Thursday, 24 Sep 2020

‘Why would you go back?’: Victorians at home in NT quarantine centre

Drive south east from Darwin Airport for 30 minutes and you will arrive at an old mining camp – the Manigurr-ma Village for fly-in fly-out natural gas workers.

Until recently, this complex was abandoned. Today, it is perhaps the most popular travel destination for Melbourne escapees.

Travellers in quarantine at Howard Springs.Credit:Ben Sale

Welcome to the Howard Springs Quarantine Facility. With hard border closures across the country, and exemptions nearly impossible to obtain, a 14-day stay at this facility is the surest way out of stage four lockdown. I'm here to quarantine before work with an Aboriginal legal service in Darwin. There are hundreds of others.

There's a Melbourne mother who spent the past weeks home-schooling her three young boys by day and doing her own job at night. They're desperate to reunite with the boys' Darwin-based father.

A man, retrenched during the second lockdown, and his wife, trying to get to Perth where new jobs await.

A family mediator, in transit on the way to her partner in Sydney who recently spent four weeks in hospital with a serious infection. Six years ago, he accidentally typed "Melbourne" instead of "Maroubra" on an online dating site. They've been together ever since.

Nobody really knew what to expect here. We landed at a dystopian airport: officers with machine guns and even McDonald's shuttered. The flight was surprisingly busy, but quiet; heads down, masks up.

On arrival, after a quick temperature check and a bag of essential provisions (dinner, room card and information booklet), we were escorted to our one-room cabin – home for the next 14 days. Yet despite the physical confinement – and the awareness that we are locked in a complex no bigger than 200 metres by 200 metres, with high fences, 24-hour police guard and sky-high surveillance cameras – life somehow feels bigger here.

In Melbourne, I heeded Dan Andrews' instructions and stayed home. Despite this year's prevailing theme of uncertainty, everyday life was entirely predictable. I lived with my parents and brother, I exercised infrequently with one person at a time, and I joined scheduled Zoom catch-ups with friends. Spontaneity evaporated. Comfortable routine quickly morphed into tedium.

Here in quarantine, there's an abundance of daily interactions.

Nurses clad in personal protective equipment test us for COVID-19, check on our mental health and take our temperature. The police, surprisingly friendly on patrol, smile and wave. And three times a day, a knock on the door announces breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Outside the cabin and down from the porch, the residents have transformed an isolation zone into a caravan park. Dozens of kids from different families have joined forces. At all hours of the day they run around and shoot each other with water guns. Their parents, and the rest of us, relax.

On the bus over, I made a few friends. We created a Whatsapp group and developed a routine. We work out in the morning, sun-bake in the afternoon and practice yoga at night. Usually, we're joined by other makeshift groups, looking for people to walk and talk and listen to music.

It's not exactly paradise. The sun is unrelenting, the food is a lucky dip and there's only so many times you can walk along the same concrete path.

Howard Springs has been described as being a holiday camp you can’t leave, but most are upbeat about the facilities.Credit:Ben Sale

But despite its limitations, the Howard Springs Quarantine Facility has become a community. The residents, with nowhere to be and not much to do, are eager to chat. In five days, I have met more people than I had seen in weeks, and spoken to more people than I had in months.

These moments have injected humour and empathy into daily life, creating a semblance of normal in this most unusual year. As a police officer said to me as I entered the complex, "why would you go back?"

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