The stars guide us home

By allrite on September 26, 2019


Posted in: Durians and Jewels, Flights

As the holiday comes to a close I feel that I am finally, too late, reaching a point of relaxation and contentment. Instead of walking to the Maxwell Food Centre I finally convince them to cross the road to the nearer and smaller Tanjong Pagar Plaza Food Centre. I actually think the food is better here, especially from the Ah Seng Laksa and Prawn Mee store and I regret wasting valuable eating time in its more touristy cousin nearby.

We do a bit of shopping, at the tourist spots of Robertsons Quay and Orchard Road, before retreating back to the Oasia Hotel. I paid extra for a package that allows us a late checkout. Lying alone on a sunbed by the pool area, feeling the warmth of the tropical air, listening to susurrus of the breeze through the lattice and vines, I regret having to return home. I feel the urge to do nothing but eat and relax, to spend time doing nothing in that way that the other two cannot.

As always, there is a sense of apprehension prior to flight that hangs over the day. We leave the hotel later than we usually would, catch the MRT to Terminal 3. Unfortunately our Sky Train to Terminal 1 doesn’t pass through the Jewel and, considering the time we spent there yesterday, it is fortunate that we did not wait until today to explore it.

Check in via a desk this time and immigration is the fastest its been on this trip. The first thing Alex wants to do is go to the lounge. He’s obsessed with visiting them. To his disappointment, but not to my surprise, the Qantas Business lounge is full and we are directed to the SATS Premier Lounge nearby.

The chairs are comfortable and the food selection seems reasonable. I eat sparingly, some turmeric rice, curry, tomato soup. Alex gobbles down the beef bolognaise with mashed potatoes, B has hor fun, noodles in broth. There are cakes and drinks as well. I sit and relax, use the Internet. The weather maps show little in the way of turbulence between us and home.

The school holidays rush has meant that we are flying home via Brisbane, connecting to a domestic flight to Sydney. It won’t be our first international arrival there, as Jetstar flights from Narita used to also stop in Brisbane on the way back.

When we leave there is little time for exploring the airport further as our gate, D49, is at the opposite end of the terminal, though Alex does stop to play at the Social Tree. It is necessary to give additional time in Changi as the security scans are done at the gate. Fortunately, the large waiting area has toilet facilities and plentiful charge points as we wait for the actual boarding.

QF52 is completely full tonight. Families with children under the age of five are invited to board first, followed by boarding by blocks of rows, starting from the rear of the Airbus A330-300.

When we board I am seated at the window over the wing, stranger seated beside in the aisle seat, with B and Alex behind me, the seating configuration being 2-4-2. The interior doesn’t feel quite as fresh as on the flight up, though the facilities are the same.

The Captain welcomes us on board and praises the passengers for boarding quickly, saying that it is only a short taxi to the runway and should be a pretty smooth flight, words of comfort.

There is a safety demonstration, then it is indeed not far to the runway to begin our take-off towards the south. As we rise and turn I can see the lights of Singapore city to my right, the floating lanterns of ships in the Strait. The sparkling jewels of the land are replaced by inky darkness, the aircraft turning again towards Borneo, layers of cloud obscuring any light below.

Printed menus are handed out. The selections look attractive:

All served with herb bread.

I’m not hungry and I just accept the Weis passionfruit and coconut ice cream bar when it is offered for dessert. Once the meals are finished the cabin lights are dimmed and I can at last see the stars outside the window. The Southern Cross points our way south, Scorpius’ long tail wraps around the sky with super giant Antares, a star nearing the end of its life, a bright red in the imaginary line.

Antares is estimated to be six hundred and eighty times the diameter of our Sun, taking it out beyond the orbit of Mars. Their cores have exhausted the hydrogen to helium fusion process that powers main sequence stars like our sun, their cores collapsing further to such pressure that helium and heavier elements can fuse to create new elements. But their grip on the outer layers of gas becomes more tenuous and they expand and cool, their spectrum moving to the red end. So too will our own Sun expand to swallow the Earth before gradually fading away into a white dwarf, unable to burn any longer. But a star as massive as Antares will retain so much mass in the core that the energy generated by fusion will no longer be enough to stop it collapsing before it explodes into a supernova. I love astrophysics, studied some at university and started in my current job with the group that looks after most of Australia’s radio telescopes. So gazing out at the stars far from city lights and high above the clouds brings much comfort. B and Alex are either asleep or busy watching videos behind me. I use the quiet time to listen to an Art of the Score podcast on the Empire Strikes Back. One of the podcasters conducted the Harry Potter concert I attended prior to departure. It’s difficult to find time to focus for a whole hour and a half when the day is broken up into so many little bits.

