THACKARINGA HILLS REST AREA, Australia — The four figures huddled in the shade on the side of the highway, eight miles from a border they had hardly noticed until it slammed shut behind them.
As flies buzzed and crows circled and their supplies ran low, they waited for emails that would allow them to leave New South Wales and return to their home state of South Australia.
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. It could be easier for Sydney residents to travel to Los Angeles or Singapore than Adelaide.
Part of the problem is geography. Texas is larger than five of Australia’s eight territories or states. They often only have a handful of highways linking them which can lead to bureaucratic bottlenecks during the age covid.
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. Broken Hill then reported some 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. The Border Gate had been her property for six years, but she was now afraid it might go under. This was her busiest time, as tourists would stop by for coffee and her hamhock soup. But now the sandwich board out front said “closed.”
“It’s not like I can go get a job somewhere else,” she said. She said, “I live 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 said that he and his wife could wait with him while he waited. The permit was not received and the job went away two months later.
Then there was the man who had parked his motor home 50 yards behind the roadhouse. Hedger believed he was either antisocial or concerned about contagion. Pat Leahy was not the only one who picked this 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. Leahy worked for several months to get his affairs in order after his brother’s death in January. When the Hunter Valley declared that it would be in lockdown, Leahy had just completed selling his brother’s property.
Leahy had been here at the border for 2 1/2 weeks, waiting for permission to go home. He said that Western Australia is closed to New South Wales residents so he couldn’t apply for entry to his state.
“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. He was now waiting for South Australia’s permission to allow him into the country, even though technically he was already there.
“It’s the bloody bureaucracy,” he moaned.
The red tape had also entangled Phil Turner. Turner, the owner of a South Australian pub and tour leader in New South Wales, was affected by Sydney’s epidemic. After cancelling the tour, Turner applied for exemptions from South Australian authorities. He then drove to an isolated spot in the Outback on a shallow Lake to await the approval to return 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. The couple began packing their camp site. Marilyn reached for the bottle of pinot noir she’d been keeping.
“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. He had to battle a crow earlier in the day for his last piece of 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. He was turned away by authorities at the Queensland-New South Wales border. Since then, he has been trapped here trying to get home for four days.
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.”