Out of lockdown, returning to life: Melbourne emerges to a season of hope and relief

Calla Wahlquist
·8-min read

In the depths of Melbourne’s lockdown, time began to pass differently. The days and weeks dragged as the year slipped by, as all the usual markers – celebrations, family dinners, holidays – were stripped away. Suddenly, it was spring and there was welcome news: the lockdown had worked. The borders between city and country, and between Victoria and New South Wales, were lifted soon after.

When Melbourne’s ring of steel came down on 9 November, Emma Jacques packed her 10-month-old son in the car and headed for the coast. After five months of being confined to the city, and two months where she was unable to go more than 5km from her home in Warrandyte on Melbourne’s north-eastern fringe, she was desperate to introduce her son, named Ben Ocean, to the water. “I literally craved the water,” she says.

  • The Griffiths family of Sunbury on the Murray River.

In Sunbury in Melbourne’s west, Luke Griffiths was plotting to get to another patch of water. His family has been camping at Torrumbarry on the Murray River for five years.

“As soon as the announcement was made that it was getting lifted, we were all on the phone to each other saying right, that’s it, we’re going,” Griffiths says. “We didn’t care what the weather was gonna be, if it had been raining, we just wanted to get out.”

Related: 'Just hugging was amazing': joy and tears as Victorian families reunite after Melbourne lockdown

Meanwhile, Vanessa Merlino was planning to bring someone in. After months of missed opportunities, her parents would finally be able to travel down from Sydney. For weeks, she hid the upcoming visit from her children.

“We’ve been so disappointed so many times this year, trying to see each other and then not being able to, I was just so reluctant to tell them in case something happened,” Merlino says. “When my mother was going to the airport and was on her way there, I thought OK, I can tell my son now. But up until then I thought anything could go wrong. She could get turned away at the airport, maybe her temperature is too high and she won’t be allowed on the plane … It didn’t feel real until she was actually here.”

Jacques gave birth to Ben Ocean on 9 January, while the country was on fire. She spent the first six weeks in a haze of sleep deprivation and bewilderment, emerging just in time to attend one meeting of her mother’s group before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. They went into full isolation, staying within the confines of their one acre property. Everything was delivered and washed on arrival. Her partner was able to continue working, so Jacques was on her own, rocking the pram with one foot while on the toilet and sleeping in one-hour blocks.

“Occasionally I was beside myself because I couldn’t even make a cup of tea or make something for lunch,” she says. “Even having a shower was like an experience for me.”

  • Emma Jacques and son Ben Ocean.

Ben contracted gastroenteritis and was turned away from the doctor because he had a temperature, so they drove 33km to the Royal Children’s Hospital. “I guess it was tougher than I think,” she says. “I don’t feel hard done by because I am so grateful to even have him, and have him healthy. But I do feel that he missed out on a lot and all the photos, they are all the same.”

One set of photos is different. They show baby Ben in his first encounter with the ocean – kicking, splashing and laughing at the waves.

“I went down to Ocean Grove on the first day we were allowed,” Jacques says. “I have a really deep connection with nature and I literally craved the water … I use the ocean to feel better and feel more alive, and I wanted him to have that feeling as well.

“You should have seen him, he had a ball. He was kicking the water, he ate sand. He was splashing about, he loved it. I hope he loves it as much as I do and I hope he gets the same benefits from it as I do, because I think we all need that from nature. I think this is probably a good way of coping with life. If you can dive into the ocean and feel better it’s probably a good habit to teach.”

Griffiths, his wife Eboni, and daughters Ruby, 9, and Charlee, 6, made the three-hour drive to Torrumbarry on 13 November. Torrumbarry is downstream of Echuca, where the Murray zags like the teeth of a zip. They set up camp with three other families.

  • Luke’s daughters jump into the Murray river.

“We just free camp so it’s all cooking off the fire and everything like that. Digging a hole, having to go to the toilet, just getting back to nature is really the whole idea of it,” he says.

The weather was beautiful, climbing to 35C, and the camping grounds were quiet.

“The second lockdown was a lot longer than the first lockdown, and it just felt good that we were able to get out,” he says.

It has been a difficult year. Eboni is a travel agent and lost her job at Flight Centre, and spent her days helping Charlee, in her first year of primary school, and Ruby, in grade three, do remote learning. Under the 5km travel bubble Griffith’s parents, who live 15km away and usually visit a few times a week, were off-limits. And while he was able to continue working as a fabricator on heavy truck trailers, the permit system was “very painful”. The time before the pandemic feels very long ago, he says.

“I was in the city on Friday night catching up with a mate and I felt like it had been a long long time since I had been in Melbourne, being able to go to a bar,” he says. “That just felt ages ago, like years had gone by. Yes, we are out of lockdown, but it only feels like yesterday. Trying to get used to being able to go to a restaurant for dinner and things like that, it feels not normal now.”

Before the lockdown began, Merlino had structured her days so her children, five-year-old Vivienne and three-year-old Basil, did not spend long stretches of time together. Vivienne has complex communication needs and can be a bit overwhelming for her little brother. A mix of kindergarten and childcare makes it manageable. But in the stage four lockdown, both were closed.

  • Sonja and Paul Patterson re-connect with their grandchildren Vivienne and Basil at the Edwards Lake Park in Reservoir.

“Before Covid, the thought of having days and days and days all together in the house was an absolute nightmare,” she says. “And then it happened, where there was no childcare and no anything and we had to just all be inside ... I thought it was going to be absolute hell. But like everybody, we just put our heads down, didn’t look too far in front, didn’t think about anything except just keeping the kids entertained, breaking up the day, and if we both had to work we would take shifts.

“We just broke it down almost to the hour, so we had a really strict routine that got us through those eight weeks. I cannot remember any of that now, but we did it. And a good part of that is my children’s’ relationship has actually developed, it’s been really great, it’s become so much better. We used to separate them all the time because there was so much fighting, but now their relationship has changed so much because of lockdown and that’s been a really really positive thing.

One of the hardest moments was the day that NSW closed its border to Victoria. Merlino and her family had flights booked to go to Sydney, after an earlier attempt by her parents to visit Melbourne had been aborted due to health concerns.

  • Above: Wildlife and conservation photojournalist Doug Gimesy wanders through the wet forest near the headwaters of Skenes Creek, his first time in the field for four months. Right: Beard-like Filamentous green Algae growing on the basalt rock shelf at Pirates Cove near Skenes Creek

“We were actually quite devastated,” she says. It made her and her husband, originally from Perth, consider their decision to remain in Melbourne.

“Having little kids, especially a child with a disability … there was always that conflict of should I be in Sydney, being with my parents. With the lockdown I was really kicking myself thinking, have I made this massive mistake not being in the same state as my family? What if we get cut off again?”

Merlino’s mother, Sonja Patterson, flew into Melbourne on Tuesday night, her father Paul following by car two days later. Merlino picked her up from the empty terminal four carpark.

“When I saw my mum I just ran out of the car and we were just standing there hugging and crying,” she says. “All these cars were looking at us but I just felt this huge enormous sense of relief that she was here.”

When her children woke up the next morning, their Omi was there, just in time for Basil’s birthday on Sunday. They will go to the local park, so the kids can show their grandparents the ducks.

“It was so lovely to see my kids just so happy,” Merlino says.