28 April 2020

Caught on the hop by COVID-19 travel restrictions

| Elka Wood
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Selfie of the White family under tree, left to right, Steve, Finn, Emily, Rita.

The White family – left to right: Steve, Finn, Emily and Rita – have had their travel plans scuttled by COVID-19 restrictions. Photo: Supplied.

The year 2020 seems to be when we have realised we’re not actually in control of anything and that plans for the future are just cool ideas that may or may not ever happen.

Take Rita and Steve White, who, along with their two teenagers, Finn and Emily, had planned the trip of a lifetime, which was supposed to begin the same week COVID-19 travel restrictions came in.

“We sold our house in Cairns and took long-service leave from our jobs as teachers,” explains Rita. “We were planning on going from my birthplace in England back to Steve’s birthplace in Sydney without flying, including riding bikes from France to Hungary on the EuroVelo bike trail.”

Luckily, they had decided to spend a week with Rita’s sisters in Bega before leaving – and that’s where they’ve been for the past month, living in a three-bedroom house with Rita’s sister and her two kids.

Although the family have lost most of what they had already invested in the trip, including hours organising Russian visas, Rita says they are just thankful they didn’t get caught out by COVID-19 while they were on the road.

“I don’t regret selling the house or leaving our jobs for a while,” she says. “I have been teaching high school for 16 years and was totally burnt out.”

“My hair was falling out!” she laughs. “We needed this time to reflect… and sleep.”

Rita admits she and her husband are usually always looking towards the future.

“We’re planners,” she says. “It’s almost an obsession but we’ve learnt not to plan through this experience. Now we try to talk about plans and always end with, ‘But we don’t know, so right now let’s have another cup of coffee!'”

English-German traveller Julia Berger has also been caught out by COVID-19 and is marooned in Bega until travel restrictions ease.

Julia spent last year working in outdoor education programs in the Bega Valley and when her travel visa ran out, she got a job in New Zealand, where she was established with a room and a car.

But when New Zealand announced it would close its borders in late March, she made the snap decision to return to Australia on a tourist visa so she could self-isolate with her new boyfriend.

“I have a work visa in New Zealand until January next year and a car and all my stuff is there, but I had only recently arrived there so I didn’t know many people,” she says. “I have more of a community here in Australia so I decided at the last minute to come back.”

Now Julia is spinning her wheels, unable to work in Australia and at risk of her three-month tourist visa running out while the lockdown is still in place.

“I could go home to Germany but I haven’t lived there for seven years and the virus has been so bad all over Europe,” she says.

COVID-19 hasn’t specifically changed her plans, which were fairly loose, but it has complicated them by restricting where she can go.

“I needed to figure out what I wanted to do next anyway,” muses Julia. “Go back to university, or keep working, but where? And then there’s this new relationship…”

The White family and Julia are just a sample of people on the move who have been caught out during this social upheaval without a solid home to return to.

“For us, it’s been great family time,” says Rita. “We’ve been bored more in the last month than we had for years before that. We’ve all had to learn tolerance, too.”

Rita has entertained herself by learning how to cut hair.

“I watched three YouTube videos and now I’m an expert,” she jokes. “I’ve cut the kids’ hair, plus Steve’s and one of my sister’s kids. All with a beard trimmer!”

Julia has taken up baking, but says she feels the pressure to be doing more.

“I think we’re trained to always progress,” she says. “I don’t want to feel I’m wasting my time. I’d like to be working or studying but I just can’t at the moment. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

The Australian government recommends all international tourists return to their home country as quickly as possible, particularly those without family support. For more information, see Staying in Australia during COVID-19.

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