Even now there are distractions. Despite the captain’s statement and the lack of high cloud, the flight is not smooth. There are constant bumps, like passing over a rough road, as we seeming fight the same winds as on the way up. The seatbelt lights are never lit and there are no great drops, but it is annoying. B actually says she felt motion sick and she normally doesn’t care. Once the podcast is finished I try watching an old movie, The Accidental Tourist. It features William Hurt as a business travel writer who doesn’t show much interest in the places he visits, though the main reason I watch is for John Williams’ score. I make it half the way through and give up. We fly over bumpy Timor airspace and meet the Australian continent across the Northern Territory. There are lines of fires below. A colleague who was visiting the area for a conference at the time tell me that the air was very smoky and that Indigenous people are paid to perform burns and may perhaps go overboard, though it plays a major role in traditional environmental land management.

There are glimpses of the lights of mines and towns, though much of the land is sparsely inhabited.  Fortunately the air stabilises as we move into the interior and it is possible to enjoy the flight. I try another movie, Doctor Strange. I’m not really a Marvel fan, but have seen the odd one, and Doctor Strange is diverting. I’ve left it late, which means that I can’t afford to pause it too often.

Breakfast is served with about an hour and a half to go and I am hungry enough to eat now. It’s a tiny lemon muffin and a fruit salad, which is fine by me. I’d rather eat that than a hot breakfast. B’s hand taps me on the shoulder and I take my earphones off to discover that she wants my sick bag. Alex has woken up too early and is feeling so nauseous that he throws up, fortunately in the bag. There’s not much we can do. We have begin our descent into Brisbane. The movie finishes and I quickly switch to the audio playlist of the few soundtrack albums on the system. Brisbane’s city lights come into view, the causeway bridge at Redcliffe that I remember from previous trips. It’s not even six AM and most of the city is still asleep as we drift downwards in the darkness for a smooth landing, a pleasant end to a flight that started roughly and gradually improved.

As we approach the terminal I spot the Brisbane International sign lit up in bright blue italic letters. Suddenly I am transported back a couple of decades. In January 1991, about to start my final year of high school, I was given the opportunity to travel to Canberra to attend a science summer school for a couple of weeks. Alone for the entirety of my high school with a passion for learning and science it was a magical experience.

It was also the first time I had flown since I was maybe 18 months old. That is a story in itself and the aerial journey was a precious part of my memories. I had a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator 3 and a couple of IBM compatible PCs in our house. The graphics were very primitive in those days. The default starting point of Meigs Field aerodrome off Chicago was populated with the widest range of structures. From there I would fly out to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which had another interesting array of buildings. You needed to use your imagination to fill in the details in those days and for me I would pretend that I was back on those flights between Canberra and Rockhampton. Somewhere, in amongst all those structures, was a terminal building with a big blue sign that was like the one in Brisbane. I used to shuttle between Rockhampton and Canberra with stops in Brisbane and Sydney and, as with that flight in 1992, the transit times in Brisbane were around four hours. Enough time to catch the bus to Roma Street Station, a train into the city, do a little wandering and return. The big journey is over, one last flight remains and we don’t have anything like four hours, less than an hour and a half. Alex is still feeling queasy and clutching on to a sick bag as we exit the aircraft. We use the Smart Gates to pass through immigration. It takes a while for our luggage to appear, as you need to collect your bags and pass through Customs and Quarantine before transferring to a domestic flight. Fortunately, customs is quite quick. We already have our boarding passes and the bags are tagged for Sydney, so dropping them off at the Qantas domestic transit desk is very quick. Unfortunately, the process of transferring passengers is rather more complicated. We exit the International Terminal in the brightening dawn light and join the queue for the free shuttle bus to the Domestic Terminal. A bus pulls up, but its capacity is too small for the line, so we are left waiting another ten minutes for the next one. Others behind us miss out.

