September 2, 2021 | By Suzanne Hart

Missed parts one and two of this story? Catch up on part one here and part two here.

Our flight arrived into Darwin at 6.20pm Wednesday August 18. We all cheered as we touched down. We were home.

We disembarked the plane by groups of rows. I’d estimate no more than around 30 people at a time. I was fortunate to be sitting in row 25 so amongst the first off. From this point on everything ran so smoothly, like a well-oiled machine.

We walked across the tarmac, directed by staff in full PPE gear. I saw photographers with their cameras aimed at us through the fence. Our reputation had preceded us.

Every person we came into contact with during the arrival and immigration process greeted us and said, ‘welcome home’. The girls who directed us to the immigration check, the helpful lady asking if I’d completed a form (I had missed that one) who then said, ‘don’t worry, you can go to counter five and she’ll help you’. And I did, and she did. No harsh words or tone, no raised voices, just friendly people treating us with kindness. I was surprised at how emotional I was; many of us were teary. I had finally arrived home and was beginning to feel the effects of what had unfolded in the past few days.

Our bags had been unloaded and lined up neatly in the baggage carousel area.  No jostling for position with other passengers to pull your suitcase off the belt.  Clearly designed to minimise any contact with all focus on physical distancing.  I was reminded of the same process we used for our groups when they arrived at a destination.

Bags collected, we were directed through to the waiting coach and more staff to take our bags and load them on to the bus. I might have done a little dance down the corridor when I saw the coach waiting.  We were directed to take a seat and wait for others.

The whole disembarkation process took me less than 20 minutes. Our coach trip to Howard Springs and the Centre for National Resilience (CNR) took another 20 minutes. The mood on the coach was light, very ‘up’, and chatty. Our driver gave us a nice spiel about where we were and how long our journey would take. I felt like I was at a MEA conference on the way to a dinner!

On arrival at the CNR, a staff member boarded the coach, asked us to stay seated while staff unloaded our bags, lined them up as they had been at the airport. She welcomed us, we cheered, she gave the spiel I would have delivered hundreds of times to my groups over the years. What was happening now, what to expect, how we would be exiting the coach. Very professional, warm and friendly.

We were asked to declare any cooking equipment (no microwaves, rice cookers, toasters etc.).  Word must have got out in the early days about the facilities and travellers may have come ready to be self-sufficient. Any of these items, along with alcohol – CNR is a dry facility; no alcohol is permitted to be purchased or consumed while in quarantine – were handed over and stored for return on departure. All conducted without fuss in the now usual friendly manner we had come to expect.

From there we collected our key, along with another friendly ‘welcome home’, a check of our dietary requests or requirements and it was on to our new home for the next two weeks.

My home in Zone 5 is E42B – that’s Block E4, section 2, room B. There are 11 zones at the CNR that include disabled facilities. In better days (and prior to Delta’s arrival) residents were able to use the pool on scheduled days and walk around as long as they were masked. Delta changed that; we are restricted to our rooms and balconies, a walk to the bin outside to dispose of rubbish each day and to go to the laundry every three days. As I write, the Centre is home to over 2,000 quarantining travellers. You would never know it.

There has never been a staff member who has contracted COVID in this facility in the 18 months it has been operating and no traveller has contracted the virus during their stay. Currently there are three or four positive cases in residence and they are secured and cared for in a separate block. None have been hospitalised.

The welcome snacks in my room at Howard Springs

I have been impressed with this facility from the moment I arrived. When I entered my room, I found a welcome kit filled with snacks, a mix of naughty and nice (Smiths crisps, how I have missed you!). The room is small but not claustrophobic.  A king single bed, a set of three drawers, a long bench I’ve set up as my workplace and a lunch table (if it’s too hot outside). There’s a small bar fridge and a small wardrobe area above that. A kettle, full stock of milk, tea and coffee, sugar and bottled water as starters. A small bathroom with one of the best showers I’ve had in a long time. A stash of cleaning cloths, extra towels and a change of bed linen. All very clean, practical and well presented.

From this time on we are self-sufficient in this space. Staff do not come into our rooms. if we need anything, we call Tele-help, the onsite team who are the ‘concierge’ or ‘reception’ staff.  There is an excellent 48-page information booklet explaining all there is to know about this facility and our time here. I could not have written this better myself.

The food has been a highlight and so much better than I had expected or hoped for. Prior to arrival we were sent an online form to complete with any dietary requirements or requests. I went safe and chose ‘pescatarian’ (I did laugh out loud at myself when I ticked this box).  I’ve had lots of veggies and delicious salads, poached salmon, prawn laksa, barramundi. I’ve added my favourite things from Coles (hello avocados), ordered a lot of fresh fruit and non-alcoholic beer.  Who would’ve thought?

Meals are delivered once a day, around 5pm. It’s become a highlight, sitting on the balcony, chatting while we wait for dinner. Two brown paper bags arrive: one contains a hot meal and dessert (dinner), the other breakfast and lunch for the next day. I have struggled to eat all the food I’ve been given.

We are visited each morning by the Health Team in full PPE. Temperature checks every day, a PCR test on day one, day six and day 12. These people are friendly, ask us how we’re feeling and are very practiced at being gentle with their swabs!

There’s nothing you would need that hasn’t been provided: medical assistance, a GP via telehealth, a pharmacy facility to fill scripts and mental health support. The option to buy online supplies has been the bonus of my stay. I’ve ordered from IGA and Coles, Kmart, Big W and Chemist Warehouse; all click and collect and delivered to our rooms by the team, usually within 24 hours.

My breakfast set-up at Howard Springs

By far the best part of this quarantine experience has been the chance to enjoy fresh air, sunshine and a little social time on our balcony with my new block buddies. We have a deck area marked with red tape to show the divide between rooms, a small table and a chair. I’ve taken to setting my table with a sarong as a cloth, having breakfast with the morning news, a coffee, and a chat.  It’s the place for morning yoga (I bought a mat from Big W), an online exercise or workout session, or just to sit and watch the blue sky, smell the eucalyptus trees, spot the cockatoos, watch the sun set over the building.

I didn’t arrive with a set plan as to how my days would go but I quickly settled into a routine, pretty much all around meal time!  And the sun on my balcony. It’s been averaging 34 degrees and my room gets the afternoon sun.

I read in the morning with a cup of tea, out to the balcony for some stretching or yoga (I have really missed my daily long walks and my surfing), then breakfast. I’ve loved finding online exercise sessions for small spaces. There are so many options. Around lunchtime, I move inside, work through my ‘to do’ list that mostly involves chatting with my much missed industry buddies and planning a north WA surfing safari roadtrip in September. Maybe a video with ‘Get Fit With Rick’ who helps me nail 3,000 steps in 20 minutes in my room, sweating and laughing out loud. It’s balcony time around 5pm, an early dinner and a retreat to my room for TV, movies, Netflix or Stan (how good is Hacks?). There goes another day.

As I write, I’m on Day 12. I can’t believe how quickly this time has gone by. I have not had one moment of feeling anxious, claustrophobic, or bored, despite not being able to leave my balcony.  I’ve enjoyed taking my time to do pretty much everything – from waking up, to exercising and moving as I feel I need to, resting when I want, thinking about what the next six months looks like to me. I am so interested to reflect on the thoughts, plans and ideas that have popped up for me while I’ve been in this place. Time, space and nowhere to go – I only half-jokingly refer to this as the Howard Springs Health Retreat.