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My longest weekend in New Zealand PART TWO

A holiday to Australia with a short stop in New Zealand turned out to be more eventful and much longer for Paul Moody and his wife Wendy. Paul has visited 85 countries and completed 26 road trips in his Gibraltar registered Hilux car. He has travelled by road from Gibraltar to Australia, across Africa and the Silk Road.

By Paul Moody

The world travel industry was in total chaos and communications with airlines and travel companies in meltdown. After many hours of failed attempts we gave up trying.

Mothering Sunday was spent in isolation except for our morning walk around the parish. We called our mums in England who fortunately were both feisty and well but naturally concerned about our well-being… as we are of theirs.

Christ Church is the oldest in the country and I had decided to attend the morning service at 10.30. I was surprised that all worshippers had to sign in and I decided not to attend at the last moment as I realised I was self- isolating. What was I thinking of?

During the afternoon we slipped into a melancholy state once again regretting all the socialising we had done. During this period of reflection our friends called again to say that they had decided to fly back to the UK on Thursday.

We went out for another socially distancing walk in the late afternoon to further discuss and decide what we should do. Returning past the Duke of Marlborough Hotel we were perplexed to see all the staff outside in the gardens holding a meeting. We then noted a new sign stating that the hotel was closed until further notice. What we didn’t know at the time was that the hotel is owned by the deputy Prime Minister and that a decision had been made by the cabinet this day to lockdown the country on Wednesday.

The same evening our four children called us on a video link insisting in unison that under no circumstances should we contemplate going home. We slept little that night.

Having thought about nothing else but our predicament through the night Wendy came to the view that we should stay put, much to my relief. This decision was ratified when our friends called again to say that their plans had been scuppered as Emirates had announced the cessation of air services. At mid-day Prime Minister Ardern announced that the country was going into immediate restrictions and in 48 hours, total lockdown. We had two days to prepare.

At the local store the owner was on duty to reassure everyone that there were plentiful supplies of everything in the country. Daily deliveries were guaranteed and there was no need to panic buy anything. We didn’t. Our new home had few books so we borrowed four in haste from the local library. A call to the doctor and visit to the pharmacy for medication. We had neither television nor Wi-Fi connection which was a problem. Shane, at the hotel kindly loaned us a TV and we accessed that all important internet access. Our meagre wardrobe of summer clothing was quickly supplemented with warm autumn wear and more basic needs. We were ready.

From the avalanche of global news, we extracted the most relevant for us over the next two days. The UK was locking down and cocooning old boys like myself for 12 weeks. Gibraltar declared “our economy is broken” and we thought, so must be many countries in the world. Most airlines ceased operations. Bugger… we are now out on our own in a faraway country with more to think about. Again sleep did not come easy.

We were due to go into lockdown on the evening of Wednesday 25th of March on the very day we completed our self-isolation. Early morning, I joined my first ever Zoom call with my pals in the Kinsale Men’s Shed, in their evening. Brilliant and very Irish, with poetry, song, stories and laughter. The talent of so many always leaves me in awe. The use of technology amazed me that day.

It was a beautiful day, our last day of limited freedom as we took a drive out in stunning scenery. Sandwiches and a swim on a deserted beach felt surreal with all that was happening in the world but we still held the belief that normality would soon return.

Our daydreams were deflated at a service station as we topped up the car with fuel, just in case. A sign on the door tersely instructed “Knock and wait” A surly young woman gingerly opened the door to take payment and I felt hostility, as I was barred entry and it was slammed too in my face.

At precisely 6pm we both jumped as Wendy’s phone emitted a high pitched very strange noise, screeching “NATIONAL EMERGENCY” followed by clear and precise lockdown instructions for all citizens. We later learned that this was also the Tsunami alarm and very effective it was too.

On this day 2.6 billion people, one third of the world’s population, also went into lockdown. The numbers were mind boggling.

With a glass or two of the nation’s finest red wine and cheeses we relaxed with the internet and the best of British television thanks to our new Amazon Fire stick. We also reflected on the impact of the situation to the world and our feeling that New Zealand had acted in good time. Other countries less so. We were happy.

The following day the Wi-Fi failed and we discovered that the television could not be connected to the terrestrial service. With no television aerial nor Wi-Fi we had insoluble problems with the country in lockdown. Shane, at the hotel came to our rescue again allowing us to hover in a corner of the motel early morning and late in the evening to share their Wi-Fi. A most suspicious activity if sighted by any passing locals.

