We had made a bid with Air NZ to upgrade to their Sky couch, which would guarantee the middle seat between us would be unoccupied, and which also converts to a flatbed just big enough for two. We kept checking online, and despite there still being vacant Sky couch seats showing, and also around 15 vacant middle seats the morning of our departure, we missed out on the upgrade. And even worse, when Cousin David dropped us at LAX to check in early, we found the seat between us would be occupied, and the plane was completely full.
This was really disappointing and meant either we would travel the 13 hours sitting apart, or one of us would need to take the middle seat. So when we boarded the plane, we asked the young guy already sitting in 59B if he would take the window. If you’ve never travelled on a long haul flight in the middle seat of three, our advice is, don’t. Even in normal times it is miserable. In Covid times, it means you are sitting inches away from a complete stranger, impossible to avoid close contact multiple times, over 13 hours. We also discovered our close neighbour had been in California for four months, spending time with family while his father died, and then attended a large funeral. Great. It will be a miracle if we don’t come down with Covid.
Needless to say, there was no sleeping. The meals and drinks were served quickly and the lights went out, but the lack of room, and the need to keep a face mask on, plus eyeshades, plus earplugs, made for an uncomfortable and restless night. We were served breakfast around 4.30am NZ time, ready for our 6.30am arrival into Auckland.
We were right at the back of the plane, so were in no rush to disembark. When they opened the airbridge, we were greeted by a member of the NZ government entity which manages the mandatory quarantine requirements on entering NZ. He advised us that all facilities in Auckland were full and the entire flight was being sent to Christchurch for quarantining.
In itself, this didn’t seem a big deal at the time. We had read varying reports about the hotels in Auckland, where opportunities to exercise, quality of rooms and food were questionable, and if you are locked in a hotel room it really doesn’t matter where you are. Plus we were planning to visit Christchurch anyway to see Jenny’s family in early December.
We were finally offloaded from the plane and joined a long line, what for we weren’t sure. After about 45 minutes further along we discovered we were being given new masks, and had to put those we had worn in the plane into a plastic bag, which we were not to open for 72 hours. We were told to sterilize our hands before and after removing the mask and putting the new one on.
From the re-masking station, we moved to another queue, still no information provided, but an hour later we found this was the health screen queue where they asked health questions and took temperatures. Some people here were moved away, who had presumably either provided a questionable answer, or had above normal temperatures. Unusually for NZ there were armed police everywhere. We had to queue again to continue to the next point, which turned out to be NZ Immigration, and NZ Biosecurity. Once we’d seen the agents, our luggage had to pass through a screening, to determine if we were smuggling in any bad foodstuffs.
By this time we’d been standing in queues for over two hours without any access to toilets. Finally we asked a biosecurity agent when there would be a toilet available. He didn’t know! But then we were told we could use one off to the side where they were taking people who were trying to bring in forbidden stuff. Much relieved, we continued on, dead tired by now, into the next queue. Still no information about this queue, until we realized it was a further security check, where we had to unpack electronics etc. from our carryon luggage, take off shoes, etc. etc., despite the fact that we had just arrived from LAX, and there had been no opportunity to put anything into hand luggage. Ted asked why the security check here and we were told that NZ security screening is different from departing LAX. Really?
We moved into a departure gate area and collapsed into chairs. Someone handed us a fruit juice in a box, and then there was an announcement that we needed boarding passes. By now, Ted was having a serious attack of the grumps. So I went up to the desk with our passports and begged them to give us boarding passes without Ted having to come up there. I told the agent this was for her own protection from a grumpy American.
Boarding passes in hand, we eventually boarded the charter flight to Christchurch. Our checked luggage fortunately had been loaded directly from the LA flight, and we had a relatively short flight time of just over an hour. Sadly this wasn’t to be and we sat on the ground in the plane for another 45 minutes. Finally we took off, and arrived in Christchurch around mid-day. Thank goodness we thought, we are finally here.
But no, another queue to shuffle through to the baggage claim area, where after picking up our two checked bags, we stood in line again, again with no information about why we were queuing. Turns out though, this was the hotel allocation, managed by the NZ Defense Forces. After about 90 minutes standing in line, we were carved out as a couple, and put in a new line, and told we were going to the Novotel. This brightened us considerably – brand new hotel and about 200 metres walk from where we were so no need to climb onto a bus and go into town.
We were escorted by members of the Defense Force out of the terminal and around to the hotel, where there was a further line waiting to be checked in. This however was relatively painless and our hotel receptionist handed us keys to room 509 saying “Wow, you guys have a great room, it’s a corner suite.”
An army guy took us and our bags up to the fifth floor and we opened the door to a fabulous room on the top floor of the hotel, with huge windows overlooking the airport runway and across to the Southern Alps on one side and out across the city to the Port Hills on the other. Separate bedroom and large bathroom with a bath and enormous separate shower. To two people who have lived on a 50 foot boat for the last four years, this was luxury!
For the first time since leaving Southern Star over two weeks ago, we were able to unpack and settle in. We had been given an information pack which included an exercise schedule – basically we could go downstairs and walk around one side of the hotel at any time other than 3.00-5.30pm when other groups were down there. We had been issued with blue wrist bands on arrival, which designated our entry and potential exit date, which will be Monday 16th November, at 6.21am, timed from our touch down time in NZ. We had finally got to our room just after 2.30pm, so 8 hours after our arrival in Auckland, or a third of a day of quarantine.
Not really the warm welcome home that we would have chosen. But from our hotel window, and from our caged in exercise yard, we look out to people coming and going from the airport, with no masks, no social distancing, essentially life is back to normal here. That is worth spending fourteen days in a four star hotel, with good meals delivered three times daily.
We spent the next two weeks in a routine as such. We woke, read the news on the IPADS. Breakfast was delivered. The Continental breakfast consisted of, with a couple of pastries, bread roll, mixed juice, milk, and cereal. We grew quickly tired of the Weetbix cereal option, which was every other day.
The other meals were mixed and were not bad. We enjoyed lamb shanks one night. One night we were served a fair tasting steak, but it was impossible to cut it with the provided bamboo knives and forks provided, so we picked it up and ate it Survivor style.
Our alcohol intake was greatly limited, in itself not a bad thing. But the hotel did offer beer and wine at minibar rates; $6 per beer and $27 for a bottle of wine. We moderated well to save money.
We were allowed outside to enjoy the exercise compound, which was formed by a double fenced barricade created an area of about 75 metres x 25 metres. We could walk for an hour and get in about 2-3 miles a day going in an anticlockwise direction, so as not to run into other walkers and even the few posers attempting to jog.
Jenny’s mom, brother Jonny and his wife Nicola came by on a Sunday, and visited through the fence. It felt pretty much like a low security prison setting.
We were able to keep busy, updating our CV’s and applying online for a couple of jobs. We did a few blog posts. We watched a movie each night, and then retired to do it all again.
After two nasal swabs, which were inserted deeply into the nasal passage, we were cleared on day 3 and day 12 as not being COVID positive.
We were released, actually awakened at 0400 by the nurse for the last temperature check of our stay, at 0615 were escorted down the elevator by Defense Force staff, and checked out of isolation, masks removed and discarded, hands cleaned.
We breathed in the fresh clean air of freedom and walked over to the terminal to wait for the desk to open so we could collect our rental car, and stay a few days more in Christchurch, to see Jenny’s mom and Christchurch family before returning in a few days to Auckland.
It was a very odd feeling to be walking around in a mask-less society.
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