By Marg Hayes & Bruce Wharrie, Australian Worldloppet Masters, citizen skiers!
Unfortunately during our week in Poland we learnt that our next Worldloppet event, Switzerland’s Engadin race was cancelled. Not because of lack of snow like Germany, Estonia and Finland but because of the coronavirus outbreak just across the border in northern Italy where some towns had been quarantined. We began researching on the internet to work out what to do. Jan, our Irish Worldloppet skiing friend was supposed to meet us in St Moritz for the Engadin she decided to cancel her trip as she was flying in and out of Milan and didn’t want to have to self-quarantine after returning to Ireland as others had to do. We too had flights out of Milan to Oslo after the Engadin. We debated whether to even go to Switzerland or whether to go straight to Norway, but yet again we had accommodation bookings that we wouldn’t get a refund on if we cancelled plus onward travel. In the end we caught the overnight train from Prague to Switzerland as planned and had a superb week of skiing on beautifully groomed cross country trails in a stunning location with rugged mountains in every direction. Like many others, Bethan and I skated the 42km Engadin course. It was a huge achievement for Bethan as previously her longest skate was 10km. One day we skied right to the toe of the Mortertasch Glacier which has signs with dates, to show where the glacier used to extend too. It was fascinating seeing how quickly it has receded in recent years and should be a message to us all about the effects of global warming. Most importantly we made the most of the unpredictable situation and hoping the Norwegian races would go ahead.
Everyday we had discussions whether we should fly out of Milan or ditch our flights. 2 days before we were intending travelling to Milan (Italy) for our flights to Oslo, Norway for the final Worldloppet race the Birkebeiner, the Italian prime minister announced that Italy’s borders would be closing immediately. Already the airline had changed our scheduled flights 3 times without contacting us. We contacted our travel agent to try and change our booked flights to fly out of Switzerland but the airline wouldn’t permit it so we were left with no option but to cancel the tickets and hope to get a refund (still waiting). We hastily booked new flights online with Brussel Airlines to Oslo departing from Zurich flying via Brussels. We all began to relax with the decision to avoid Italy and fly out of Zurich. The night before we left Engadin Valley, I went online to check our flight numbers only to find out that one our flights, the one with SwissAir had been cancelled and we had NOT been re-scheduled. We tried numerous methods to contact Brussels Airlines via online chats and telephones but no luck. We caught the train to Zurich as planned. Leaving Bruce and Jim minding our gear at the train station, Bethan and I walked in the drizzle to the nearby Swiss Air office in Zurich. Our first flight was with Swiss Air even though our bookings were with Brussels Air who had no office in Zurich. We pleaded with Swiss Air to change our tickets to a direct flight to Oslo the next morning. Fortunately, the very business-like customer service officer reluctantly changed our flights at no cost due to extenuating circumstances. We were so jubilant we bought chocolate and cakes to celebrate with Bruce and Jim at the train station.
Our joy was short-lived as that night we learnt that the Norwegian Birkebeiner Worldloppet race was cancelled due to the coronavirus ban on gatherings of more than 500 people. We debated whether to go to Norway or not but felt it would be safer to be further away from Italy so decided to go and make the most of our week’s skiing, staying at the typical Norwegian cabin we had booked and paid for at Sjusjøen, in the mountains above Lillehammer. Our Welsh Worldloppet friends, Hilary and David decided to still join us as we all imagined a fun week exploring the 240km of groomed cross country ski trails around Sjusjøen. So despite the race being cancelled we were all looking forward to a great week.
Arriving in Norway we were very happy, incorrectly thinking our travel worries and the coronavirus were behind us. The first few days at the mountain cabin were great. The Sjusjøen area is full of hundreds of family cabins perched on the hillsides. Where Australians head to their beach shack, the Norwegians head to their mountain cabin. Our cabin was right on a groomed ski trail, a 10 minute walk from the bus stop along the ski trail. It was easiest to ski to the well-stocked supermarket. Apart from a ski shop, supermarket, a few spread out cafes and the odd small hotel there isn’t much else at Sjusjøen. We had always dreamed of spending a relaxing week at Sjusjøen exploring the area and now we were here. Nothing we thought would stop us enjoying ourselves.
On our first two days there were literally hundreds of kilometres of groomed cross country trails with lots of Norwegians out enjoying themselves too, some even had their dogs on leads pulling the skiers along. Most of the terrain is above the tree-line, like Australia’s Bogong High Plains with huge rolling hills and beautiful snowy views in all directions. You were literally on top of the rounded mountains, so different to Switzerland where you are in the valleys looking up at the steep cliffy alps. Our second morning was picture-perfect, so Bethan and I set out to ski 54km, the distance of the Birkebeiner race. We skied 27kms along the race course from our cabin and 27kms back again. This was huge for Bethan whose longest ski previously was 42km. It was a magical ski out with 360 degree views in all directions. Unfortunately, by our turn-around spot the wind had picked up and changed direction so our ski back was into a strengthening headwind. We were quite tired but very pleased with ourselves when we got back to the cabin; we had skied our “Birkie”.
On our third day at Sjusjøen it snowed and there wasn’t any grooming so some of us went for a short ski staying down in the trees. We skied round a lake, that we never saw, due to the white-out.