Russell is a tourist town with the bustle of visitors who alight from the three ferries an hour from nearby Prahia to explore the historic community and enjoy browsing in the shops and dining in the side walk cafes and restaurants. All activity had ceased.

Under the new edict we residents were allowed to walk out from our homes twice a day for an hour and to visit the doctors, pharmacy and food store but we were not allowed to leave the community. Mike, the local policeman was admired and respected by all as he regularly cruised the streets to ensure that we all complied with the lockdown rules… and we did.

March is late summer, very calm with a touch of autumn in the air as the seasons changed. We were travelling light and over the following weeks took to wearing layers to keep warm.

There was no panic buying in the small food store, and the bake house was well stocked. Panic buying on the scale witnessed around the world did not happen in New Zealand.

All were reassured by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as she reported daily the actions her government were taking to protect us and a wave of obedience and gratitude swept across the nation.

Whilst we loved our new abode, anxieties crept in with the uncertainty of the future. Globally the pandemic tightened its grip, sweeping across country boundaries and whole continents. Nationally, the country took actions by closing ports to international, regional and finally local travellers and all around complied. Social distancing was discreetly exercised on our daily walks and idle pleasantries became distant nods or waves between strangers or acquaintances.

All overseas visitors were asked to register their presence in the country with their embassies and we duly did with the British Consul along with thousands more. Daily, we received by email a bulletin updating us with the national and global situations and guidance on options we could take to return home. At the outset some international flights were operating, but not for long. The British Consul swiftly arranged repatriation flights from Auckland to London via Doha that were quickly booked out. More flights were arranged and the tickets we secured were weeks hence at a huge cost.

I kept a diary, recording our daily activities that inevitably fell into a routine for the duration.

First priority every morning was to seek a Wi-Fi connection to download emails and newspapers then call family and friends in their late evening in Europe. Our walks were dominated by discussions of the most recent rush of news whilst exploring every byway and building in the community.

Most days we extended our permitted one hour walks but were aware that Mike our local Sherriff, was keeping an eye on all activity on the streets and we did not want to push our luck. I am not as keen on walking as Wendy nor is she on local history as me. My detours to check out the headstones in the local churchyards were unaccompanied!

Food became our joint obsession and Wendy’s mission was to create a special occasion every evening and she did. We soon knew the whereabouts of every item in the food store and our favourite members of the cheery staff.

Afternoons were spent reading our downloads , delving into our library books and snoozing with podcasts. We walked out again later to recheck our media and make early morning calls to Europe that were less well received than the evening ones.

The evening walks became more enjoyable as we got beyond nods to passing locals, first exchanging pleasantries then sharing news and views whilst social distancing. The sunsets are glorious as the waterfront catches the evening rays and quite a few people would sit out to enjoy. We often called by our new friend Jude who was always fun with something interesting to say and we loved her dog too.

The Sherriff’s wife also loved a glass of wine in the evenings on her veranda whilst no doubt Mike was cruising the streets in his Police Wagon to ensure that all were aware of his presence.

Over the next few weeks we became a part of the community with friendly waves and greetings from most except Shane from the hotel who became cool to our twice daily visits for his Wi-Fi. In the afternoons, I was reading a heavy autobiography about Captain James Cook the explorer who first discovered this land two hundred or more years ago. When he arrived in new lands he always presented gifts to the natives reasoning that it is always easier to deal with friends. I presented Shane with a fine bottle of wine for his wife and we had the sweetest relationship thereafter. Another life lesson learned.

Every day we paused by the local bowling green which had recently been reseeded. Yes we are really those people who stopped by to see the grass grow and over the weeks it did!

Summer was fading into autumn, perceptibly cooling with occasional showers. Our modest wardrobe was known by everyone and our layers were rotated for variety. The shorts were packed away and our puffer jackets were seldom removed outside or in.

We embarked on a literary project, “The Legacy of the Pandemic”. How it will impact on so many aspects of our lives both in the short term and the long term. Good intellectual discussions where broadly we agreed on most everything…..most unusual.

I became enthralled reading our two books on Captain James Cook, a Yorkshire lad of humble origins, who circumnavigated the globe three times on voyages of geographic and scientific discovery in the Pacific on behalf of the Crown. The voyages into the then unknown took years, with great loss of life, yet he commanded huge respect from his crew, in times of great adversity.

His achievements were magnified for me as a perfect replica of his ship “The Endeavour” was moored out in the Bay and the current crew were preparing to sail her to Hawaii. In 1779 Cook was murdered in Hawaii by the natives as he tried to kidnap the King for ransom.

