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TRAVEL REPORT - A Once in a Lifetime Cruise

By Gerry Daly

2020 was going to be a great year. I had booked some well overdue long service leave and was looking forward to a 20 day cruise that took in the Maldives, Petra, Jerusalem, Greek Isles, Adriatic coast and Venice. The plan from there was to spend a few weeks going through central Europe and a quick stop in Ireland before getting back to Perth in time for the AP Bridge Championships in April.

The cruise was due to start at the beginning of March. At that stage there was some concern about the minor outbreak in North Italy. However it would be sorted out by the time we got there, after all the Chinese had managed to bring a much worse outbreak under control. Worst case scenario we wouldn't make it to Venice and would have to amend some travel plans.....or so I thought.

For once "the glass half full" approach to life fell short of the mark. A couple of days before embarking, the start point of the cruise changed. We were not wanted in the Maldives. Furthermore Italians and Chinese and anyone with temperatures, colds etc. would not be allowed to get on board. Undaunted we headed off to Dubai where we now had to while away the days originally allocated for the Maldives. Already Dubai was looking watchful, the massive shopping malls were quiet but other areas still active. As soon as we embarked our itinerary changed again with another port cancelled. Ominously another liner, docked alongside our Costa Victoria, had its voyage cancelled entirely. The first few days were sea days and we quickly settled into the gentle pace of life at sea; lots of eating, trivia challenges, meeting people, shows, walks, swimming and general lolling about. The vessel was carrying only half its usual load of passengers - 850 out of 1500 capacity. Over 300 of those were Aussies with probably more than half from WA.

Over the next few days we had two ports of call in Oman, the stops that were of the lowest interest to the Daly's. Sadly we didn't take full advantage as this proved to be our last landfall. By now news coming in from Italy was grim. Slowly life on the ship was impacted. The nightly show was cancelled and being on an Italian ship some social distancing measures in line with Italian law were implemented. We got told that stops at Petra and Israel were cancelled. This was a great disappointment. Disquiet was starting to spread. The captain was under duress trying to manage a difficult situation and the vocal complaints of some passengers with a strong sense of entitlement. I was still happy to enjoy the slow pace and be intrigued by such novelties as noting the mounting of water cannon on the lower decks in anticipation of pirate attacks as we passed through the Gulf of Aden. Captain's mission was now to get through the Suez Canal ASAP with promise of some stops in Greece, but no certainty about our final destination. Nobody wanted to go to Venice anymore!

Passing the Suez is a sight to be taken in and kept the idle travellers busy for the day.

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Our convoy of 92 ships Heading up the Suez

Joy was short lived however when we heard that all European stops were now cancelled. We were to shelter off Crete until a destination port could be found. By this stage there was trouble brewing. Articles were appearing in Australian newspapers painting dire pictures of life on board. "Ship of death" was one such article penned by a journo in touch with a disgruntled passenger. This was scaring families of other passengers. There were two camps emerging among the passengers on board loosely the "whingers" and the "optimists". The latter were trying to support morale and even went so far as penning and recording a song focusing on the positives....unlike back home there was plenty of food and no shortage of loo rolls at sea!!

On March 22nd we were still sheltering off Crete enjoying the views of the snow-capped mountains and usual activities. We were all getting a bit sick of the "preventative measures", after all we had been isolated from the outside world for almost two weeks. Then suddenly it all changed. Without warning we were confined to cabins. A very ill lady had been disembarked to Crete the previous day and returned a positive Covid test.

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Killing time off Crete but not able to land

The next morning we woke early to a fiery and glorious sunrise and later that day got a volcanic salute as we dashed passed Stromboli. Was nature giving us portents?

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Glorious Sunrise off Crete

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Stromboli gives a volcanic salute as we sprint past in our dash for Rome

The remainder of that week was not so pleasant though having a balcony we were better off than those confined to internal cabins. Days were passed in communication with folk in other cabins trying to piece together what was going on. Our only viable destination was Italy and this scared a lot of people despite the Captain's assurance that we would not be abandoned onto the dock.

We eventually made port just North of Rome but our adventure was not over yet. The local mayor did not want us to disembark, even to allow us to get to the airport to fly home. Flights had been suspended anyway. There were anxious days spent as the ambassador in Rome worked to get us out and home. This was made much more stressful by very poor communication on the ship at that time. Our cabin was port side so at least we could see dock side activity and report to friends when a particular nationality got released.

Finally one night we were woken up at 1am and told to be ready to depart next morning. The transfer itself was a nightmare - approximately 300 Aussies with 10-15/bus with social distancing, masks, etc. We started the operation at 8am for a 3pm departure. It was a daunting sight walking through the airport and seeing the hundreds of beds laid out in anticipation of need. Was it an emergency hospital or a mortuary?

The social distancing was quickly undone as we were crammed three to a row in the plane and to our horror we were mixed freely with 30 passengers from another cruise known to have Covid on board, although theoretically anyone with Covid/temperature was not allowed to depart.

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Our last night onboard

Of course there was great relief to be "safe" and on the way home. All were tired with the long flight and the disruption the previous night. We had not expected to be held standing around for 5 hours in Perth under AFP guard after the 18 hour flight before we were taken under police escort with all traffic lights held to our quarantine. Bear in mind that a lot of the passengers were elderly and had to lug their own luggage up and down steps. Our reception was mixed. Some faces were very welcoming while others treated us rudely, like criminals or lepers. It was a rude shock.

Our next two weeks were spent in lockdown in the Crown. It was galling to hear stories of 4 star luxuries when the reality is you are locked in a room where you cannot even open a window. Normal hotel service is suspended. It was a backward step for us having had fresh air on our balcony on ship but a welcome improvement for those who were in internal cabins.

We were the first to go into quarantine and the processes were not developed. It was very poorly organised and communicated and extremely frustrating to be a part of, particularly as release dates approached ... and passed. There was one Doctor and nurse per hotel and these changed daily so there was no continuity. People were left to suffer in their rooms unattended unless sick enough to warrant hospitalisation. Highlights were comfort drops and "visits" from friends. Those waves from the car park were more valuable than the goodies.

As we went into lockdown on the ship we were convinced no one had Covid. How wrong we were. A number of people I had close contact with had mild sore throats a day or so before lockdown. I had this fleetingly a day or so later. The others I mention developed other symptoms, in one case loss of sense of smell and taste and headaches. The latter were attributed to lack of caffeine, unavailable after the lockdown. Another generally felt poorly with some diarrhoea. Both these cases showed up with elevated temperatures on arrival at Perth and tested positive. There were not enough tests to test other likely candidates.

They were only issued to those obviously infected. I eventually had a test which was negative but another person with the same circumstance also had an initial negative test and a positive the next day. The two cases mentioned above both got worse to the extent of having breathing difficulty but did not require hospitalisation. Others were not so lucky and had more serious symptoms. One lady passed away and her husband had to remain at Crown and could not be with her at the end. The lady dropped off in Crete was a cause to celebrate there, apparently their first and only case. She recovered after 3 weeks in a coma.

So there was a different 2020 than planned. The interesting sights are all still on the bucket list but strangely I still enjoyed my time on the cruise. I'll happily jump on another cruise as soon as is viable and hopefully I have some immunity to this dastardly bug.

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Our view of Crown car park


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