Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2021

The One That Got Away, Travelling in the time of Covid (2021), by Ken Haley

There must be thousands of Australians whose travel plans went awry with the arrival of Covid in 2020, but few can have turned an accident of timing into an extraordinary adventure the way that Ken Haley did.

Haley’s plans were to do island-hopping through the Caribbean, and then explore Central America.  In February 2020, three weeks before his departure date, Covid had emerged in Australia with 21 infections.  But nobody had a clue about what was in store, Australia’s borders were still open, and so he flew out to Canada, that being the cheapest option to get to Cuba.

Each chapter is prefaced by a brief summary of the Covid situation in the relevant country.  Canada, on February 21st 2020, had 9 infections and no deaths.  There was no curfew, no quarantine and everything was open.  Needless to say that the situation was entirely different when, having accomplished two-thirds of his journey, he flew back into Toronto in November 2020.  Then, there were 297,390 infections, and there had been 10,953 deaths.  No wonder he writes in his final chapter:

Closer to home, Australia’s death toll was 909, rising to 910 in April 2021.  As a spreader of death, that constant companion on my tortuous route through the Caribbean littoral had met its match in very few parts of the world.  Although a belated and comparatively slow vaccine rollout lay ahead, the Australian people had shown a maturity and collective will that might have surprised them and certainly impressed my overseas friends. (p.310)

But though Haley calls Covid his constant companion, (even nicknaming it Covey), this is not a book about the pandemic.  It’s about how, with a mixture of chutzpah, stubbornness, luck and courage (sometimes crossing over into foolhardiness) he managed to negotiate ad hoc variations in travel restrictions, quarantine, closed hotels and eateries, plus the constant threat of flight cancellations and closed borders, to have a surprisingly great trip.  Reading about it in this book, we learn all kinds of interesting things about the Caribbean, its colonial past and its hurricane-ravaged present.

An inveterate traveller and travel writer (see my review of Europe @2.4km/h), Haley had wanted to test the stereotypes of the Caribbean:

…we have vivid pictures in our heads of places unvisited long before they get replaced by pictures on a handheld device.

The Caribbean: cool daiquiris.  Central America: rank sweat.
The Caribbean: rich. Central America: poor.

I already perceived how simplistic my notion of these imaginary worlds must be.  Everything I had ever seen in two-thirds of a century told me that for a few, or a few thousand, to be wealthy in any economy, most of the population must be worse off.  So the underside of the Caribbean and the opulence that sustains the Spanish inheritance in that region between North and South America were going to be worth travelling halfway round the world to see, if only to correct my vision. (p. x)

But Haley does more than address the stereotypes. If the Caribbean has never been on your bucket list, you will discover from this book that there are historic city centres to rival what’s in Europe.  From one destination to another Haley could see 500 years of settlement, along with magnificent colonial architecture, plazas, forts, cathedrals and museums, not to mention excellent places to eat interesting food, plus wonderful people (along with some of the more churlish variety).

In Puerto Rico, he visited a World Heritage Site:

Las Palomas Park actually occupies part of the roofline of formidable Bastión de las Palmas, in turn part of the defensive city wall built after a 1625 assault by the Dutch when the razed the Spanish possession to the ground.  Ahead of me was an eagle-eye view of San Juan Harbour.  Then craning my neck to the right I could see the edge of another redoubt, La Fortaleza, which had been a governor’s mansion — under the Spaniards, Dutch, Spaniards again and finally the Americans — for an unbroken stretch of 500 years. (p.144)

That’s the kind of history tourism that fascinates me!

(You will also learn that the Caribbean was not only invaded by the usual suspects among colonisers of the past, but also in the case of the Dominican Republic by the US, in 1965 (when I was still at school).  The Dominican Republic was the first sovereign state in the region, but thereafter dictatorships replaced democrats with a regularity Pakistan would envy.  Haley was there during an election, and watched the results with concern, because within days, a state of emergency had been declared… instigated not by a Covid spike but by the healthy fear of an American tourist influx.  Because by this time, July 2020, America under Trump had completely lost control of Covid and American visitors were a deadly threat to a developing country’s health system.

Oh, I almost forgot… Haley did all this in a wheelchair.  He’s been a paraplegic since 1991.

Photo courtesy of Transit Lounge

The photo above is captioned in the book: How to ‘Disapier’: Bus and boat crew held the author’s wheelchair aloft for a nerve-wracking 150 metres out to the vessel at Samaná, in northern Dominican Republic. 