However, that afternoon our idyllic week changed as we received an email from the owners of our cabin telling us that the Norwegian Government had instructed all foreigners to leave the country as soon possible, “so what were our plans?” they enquired. Many Norwegians had escaped the city to their cabin and this was now banned and all Norwegians were told to go home or face fines. To persuade Norwegians to go home all grooming was also stopped. All hotels were instructed to not accept any new bookings, all shops except supermarkets were shut. No cash was accepted anywhere, pay by card only. Buses and train services were reduced. We told the cabin owners we had flights departing Norway the following Sunday with 3 nights accommodation already booked in Lillehammer after the cabin but that we would investigate possibilities of leaving earlier. The cabin owners informed the Health Dept of our presence who told us to stay at the cabin until we could depart. We were very pleased we had somewhere to stay until we could leave and an empathetic cabin owner.
We contacted our Australian travel agent, however they didn’t get back to us till the 3rd business day when we eventually rang after 4 unanswered emails. In the meantime, I had spent an hour on the phone waiting to speak to someone at Lufthansa who owned our plane tickets. To change the date on our tickets Lufthansa wanted AUS$4,500/€2,800 per person. I couldn’t believe it, I told the customer service person this was a rip-off so she hung the phone up on me. We searched the internet trying to find cheaper tickets which we did but they were disappearing quickly with other airlines inflating prices too with so many travellers keen to return home. We needed to confirm with the Australian travel agent if this Lufthansa quote was correct and find out if we could cancel our existing tickets etc but the travel agent didn’t answer our emails.
Bethan successfully changed the dates of her Qatar Airways tickets and only had to pay AUS$180/€112. David and Hilary decided to fly back to the UK early but SAS charged them exorbitant fees to change the dates on their tickets. So on Tuesday morning we waved Bethan, Hilary and David off as they boarded the bus (the only passengers) heading home. We still didn’t know what we were doing so to fill in the time we went skiing on the ungroomed trails, practising social distancing and not speaking or going near any of the few other skiers.
Australian business hours were 11pm-7am Norway time. After 3 days of no contact, I was determined to speak to the travel agent so waited up late, ringing at 11pm. The travel agent was most apologetic for not getting back to us but was finally working on getting us home. It took 2 more days and 2 sleepless nights before flights were finally finalised at 8am Thursday morning with us agreeing to pay AUS$2500/€1560 each to change the date on our tickets until the travel agent argued more with Lufthansa and got the change fee down to $1500/€935 each. By this time the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison had put a travel ban on Australians and told us all to come home as soon as possible. We had already made our decision well before this, pre-empting the significant reduction in fights and not wanting to get stuck in Europe or Thailand indefinitely.
We left the Sjusjøen cabin at 9am Thursday to begin our long journey home, bus to Lillehammer, train to Oslo, flight to Frankfurt airport transit, flight to Bangkok for another airport transit and finally flight to Sydney. Even though we had plane tickets things were changing so quickly we broke our journey into stages and rejoiced each time we successfully completed each stage as services were rapidly shutting down and we didn’t know if buses and trains to get us to the airport were still running, let alone whether we could actually transit Germany which was in lockdown or if Thailand would allow us to transit. Fortunately, it all worked and thoroughly exhausted we arrived in Australia last Saturday morning.
Our Worldloppet trip certainly didn’t turn out as we had planned. Even though we know travel is unpredictable we learnt it’s important to make the most of the situation and change your plans as needed. We wouldn’t have gone to Lapland except that 2 races were cancelled and we had a brilliant time there exploring a totally new destination.
Overall, we travelled to 10 countries for the Worldloppet races. We successfully skied 9 races in 5 countries with the races ranging in distance from 22km to 70km. Races were cancelled in 3 countries (Germany, Estonia & Finland) due to lack of snow and 2 countries (Switzerland & Norway) due to coronavirus. Unfortunately, none us completed another Worldloppet Master but we are close so will just have to travel back again once the current situation eases and the coronavirus is under control. We met lots of wonderful people during our journey many who assisted us when things were tough.
Travelling from Australia to complete Worldloppet races is incredibly expense, an expense that we are usually happy to expend, however when races are cancelled the expenses soar as we can’t just return home for the week like Europeans can. Even though our Worldloppet trip was planned meticulously this couldn’t prevent the circumstances or significant extra expenses that we found ourselves needing to pay. Several of the cancelled races have offered partial refunds, minus bank transfer fees which are hefty or whole/partial transfer of race entry fees to 2021. We think that all races should try and have back-up plans to try and offer a shortened race at a nearby venue, like Dolomitenlauf does if at all possible. We also think that if a Worldloppet race is cancelled then all skiers who have travelled from different continents should receive a 100% refund of race entry fees in recognition of the huge expenses and arrangements we have all incurred regardless of whether the race is cancelled or not. We would like Worldloppet to discuss this at the general meeting. This would only affect a tiny percentage of skiers.
On returning to Australia we are all in 14 days mandatory isolation and have plenty of time to reflect on our recent Worldloppet trip.
Signing off till the next Worldloppet adventure.
Regards, Marg Hayes & Bruce Wharrie