Pausing for a Pandemic

We knew our trip would have many unexpected twists and turns, but having to stop travelling for a global pandemic was certainly not something we imagined happening. In our last blog we had just arrived into Singapore, completing the first leg of our journey. Five months later, we have still not been able to properly start leg two. Here’s a little update of what we’ve been doing between then and now.

Days 304-306: 17/01/2020 – 19/01/2020
Location: Singapore

We are not city people. To us, cities are loud, dirty, busy, and expensive, but Singapore was something different, and like no city we’d ever been to. We spent a brilliant four days exploring. The budget was blown out of the window (Singapore is certainly not a place to go to on a budget), but nonetheless we quickly fell in love with the modern architechture, green landscapes, ease of the metro system, and the huge variety of restaurants and cafes.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Four days were long enough to get a real feel for the place and “see the sights”, but we left knowing that we would be back. Our highlights included the Shophouse Museum in China Town, the Gardens by the Bay evening light show, and cocktails on top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

View from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Not only were we able to share our time in Singapore with my (Charlie’s) parents, but we also managed to coincide our trip with two other sets of friends who were visiting at the same time. This included backpackers Harry and Issie who we first met in India, then again in Thailand. Catching up with friends was the cherry on top of our tasty Singapore cake.

Botanic Gardens with Charlie’s parents, Singapore
Cocktails with Harry and Issie on top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore

Day 307-340: 20/01/2020 – 22/02/2020
Location: Melaka, Malaysia

We left Singapore and drove back to Melaka, staying once again at the Rucksack Caratel “Poshtel”. This is when we first heard about Coronavirus from family members back home. They questioned whether my parents should end the remaining two weeks of their trip early, but we laughed the idea away – we hadn’t seen or heard anything about this Corona-thing in Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand, so it wasn’t really an issue.

When my parents got home from their trip a couple of weeks later, my Mum developed a pretty rough cold. She was one of the first few people to be tested for COVID-19 in the UK. It ended up just being a cold as the test was negative.

We intended to stay a week in Melaka before doing some more travelling around Malaysia. Prior to Singapore we’d only spent nine days in Malaysia, so there was still plenty more to see. However a week later, we weren’t particularly looking forward to the prospect of leaving. The excitement of being on the road, finding new places to camp every few nights and discovering a new country had gone. Adding to our lack of enthusiasm, was the unbearable humidity that took a lot of the joy out of walking and camping. After eight months, we were ready to say goodbye to Asia and only really had eyes for our next intended destination: Australia.

So we decided to stay put for a little longer, booking ourselves into Rucksack for a month. We kept ourselves busy, reading, sunbathing by the pool, going for walks through the town, catching up on blogs, and trying to organise shipping for the car.

Parked up at Rucksack

The first time we properly noticed the effects of Cornavirus was around Chinese New Year (end of January). As a UNESCO Heritage town with a thriving Chinese quarter, tourists from all over the world flock to Melaka during Chinese New Year. Rucksack had been pre-booked months in advance, so we moved to a different hostel for a few nights.

Leading up to the New Year weekend, we began to notice more people wearing face masks, and for the first time ever saw European tourists wearing masks too. On Saturday night we ventured out into the town, excited to experience to celebrations and festivities. However, after a few minutes of walking through the extremely crowded street, shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people, we retreated back to our hostel. Social distancing was still an unheard term at this point, but knowing how the virus spreads we decided that the experience of Chinese New Year in Malaysia was not worth the risk of getting ill.

Chinese New Year in Melaka

On our return back to Rucksack a few days later, lots had changed. Staff were all wearing masks and the reception desk had a big bottle of hand sanitiser for everyone to use. There were signs explaining why they were, what coronavirus was, and how to protect yourself from it. Suddenly coronavirus was at the forefront of every social media scroll, news article and conversation.

We finally heard back from our shipping agents to find that the whole process was going to be delayed; most of the container ships are Chinese run/owned, and were completely closed for the next few weeks due to the virus.

As we returned to our new routine of living in Melaka, an overlanding family came to stay at Rucksack. Carine and Aleksis had driven their camper-van from Switzerland to Malaysia with their four (yes four!) children. Like us, they were at the end of the first part of their journey. They planned to ship their vehicle to Russia, spending a few months in Australia without the vehicle whilst it was in transit, and then drive back to Switzerland from Russia in time for the start of the school year in September. As we swapped stories and plans, it was a relief to hear that like us, they had lost some of their travelling mojo. They too were ready to leave SE Asia and excited to get to Australia as soon as possible. We jealously waved goodbye to them after they managed to arrange shipping in just a matter of days before their scheduled flights to Australia.

Carine, Aleksis and their family from Switzerland

Finally, as our month long booking at Rucksack was about to come to an end, our shipping plans were finalised. As we were shipping from Bangkok, we had to drive 1000 miles north which was in our eyes the wrong direction. We got back on the road again, and unbeknown to us had our last wild camping night for several months.

Camping for the last time in Thailand

The next blog will be a pretty detailed account about our next few weeks, which was largely spent cleaning the car in preparation for it being shipped to Australia. So for now, I will skip this part and fast forward to three weeks later.

Day 359-362: 12/03/2020 – 15/03/2020
Location: Pattaya City & Bangkok, Thailand

The process of shipping from SE Asia to Australia takes around a month. During this time we planned to fly to Vietnam. It is pretty tricky (and expensive) to take a foreign vehicle into Vietnam, so this was ideal for us; we could still visit but without the hassle of trying to get Natalie in too.

