–900 registered in total. I never expected to be able to get on that flight.

There was much talk on the WhatsApp group; some of those who had been contacted by DFAT were packing up their homes and lives. They had three weeks to get themselves sorted. The rest of us sat and waited to see how it would pan out.

A DFAT email was sent on the Thursday prior to the flight departure date of Wednesday August 18. It advised there were very limited seats available and to click the link to Qantas in the email to secure a seat. It was reported that the seats were gone in less than five minutes.

That same email gave us the chance to add our names to a waitlist. I filled out the form.

On the Saturday prior to the flight departure, a number of emails came through with next steps for waitlisted travellers. This included having to report to the approved clinic in Denpasar on Monday morning for a PCR test, and to be prepared to return on the Wednesday morning for a final rapid antigen test prior to the flight (if you had secured a seat).  I started my plan to pack up and move quickly if I was lucky enough to make the flight. As any good event manager knows, best to plan and prepare for all contingencies, cover all bases, address the “what if”. It always served me well in business and I figured it was a good time to practice it for this rather surreal situation.

As expected, some returned positive or inconclusive results following the Monday PCR tests.  This started to open up the waitlist.  I waited nervously, telling no one that I was this close to getting on a flight, checking my emails relentlessly throughout that day. I had a restless night’s sleep.

I’d heard nothing Tuesday morning. I was beginning to resign myself to the idea that I wasn’t going to get that seat. I was struggling with the emotion I hadn’t stopped to acknowledge, not realising how much I wanted, and needed, to get home. I was in front of my computer tidying up some files, keeping busy, when I saw the email confirming my place on the flight. It was 2.57pm on Tuesday afternoon. I had 24 hours to pack and get to the airport.

The rest of that day and night was a whirlwind of activity, an emotional roller coaster ride as I hit “go” on the plan I’d set out. My priority was to pack a suitcase with very strict dimensions provided by Qantas, weighing no more than 30kg. No surfboard as excess baggage, unfortunately.

The packing up of my house and all its contents, organising all this to be transported back to Sanur and into a new apartment I’d found the previous weekend; this happened after I flew out.  Some very dear friends and wonderful local staff made all this happen for me as I made it to the airport three hours prior to the flight.

A handwritten boarding pass

We were met by a large press contingent – it seems it was big news that an Aussie repatriation flight was heading out. The airport was empty aside from those arriving for the flight.  It was clear there was a lot of emotion flowing freely amongst the travellers. Saying goodbye to those staying behind is tough. I struggled with feeling like I was deserting my adopted home in its time of need. I’m still dealing with that.

There were pages and pages of paperwork to be completed and presented as we worked our way through the various checkpoints to the airline counter. The airport staff were patient and friendly, more so than some of the travellers. I put that down to stress, nerves stretched to breaking point and a heavy emotional burden.  In times like these I remind myself to be kind…just be kind to each other.

Eventually I was presented with a handwritten boarding pass, as the electronic system was down. It felt very special and I felt very lucky.  I checked in my bag, managing to slide in under 30kg, and headed for security and immigration.  All smooth, no lines or crowds. Bali airport was a ghost town. Thankfully a few enterprising airport catering businesses had opened pop up shops so there was a chance to sit, eat and have a final beer before heading for the gate.

And to the plane. The flight was 95 percent full. I admit to feeling shocked as I’d expected there’d be some social distancing between passengers. There was a tangible energy amongst the passengers: a lot of pentup emotion, relief, stress, fear, anxiety. I felt if from the crew too.  Two hours and 10 minutes, wearing a mask, too close to people. I was nervous. two weeks of quarantine ahead; I wasn’t sure what I was dreading most.

Stay tuned for part three tomorrow – life at Howard Springs.

Masked up for the flight home