Teresa Young and her husband had been stuck at the rest stop — little more than a toilet in the middle of the Outback — for 10 days.
“All of a sudden, Australia has been cut up like pieces of a cake,” the 75-year-old said on a recent day.
Welcome to covid-era Australia, where state border closures designed to keep the coronavirus from spreading have turned retired office workers into roadside nomads.
When the pandemic began, many Australians found that the leaders of the country’s six states and two territories, rather than the federal government, suddenly controlled the most vital things in people’s lives, including who could go to work and where they could travel.
“The pandemic has revealed that states are more powerful than people tended to believe,” said Anne Twomey, a constitutional law professor at the University of Sydney.
That power has been on display in recent months, as states and territories have shut their borders with New South Wales, where a delta variant outbreak that began in June has grown to average more than 1,000 cases a day recently.
The closures have upended domestic travel and stranded scores of Australians internally, even as a vaccination ramp-up means some states — and international airports — will soon open up. People in Sydney could find it easier to fly to Singapore or Los Angeles than to Adelaide.
Part of the problem is geography. Five of Australia’s eight states or territories are bigger than Texas. But they often have only a few highways connecting them, enabling bureaucratic bottlenecks in the age of covid.
At the border between New South Wales and Queensland, where there have been protests and Father’s Day parties and the saga of a 3-year-old separated from his parents, officials recently relaxed some restrictions. Victoria also announced a new type of permit to help residents, some of whom have been stuck in New South Wales for weeks.
But in South Australia, where there are less than a dozen active coronavirus cases, Premier Steven Marshall has resisted calls to fast-track returns.
“We simply can’t take chances at the moment,” he said recently of the several thousand exemption applications pending with state health officials. “They’ve got to conduct a risk assessment on every single one.”
There is little warning of that policy at the border, where an easily missed traffic sign says: “Approval required before entering.”
There is no checkpoint or border guard. Just a small sign in front of the Border Gate Roadhouse, and a billboard a few yards away reading “Welcome to South Australia.”
It was beneath that billboard that Jim Treloar and Alastair Mansfield met on Sept. 2. The two graziers, one from each side of the border, had parked their pickup trucks back-to-back so that Mansfield, 28, could slide over tubs of lousicide for Treloar’s sheep.
“It’s like we’re moonshine running,” joked Treloar, 57, who said police had sanctioned the rendezvous.
Until a few weeks earlier, Treloar’s status as an essential worker enabled him to drive from his ranch in South Australia across the border to Mansfield’s town of Broken Hill for supplies. But then Broken Hill reported a few coronavirus cases, and the border bubble burst.
“Now it’s an iron curtain,” Treloar said, adding that the meeting was socially distanced: “One dead kangaroo apart.”
When they finished, the men climbed back into their trucks and drove in opposite directions.
Rhonda Hedger waved to them from the side of the roadhouse. She had owned the Border Gate for six years but now feared it would go under. This was normally her busiest period, when tourists stopped in for coffee or her ham hock soup. But now the sandwich board out front said “closed.”
“It’s not like I can go get a job somewhere else,” she said. “I live out in the desert. There is nowhere else.”
She blamed state premiers who she felt were competing to impose the toughest restrictions.
“They need to open the country up before we have no country left,” she said.
Hedger’s cousin had driven 1,000 miles to take a new job in South Australia, only to be turned away because he didn't have the right permit. Hedger told him and his wife they could stay with her while they waited. Two months later, the job was gone and the permit had not arrived.
Then there was the man who had parked his motor home 50 yards behind the roadhouse. Hedger thought he was antisocial or worried about contagion. But Pat Leahy had another reason for picking the spot.
Late last year, the 68-year-old had driven from his home in Western Australia across the country to the Hunter Valley in New South Wales after learning that his younger brother was dying of colon cancer.
He took his brother out of the hospital and drove him to the plot of land where he had planned to build a house before falling ill. When his brother died in January, Leahy spent several months getting his estate in order. He had just sold his brother’s land when the Hunter Valley announced it was going into lockdown.
Leahy had been here at the border for 2½ weeks, waiting for permission to go home. Western Australia was closed to people coming from New South Wales, he said, so the only way he could apply to enter his home state was to illegally enter South Australia first.
“I’m in No Man’s Land here,” he said, pulling up a GPS map showing his motor home a few feet across the border.
The trick had worked: Western Australia had given him the green light to return. Now he was waiting for South Australia to let him in, even though he was technically already there.
“It's the bloody bureaucracy,” he moaned.
The red tape had also entangled Phil Turner. The owner of a small-town pub in South Australia, Turner had been leading a tour in New South Wales when Sydney’s outbreak worsened. He canceled the tour, applied for an exemption from South Australian health authorities and drove to a secluded spot on a shallow lake in the Outback to wait for the green light to go home.
After two weeks of waiting, he got so frustrated that he drove to the border, and then past it. He was 125 miles into South Australia when police pulled him over, gave him and his wife $1,000 suspended fines, and escorted them back to New South Wales.
“We were treated like terrorists,” said the 70-year-old.
When the fully vaccinated couple finally got permission to go home on Sept. 2, Turner’s wife, Marilyn, wept with joy. They started packing up their campsite. Marilyn pulled out a bottle of pinot gris she had been saving.
“I better put it in the cooler for tomorrow,” she said.
At the rest stop near the border, Young and her husband, also fully vaccinated, were still waiting for their permits, which wouldn’t come for another 10 days.
The most desperate was Darryl Hazell, who slept in his Subaru and was down to half a loaf of bread, a can of baked beans and three cans of Jim Beam and cola. Earlier in the day, he had to fight a crow for his last meat pie.
The 66-year-old from Adelaide had sunk his life savings into a 40-foot charter yacht anchored in Queensland that needed repairs. But authorities had turned him away at the Queensland-New South Wales border and he had been stuck here for four days, trying to go home.
As night fell on the Outback, Hazell lit a fire and cracked open a Jim Beam.
“I can’t stay here for another six or eight days,” he said.
“This thing is four-wheel-drive,” he added, gesturing to his Subaru. “If it doesn’t work out soon, I’ll be finding a back road.”