The route between the terminals is tortuous. A bit more of a delay and we may well have missed our flight. I remember Qantas offering an even tighter connection, which I’m glad we did not accept. Sadly there is not enough time to visit the refurbished Qantas Club lounge and grab a more substantial breakfast. Also to use the facilities. When we reach the gate the only nearby toilets are out of service, meaning that I still haven’t gone to the bathroom since departing Singapore.

Our ride to Sydney is a Qantas Boeing 737-800. I’ve caught only few of these aircraft over the past few years, which is surprising considering their ubiquity in the Qantas fleet. This particular aircraft is one of the older versions with fold down screens and an interior that brings back more than a few memories.

What is new is that it offers free wifi access, though it takes me a while to work out how to authenticate properly. References to the Qantas Entertainment App, which is already installed on my phone, also seem circular. Outside, the newest edition of the Qantas fleet pulls up, a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. I haven’t caught a Qantas one yet, only Jetstar and Scoot.

The flight is again absolutely full. The captain welcomes us aboard over the PA and a safety demonstration is performed by crew and displayed on the drop down screens as we taxi towards the runway.

We roar up into the sky towards the south, then curve over the Brisbane River, though always staying inland of the coast, the shimmering morning ocean to our left before it is obscured beneath a blanket of coastal cloud.

The ceiling screens are lowered down again after being hidden for take-off and show the latest news, audio available through the armrest sockets. The seat backs have slots for holding a tablet, but I am just using my phone. There is no proper flight map available in the Qantas app, but there is a moving map showing points of interest below. I really like the concept, though I wish the information was more detailed. As mentioned on the flight to Singapore, I’d love to know the history, geology and environment of the lands beneath us.

A breakfast is served. I select the warm ciabatta with streaky bacon, guacamole, cheese and sriracha ketchup. I wish it didn’t have that thin layer of avocado, but it is otherwise pretty nice. I’m now starting to feel really hungry after not eating much last night.

Often an early morning domestic flight is a pure joy of drifting through smooth skies. Not today. Like the previous flight, there are lots of niggling bumps the whole way. They aren’t scary, but it’s annoying and doesn’t help any of our stomachs.

We are all exhausted. I drift off for around ten minutes. When I awake the green landscape below has patches of morning fog clinging to valleys and rivers and dams shimmering quicksilver as they reflect the sun.

At least there is no cloud in the sky as we begin our descent into Sydney. We make a turn out towards the sea, crossing over the Northern Beaches in order to loop around for a final approach from the south. It’s a pity. I always associate long distance arrivals with landing from the north, despite doing the southern route so many times now.

The aircraft fights the crosswinds as we descend lower and lower. There’s the cliff walls of the Royal National Park, the Hacking River and Cronulla Beach. Over the fuel terminal and sand mining of the Kurnell Peninsula, crossing into Botany Bay.

We touch down on the third runway, reverse thrust and brakes, momentum pushing our bodies forward.

Then we trundle towards the Domestic Terminal 3, past the morning operations, the wide bodies from distant lands, the smaller jets and turboprops to places nearer by.

As a domestic flight, there are no entry formalities and our luggage is quickly available on the belt. B has left her phone and Opal card back in Singapore, but fortunately credit cards allow her to tap through to the train and the local bus driver remembers me from my frequent journeys in years past and waives her through.

It’s a warm sunny day as we roll our luggage home along the footpath and we enjoy the clear fresh air in contrast to Singapore’s humidity and the aircraft cabin’s stuffiness.

After my unwillingness to leave, is it good to be back? I cannot be certain, for just as I had settled into the holiday, life’s routines have returned and I must work straight away. I feel more energised in some ways, less so in others, unsettled.

I wonder if it’s a bad idea to have a dream journey, if setting expectations is just setting you up for disappointment. So many of the best travel memories are only realised well after the event, tidied up and embellished by the mind.

I miss the spontaneity that comes with unplanned travel compared with the need to ensure that everyone is satisfied. When I fantasise about my ideal journey it’s only the beginning that is fixed, and even that has many options. Everything else is just a collection of moments, of colours, textures and emotions. That’s what makes it so hard to pin down, so difficult to express.

In the end it doesn’t matter if a trip was perfect or not, just that you had a good time. And I did. There are many little moments to remember. The flood plains in the desert, a waterspout off the coast, riding bicycles beneath a tropical canopy, a breakfast of roti canai, the stars out the window as we fly home. Small things that, when assembled together, make a journey worthwhile. That is what we live for.


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