UK writer replaces Australian holiday with virtual road trip

As I sit down to 'attend' broadcaster and biologist Monty Halls' virtual travel journey of Australia's Coral Coast, I have mixed emotions.

You see, I was meant to be in this exact destination this month. Viewing what I'm missing out on is surely some form of torture. But I had a choice: indulge (sort of) my love of travel, or wallow in self-pity. While a little sulk-fest sounds initially more appealing (and easy), these dark times call for a little positivity - so here I sat, seeing what Monty Halls made of my dream trip.

Already there's one positive about this 'virtual road trip': I don't have to do any of the driving. I had promised my partner that I'd share the essential task on this holiday, but considering I've only driven once since passing my test nine years ago, I wasn't exactly thrilled about the prospect. According to Monty, however, the Coral Coast is like "driving on velvet" - I'll have to take his word for that.

As he shows the map of the journey and rattles off the names of some of the sites he'll be covering, I'm both proud of my own excellent itinerary research (even if I do say so myself) and sad I can't truly witness what wonderful places they are – yet. My head nods along to the facts he dishes out, I click along with the poll questions asked, but at the moment all I can think is how I want the real thing. At least I have my next quiz night's round sorted.

As we go on, it's Monty's personal stories and videos in the locations that really get me. The eerie but gentle pastel-hued colours of the Pinnacles at dusk are mesmerising and Kalbarri's jagged, expansive landscape is majestic. They're stirring up… what is that? Something other than despondency?

He talks of Perth, how Australians are a certain way because they've built their cities on the coast (referencing Bill Bryson, a favourite author of mine), and it takes me back to my own experiences with the country and its residents. I lived in Melbourne some time ago, and also worked with many Australians when I was with Queensland's tourist board - I don't know if I'm in love with any nationality more. My trip was meant to start in Melbourne, visiting and staying with friends I haven't seen for years, so on a personal level, this holiday getting cancelled runs deeper than if it were somewhere else.

The World Heritage Site of Ningaloo Reef was the draw of our would-be trip to Western Australia. I had known about it for years and it's long been on my bucket list to swim with whale sharks. When I tell people this I'm often met with blank stares and a response like, "but it's a shark!". Yet, on this virtual tour, as I get emotional over clips of the gentle giants, I hear Monty say he's always wanted to swim with them too. Yes! Vindication!

The introduction of this tour on said that at this point in Exmouth, we'll drink a virtual ice cold beer, but I don't see what's virtual about it. I'm taking this very seriously: it's Friday (as I write this), the beer is right here beside me, all I'm missing is… well, the actual holiday.

Give me a nature scene and an inspirational music backdrop and, on cue, I will transform into a cry baby - I blame being brought up on David Attenborough documentaries. But that's not the only thing that has me feeling like my ice-cold heart has melted.

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In these perplexing times we're in, it's so easy to live on autopilot. Being in essence part of Monty's journey, one that he has actually done himself and describes the memories of so well, reminded me with a jolt why I love travel so much. It's the pure, unadulterated feeling and experiencing of something. Whether it's learning about someone else's heritage, jumping into a heart-racing activity, or looking upon a huge mountain or vast sea and realising how small you are.

And there's something else pretty great I can take away from Monty Halls' virtual tour: the knowledge that emus can't walk backwards.

The unravelling of a dream trip

As soon as we heard of New Zealand requiring all arrivals to self-isolate for 14 days, we knew Australia wouldn't be far behind. We made a list of everything we had booked and who we'd have to contact for refunds, vouchers and bad news on cancellation policies; a lot of our bookings were made through third-party websites rather than direct, potentially making this harder.

Hotels were easily sorted. We've always tried to select places on Booking.com which have a generous free cancellation right up until a few days before a stay, so for them it was simply a case of hitting a button.

With flights, we've still not heard back from either Travelup or Emirates on our international return journey. I swing from panicking about this to not being worried at all; there's not really much I can do at the moment and at least everyone's in the same boat (well, aircraft). For our domestic flights, we were given vouchers from Qantas and Tiger (oh, the shame) almost immediately.

Arranging ferries and bike hire to Rottnest Island off Perth was a hassle to begin with, and we were doubtful as to whether they'd give us a refund. As is the case with many companies in the travel industry at the moment, they gave us a voucher.

These vouchers have all been to use within a year. It's luckily not too much of a problem for us; as long as the pandemic stars align, we can just go next year, albeit a little earlier in the month than initially intended in order to fit within our allocated year-long voucher allowance.

When booking a whale shark tour, I was fussy about every single detail. I researched the best tour companies, made sure they were as ethical and focused on small groups, worked out the sweet spot between whale shark season and when we were going to be in the area.

So naturally, I thought getting out of the fully paid-for tour was going to be one of the most difficult operations in terms of getting my money back. Imagine the anti-climax when all it took was a simple click of the button 'cancel' on Tripadvisor and the full refund was returned in good time. Just like that, a travel dream was so easily disassembled. Strange how in this scenario that's a good thing.

The Telegraph, London

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