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Extra time... and penalties: David Whitley

Meticulously planning that three-week trip down to the final hour is something to be admired. Until it all starts to unravel

By David Whitley
Published 27 Feb 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 9 Jul 2021, 18:05 BST
Brisbane, Australia

Brisbane, Australia

Photograph by Getty Images

There's an anally retentive joy to be derived from maximising time on the last day away — and by heavens I had a brilliant plan. I could spend the day cruising around the Noosa Everglades, then hurtle back to Brisbane in the car and have about an hour's leeway before the night flight home.

This precision extended to everything else too. I'd picked precisely the right night earlier in the trip to do my washing, and was down to one last set of clean clothes to wear on the flight. It's not for me to dub this as the work of a genius, but I could very much understand if others wanted to.

The perfect timing continued at Brisbane Airport, where I dropped the car off, leaving myself just enough time to buy some duty-free, get something to eat and bless fellow passengers with my aura of smugness.

Alas, it turns out that nothing pierces that radiating glow of nauseating self-satisfaction like being told you're not booked on a flight. "Er, yes I am," I firmly but politely told the man at the check-in desk, handing him the print-out of my ticket. He looked at it, checked the spelling of the name, then put it into the system again. No joy. And then he spotted the key detail. "Sir, this ticket is for tomorrow night's flight."

Never has a single sentence crushed an ego so quickly. But it wasn't just about making my plans seem less brilliant. There comes a time when you're just ready to go home. Irrespective of how good a long trip has been, there's a point where home life, family, friends and not having to ration your underwear usage are an irresistible lure. I was genuinely excited about going home. I was genuinely longing to see my wife again after three-and-a-half weeks away. I was genuinely down to one remaining pair of pants.

I skulked away from the check-in desk like a defeated boxer who's just lost what he knows deep down inside to be his only shot at winning a title belt. Mildly heartbroken, weepy moping alternated with dazed, speechless confusion. How do you manage to turn up for a flight on the wrong day? How do you not notice the date clearly stated on your ticket? And how do you explain this to your wife who wasn't best pleased you were away for that long in the first place?

After about half an hour of utterly pitiful whelping, my inner army general kicked into gear. This would be an opportunity, not a failure. If I could perfectly time a day's sightseeing before a flight once, I could do it again. So I fired up the laptop, and meticulously planned a driving route through the rainforest hinterland. If I couldn't be home, I could at least see some animals, hike to some waterfalls and perhaps stop at a winery before tootling back via a canny shower at a public pool.

Newly emboldened by this hastily cobbled together, yet excellent, plan, I marched over to the rental car counter. It was the same woman I'd handed my keys back to an hour ago, and she had the good grace not to mention this.

"How much would it cost to hire a car for the day, bringing it back tomorrow?" I asked, expecting to get mildly slugged for making such a late booking. She didn't even bother to look at her screen. "I'm sorry. We don't have any cars left. They're all booked out."

I moved down to the next rental company and asked the same question. He at least checked with the computer system before offering an apology. "It's the start of the school holidays, you see…"

My brilliant plan, it turns out, had been to turn up a day early for a flight on the one day of the year when every single hire car from every firm at a major international airport is already booked.

This new setback left me properly broken. The fates were against me, and my only option was to get the train to Brisbane, then find a cheap hotel for night of prime-grade feeling sorry for myself.

The template for planning the perfect last day has now changed. Anything more ambitious than 'wander around aimlessly for a few hours, and go to a department store to buy a new pair of pants' is clearly doomed to fail.

Follow @mrdavidwhitley

Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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