May 6, 2020
Former Nanango MP Dorothy “Dolly” Pratt and husband Tony were hoping to visit “all the places you dream about” on their six-week cruise … but then along came the pandemic, closed ports, ukeleles and quarantine.
The couple left Kingaroy on March 8 to catch a flight to Singapore.
“It was a half-world cruise, visiting all the places you dream about doing – Petra, Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, the Suez Canal, the Dead Sea …” Dolly told southburnett.com.au.
“It would have ticked off all the bucket list items!”
They arrived in Singapore, caught a taxi from the airport and boarded the “Vasco da Gama”, a CMV cruise ship which can carry 1220 passengers.
“If we said we spent 10 minutes on Singapore soil we would be exaggerating …”
People have asked Dolly since why the couple still went ahead with their trip, but the world was a different place in early March.
There were no travel advisories for cruise ships in place at the time, and Kingaroy’s first confirmed COVID-19 case had not yet been diagnosed.
Dolly said some of the criticism she had heard since about cruise ship passengers was very unfair.
“This was one of those cruises where some people had been saving for 10 or 20 years to go. One of the couples we spoke to had saved up for 10 years.”
And, importantly, for the passengers who had been saving for so long, the cruise had not been cancelled – which meant travel insurance would not have covered their loss.
After the Vasco da Gama sailed from Singapore, the situation started to change … quickly.
“The first port we sailed to, Penang, was closed. The second one was Phuket. We didn’t dock; we weighed anchor just out of the port.
“I was a little bit surprised but then we went up on deck and we saw the yellow (disease on board) flag flying.
“A gentleman on the boat had come down with bronchitis. We had to wait for him to get tested (for COVID-19). It came back negative. Then we waited for a second test … another negative.
“The captain kept everyone on board well-informed. But we still weren’t allowed to leave port.”
The passengers then started to hear about other ports being shut to cruise ships and it soon became obvious their holiday plans were over.
“The captain rattled off a list.”
The Vasco da Gama headed out into international waters where it and fellow CMV vessel Columbus made cruise ship history, swapping their European and Australian passengers in a ship-to-ship transfer at sea.
European residents on the Vasco da Gama were transferred to the Columbus, and Australians and New Zealanders on the Columbus were sent to the Vasco da Gama so all passengers could be repatriated as close as possible to their home countries.
“We stayed at sea for 18 days, sailing almost in circles, but heading towards Perth which was the nearest Australian port.
“We were ambling back to Australia to fill in a minimum two weeks in isolation.”
Dolly emphasised there were no diagnosed COVID-19 cases on board at this time – and, in fact, there never were.
“Nobody was sick on the boat at all.
“Every day the captain did a health report.”
Dolly praised the communications from the captain to the passengers, but even so there was confusion on board as arrival arrangements kept “chopping and changing”.
“We were told we could dock in Fremantle on Friday. Then we got word in the middle of the Indian Ocean that we were to book flights to our homes.”
Dolly contacted her daughter who arranged a flight to Brisbane for the Sunday after the Vasco da Gama was due to dock.
“Two days later we were told to cancel the flights.”
Dolly said it was becoming stressful on board as although the captain was sharing all he had, passengers were getting more updated information from TV broadcasts from Perth.
“We were finding things out on the TV before the captain did. The situation was evolving so fast.”
After the Vasco da Gama docked in Perth, the passengers became more worried.
“We were frightened about getting off the ship and going into the community. We knew we were all clean because we had been at sea for 18 days.
“But we docked right behind the Artania which was riddled with COVID-19.
“No one went to the front of our ship because they were afraid germs could be blowing across; they were not 20 yards away.
“Then we saw a convoy of 40 buses and 20 police cars taking people off the Artania. It took them two days to get them all off.”
The Vasco da Gama passengers became concerned they would be using the same buses.
Dolly – not backward in coming forward – asked the question. The buses were safe – the Artania buses had been sent to a warehouse to be fumigated.