The weeks passed and we felt safer in New Zealand as the global news worsened. Our regular calls home to our children in Ireland were tense at times and they were angry that we had secured tickets on a repatriation flight still weeks away. We placated them by saying that we would reconsider our return three days before departure but by this time Wendy was resolute that we were to be on this flight come hell or high water.

Though the global news and statistics were dire, fortunately Covid 19 had not checked in with any of our family and friends anywhere in the world. Our friends in Spain were truly locked down in their homes but at least we had the freedom to walk out twice a day. The UK procrastinated.

One morning, I was the solo shopper in the store and Bruce Springsteen was blaring out over the speakers “Born in the USA, Born in the USA…” and I just wanted to dance! My trolley was my partner as I shimmied along seeking a dance partner who was not to be found. Luckily.

The clocks moved forward an hour on the last Sunday of March, and the weather changed with the equinox. We were warned that a Force 5 Cyclone was in the region and the tsunami sirens were to be tested. Maybe Russell is not that safe after all.

We had another fun experience thanks to Zoom sharing a traditional roast dinner with Camilla and Ben in Australia. Wacky, but really nice to share and have banter over dinner thousands of miles apart.

This eventful day was rounded off with the news that Boris Johnson the British PM was admitted to hospital with the virus and we genuinely feared that this could be a serious crisis.

The daily routine of all, everywhere, became restricted and anxieties rose as gloomy pandemic news was all that we shared. Feeling particularly isolated one rainy day I caught sight of the formidable electric gates of our property opening and closing involuntarily. I ventured out to hear the whirring of a motor to discover that they had jammed shut. I could find no way to manually open them. I checked the remote control and a control box in the garage but all appeared in order. Anxiety peaked at that moment realising that we were now in a true lockdown situation! Rescue came later by a very handy man who disconnected a failed motor and very securely lashed open the gates with ropes to a sturdy tree.

A first wave of fun swept across the country with teddy bears appearing in windows, up trees and on many rooftops. Inspired by the children’s book “We are going on a bear hunt” we all had a new game to play… spot the bear! It was fun to seek and laugh at this spontaneous recognition of a need for fun. Again we made new friends as we waved and praised the imagination of so many.

Wi-Fi was again restored after some weeks without some form of normality returned. No more lurking near the motel recovering messages and able to make our calls and watch wall to wall television on demand. Our dependence on the internet has been highlighted to all.

Whilst retirement is the reward for a life of hard work it is wasted if we do not have daily challenges or interact with family and friends. My daily routine of swimming and wandering about has been interrupted. Our travel arrangements going forward are cancelled with the frustration of being unable to make plans for the future on hold. First world problems. I reflected that we are so lucky being healthy, in a place of safety with shelter, food and acknowledging so many are less fortunate than we are.

Wednesday is our big day: bin day. This is our weekly spin out in the car laden with our modest black bags of refuse and bottles. Recycling is on hold in the country, so no sorting required, and everything is dumped down a chute into a quarry for a small fee. I browsed the reusable corner where good items are offered to a new home for a donation to a community fund. A very good idea.

Good Friday was not a good day for us. We had promised our children that we would review our planned flights back to Europe on the Monday and make a balanced judgement. We were under pressure to leave as we were booked on one of the last repatriation flights to London leaving us with no other options. The autumn would soon be winter and who knows how long before this pandemic will pass.

The Covid news in Europe continued to deteriorate by the day. We called three sets of friends in Spain who were incredulous that we should want to leave NZ. They are locked down too but have no freedom whatsoever. They can only leave their properties to buy food and the local police had taken enforcement to a new level. The infection rates and subsequent deaths were spiralling out of control everywhere and the UK or Ireland were not safe havens for us baby boomers.

Wendy and I discussed our predicament endlessly and she was adamant that we should return to Ireland and I was not. A month ago Wendy had wanted us to return but I persuaded her to stay assuring her, wrongly, that we should go with the flow until the pandemic had passed. It had not and there was no guarantee if and when the next flights would be.

We called our children with our decision and they were vocal and furious but with a united front our decision was made.

To compound my mixed feelings sad news from home that my Uncle Graham was seriously ill, contracting Covid 19 in hospital and sadly passing with it whilst we were in flight. Not a good omen.

Our romantic weekend in Russell had extended to 32 nights as we departed for home.

We will never forget our longest weekend.

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