I saw an article recently in one of the Australian newspapers that described two weeks in the Howard Springs quarantine facility as being like ‘a holiday’…I’m going to disagree politely and describe it instead as a period of enforced inactivity in a tropical climate without a pool or a beach – but, like everything in life, it is what you make of it, and it is nowhere near as horrendous as being cooped up in a city hotel room without a balcony, the very thought of which makes me shudder.
I heard yesterday that the Australian Government are planning to increase the number of DFAT flights, and bring home over twice the number of stranded Aussies per fortnight – currently the camp holds around 800 for two weeks, that figure is apparently going to increase to 2000 by the end of April, which is good news for other Aussies trying to get home. And the facility is really very well run, and will cope with more bods, I believe. There are so many stats and numbers, (and rumours!), rolling round…
Of the 167 people on my March 9th flight from Heathrow, it appears 2 tested positive, although asymptomatic, for the virus – those poor souls were moved to D Block, their previous cabins taped off with yellow crime scene tape and with a large warning notice pasted on the door – and they have to do an extra 10 days quarantine, at their expense.
Only TWO of the flights that have already arrived since the camp opened have returned NO positive results. And, incidentally, the Qantas flight crew and cabin crew all have to do two weeks quarantine in the same accommodation.
You’ll receive the full Nose/Tonsil Assault test on arrival at the RAAF base in Darwin – again on Day 7 in the camp, and the last on Day 12 (currently). Results are messaged to you the next day. This rigorous testing does mean that there are currently no active cases in the NT though.
However. The intention in writing this was mainly to share and record my experience, and give those of you lucky enough to be heading home via Howard Springs in the future some top tips – what to bring, what I wish I’d brought, things I wish I had known, and generally how I, and some of my fellow detainees, have coped – very well on the whole!
It’s long, and you must stay in your seat except when using the loo – and no queuing for that either. There’s no inflight entertainment – I’m told that’s because the airlines have to pay a great deal of money for the right to offer it, which obviously they’re not going to do with hardly any flights. However, three movies were shown on mine…and I had downloaded stuff to watch before I left, plus of course, I had books. (Sadly, if you read my last post, I ended up stuck reading a rubbish one because in a cramped economy seat, once I’d dropped something, it was gone until the end of the flight – I couldn’t reach down for it!)
The food is adequate – on a 16 hour flight we received two meals and one snack. There’s a vegetarian or carnivorous option, but once one has gone, that’s it. No soft drinks or alcohol are served, but plenty of bottled water is available.
TOP TIP – I kept a couple of small water bottles from the plane, and have been using them in the facility rather than taking a big bottle outside to get warm – they’ll fit in the little freezer compartment in your fridge too.
You must wear a mask except when eating, and are given a goodly supply when boarding – change your mask regularly, they lose efficiency after a couple of hours. And no, you are not socially distanced – you will be sitting right next to someone. THAT freaked me out a bit after twelve months of social distancing!
ALCOHOL – don’t bother with duty free booze unless you’re happy to let the staff here store it safely for you until you leave. Howard Springs is alcohol free, so if you enjoy a tipple, prepare yourself for a detox. Think of the health benefits and weight loss! Smokers, don’t panic – more on that shortly.
WHAT HAPPENS ON ARRIVAL
THE BAD NEWS – if you are seated towards the rear of the plane, be prepared to be sitting on the plane for up to 3 hours waiting to disembark, the old fashioned way, down the stairs and along a cordoned path across the tarmac. However, the good news is…
GOOD NEWS – you’re in Australia! They’ll let you off in groups of about thirty, starting at the front – this is because once off, you go through a processing routine in a small area, which includes a) passport control, b) being given a big yellow envelope with your name on it – DON’T open it! and c) in another room, discovering the contents are your room pass and a Covid test kit which they’ll use on you, just three passengers at a time.
Then, you’ll find your hold baggage outside, and board a bus to be transported to the camp – about 25 minutes away. It truthfully is as efficient as it can be given the size of the RAAF building – you won’t come in through Darwin Airport at the other end of the runway.
When you reach the camp, you’ll find yourself with a nice sturdy trolley to haul your luggage, and be guided immediately to your accommodation, with no messing around – the staff won’t come near you and are all in full PPE, but they are very friendly!
