You have to hand it to Tourism Australia. Last year it was all Matesong, sharing images of our Kylie against a glorious blue-skied Australia which did not exist in any way, shape or form as we battled the worst bushfires in memory. Then the international campaign was paused because no one could or would travel. We were filled with fear of Covid.
Australia's tourism sector is desperate for a clear timeline on the reopening of our international borders. I get that. All those lovely international visitors with their large wallets (and in a budget surprise, the government won't be opening the borders anytime soon). Instead, here we are and Tourism Australia is plugging the "Holiday Here This Year" campaign, which encourages Australians to support tourism operators and communities around the country by booking and planning a domestic holiday. And to spend a truckload of money.
A recent report by Tourism Australia said we weren't holidaying enough. Our breaks should be longer in order for us to be healthy, happy "less irritable and three times less likely to argue with their family, friends or partners". OK then. Challenge accepted.
On Anzac Day morning, we decided to do exactly that by booking 12 nights in the Kimberley (which, by the way, is in Western Australia and not the Northern Territory). Or, as the WA ads go, we decided to "Wander Out Yonder". Barely a case of Covid in the country, only the odd historical case with far less pandemic panic. Perfect. We'd planned a beautiful Kimberley holiday in 2020 and then every single venue we booked, from Broome through to Halls Creek and beyond, rang or emailed to say we weren't welcome (for good reason). The eastern states were hotbeds of disease, and why would you open up your borders to that kind of risk?
I don't usually pray. But this time I had a pandemic prayer at the ready: 'Dear Gaia, please do not let me end up in hotel quarantine.'
Australians are dead keen travellers, although usually keener to hop on a plane than hire a four-wheel-drive. Now we are back, baby. But it is not quite as easy to holiday here as the ads make it sound. Plus, as new research from the Tourism and Transport Forum reveals, Australians are nervous about interstate travel, recognising Western Australia and Queensland as the most likely to close borders. I'm good with whatever decisions the premiers make, but seriously it was conniptions akimbo as take-off approached.
Let me say I don't usually pray. But this time I had a pandemic prayer at the ready: "Dear Gaia, please do not let me end up in hotel quarantine."
Just as I was about to catch a cab to the airport, news emerged of "barbecue man", the Sydneysider seemingly in search of the perfect ribeye and grill. One man's barbecue is another woman's lockdown in a very unholiday-like venue. Entry to Darwin was terrifying: Are you now or have you ever been to any of the major barbecue outlets on this list? Or the movies? Do you go to supermarkets? Why haven't you downloaded our own proprietary app?
When you do download each of the state and territory-based apps, you get an avalanche of notifications which are so terrifying, you may not actually want to open them.
As for the practicalities, it turns out booking flights is more expensive than it was a year ago. What I paid $220 for last year (and finally got my money back months later, and when I say money I mean credit) is now $400. I absolutely could not avail myself of any of the cheap fares to anywhere. In the end, we used Darwin as our staging post and then on to Kununurra, gateway to the east Kimberley. An absolute fortune, which an old lady can afford, to deposit me somewhere as strange and marvellous as the Viking Club in Aarhus.
I love the transformative nature of holidays, and since it's unlikely I'll be doing ice swims in the near future, the baking heat of Western Australia promised a change from the temperate state of the east coast.
We scored two seats. We needed urgent help but Qantas' call centre appeared to be broken. After two hours I gave up and called the only person I know with one of those golden tickets, a lifetime frequent flyer. It even took him hours to get through, but eventually my cancelled flights were reinstated.
Getting accommodation required the kind of nagging usually reserved for teenagers in the final year of school. As for car hire, there is a dramatic shortage of car rentals across Australia, so I presumed I was going to have to walk from Kununurra to the Bungle Bungles via Emma Gorge and Warmun. Then I offered to name our next grandchild Avis (not even I could stomach calling a kid Hertz). Fortunately a 4WD came through at the last minute, since there is no point coming to the Kimberley in a sedan.
But here we are. Despite the TTF's gloomy prediction that one-third of Australians wouldn't even consider travelling over the next 12 months, the Kimberley is filled with folks from the east coast, each with their wry anecdote of pandemic paranoia which includes fear of reading the news in case they end up in quarantine, and fear of text messages from unknown numbers.
But Natasha Mahar, chief executive of Australia's North West Tourism, is feeling very chirpy. A year ago, the Kimberley was as dead as a dodo. Now there are queues at every remote servo (and let me recommend the grilled barramundi and chips at the Warmun Roadhouse). Instead of telling people to wander out yonder next week or even next month, she's urging people to think about booking for next year and even the year after. Mahar was surprised we could get anything at all with just 10 days' notice, and I have to say I'm a little embarrassed at how often I rang the accommodation around El Questro begging for anything. Begging.
The restrictions around remote art centres are lifting slowly and on a case-by-case basis. The waterholes, like swimming in soda water, are open for business and splashing because even in May, it is roasting. The rocks are redder, the skies bigger and bluer, than you've ever seen; and kapok flowers as yellow as butter. Night skies have all the stars, all of them. There are tiny rainbow bee-eaters and soaring black cockatoos and walks which will make you forget some of your worries.
The Kimberley is beautiful and wild and definitely in WA. You should be here too. There can never be enough kids called Avis.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist. This holiday was paid for by her and her spouse and she did not get any freebies of any kind. The only benefit received was not having to write about the budget for the first time in 30 years.