It was mid-March. Coronavirus (now called COVID-19) was well and truly turning the world upside down, and had just been officially declared a pandemic. To everyone’s surprise, Italy had become an epicenter of the virus, with the number of cases exceeding those in China.

Lack of toilet roll was never an issue in Thailand, but face masks and hand sanitiser quickly sold out everywhere

At this point, we were still able to travel freely throughout SE Asia and Australia – the only travel restrictions in place were for people coming from China or Italy. Social distancing was becoming the phrase on everyone’s lips, but it still wasn’t being practised in many countries. Chris suggested that we shouldn’t go to Vietnam, but go straight to Australia as he was worried about not being able to get in. I thought he was crazy, there was no way that a country would ban all foreign visitors completely. I really didn’t want to miss out on a whole month of travelling due to an unlikely “what if”.

A few days later, cases were escalating faster, and Chris had managed to convince me that maybe we shouldn’t go to Vietnam. The next day Vietnam announced that it would no longer be issuing tourist visas. We booked flights to Australia.

An hour before we were due to leave for the airport to fly to Australia, they announced that all international arrivals would need to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival. This was to go into effect nine hours before we arrived. We manically set about trying to find somewhere to stay, and cancelling our previous plans of staying with friends. Thankfully, by the end of our 4 hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur we’d been able to arrange flights from Melbourne to Hobart and a self contained Airbnb for our isolation period.

Waiting at the airport hoping that our flight wouldn’t be the next one to come up as cancelled

Day 363-423: 16/03/2020 – 15/05/2020
Location: Mount Nelson & Blackman’s Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Over the next few days, it became obvious that we’d made our decision to fly to Australia at just the right time. On day two of our self isolation, Malaysia (where our connecting flight had been) cancelled all international flights. On day six, Australia stopped allowing foreigners in. Had our flight been 24 hours later, we would probably have become stuck in SE Asia with not many favourable options. If they’d been six days later we would have had to end the whole trip. Thank goodness Chris had convinced me not to go to Vietnam.

This was the view from our “isolation unit” – it certainly made not being able to go outside a bit easier

Thankfully we didn’t find self isolation too difficult. We were already used to being in each other’s company all of the time, so that was no different. As we’ve spent the last year living in a car, having an apartment with four whole rooms to spread ourselves across was a bit of a luxury. Our nearby friends brought over plenty of supplies and treats. Before we knew it our two weeks were over and we moved into our friend’s house. After a long time of being just the two of us, suddenly we were living in a family of four (Alex and Mick, Hamish the baby, and Billy the dog). Seven weeks later, here we still are!

Natalie was ready for collection about a month after we’d arrived. Collecting her was slightly complicated as she was waiting for us in Victoria (whilst we were in Tasmania) and inter-state travel was banned under the COVID-19 restrictions. It didn’t take long to organise her to go on the ferry as cargo and we picked her up at the other end the following day.

Reunited with Natalie at last

Thankfully, Australia’s COVID-19 cases have so far remained fairly low. The restrictions are starting to be lifted, and all being well, we should be able to start travelling and camping in Tasmania from the middle of June. We are hoping that interstate travel will come back fairly soon, but it is difficult to plan too far ahead at the moment, as we just don’t know how everything will pan out over the coming weeks and months. Overall though we know that our COVID-19 overlanding story could have been so much worse, and we are just grateful to be safe, happy and hopefully back on the road again soon.

3 thoughts on “Pausing for a Pandemic

Add yours

  1. Hello, I am just coming across your blog but have noticed your valuable contributions in iOverlander while we were driving on the silk road during summer 2019.
    I was fascinated to read your report of your experiences in the run-up to MCO. We very much understand what you have gone thru as we experienced very similarly: as border closings set in we were aiming to get back to Thailand but were too late … by just a few hours … and found ourself stuck in Malaysia. We spent MCO in Tanah Rata and ‚survived‘ quite well … but currently have no option to leave Malaysia as shipping back to Europe is not an option for us.
    Initially, out plan was to drive to India, would be in Myanmar right now … but at this point this is beyond any horizon. We had hopes to ‚escape‘ to Australia when talks about ‚green travel channels‘ between Malaysia and Australia were announced in early summer … but thats been wiped off the agenda in the mean-time.
    So we currently enjoy Melaka … just a few scattered domestic tourists but no foreigners, ie we have Jonker Street almost to ourself … and lot of time to think what might come next …
    Best regards, Elki


    1. Hi Elki, great to hear from you! We love iOverlander, it has been so good to use during our trip so its really nice to hear from someone who has benefitted from our contributions on the app 🙂

      Sorry to hear how much of your trip has been changed due to COVID. It is so difficult knowing what is best to do at the moment and with us, every time that we’ve made a new plan, something has changed and we’ve had to start again with planning – I imagine it is similar for you!

      We also spent quite a while in Melaka (although short in comparison to you!) right at the start of the year. It was quieter than usual due to COVID but there were still a few tourists there at that point. It must be like a ghost town now. I hope that you are able to get back on the road again soon!

      For us, our journey is now unfortunately coming to an end. We are starting to run out of money, so can’t afford to sit out COVID any longer and will be flying home at the start of December. We are sad to not have been able to “complete” our tour of Australia, but so grateful that we’ve got some travelling in during this very strange time. Hopefully we will be able to return to Australia to continue the trip in a few years time.

      All the best for your future travels, when-ever and where-ever they may be! Charlie & Chris


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