Escaping Fortress Australia?

Ronan O'ConnellThe West Australian
Aerial view of Irish rural scene on sunny summer day in Tipperary fields.
Camera IconAerial view of Irish rural scene on sunny summer day in Tipperary fields. Credit: mikroman6/Getty Images

A 22-hour flight from Perth to Europe with a two-year-old child in tow is grim at the best of times. Then add multiple COVID tests, two COVID vaccinations, a tower of paper work, palpable tension among your fellow travellers, and endless uncertainty about travel rules. That was what my wife, baby boy and I went through in leaving so-called “Fortress Australia” this past month.

When West Australians are finally allowed to visit Europe again, most likely next year, they’ll enter a similarly daunting new world of air travel. An experience I previously found exhilarating has now become confusing, exhausting and intimidating. Not that this came as a surprise. I did not expect pandemic travel to be laidback.

My family had already been through this twice before, having travelled from Perth to Ireland in the first weeks of the pandemic last year, and returning to Australia in June 2020. Then, after 13 months in Perth, my job as a freelance travel journalist required me to return to living in either Ireland or Thailand, the two countries in which I’d split my time since moving away from WA in 2012.

Initially, we decided on Thailand. The first step was to apply to the Australian Government for a travel exemption to leave the country. For months I’d read accounts of fellow Aussies unable to secure such an exemption, even for emergency purposes.

So I spent an entire day meticulously collating documents and evidence to support my exemption application, including a statutory declaration witnessed by a professor. Days later we were approved to leave Australia. As it turned out, we didn’t even need an exemption to leave Australia as we qualified as being “ordinarily resident” outside of the country, having lived mostly overseas since 2012.

Fortune was on our side in that instance, and the next. This exemption granted us early access to the Covid-19 vaccine, the first shot of which we were able to get in early May 2021 despite both my wife and I being aged in our 30s. We were fully vaccinated in time for our late July flight to Ireland.

A380 Wing.
Camera IconA380 Wing. Credit: Getty Images

In the weeks before that flight, we made daily checks of Australian and Irish Government websites to make sure travel rules hadn’t changed. Then, two days before leaving, we paid $450 for all three of us to undergo rapid Covid-19 tests, which were required to gain entry into not just Ireland but also our stopover point of Dubai.

At Perth airport, airline and immigration staff checked and double checked our Covid-19 test results and travel exemption documents before finally we boarded the plane. The 11-hour flight to Dubai was relatively simple. The plane appeared only 20 per cent full and there was next to no risk of catching Covid-19, given all the passengers had boarded in WA.

Dubai airport was surprisingly relaxed, both in atmosphere and procedure. Some staff weren’t even wearing their masks properly, while others allowed passengers to crowd together in confined spaces while boarding flights. On our flight to Dublin, the collective anxiety was obvious.

When my stomach became sick, and the flight attendant helping me mentioned the word “doctor”, passengers started eyeing me with suspicion. I’d have reacted the same way if I was them. Flying during the pandemic breeds paranoia and fear.

When finally we arrived at Dublin, I was worried how we’d be received by Irish Immigration staff. Before we left Perth, it wasn’t entirely clear whether, as fully vaccinated residents of Ireland, we would be required to enter quarantine on arrival.

I need not have worried. The jovial Irish immigration officer welcomed us home, made a joke with my son, took a quick look at our Covid-19 test results and vaccination certificates, and waved us through. Relief washed over us, followed by elation.

Within minutes, though, those pleasant emotions dissolved. The impact of months of planning, researching, worrying and anticipating had left us spent. Escaping Fortress Australia is truly laborious, as you’d expect. For the foreseeable future, this will be the difficult nature of international travel for Australians.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails