“Whatever we decide to do now, we just have to go with it. We can’t look back with what if’s, have regrets or wish we’d done things differently. We don’t want to say an early goodbye to New Zealand but the outlook isn’t looking good.”
These were my words to Nigel as the events unfolding across the world suddenly took a turn for the worse. Sitting in our Son’s tiny apartment in Wellington, we knew we probably had to say an early goodbye to New Zealand.
The week of 16th March should have been an exciting one. Down in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, we’d gathered with our boys ready to celebrate Nigel’s special birthday – The big 50.
Unbeknown to Nigel, we’d secretly booked a lovely Airbnb for the following weekend. The boys had arranged a cake and planned to get to the Airbnb house before us. They’d arranged to prepare a food feast for the weekend, all I had to do was get Nigel there! A sign outside saying “Honey for sale” would do the trick!
We’d planned to drive up to Martinborough, for the day, a lovely wine growing town and perfect for his special weekend. I just had to walk him past the booked Airbnb – a lovely timber frame house with plush interiors and plenty of space to chill. The honey sign would be enough to get him to the front door where the boys would be waiting and the surprise weekend would begin.
Well that’s what should have happened, before global events took a fast turn for the worse, bringing an early goodbye to New Zealand.
The Covid-19 outbreak had been well and truly on our radar for some time. I should say, more Nigel than me, he’d been following the news reports from when it first emerged in Wuhan, so we knew this was bad.
What we didn’t know was just how bad this was about to get. Things seemed to move so quickly and soon New Zealand had confirmed cases on their home soil.
Realising the situation was unfolding rapidly in countries across the world, I’d already started to check the UK Foreign Office website and began following the Facebook page.
As the the virus became more prolific and the threat of border closures ever more real, I decided to sign up for e-mail alerts on both Singapore, our transit route and New Zealand.
This ensured we had a back up, incase I’d missed any information on the website. It was just helpful to know we were getting the right information from the UK authorities as the announcements came. Soon, there was so much information released, it was difficult to follow on social media alone. By now, we also knew we’d probably have to say an early goodbye to New Zealand.
When a UK Foreign Office alert popped into our mailbox, advising against all but essential travel worldwide, we knew this had reached a whole new level.
At the same time, another e-mail announced changes to transit through Singapore. The new rule meant you could no longer transit without isolating for 14 days – if your connection involved a change of Terminal or collecting baggage before the connecting flight – the alarm bells now rang loud and clear.
New Zealand had just changed it’s rules on entry to overseas visitors, all arrivals had to now go into isolation. Australia had changed it’s transit rules too, basically, the routes back to the Northern Hemisphere were narrowing by the day.
If we could just hold on for another 10 days, we’d be home on our original booked flights. By the 18th March, we knew this wasn’t going to happen, events were unfolding far to rapidly to all countries and airlines involved. Any prospect of getting us back to the UK after the end of the week seemed remote.
Instead, we took the bull by the horns and made the decision to at least try to get an earlier flight home. This was a horrible choice, as it meant leaving our boys behind and abandoning our 50th Birthday celebrations.
It was also to prove a case of easier said than done!
Staying on in New Zealand and chancing that our booked flight the following week would go ahead was an option. In reality though, it was pretty obvious from what we were seeing and hearing, that by then, borders would be closed.
The thought of staying on and taking our chances initially seemed quite idyllic. After all, we had a campervan, our boys were in New Zealand, it’s a beautiful and safe country to be in and there’s no language barrier.
The bigger picture though, foresaw a different story. If international borders closed, airlines were grounded and lockdown did happen, then we could be stuck in New Zealand for a long time.
We had no idea what impact this would have – would campgrounds close? Could we get accommodation and if so what cost would that be? How much would flights home eventually cost when flying resumed? Would lockdown be for a month or several months? What if the UK borders closed? The list goes on when you analysis the situation.
We also had to think about our family and our house back home. When we thought it over in the few moments we had, we decided we needed to get back to the UK.
After 2 days of trying to change our flights with the call centre in Singapore, we finally got a result. Singapore Airlines had very few seats left. Looking online whilst waiting for hours in a call centre queue, seats were disappearing before our eyes.
Eventually, we got through to someone. Luckily they found available seats on a flight leaving on the 20th March, the only free date. They agreed to swap our booked flights for an $800 fee but then as we eagerly tried to pay, a problem with their payment system meant the payment wouldn’t go through.
The chap we’d been speaking to promised to look into what the problem was and phone us back. 3 hours later, we were still waiting and thought we’d never hear from him again.
By this point, economy seats were still showing available online for the 20th, so we decided to just pay for a whole new booking. There was no option to amend our booked seats online, hence having to phone in the first place. Paying $3300, we clicked buy and had confirmation of our booked seats back to the UK.
