Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown: On board one of the last flights out of the city before lockdown

My luck had to run out sometime. In the tumultuous year or so since the pandemic began, as a travel writer and editor, I've been determined, despite untold obstacles, to achieve the seemingly impossible: keep (legally) travelling. In doing so I've become an advocate of keeping borders open as safely as possible.

I've somehow managed to avoid and escape the panoply of lockdowns and shutdowns in my limited domestic wanderings, professional and personal, but mostly professional.

Interstate travel has been virtually ruined by these lockdowns.

The nearest I've come to being completely caught out was a trip before Christmas, weaving in and of NSW and Victoria between Mildura and Albury Wodonga for a Traveller cover story when on my arrival in the latter regional city, and on the last full day of my journey, the border suddenly snapped shut.

All I ever got to see of the wonders of Wodonga was the scrub on the other side of the Murray and the sight from Albury of the distant flashing blue lights of a pair of blockading Victorian cop cars flanking the highway.

Now I'm writing much of this article on my iPad from seat 23D on QF466, which departed Melbourne at 4.30 pm on Friday, as our packed plane awaits the arrival of over-stretched NSW police and PPE-clad health officials.

By early Friday morning the latest COVID-19 writing was on the wall, or at least on the "don't keep calm and carry on" front page of a local newspaper: "SNAP LOCKDOWN TALKS: THIRD WAVE FEARS".

It looked like I was about to be force-fed my first true taste of what it's like to be embroiled in a COVID-19-inspired snap lockdown. Time to change my return flight to Sydney from Monday afternoon to Friday.

By the afternoon, I'd managed to make it to the Melbourne airport terminal (the Qantas one, not Jetstar's T4, thank goodness, which had been declared an exposure site). I was greeted by a thoroughly unexpected sight: a nearly full, if not packed, terminal.

A slightly flustered airline employee was walking along the security queue, checking for equally harried passengers whose flights were imminently boarding. The lineup threatened to spill out onto the footpath.

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The Qantas staff member explained that 4000 more passengers had unexpectedly descended on the terminal. Fortunately, the airline was able to accommodate them in the seats on existing flights that had been left empty by those wise enough not to attempt interstate travel.

For our activist state premiers, burdened by an innately porous hotel quarantine system, lockdowns have become the new black and in Melbourne they're still living with painful memories of one of the world's most protracted city closures.

Interstate travel has been virtually ruined by these sudden lockdowns and rendered a kind of extreme sport. It's a game in which everyone gets to play with heavy penalties for rule-breakers, should you dare to take part.

Once QF466 had landed in Sydney passengers were informed by the crew they'd need to wait aboard the aircraft until police and medical staff arrived at the gate. We would then be required to leave the aircraft in an orderly fashion by seat rows of five.

Outside the arrival lounge there was an a medical worker, dressed in a lemon-coloured poncho-like gown to take my temperature, and another to interview me and the other passengers.

We were told to isolate for five days and to get a swab which that night, in the rain and humidity, I duly did. Then NSW Health, unexpectedly and a little inexplicably, reversed its decision. Now only those who had arrived after 11.59 pm on February 12 would need to shut themselves in.

Along with the prime minister, who had also been in Melbourne this week and had returned to Sydney, I was off the COVID-19 hook.

For a devoted traveller and supporter of the hapless domestic tourism industry (as well as, yes, a champion of the greater good), it all has the potential, like those swabs, to get right up one's nostrils.

Alas, such is the life of the innocent Australian traveller, seeking no more a thrill than to visit the nation's second biggest and most beleaguered city, in 2021. See you again one day, if I dare, my beloved Melbourne, and good luck.

Anthony Dennis is the editor of the Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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