It was meant to be a great trip, just before Cora’s retirement. “We were supposed to be in New Zealand from 11 March to 4 April, and on Tuesday, 7 April, I should have been back at the university. But that’s not how things turned out,” Cora wrote by email, still 18,336 kilometres away from Rotterdam. “My sister is quite a few years older than me. Besides going to see things on the North Island, the intention was to visit some of her old friends.”

It all started off so well. “When we arrived, there weren’t any problems; the country had just four coronavirus cases. We managed to take our planned trip to Cape Reinga at the northernmost tip of the North Island, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, to the Bay of Island and to the popular tourist spot of Rotorua – a Maori and geothermal area with sulphur lakes and geysers that are formed as a result of volcanic activity – without encountering any problems.”

Huge disappointment

But then the number of coronavirus cases increased, and more and more measures were introduced. “We discovered this on 20 March when we arrived in Hawera on the west coast of the North Island, the village where my sister’s friends live. As tourists, we had to go into self-isolation. Staying with friends was out of the question, and so we had no choice but to stay at a motel. It was a huge disappointment for both my sister and her friends.”

In spite of everything, Cora and her sister are doing well. “We’re healthy, we’re taking everything easy. There’s little point in worrying about the situation as it won’t change anything. Hawera is a farming village with a large dairy. We are staying in a very nice motel. Owing to the time difference, we spend a lot of time in the mornings and evenings emailing, WhatsApping and Skyping with family, friends and acquaintances. We do a lot of reading and walking. We also play Wordfeud with members of the family, such as my sister’s children and grandchildren.”

Unfortunately, contact with their friends is restricted. “They come and visit us every day and remain at an appropriate distance – here it’s two metres – and we talk to them outside. They are not allowed inside. Although the self-isolation rule has since been lifted, it isn’t much use to us because now New Zealand has been in lockdown for almost two weeks. Everybody has to stay inside, and the schools and restaurants are closed. You’re only allowed to go out for walks or visit supermarkets and chemists.”

Cora writes that on TV a lot of attention is being paid to Covid-19. “Every commercial break, regardless of the channel, includes a message from the government about the lockdown and what to do to prevent the spread of contamination. The country now has 1043 infections, 17 of which are hospital admissions. 156 people have recovered and the death toll stands at one.”

Embassy tempers joy

The country is out of action. “What’s more, there’s virtually no air traffic. So how are you supposed to get home? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set up Special Assistance Abroad. They are arranging repatriation of all stranded Dutch nationals, of which there are around 23,000 worldwide. My sister and I signed up for it right away. However, we’re still here because the New Zealand government closed the airspace to repatriation flights until 3 April.”

That blockade has now been lifted. “The ANWB Emergency Centre has been instructed to arrange repatriation. Once again we emailed our details, but the embassy immediately tempered our joy. There are lots of stranded travellers here, for example 12,000 Germans and 10,000 British people. Not to mention the Americans. The New Zealand government doesn’t want chaos at the airports, so every country has to wait its turn.”

In short: keep patient. “We are coming home; we just don’t know when. We keep track of the coronavirus news on the NOS and NRC Handelsblad websites. Obviously we would like to go home, but although it isn’t ‘Home Sweet Home’, there are worse places to stay than New Zealand.”