Piper – The Journey Home – April 29, 2007

Piper - International travelling cat
Piper – International travelling cat

Piper: The Journey Home.

This is a harrowing tale of our trip to Sydney to pickup a very expensive cat.

The ID foul-up

We had booked our outbound flight to Sydney on JetStar, the discount arm (wing?) of national carrier Qantas, via its website. A day or 3 later, a call from JetStar advised us us that the flight would leave from Brisbane’s international terminal because it was the last leg of a flight from Osaka, Japan. I asked about which forms of ID would be acceptable, and was told our Canadian driving licenses would be fine since we were travelling only domestically.

Excellent! So we set off on Thursday morning, paid our $2.50 toll to cross the Gateway Bridge, and parked the car in the airport lot. With 75 minutes ’til departure time, we thought we were on our way.

Wrong.

It seems that because our trip was part of an international flight, we would need our passports or Australian-issued photo ID. My Canadian driver’s license was unacceptable, and since JetStar closes its flights at least 60 minutes before flight time, I wouldn’t have time to drive 10 minutes home to get my passport. We were given 2 options — each a no-win situation: To either take the train to the Gold Coast airport for a later flight (hope to get there in 3 hours before take-off, and what to do with the car?), or wait for the next day’s flight (where did our sightseeing time in Sydney go?).

We took the next-day option. Back in the car – $8.00 for 34 minutes of parking. Another $2.50 for the bridge.

But the biggest joke of it all, as many Queenslanders will tell you, is that one acceptable piece of ID — the current Queensland driving license — is the biggest farce amongst Australian government-issued ID that you can find. It is simply a laminated paper document that looks as if it were made on a low-budget ink-jet printer. The new Qld driver’s license, not due out until late 2008, will feature a smartchip and a PIN.

Let’s try this again, shall we?

Friday morning, en route to the airport — After another $2.50 cash toll for the bridge, and the radio reported an accident on the M1 Gateway motorway to the airport. So in spite of leaving 45 minutes earlier than the day before, we arrived at the airport at the same time on the second day. Fortunately though, no one could complain about our ID today.

Strip search?

After passing through the security screening, I picked up our carry-on bag from the conveyor and took 2 steps. A voice … “Sir, please come with us. You have been selected for additional security screening.”

Oh great, are we ever going to get on this plane???

I was pulled aside into a cubicle and asked to read a typed statement about the secondary screening process: It would include a pat-down, visual check of my backpack, and a swab test for explosive material. The laminated statement asked if I would consent to this search.

I asked what would happen if I refused — And was politely told that refusal would result in my being denied boarding the flight. It seems that “no” isn’t truly an option for these things. How funny that the statement was worded to make me think I had a choice in declining a secondary search!

As it turns out, this was a training exercise for some new officers. The supervising senior officer interruped the inspection procedures several times to correct her recruits’ attempts. But all Anna could see from the other side of the cubicle wall was me turning around to face front or back 4 and 5 times! After 10 minutes, I was on my way again with their thanks. Hey, shouldn’t I get frequent flyer points for this?

Sydney downtown

Sydney boasts a population of about 4.2 million. But it is also quite multicultural and photogenic.

We took the train from the airport to Town Hall station. Martin Place is a popular spot at lunch times, but we were there to see the focal point of Sydney’s ANZAC Day celebrations, held annually on April 26th. Banners and flowers still decorated the street.

After an unexpected stop at the Pitt St Mall to buy some new clothes, we wandered north through downtown towards Circular Quay. Passing through the Circular Quay train and ferry terminal, you get the full view of the Harbour Bridge. The Opera House is beautiful, as ever, even if short a few of it’s white roof tiles. The botanic gardens are breathtaking, and it’s important to stop and make a wish at the “wishing tree” — but only after walking around the tree 3 times forward then 3 times backward!

Epping

A drive to Epping from downtown Sydney should be pretty straightforward … And it is, unless you rely on Google’s directions! They look fine on paper, until you try putting them to use in the real world. I really like Google maps and directions for North America … But don’t even think about them for anything south of the equator! The Sydney Morning Herald ran a funny story about the results of using Google maps — Google’s system suggested a route that took 18 minutes and cost $3.00 — just to cross the street!