Are OK! Howard Springs was originally built as accommodation for the workers on a gas plant, it stood unused for some time before being refurbished for its current purpose, and while not particularly pretty, it is functional and fit for purpose. With some lovely native trees and shrubs, and occasional sightings of wildlife.
You’ll be in a row of blocks of steel cabins, each with a shaded verandah, approx 2 x 4.5 metres, equipped with a table and chair. Inside, the air conditioning will be on to greet you… you’ll be glad of that, it is pretty warm here – and you’ll find a comfortable king single bed with two nice plump pillows, a small fridge, a kettle, a bathroom, and pretty much all you will need.
The blocks all face either south east or northwest, so you’ll get either morning or afternoon sun – and spectacular sunrises and sunsets – but shade through the middle of the day. You have to wear a mask on the verandah unless you are eating, drinking or smoking, and you are not allowed to leave the verandah except to pop rubbish in the bin, or go to the laundry.
Police patrol regularly, and are going to get quite cross with you if they catch you without a mask on – and you can be fined $5000 – so, hot and uncomfortable though they are, wear your mask. There’s a good supply of them in the cabin and you can ask for more if you need them.
THINGS IN THE CABIN
Spare set of linen for the bed, and a small fridge.
Four towels – no need to bring one – a couple of bathmats, and some seriously powerful water pressure in the shower! Masses of hot water at all times.
Teabags, instant coffee, sugar sachets, bottled water, (although the water here is absolutely fine to drink from the tap), long life milk, paper cups. A plastic sports drink bottle, and a plastic jug with a lid – I used mine to make and store iced tea – you need a fair quantity of fluids in the heat.
TOP TIP; I brought a china mug and my preferred brand of coffee, and have been glad of both. I also brought a plate, a set of stainless steel cutlery, and one of my sharp cooks knives, (obviously in my hold baggage), all of which have been used daily – I wash them in the bathroom sink, and, me being me, yes, I brought a tea cloth too! You are here for a fortnight – be comfortable.
An assortment of snacks – pot noodles, crisps etc. More on food later.
Guest size shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush and teeny tiny toothpaste, comb, sachets of laundry powder, insect repellent, (the mosquitoes are not as bad as I expected, but they are here), a small tube of sunscreen, anti bac hand gel, Dettol wipes, bars of soap, liquid anti bac hand soap.
TOP TIP – Ladies, if you have a collection of those sachet sample products like face masks etc lurking in a drawer, bring them with you – now’s the time to have fun using them. Give yourself a mini day spa, you’ll have time!
A bottle of cleaning spray, dustpan and brush, a bucket, and some cleaning cloths – you’ll be cleaning your own room. It fills some time…but I should add, the accommodation is really fresh and clean when you arrive.
Adequate power sockets – don’t forget your adaptor though! and a nice long bench with a chair. It took me a week to notice there was a light above the desk as well as the bed. Derrr.
A ‘wardrobe’ with a rail but no coat hangers, and some drawers too.
And.. your all important Health kit! A thermometer, an iPod, and an armband device you will be wearing every day to monitor your heart rate etc. All clearly explained in the welcome pack, so I shan’t go into it here, except to say you will be called every day by Telehealth to check you are OK and take your temperature. They’re nice and helpful, the call centre staff. And don’t forget…Nasal Assaults on your verandah, Day 7 and Day 12!
TOP TIP; get involved with the CSIRO survey team. They are running tests to see how quarantine can be improved/streamlined – it involves one pinprick blood test for antibodies, and a saliva sample and nasal swab (NOT the Deep Impact of the usual one!) every second day. They also ask a series of questions, it is all voluntary, totally worthwhile, plus they are lovely people visiting you every second day.
You’ll be given an Australian SIM card on arrival – mine was an Optus one that flatly refused to activate. Optus and I have never been friends – fortunately I had an Australian SIM already, and the free wifi is actually much better than I expected; it did drop out one day due to a power outage, but honestly, it has been fine overall despite the camp wide heavy Netflix use!
The grub here is plentiful to say the least, and it’s delivered each day around 5.45 to 6pm – you will receive a hot supper and a pudding for that evening, a separate bag containing a cold breakfast and lunch for the next day, plus a couple of snacks, a ‘popper’ box of fruit juice and a piece of fruit. Plastic or wooden cutlery, salt and pepper and a paper napkin are also in the bags. You must take your plague ridden self inside your cabin while the food is being delivered, but most of us then came out onto our verandah’s to eat – it’s a nice time to chat and be sociable with your neighbours/fellow inmates in the cool of the evenings. And watch the storms!
