Days 19 & 20 Wednesday 7th & Thursday 8th August 2019:
As yesterday, breakfast is split into two groups. The boys are down at 7.30am and the girls have an extra half an hour and are down by 8am. We have arranged bacon, egg and tomato at a cost of $830 (Just under £500) paid from the central tour fund. It’s not quite at the standard of our buffet style breakfasts, in most of the hotels we were in during the first fortnight of the tour, but at least the group has the opportunity to have a cooked breakfast before we start our long journey home.
Our cases are packed and in reception by 8.45am. We have two and a half hours before our transfer to the airport and offer the students a choice of either additional ‘retail therapy’ or going as a group to enjoy a coffee or similar. They decide unanimously that we should stick together. We walk around Circular Quay to the Guylian Belgian chocolate café. Everyone orders a drink at a cost of $770 (approx. £400) and we use the central tour fund to pay.
We make our way back to the hostel and the duty manager asks to speak to me, three of the rooms had been left in a terrible state-she shows me some photographs-she’s not wrong. Despite our tiredness the situation is totally unacceptable. I gather the people involved and despatch them ‘chastened’ back to their rooms to complete the cleaning up that had already been started by the cleaners.
With rooms at an acceptable standard the individuals concerned all personally apologise to the cleaning staff who accept their apologies-I bet mums and dads are thinking ‘I wish they’d be sorry for the state they leave their own bedroom in!’
The group of ‘scruffy duffy’s’ will have to check in last at the airport and as a result will have less free time than the rest of the group.
We assemble at 11.15am load our coaches and transfer to the airport where a rumour circulates that if your case exceeds the 23kg limit by 0.1 kg you have to pay an excess charge for a second bag at a cost of $130!!! It leads to mass panic amongst the group, cases are opened items of clothing are worn on top of their current wear, hand luggage is packed to stretching point and some items go in the bins.
As the students wait to weigh their cases I’m not sure whether the beads of sweat on many brows are a result of the extra clothing they are wearing or worry. Most cases come in well below the 23kg limit. Amy Tomkins’ case weighs 23.7kgs and the flight attendant doesn’t ‘bat an eyelid’-it was just a rumour. I look back to see a host of ‘relieved faces’ and a collective sigh of relief is almost audible.
We are through check in, passport control and security by 1.15pm and have an hour for some duty free shopping and to get some lunch. We board and take off at just after 3.00pm.
As we take off, I look down on Sydney, a beautiful city on a beautiful day and wonder whether I’ll be lucky enough to come back again some day, I certainly hope so.
The next 24 hours are going to be quite arduous for the group. The flight to Singapore is 9 hours long, we will be on the ground for an hour while the plane refuels and then we will be in the air for another 13 hours as we fly from Singapore to Heathrow. I am certainly relieved to have the space in Business Class that makes me feel comfortable.
We land on time in Singapore and I meet up with the rest of the group. Several of the group had mislaid their boarding pass, not realising that they required it for the second flight. We arrange replacements and board the flight inside an hour.
We are in the air on time and land at Heathrow 15 minutes early at 4.55am. I meet the rest of the group en route to baggage reclaim. Tiredness seems to have been an ally and many have been able to sleep for a significant part of the flight despite the uncomfortable and cramped conditions in Economy.
We collect our cases with Messrs Lewis, Cullen and Meredith ensuring that everything including the six large kit bags are collected with the high degree of efficiency that has been evident from day 1.
We proceed through passport control and then customs and meet up with drivers Charlie and Kieran. They inform us that we are travelling home in two brand new coaches-only purchased a few days before at a cost of £500,000. It should be a comfy ride.
We are loaded and depart Heathrow at 5.45am. We will stop at Leigh Delamere services and inform our loved ones then of our ETA back in Park Road.
As we travel along the M4 I read from the booklet given to me by students and staff at the end of tour awards dinner. It is full of messages of appreciation that only serve to confirm how much our young people have matured over the last 3 weeks. Some make me smile, some bring a tear to my eye but all make me confident that Gowerton is a community with young people who have a real sense of personal responsibility.
Many of the messages speak of their personal highlights-the Game Lodge on the Garden route and the Great Barrier Reef were the activities that clearly meant most. That was a vindication to me of our decision to visit both South Africa and Australia. It was ambitious and undoubtedly tiring but the wide range of different experiences it exposed our young people (and the older ones!) too, was undoubtedly worth the effort.
We arrived at the services at 7.35am had a 45 minute stop to refresh ourselves and phoned ahead to let our loved ones know that we expected to be in Park Road at about 10.15am.
Back on our coaches we start the final leg of our journey and on both buses we reflect on the sad news we had received 24 hours earlier of the passing of Josh Merrells a year 10 pupil and friend of many of our younger tourists. Josh was an endearing young man. I had never taught him but had been grateful for his help on a number of occasions at Gowerton rugby club where he often helped his mum June who was the stewardess there.
On hearing the sad news, a number of our students and staff had been visibly upset and our thoughts and prayers were very much with June and the rest of the family. Our memories of Josh were the positive ones of a personable and respectful young man who we would all remember with great fondness in the future.
We had heard that a Just giving page had been set up in Josh’s memory and a collection between students and staff raised £350 that would be donated.
We arrived in Park Road on time and stepped off the buses to a really warm welcome from friends and family. It was good to be home safe and sound.
The efforts of the staff were clearly appreciated by parents. I was given a thank you card that I didn’t open until I got home-when I did so, it contained a gift of £400 from a large number of the parental group inviting us as ‘an incredible team of staff’ to ‘please, please enjoy a night out, without any children on us!!!’ It was really generous and appreciated by us all-arrangements are being made for us to go out together before the new academic year begins.
Staff and students embraced each other with genuine warmth in appreciation of the role each had played in allowing the tour to go so smoothly and as a result for each of us to get so much from it.
Amongst the staff group, thoughts have already turned to the future. There is a strong desire to give a similar opportunity to the next tranche of our young people in 2022 and we will be making representations to the Governors once we return in September to organise a ninth tour. My retirement from teaching means it’s time for me to step back from leading the next adventure but I am determined to support those involved as fully as I can and if fit enough to travel with them. I feel the next chapter in the story has the potential to be even more exciting than the last eight-the future is undoubtedly bright.
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