TRAVEL: The baby in the gangway

Flying to Australia has never been cheaper. But is it feasible to take an infant on such a long trip? Tim de Lisle finds out
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The Independent Culture
IT SEEMED a good idea at the time. We would go to Sydney for Christmas, see some friends, get some sun, and watch England play cricket. It wouldn't be cheap, but the friends could put us up, and I could do some reporting to help pay our way. Our little boy would be 11 months, small enough to be portable, big enough to enjoy the beach.

We flew economy - false economy. Christ-mas is the rush-hour between Britain and Australia, and many travellers book a year in advance - not an option when you're 11 months old. As early as June, all the airlines we'd heard of were charging the earth. Eventually Lauda Air, owned by the former racing driver, offered the dates we wanted for pounds 880 each, and pounds 130 for the baby. Too relieved to study the small print, we remained happily unaware that there was a four-hour stop in Vienna, both ways, making the flight 30 hours each way instead of 24.

The baby's ticket entitled Daniel to a bassinet, but not a seat. The stewardesses installed us in Baby Alley, under the film screen. There were seven seats in the row, and 10 people: three couples, three babies and a middle-aged Belgian, who endured his fate with unfailing good humour.

Daniel quickly decided that he liked planes. He liked crawling along the gangway, and he especially liked standing on our laps and peering at the people behind. As we were at the front, this was a lot of people. Not since the days of "I'm Mandy, fly me" had one air traveller flirted so tirelessly with so many others.

His only problem was getting to sleep. Bassinet is a wonderful word for a less than wonderful thing; his feet stuck out and the rest of him kept hitting the sides. We soon had him lying on his changing mat on the floor with a blanket on top. All we had to do was remember not to tread on him.

The little plane on the map above us crept across India. I slept, intermittently; my wife did not. She's one of those people who think that if they nod off, the plane will hit a mountain.

A pattern set in. Daniel would look tired, become tearful, slowly go to sleep on one of our laps, and allow himself to be lowered on to his patch of floor. An hour or two later, the seat-belt sign would ping, or the trolley would arrive, and he'd be up again. Except at the start of this cycle, he was perfectly content. "Was he all right?" people asked afterwards. He was fine; it was his parents who were not so good.

When we reached Sydney, dusk was falling across a pink neon sky. I remembered reading an article about jetlag that said that your body-clock was susceptible to the local light. A baby, of all people, would surely take his cue from his surroundings, or, failing that, from exhaustion. About nine, we set up the travel cot in our friends' open-plan flat, plonked him in it, and tiptoed around, waiting for the yelling to stop.

It was a long wait. Every so often one of us (all right, my wife) would rescue him, and he'd come into our bed with a look that said we could make out it was night-time if we wanted to, but we certainly weren't fooling him.

The flat was round the corner from a hotel. Next morning, we booked a room for two nights - one night each. Amanda had clearly earned the first go. She set off about 8pm, looking indecently happy. Soon Daniel's face was promisingly glazed and stodgy. After a few minutes, he was asleep. I settled down to a telly supper. There was a night cricket match on, a charity game involving several old-timers, plus the world's best batsman, Brian Lara, and a leading Australian woman player, Zoe Goss. Lara was batting when Goss came on to bowl. Overcome by chivalry, or maybe just terror, he started playing badly, and was out. I got that warm feeling a journalist gets when a story walks into the room.

The sports desk in London agreed to take a short piece. As I wrote, I looked forward to telling Amanda that not only was it possible to combine work and childcare - you could have a holiday too.

The report had to be dictated, so I took the phone to the only room that wasn't open-plan: the bathroom. I lowered the loo seat and lid and sat down. There was a noise like a punch in a bad film. The lid had snapped in half as I heard a voice from London in one ear, and a voice from the next room in the other: "Waaaahhhh!"

Four hours later, two waiters emerging from a late-night Chinese restaurant were surprised to see a haggard Englishman pushing a bright-eyed baby round the streets of Potts Point.

After five days, Daniel grudgingly accepted that we were in a different time zone. In other ways he was quite adaptable. He didn't mind the heat, developed a taste for Vegemite and melon and made his beach debut at Bondi, on New Year's Eve. Sydney turned out to be the kind of place you'd like to bring up a child - airy, green, largely traffic-free, and very friendly.

We stayed three weeks, and tried not to think about the flight home. Heathrow had taken a relaxed view of our excess baggage (Daniel, the main cause of it, had no allowance). Sydney charged pounds 90, and the plane was delayed by two hours. My wife burst into tears. Just because we were boarding at 10pm didn't mean Daniel was going to sleep. The trip home took 37 hours, door to door. For me, even this was never quite as bad as I thought it would be. For Amanda, the fact that I kept saying so made it even worse.

All the same, we'd both recommend it. Australia is beautiful, welcoming, seriously underrated here. The cost is lower than it has ever been: there are flights advertised at pounds 400. The journey time, unfortunately, has not come down. The best solution - as I remembered, too late - is to go via Perth. This means a flight of 17 hours, infinitely better than 24. After that, the four-hour flight to Sydney is like a bus ride.

Daniel is now nearly two, and fascinated by aeroplanes. This Christmas, we're taking him to Berkshire. !