Most of it is good food with a fairly strong Asian influence – but a quick heads up, they repeat the menu weekly, so the surprise element is gone on week 2, sorry! We have had curries, laksa, and a particularly nice Asian duck salad, but also lamb shanks with mash and a lovely piece of barramundi in a coconut sauce with rice.
You cannot get delivery takeaway food here – no Deliveroo or Ubereats etc. BUT – you can place an online order with a supermarket which will be delivered to your cabin.
TOP TIP; I’ve used the local IGA store as it has a $20 minimum order – Coles has a $50 minimum. I’ve been buying extra fruit in the main part, which has all been really nice, and it arrives same day if you order before 12 noon, next day otherwise. There’s also a Click and Collect service with Big W.
LAUNDRY DAYS are RED LETTER DAYS!
There’s a schedule in your room telling you on which days you can use the laundry facility, and, my goodness, it’s exciting – you get to go for a couple of short walks! Mask on of course. For us it has been every second day. Plenty of washing machines and tumble dryers, all free, but bizarrely, in your room you will find clear bags you are supposed to put your washing into which apparently dissolve in the machine. I’m really not sure what that’s all about, and didn’t find them for some days anyway… but I have found something that needs washing on EVERY laundry day!
will keep you sane. Walking up and down the verandah with headphones is a common activity – I’ve been covering 2 to 3 miles a day listening to a favourite podcast – but it is a little odd and repetitive, and, disconcertingly, reminds me of Steve McQueen pacing his prison cell in Papillon.
This really is a great opportunity to address ‘winter’ fat though…download one of the many free apps, and go for it!
TOP TIP; One thing I really wish I had brought is a yoga mat.
As a smoker, I had decided to quit when I arrived home in Australia – it is an inordinately expensive habit here, you are a social pariah… and let’s face it, you really should give up anyway. However, I was a little concerned about dealing with quarantine AND nicotine withdrawals so I did bring some with me; although it’s worth noting that the Australian duty free allowance is just 25 cigarettes or 25 grams of tobacco unopened, plus one open packet. I didn’t see a Customs check at Darwin, but I’m sure they were there…be warned!
On the smoking front though, it turns out that the medical staff here don’t want you coping with withdrawals either, and of the three permissible activities during which you can be out on your verandah without a mask on, smoking is one of them. I’d declared that I was a smoker on the questionnaire, and I have a cabin at the end of a row, and with an empty one on the other side – whether this is so I wouldn’t offend my neighbours, I’m unsure…you are also, according to the Rule Book, permitted to leave your verandah and smoke in a directly adjacent area in order not to upset your neighbours, although on the one occasion I did this I was roundly ticked off by a member of staff!
DEPARTURE – OH HAPPY DAYS!!!!
A few days before you leave, your daily Telehealth call will include ‘and where are you going?’ Buses are arranged which will drop you at the airport – early enough to catch a morning flight if need be.
And yes, you’ll have a sturdy green trolley again to lug your stuff.
TOP TIP; I chose to spend a couple of nights in Darwin before flying home – mainly because I’ve never been here before, but also for a very vain reason, I really wanted to get my hair cut! HD Hair on Smith Street was recommended to me, I called a few days before ‘release’, and was delighted with them – recommend!
There are loads of accommodation options, and the bus will drop you off outside yours…at which point, you can take off your mask, and cry ‘Freedom!’
While becoming accustomed to no masks, shops, people, has been a little odd, it’s sinking in at last – and it was another reason I chose to stay here in Darwin, to ease myself back in gently.
In conclusion. A couple of points to note –
Most of the ‘quarantinies’ I spoke to had some difficulty sleeping well even after the jet lag had subsided – we put this down to general inactivity, despite all the exercise we did. But being awake super early means you will see some spectacular sunrises.
Again, most of us had one or two days where time really, really dragged. Having a range of activities – I brought a knitting project, books, a VAT return to complete, and my Netflix subscription – and creating a daily schedule helped enormously, as did social interaction with my neighbours. Having bods to chat to, albeit at a distance, really made such a huge difference, and is undoubtedly one of the massive perks of quarantining here instead of locked in a city hotel room. So don’t be shy, get to know your fellow detainees!
I do hope this helps if you are heading for Howard Springs. And I’m so glad to be home!