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Nowhere. That’s where I’ve been recently. Over the past 10 years I’ve typically escaped to 20 or more countries each year, but for most of this year I haven’t even left Victoria. On 18 March 2020 I arrived back in Australia from Yemen — fortunately, an interesting place — and had to go into self-administered quarantine. A few days later and I would have been ushered into one of the state government’s death hotels.
Remarkably, even within Victoria’s tightly prescribed lockdown, I managed to do some travel. At the beginning I explored the Yarra River and discovered how little I really knew about the waterway that flows past the bottom of my garden. Why had I never stumbled upon the Pontville Homestead in Templestowe? In fact, why does this remarkable 1846 survivor of Melbourne’s early colonial history get so little attention? And what a surprise to encounter kangaroos so close to the centre of Melbourne.
Then, when the lockdown became severe, I downloaded the map showing the 5 km radius of my circumscribed world and rode my bicycle carefully around the periphery, discovering interesting little escapes even within that tiny realm. All of Kew Billabong ’s busy birdlife lay within my legal zone, but only half the Australian Grand Prix circuit.
Even at home, Zoom kept me travelling. I spoke at literature and travel conferences in cities from London to Istanbul, and in Leh in Ladakh (who knew there was a Ladakh Literature Festival?). And I wrote for a number of travel-related publications, where there’s been a lot of interest in what our post-pandemic travel world might be like.
With time to spare, I finally got around to sorting through half a lifetime of travel photographs — the real film variety — throwing thousands away and sending thousands more off to be digitally scanned.
Tracking down the location of a statue of the early twentieth-century revolutionary Sun Yat-sen I’d photographed in San Francisco’s Chinatown led me to a statue of the Chinese hero in Melbourne’s Chinatown. And thinking about statues took me into our current enthusiasm for cancel culture. Researching the story of a statue in the centre of Dublin, I learned it had been removed only days earlier because it represented an Egyptian slave girl. Then, after a few weeks, it was discovered that she probably wasn’t a slave after all, so she was heading back to her plinth.
My tightly constrained explorations of Melbourne may have introduced me to parts of the city I’d overlooked, but I soon discovered the pandemic introduced me to other aspects of the culture I’d missed out on. I’d always said that to be part of Melbourne you needed a school and a football team; and since I arrived in the city well past my school days, and I failed to develop an enthusiasm for footy, I was never going to be a real part of Melbourne.
Suddenly, the school backstory simply could not be ignored. The newspaper letter pages and the radio call-ins were saturated with frustrated school prefects, desperate to tell us to behave ourselves, wash our hands, keep our distance, wear our masks, shut up and pull our weight. I may have missed out on the Melbourne school experience when I was school age, but there was absolutely no way of avoiding it now.
So how were my friends elsewhere in the world coping with their own pandemic lockdowns? In dramatically different ways, it turned out. An avid traveller from Hong Kong appeared to have glided through the pandemic as if nothing was happening: walking in the ‘wet and muddy Chilterns’ in England, enjoying much better weather for his Italian Dolomites stroll, all well in Portugal, followed by ‘a great week in the sunny Peloponnese’. The only interruption seemed to be that each time he returned to Hong Kong, he had to go into another two weeks of home isolation. Now, however, the government was threatening mandatory hotel isolation, and he wasn’t so enthusiastic about that.
Meanwhile, in Tonga, another friend reported that the entire Pacific nation had completely dodged the virus bullet: Case 1 had yet to turn up. On the other hand, Aircraft 1 was unlikely to arrive before July 2021, which was doing nothing for his tourist business.
In Bangkok, a friend who had tired of watching the student protests rented a house on an island in the Andaman Sea, near the border with Myanmar. He intended to sit back and wait things out. He reported that many other foreigners stuck in South-East Asia had retreated to Kampot in Cambodia.
When I asked an Israeli friend why his country had done everything so well and then so badly, he gave me a quick lesson in its assorted divisions. In July, I turned to Armenian friends to ask why they’d gone so wrong when neighbouring Georgia seemed to be doing everything right. Residual Stalinism, they suggested (Joe was born there) — not unlike Daniel Andrews and Victoria I mused, and wearing masks from Day 1. Then by early December, as Armenia finally began to get things under control, Georgia shot off the charts as if to remind us we should never assume Covid-19 is stamped out.
Will some adventurous traveller emerge — post-pandemic — with the great travel tale? Is someone out there right now, wandering remote corners of the world avoiding lockdowns, quarantines and closed borders? Perhaps they’re traversing the Himalayas, or exploring some little-touristed jungle. Maybe they’re not even moving around, simply hanging out on a forgotten Pacific island, waiting for the first flight in a year? Or hiding away in an overlooked corner of the far-flung archipelago of Indonesia? Maybe they’re in India, in Nepal or even in New Zealand, where reportedly there are lots of Brazilians who should have gone home long ago. Whatever they write about it, I’ll certainly buy a copy.
Tony Wheeler AO is a travel writer and entrepreneur, and co-founder of the Lonely Planet guidebook company.
This story appears in Openbook autumn 2021.