Two weeks in Aussie solitary ’boot camp’ after flight from SA to bid farewell to dying mom
Durban - Two weeks’ solitary confinement in a Sydney hotel room ‒ windows sealed, food dropped off at the door, a view on to the wall of a building next door and only an hour and 10 minutes of sunshine every day.
Quarantine until last weekend was the last milestone in Heather Stone’s journey from Melbourne to Durban and back to bid farewell to her dying mother on a 13-week visit to South Africa in the era of Covid.
“I started my application in the wee hours of August 4, my husband Gary’s birthday,” she said.
She had been told that her mother, Gill Gordon, the former head of radiography at Ngwelezana Hospital, near Empangeni, would not have long to go while battling cancer. She died on December 1.
Stone then began her own battle with bureaucracy ‒ applying for visas, waiting for borders to open and even requiring permission from the Australian military to leave ‒ and finally flew into Durban in mid-October.
During quarantine back in Australia, she clocked 8km a day walking 265 laps of figures of eight around her hotel room. That’s the same distance she enjoyed walking and cycling on Durban’s beachfront promenade in her downtime in Durban.
“The kettle was Bike ‘n Bean, the front door is Circus Circus,” she said recalling how she kept up her spirits.
She figured that by the end of her quarantine she would have walked the distance of the Comrades Marathon in figures of eight.
She also kept going by catching up with friends and family around the world, updating them on family matters such as her mother’s funeral and her visit to family graves in the southern Drakensberg.
Then there was getting herself ready for the year ahead at Mentone Grammar School in Melbourne where she is a maths teacher.
Last year, during many of the 49 days she saw her mother by day, South African time, Stone held lessons remotely by night, Australian Eastern Standard Time. At daybreak, she entertained her class showing them the monkeys arriving on the stoep of her mother’s eMdloti flat.
“It was exciting for them. They thought they were really cute,” she recalled.
“But I’m a people’s person,” she said, adding that she far preferred teaching face-to-face.
Stone went back to school in Melbourne this week.
Stone also missed people during her solitary confinement. The only others she had contact with were nurses who had briefly come in to administer Covid tests, dressed in protective gear.
“I wanted to hug them and chat with them there and then. I wouldn’t have minded even leaning out the window and touching the wall I looked on to.”
Her mandatory hotel stay has cost her Aus$3000 (R34 664) and hotel service was limited to having food in pre-packed containers delivered to her door. After hearing a knock she had to wait a while before opening the self-locking door to pick it up from a chair in the passage. She had no key. Should people in quarantine be caught venturing down their hotel passages, they face a further 24 days of solitary confinement.
“I asked for detergent to wash my bath and my crockery that was starting to stain. I got only soap.”
She added that it had been upsetting to arrive in Sydney off a 14-hour flight and to be put on a bus and driven to an unknown place where there had been an unfriendly reception.
“I felt like a criminal. I had gone to South Africa to bury my mom and came home to a shut room, no fresh air and no access to outside.
“But I decided I was not going to let this beat me. It made me aware that I was probably mentally stronger than I thought.”
She said growing up on farms where one had to be self-sufficient and keep oneself occupied had probably prepared her for quarantine.
Stone said lockdown in South Africa had more streamlined rules whereas in Australia each state had its own ever-changing rules one had to keep an eye on all the time, which added to her anxiety.
“But in both countries the public are being treated like ignoramuses.”
The Independent on Saturday