Low and behold, the phone rang at midnight – it was the Singapore Airlines call centre. The chap had changed our original flights and was phoning back to try for payment again for the $800 amendment fee – their payment error now resolved.
We couldn’t believe it. Explaining we’d booked online when he didn’t call back, he told us he’d sort it out and call us back again.
A few minutes later, he called again, he’d cancelled our online booking and told us he’d refunded the $3300, although we’re still waiting for this to come through! We paid the amendment fee of $800 then came the confirmation e-mail and attached tickets and our online booking was erased. We’d be home for the weekend ready or not.
New Zealand’s airline Jetstar had cancelled all domestic flights. This is Europe’s equivalent to EasyJet, an awful prospect that they were no longer in the air.
We needed to get to Auckland from Wellington, an 8 hour drive by road. Booking a flight with Air New Zealand, added more expense but we had no other option. Thankfully, they were still flying some domestic routes.
At 6am on Friday 20th March, 2 days after arranging the flights, it was time to say an early goodbye to New Zealand and our boys.
Leaving our eldest Son in Wellington, where he was about to start the beginning of the new work from home rules was hard. Our youngest Son joined us on the 10 minute journey to the airport. Flying up to join colleagues at his pilot training centre in Hamilton, he had a separate flight booked, allowing a few more minutes of quality time.
Leaving in such unprecedented circumstances was actually quite difficult. Both boys were due back to the UK before Coronavirus came into the world.
We’d been looking forward to our younger son being based in Oxford, after almost 2 years down in New Zealand. This was changed out of the blue due to the ongoing situation.
Our other Son had been due home for a few week’s holiday, we’d so looked forward to welcoming back. Now, as with so many other families, we are unsure of when we’ll have our family time again.
Auckland airport was busy but calm. There was nothing to indicate the crisis unfolding, other than long queues at airline desks and the frequency of people wearing face masks.
Right up until boarding, we were fearful that the flight may not get off the ground. The worry that Singapore may cancel transit totally was in the back of our minds.
As the wheels of the colossal A380 left the runway, a strange feeling ran through our veins. Just the not knowing of when we’d be able to return and the uncertainty of what lay ahead both in New Zealand and back home in the UK.
Landing in Singapore was a relief. Fingers crossed our onward flight to Manchester would go without a hitch.
We knew that passengers who had to collect baggage before boarding a connecting flight, had to go into 14 days of isolation. When we switched our phones on in Changi Airport, a text message told us to collect our bags from the carousel – NO!
Heck, had we got it wrong, we’d double checked this at Auckland and online, our baggage should be going straight through to Manchester. If we had to go into 14 days isolation just to collect our bags, it would mean we wouldn’t get home, borders would be closing and we’d miss the boat (or plane!).
Finding an information desk, once again we checked the situation. Thankfully, it was confirmed that our baggage would be going straight on to Manchester, purely because both flights were with the same airline.
Checking e-mails as we waited to board, two urgent ones came to my attention. The UK Foreign Office Alerts – both for Singapore, stating the imminent closure of transit routes – we’d just about made it.
At 2am, 5 hours after arriving in Changi Airport, our flight left the tarmac. The information boards in the departure lounge made for sobering reading – so many flights cancelled. This is one of the largest and busiest of airports in the world, yet it was deserted.
Early morning, cloudy Manchester skies eventually came into view. Strange how from above everything looked so normal, yet how far away from the truth this would be.
I’m not sure if we were pleased to be back or not. For practical terms it seemed the best place to be, arriving to an uncertain few months was less appealing.
A fleet of grounded Ryanair aircraft lined up alongside the terminal building. Only one of the three terminals was open, how incredible that this was echoed in airports across the world.
As the key turned in the front door, it did feel good to be home. After 4 months of travel down in New Zealand, I have to confess, I was ready for our little house.
It didn’t take long for the news announcements to come through. Singapore had in-fact closed the transit route, our flight must have been one of the last if not the final one to depart back to Manchester and the UK.
The Prime Minister of New Zealand announced a Covid Level 4 status, meaning lockdown for at least 4 weeks. International and domestic flights were stopped too, if we hadn’t left when we did, we wouldn’t have got a flight home.
Here in the UK, we’re all under a lockdown of our own. As Coronavirus takes hold, none of us have any idea when we’ll be back to any kind of normality.
One thing’s for sure, there will be life before and after Covid-19. What a wake up call for the world this is, let’s hope we can all resume where we left off.
The UK and global implications will yet to be seen. In the meantime, we all have to do our best to keep safe and well.
Obviously, Summer travel plans in our Sprinter camper here in Europe are on hold. Who’d have thought we’d all be facing such a dangerous and hidden enemy in the year 2020.
I guess, when it’s over, we’ll all be a little more appreciative of each other and those incredible locations awaiting exploration.
For now, stay safe wherever you are and we look forward to joining you out on the road soon!
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