Close up, when it was too late to reconsider and go the long way round by land, I saw that the hundred metres between me and the vessel was spanned not by a sturdy structure but by a rickety narrow pier with some of its wooden slats missing and others spearing drunkenly skyward.  Without strong hands to guide me — those of José, the conductors, and a couple of villagers who came over to help stabilise my chariot — making it to the boat would have been as feasible as flying to Venus. Forgive my conceit, but I don’t consider myself an intrepid traveller — it’s nice to hear the compliment from others, as I do from time to time, but my view of the matter is more prosaic: I’m in a wheelchair and I love to travel, so the question is not, Will I? but How do I get from A to B with the least fuss?

Yet on this occasion, no matter how trusting I seemed (it was necessary to be lifted across large gaps underfoot and then be hoicked into the boat as it was rocking in the water), I cheated certain death by the simple trick of closing my eyes and imagining I was somewhere — anywhere — else. (p.119)

You can hear Ken Haley in conversation about his remarkable travels with Michelle Grattan and Margaret Simons at Readings on November 16th.  Find out more here.

You can also listen to Haley in conversation with Michael McKenzie at ABC Life Matters here.

A Walkley Award-winning journalist, Ken Haley has worked on the foreign desk of The Times, Sunday Times and Observer in London, at the Gulf Daily News in Bahrain and on the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Ken has also worked at Melbourne’s The Age and as a newspaper sub-editor in Athens, Johannesburg and Windhoek, Namibia and as a university tutor and freelance editor. His previous books are Emails from the Edge: A Journey Through Troubled Times and Europe @ 2.4km/h. He lives in Melbourne.

PS Just one point to note: at one stage during his journey, Haley manages, with a bit of sleight of hand, to quarantine himself in a cheaper hotel, reasoning that it wouldn’t make any difference except to his budget.  It strikes me that that kind of ‘common sense’ influences quite a few people when it comes to complying with pandemic restrictions, and it may even be valid in some countries where corruption is a problem.  But whereas at the beginning of the pandemic, hotel quarantine of any sort seemed like a good idea if there were no purpose built quarantine stations, the science soon showed that hotel air flow and design (in terms of enforcing social distancing) was vitally important.  It’s also obvious now, that the most important weapon against a pandemic is trust in the authorities, so that people comply with the rules whether they understand the reasons for them, or not.

Every month is AusReadingMonth at ANZLitLovers, but this post is a contribution to #ausreadingmonth2021 at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Author: Ken Haley
Title: The One That Got Away, Travelling in the time of Covid
Cover design: Josh Durham, Design by Committee
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760859, pbk., 323 pages, full colour photo insert
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


  1. Amazing. I’m really in awe of him, his energy and bravery.


    • Just looking at that pier, I’d be hesitant to traverse on two legs!


      • Me too! I’m not really brave for things like this.


        • I’m brave at the dentist, but not in The Great Outdoors!


  2. Wow! that’s some achievement – I barely went out of my front door for months….


    • Me too. Even when we were allowed to, I hardly went anywhere. And there are plenty like us, governments are putting incentives in place to get us to venture out because we’ve got so used to staying put!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with your final sentiments – there were times in all my (state) border hoppings that I thought “I know I’m safe, I’ll just skip this silly restriction” when of course we are safest when we all do as we would wish others to do, ie. obey the bloody rules.
    On a different note, my daughter was coming up from S. America to Canada when “9-11” led to the cancellation of all flights. So she had in microcosm what Haley navigated for months.


    • Yes, and you had to put up with an awful lot of restrictions too. It must have been a temptation…
      That must have been difficult for your daughter… getting stranded like that.


  4. Like you I have not ventured far and am in awe of Ken Haley. Still you’re one up on me Lisa you’re brave at the dentist. Oh how I wish.


  5. This sounds a great read. Like other commenters, I barely left home for months on end! Even now, I’m not back to doing what I once did – rates are rising where I live so I’m still only doing remote theatre, for example. I’m so impressed by Haley but I won’t be travelling any time soon…


  6. […] Ken Haley | The One That Got Away: Travelling in the Time of Covid (non-fiction) (reviewed by Liza @ANZ LitLovers) […]


  7. […] In high school I was The One That Got Away, by Ken Haley […]


  8. […] The One That Got Away, Travelling in the time of Covid, by Ken Haley […]


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