[Courtesy of my friend George: For another funny result, go to Google maps, click on “Get Directions” then enter “New York” as the starting point and “London” as the ending point. Locate step 23 in the directions sidebar — very funny!]

I haven’t seen Diane in nearly 20 years. It was that long ago that I was last in Sydney for the 16th World Scout Jamboree. My patrol had been billeted amongst various Scouting family homes for 12 days over Christmas 1987, and I had the pleasure of staying with Diane, Don, Greg and Mark over the holiday. They guided me through the many sights of Sydney, a day on the Paramatta River with the Sea Scouts, and trek out to the Blue Mountains for a visit to the famous 3 sisters.

Like nearly every Aussie, Diane is a wonderful host. We really enjoyed catching up with her and meeting Greg, Amanda, Charlotte and Lilly over a barbeque dinner. Diane put us up for the night, fed us breakfast, then sent us off on Saturday morning in search of the cat.

The cat

Anna’s cat Piper was quarantined upon her arrival in Australia in late-March. We received a notice of her release date about 3 weeks ago, and were advised to show up at the AQIS facility between 10:00-10:30 AM on Saturday, 28-April.

We arrived at the plant and animal quarantine in Eastern Creek with about 20 minutes to spare. This AQIS station is a sprawling facility, complete with layered security fences and access-controlled gates, situated in Sydney’s western outskirts. We joined a queue of 3-4 other vehicles waiting for entry, then were admitted to the grounds to huddle in the rain outside the office until the appointed pickup time.

“Hi, we’re here to pickup Piper.”

“Piper? Whoa, let me tell you about her! She weighed 6.9 kg on arrival, but we can’t tell you her current weight because no one can get near her!”

It seems Piper had not made any friends during her “incarceration,” after plenty of hissing and clawing towards the staff. Nonetheless, the AQIS team had taken good care of her. We put Piper into the car, and headed off in the direction of Sydney’s airport.

I went to Sydney, and spent all my money on tolls!

Sydney’s orbital roads are funded almost exclusively by toll charges. If you’re a Sydneysider or frequent user of the city’s toll roads, there are various electronic passes to help you to get around with minimal hassle. But if you’re a visitor, then good luck to you!! Only a few of the toll roads accept cash. If you happen onto an all-electronic toll road (and its pretty hard not to), and call the road operator to register your vehicle within 24-28 hours of using its toll roads, then you can avoid some very expensive bills — for the tolls themselves, plus all sorts of fees for per-trip charges, vehicle identification, invoicing, etc.

The challenge comes in trying to figure out which company operates each toll road! There must be 8 or 10 different firms. I managed to contact the operators (that’s right, they’re different) of the M7 Westlink and the M2 / Lane Cove Tunnel, and registered our rental car’s license plate along with my credit card number. This will let these toll companies bill me directly for their charges, rather than going through Hertz.

Phew, taken care of — right?

The fatal flaw in my plan was to assume that once I had registered that I could use the electronic pass lanes on the other tollways that accept both cash and the electronic passes: Namely, the Harbour Tunnel. Nope, Sydney’s harbour bridge and tunnel are operated by yet another toll company — and unlike the others, it
does not accept reports of usage after the fact. Toll charge: AU$3.00. Add the various fees and fines for using an e-pass lane without an e-pass transponder and I’ll have to pay nearly $55.00!

The trip home

We flew from Sydney to Brisbane on Virgin Blue (JetStar does not accept pets) and landed at the domestic terminal. I took my keys and wallet from Anna’s backpack, then set off to retrieve our car from the international terminal. The terminals are spaced 3-4 km apart; that’s a $4 ride on the AirTrain or $9 by taxi.

As luck would have it, I had forgotten to take the carpark exit ticket from Anna, leaving me in the parking lot holding the car keys and money … but with no way to leave. Anna took the next Airtrain, 20 minutes later,and we finally made it out of the airport area about 75 minutes after landing.

What a trip!! After paying the $2.50 toll on the Gateway Bridge, we finally reached home just after 6pm. Piper is now adjusting to life outside her cage, generally by pawing her way into every drawer and box she can find, then sleeping in the closet.

The MasterCard summary

  • Toll charges, $100
  • Airfares, $378
  • Cat quarantine, $687
  • At home in Brisbane with Piper, priceless.

You can find our photos of our trip to Sydney