We first heard about COVID-19 when we were in Cambodia, but back then it did not seem to be a big issue ((according to the news). We flew to New Zealand, started our thru-hike and forget all about it, until it started to get bigger. In Februari I was worried that my family might not be able to come to visit. But everything was okay and they safely got back home. We continued hiking and after walking around 500km we started to get worried. A pandemic was declared and everything was changing fast. Should we leave the trail? What should we do? We decided to hike a bit further. Three days offline. Good thing we came out of the bush when we did.
Far away news
As for most people, the news of the virus worried us a little bit, but felt far away from home – until it didn’t. When it emerged in China, at first everyone thought it could be contained and that the virus was comparable to the flu. No worries. Stay calm and keep going. We were hiking the Te Araroa, a thru-hike – which meant that we spent a lot of days offline, immersed in nature. My family had come to visit us in New Zealand and I remember that even then the situation seemed to be under control. After they left, we continued the trail and went offline for 8 days.
When we came out of nature again, the situation had changed quickly already. Things started to get bad in Italy and everyone seemed to be talking about the virus. We were surprised, because it had all escalated so quickly. That’s when we first realized how easily the situation can change. Belgium started taking measures to flatten the curve. We saw how friends and family could not go to work anymore and everyone had to stay at home. Social distancing was the message.
We heard about the lockdown of many South-American countries and started to doubt about continuing the trail. We talked to a lot of people, but most of them seemed to decide to keep on walking. New Zealand had less than 10 cases and it still felt very safe. Because the next bit of the trail would only take us three days (before entering society again), we decided to continue – because, how much could things change in three days, right?
The moment everything was different
A lot apparently. We didn’t realize at first – because as always, when we get off the trail, we enjoy doing groceries, lying in a real bed and Netflix. It’s only the next day that we start to realize how much things were changing because of the virus. The reality hit us hard. We decided to quit the trail because New Zealand was also thinking about going into lockdown and we did not want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere.
It’s strange to think that even then we did not see the gravity of the situation yet. We thought that there might be a lockdown of four weeks and that we could continue travelling afterwards. I guess the mind can be slow when things change so fast. However by lunch we were starting to think that it might be better to go home. We were comparing – lockdown in New Zealand, or lockdown in Belgium. And what if we would strand in Dubai on our way home? Wouldn’t we rather stay in New Zealand then? Lots of doubt, lots of question, lots of unknowns, so much insecurity and a lot of stress.
The next day we decided to go home and we tried to book a flight as quickly as possible. Countries were announcing lockdowns all over the world.
Booking a flight home turned out to be a challenge. Luckily my parents asked the travel agent that helped them with their trip to New Zealand, to help us out. The first flight we wanted to book was soon not an option anymore because London airport was closing down. More and more flights got canceled and prices went up quickly. We were so stressed.
We were residing in a small town, so in the meantime we arranged a shuttle to Christchurch, where we could fly home from. It was also a better place to be if we weren’t able to get home as well. Once in Christchurch we had to pick up the luggage that we hadn’t needed on trail (we were supposed to pick it up one and a half months later) from a storage facility. Then we found ourselves a hostel to arrange everything further and to spend our (hopefully) last nights in New Zealand.
We were lucky and just in time, we found a flight and we could relax a little.
Or not. All at once it seemed as if it would not be possible to get home anymore. Australia went in lockdown the same day we booked our flight and would only allow Australians to enter the country. We heard from people at the airport that they were not allowed to board because of that. It was hard to fathom that going home would not be a possibility anymore.
We decided to call the Australian embassy and they said there should be no problem. It was all so confusing. We were so tired and sick of all the insecurity and frustrated with the lack of communication. We understood why everything was happening, but why not be clear about the measures taken? We were in the dark and simply wanted to know where we would end up. We started to work out a back-up plan for when we would not be able to leave New Zealand.
The next day we called the embassy again and they said there was going to be a 36 hour period wherein Australia would allow airport transits. He did not know when this period would start. Still no clarity – we were flying the next day. However, in the evening, people we knew were flying home and they would update us. They called to say that they were allowed to fly and that the 36 hour opening had started! We were hopeful – although it was still unclear when those 36 hours had started and therefore it was unclear when they would end. By now we had made our peace with staying as well.
We’re going home
The next day, we went to the airport early – we arrived 5 hours before our flight. Everyone had recommended this but it turned out to be unnecesary. We simply had to wait – luckily, everything seemed to be fine. The flights were supposed to happen. The airport itself was almost empty. There were only four flights leaving that day, all others were cancelled. After two hours of waiting, we could check-in and we received our tickets. Three ours later we boarded our plane. We could not believe it, we were going home.
It would take us 35 hours of planes and transits. That’s long. Social distancing seemed unknown to people at the airports and even though we tried, it felt quite impossible to avoid people. We were tired from the stressful week and tired because of the long journey. To make everything a bit more nervewracking: upon boarding in Dubai (our third flight) they told us they were not allowed to fly at the moment and that there would be a delay. Everyone was so worried. They delayed the flight with 15 minutes every time. We waited for three long hours. I went nuts. But, as you all know by now: we got there, we arrived in Belgium.
It’s strange to arrive in an almost empty airport. The moment we came out of our plane, someone started to yell that we had to keep our distance. We had to get in one line, with 1,5m between everyone. Easier said than done when a big group of people pile out of a plane. But once we got through boarder control, everyone grouped together waiting for their luggage. So far for keeping distance.
Michiel’s dad was waiting for us and it was strange to have to keep a distance after not seeing each other for so long. We wore our mouth masks and sat in the back of the car. First stop: Michiel’s house. His mother had done groceries for us and we picked up some extra stuff for Michiel. We catched up with his parents and then we took Michiel’s car to drive to my parents home. They had collected some things I asked for and put those in the garage where I could pick them up. We talked with a two metre distance – still wearing our mouth masks. We did not want to take risks. Honestly, it’s heartbreaking to come home like that.
Third stop: our home for quarantine, an appartment at the seaside. We had to drive one hour and a half to arrive. Not our smartest idea, after being awake for 50 hours. We played stupid games, sang along to the radio, kept on talking to each other, everyting to try to stay awake. I made Michiel pull over because he was too tired and I drove the rest of the way. We made it.
Unloading everything, putting the food in the fridge, eating a quick sandwich, shower and off to bed.
Weird, it’s all so weird and unreal. There we are, at once, home. We are tired, not only from the journey home but also from the emotional, chaotic and stressful week we had before boarding those planes. A week ago we were hiking in the most beautiful nature and the next we are at the other side of the world, not allowed to leave our appartment. It’s surreal. We still have to catch up with ourselves, wrap our minds around everything.
It hit us that this is the end to our year around the world. At least for now. It doesn’t look like travel will be an option in the near future. That’s a hard blow. I’ve been dreaming about this for as long as I can remember. It’s a very abrupt ending and I do not feel ready for it yet, but here it is. We’ll have to figure out what we’ll do now. We do not know yet.
However, we have time to figure everything out. We are in quarantine for two weeks and after that there’s still a two week lockdown to go. Or maybe even longer. We’ll see how everything plays out. We also know to put things in perspective. We are lucky, the whole world is in chaos right now and people have it worse than us. So many people are stranded and we are lucky to be home. This is hard for everyone.