As Whisper’s dock lines secured to the cleats, we exhaled a sigh of relief to arrive in New Zealand. Little did we know the decision to sail to New Zealand in 2004 opened a privileged door to return during a global pandemic.
Living, working and cruising in New Zealand from late 2004 through spring 2008 afforded us the opportunity to be obtain a Permanent Resident Visa. This visa is the equivalent of a Green Card in the US. At any point going forward from obtaining the visa, we can live, work and travel to the country any time – including during a pandemic.
Even prior to the pandemic, returning to New Zealand during 2020 topped the priority list. We wrapped up the last round of work in September 2020 giving us the freedom to make a decent duration trip to the place we waited to return.
In April, the planning committee, us – Robin & Duncan, concluded a December 1 departure optimized the arrival of summer in New Zealand with the arrival of winter in the US. In April, speculation on COVID’s evolution and duration included projections that winter in the US could be bleak.
Flights from SFO to Auckland were booked and then canceled by United as overseas travel dwindled and restrictions increased. I will not rant on how United did not give any notifications and the shear luck of discovering the flights were canceled.
Rebooked on Air New Zealand left us departing from Los Angeles rather than San Francisco. Let’s use the bagillion air credits on United to fly to LAX. Booked. Canceled. Rebooked. Flights changed. COVID cases starting to spike. Hmmm.
The planning committee reconvened. Is it riskier to rent a car and stay in a hotel? Is a 1.5 hour domestic flight more risky than a 13 hour international flight? Is the domestic terminal more risky than the international terminal? How crowded are the flights? Thanksgiving is three days before we are supposed to fly to LA. What!? People are traveling for Thanksgiving? Renting a car and driving to LA feels like the smarter thing to do. Flights to LA are canceled and a rental car is booked. We slept well after making the decision.
At this point, we feel like contestants on the Amazing Race Pandemic. Preparations are complete – luggage, N95s, gloves, face shields, alcohol wipes, passports, managed isolation reservation. Tick. Off we go.
The eerily quiet international terminal of Los Angeles International Airport left us wandering around trying to find where to check in for our flight. Of the approximately 100 airline ticket counters, ten were open with none of them Air New Zealand. No shops open. No information counter open. Most chairs are behind chain link fence or police tape.
After 30 minutes hiding in a corner behind the fort we built with our luggage, Duncan wandered around and discovered Air New Zealand check-in counter open. Hooray.
Between the eight electronic devices, carry ons and the metal in my ankle, getting through electronic screenings and a full body pat down left us counting laptops, cellphones and body parts. Getting to the gate felt like a major accomplishment.
As we wait for the airplane doors to close, the pilot announces one of the passengers felt ill and the flight will be delayed to remove their luggage. Duncan and I lean over to simultaneously say, “They probably felt sick when they saw the flight is full”.
Thirteen hours later, Air New Zealand 5 lands in Auckland. Kia ora, Aotearoa!
Where we spend the next 14 days is in the hands of the New Zealand Ministry of Health and Defence Force (army). New Zealand’s approach to COVID relies on stopping COVID at the borders through “Managed Isolation” which is a 14 day stay in a hotel under the supervision of health professionals and security. In Amazing Race terms, Managed Isolation is a Speed Bump en route to a COVID free country.
Half the passengers on our flight disembark to continue the journey to Australia while the rest of us learn we will be getting on another flight to Christchurch where we will isolate. Well, that is a surprise. Detour – typical Amazing Race style.
New masks are provided. Temperatures are taken. Immigration processed. Customs cleared. Domestic security checkpoint cleared. Boarding passes provided. Brown bag of snacks and water distributed at the gate. Wow – efficient, communicative, thoughtful, well managed.
Visiting the South Island did not make our planned itinerary. While exhausted, taking the scenic flight over the South Island felt like a nice addition to the trip. Time for the bonus flight.
One step closer to finding our home for the next two weeks, the Defence Force representative boards the plane giving insights into what comes next. Pick up our bags, queue for the buses, get assigned a bus which goes to one of four isolation hotels in Christchurch, health check, receive lunch. Collapse. Got it.
Arriving at the Chateau on the Park hotel, anticipation for being in our room mask free for the first time in 27 hours rejuvenates our weary minds and bodies. The number of staff, Defence Force, security and medical professionals is a bit over whelming.
We are guided across a grassy garden area to a set of steps looking a bit like rough considering the hotel is quite lovely. Even so, I can sense we are getting close to being able to shower and rest.
Within 15 minutes of arriving in our room, lunch is delivered. Apparently, we lucked out with the hotel assignment. Defence Guards, health workers and front desk staff warned us the restaurant chef makes delicious food. They were right.
Twelve hours of sleep, summer sunlight, birds chirping – where are we? Feeling grateful and humbled by guarded hospitality, we munch on breakfast, drink a flat white and read the NZ news. Hey – the Pakistan cricket team is in the same hotel except under quarantine. Quarantine defers from isolation in that you tested positive for COVID, showed symptoms of COVID or came in contact with someone with COVID.
Ah ha. This explains the number of Defence Force and security on the grounds. As soon as the cricket team left the hotel, previously inaccessible hallways and stairs opened up.
Every day, a Wellbeing Newsletter is delivered with fun facts, important notices, puzzles, riddles and general information to keep us amused and well informed. Every other day, we receive a visit from the Wellness team for a health/temperature check.
Unless displaying symptoms, protocol includes COVID tests on Days 3 and 12. The Day 3 test is a critical one as exposure from travels is most likely to show up in that timeframe. The Day 12 test is a key milestone for graduating from isolation on Day 14.
As data driven beings, we brought along our own thermometer and oximeter. Admittedly, these devices saw a ton of use as we monitored ourselves.
When not using the thermometer or eating yummy room service, we took full advantage of the outdoor exercise area with morning walks in the garden. Afternoons included an in-room workout or yoga thanks to Gloria, from the Wellness Team. who picked up our yoga mats at the local Kmart.
Deliveries to the hotel came form grocery delivery or the post. Laundry services and fresh linens came every three days. We cleaned our room with provided cleaning supplies.
The last hurdle to clearing managed isolation is another COVID test on Day 12. Assuming negative tests are received, we make the U-turn back to Auckland via a chartered flight on Day 14 – December 17 New Zealand Time where we pick a a rental car. From there, we head four hours north to the the Bay of Islands for a month of unmasked, COVID free freedom.
As I write, we finished our Day 12 COVID swabs and await the results. Receiving the results determines our next step. We are so close to “Return to New Zealand. A magical place where hugs still happen”.