The confusion continued on board, however.
“One moment we were told everyone was going to Rottnest Island. Then only the West Australians went there. Then the New Zealanders had flights arranged and were taken off late one night.
“We still thought we were coming home to Queensland.”
That was not be, however. The rest of the Aussies on board were ferried to a string of hotels around Perth.
“We were sent to the Crown Metropol. It is a beautiful building, and we had a really nice room but …”
Dolly was soon wishing they had been sent to Rottnest Island or, better still, been allowed to complete their compulsory WA quarantine while still on board the Vasco da Gama.
“There was no sunshine, we couldn’t open a window – I’m not complaining but this was the reality.
“For two weeks we ate airline food as the Metropol’s kitchens were closed.”
Understandably, as so many pre-packed meals were being distributed throughout the building, the meals were usually cold by the time they reached the Pratts’ room.
“They dropped the little tray of food outside our door. We had to count to 10 before opening the door, even though everyone knew the Vasco da Gama was COVID-free. It made you feel a little bit like a leper.
“Apparently they were told to treat us like POWs because we were fighting a war with the virus.
“We got clean sheets every three days but had no control over the heating or food. You had to eat when you were told to eat. No fresh air.
“But we knew we had to do it, we were happy to do it, because we knew we had to be in quarantine.”
The only thing that was really stressing the couple was the lack of fresh fruit.
Then a family member then arranged via a Facebook friend for some fruit to be dropped off at the hotel.
“They even put in some Easter eggs. They wouldn’t let us pay for it. This lightened our mood. I wrote on Facebook: ‘Some angels visited us today …’.”
Social media also helped to make Dolly a worldwide ukelele sensation.
While still on board, she had written some new words to an old comic song: “He Played His Ukulele As The Ship Went Down”.
A fellow passenger asked if she could video Dolly singing it for the first time. Dolly agreed. Next thing, the video was on ABC-TV and had been shared around the world.
“I was getting texts from Canada, Wales, England saying, ‘I saw you on TV!’,”
The fellow passenger was panic-stricken when she saw some of the comments that had been written after the video was shared but Dolly said she was used to it.
“Australians laugh at themselves, they laugh in the face of adversity, we make fun of bad situations.”
She wrote another “three of four” songs while in isolation but they haven’t made it on to the world stage … yet.
One touches on gratitude.
“Be grateful for the little things: the breeze on your face, the sweetness of an apple.
“It puts life back into perspective.”
Another odd thing occurred while the Pratts were still in hotel quarantine. Dolly noticed a shadow of a woman in a neighbouring room. That shadow turned out to be a former South Burnett resident.
“It’s amazing you can travel all this way and the neighbour in quarantine was in Nanango.”
Also, oddly enough, they were never tested for COVID-19. During the whole experience, the couple had their temperature taken at Singapore Airport and when they first boarded the cruise ship.
And that was that.
The couple arrived back in Kingaroy on April 18 after finally being released from quarantine and catching a flight to Brisbane via an hour-long stop in Sydney.
When the plane finally touched down in Brisbane, everyone clapped.
“It was the relief of getting back home.
“We had a paper from the West Australian government showing that we had been in quarantine, our border pass and our passports, which we had to show at Brisbane Airport.
“A police officer said ‘Go home and enjoy the rest of your life.’ If I had been allowed, I would have kissed him!”
Dolly said many of the Vasco da Gama passengers had kept in touch, and a good 50 per cent had already re-booked a cruise.
“We will wait and see what happens but this won’t stop us going on another cruise.
“We couldn’t praise the captain or the crew more.
“The cleanliness on that ship was amazing. I have never seen a ship so clean.
“And I have no problem with the WA government. They were doing what they had to do to keep everyone safe.
“It was an interesting experience but I don’t want to do it again.
“Friends have asked to see my photos, but all I have is photos of sunsets and sunrises at sea.”
* * *
The ukelele video filmed by a fellow passenger on board the Vasco da Gama: