explainer

'After travelling overseas with my kids, we're now in hotel quarantine. This is the reality.'

I’m writing this behind a locked window and wire fence in Auckland’s M-Social Hotel. Ten days ago, my husband Rod and I, along with our two young children Eve and Bobby, made a strange, nerve-wracking flight across international borders during COVID 19.

Before we left, I searched for accurate accounts: what would our journey entail, and what could we expect on the other side.  A New Zealand Government brochure provided helpful information - but not the details.   

The details are impossible to write up in a booklet, and it’s the details that are difficult for a government to control. I’ve created this post to share our family’s experience of the journey, of border control, of managed isolation so far - and why everything has been both better and worse than I expected.

Watch: A thank you to masks. Post continues below.


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We’d been talking about doing a stint in New Zealand for years, and two months ago, my husband landed his dream job in Wellington. It was July, Australia’s COVID cases were low and the news media predicted a travel bubble by September. We’d be able to relocate without quarantine and I could continue my business (learning events), commuting back to Sydney regularly.

But Australia’s second wave hit, and the stark reality of our decision became clear - two weeks in hotel isolation with a two-year-old boy and four-year-old girl, two of the most energetic, loud and mischievous children to ever scream their way through an airport security line.

I’d heard that New Zealand had closed its border. Could I book flights? I called Air New Zealand and discovered that there’s only one flight each day between Sydney and Auckland, none to anywhere else. No other airlines fly to New Zealand. And we’d need to apply to Immigration New Zealand for Visas for Rod and the kids (because of the border closure, Australian citizens now need Visas to enter NZ) AND to Australian border control for an exemption allowing us to leave. Three weeks later, after many multi-hour calls on hold to New Zealand Immigration, we had what we needed. 

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I phoned Air New Zealand again. “When you arrive,” the sales agent said, “you’ll board a bus and learn where you’ll be sent for isolation. It could be Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Rotorua or Hamilton. Your location depends on which facility has space.” 

We arrived at Sydney airport early on Saturday morning and wheeled our pram, portable cot, two trolleys of bags with children piled on top through doors. I looked around for police; there were none. Four giant screens showing departures and arrivals flashed above us: a flight to Hong Kong, to San Francisco and our flight to Auckland. The rest was blank. For a second, I remembered the old airport - alive with families, executives, cling-wrapped suitcases flying this way and that. 

We trundled down to Air New Zealand where a solo check-in man wore a mask behind the counter. He took our temperatures and called customs to make sure we had the travel exemptions we needed, and we loaded everything onto the conveyor belt. 

“I’m sorry, you can’t take the pram through security,” he said. “There won’t be anyone at the plane to collect it for you.” 

I handed over the pram, looked at Rod and down to our bags as we silently wondered to each other how we’d manage to restrain the kids and carry our hand luggage. My only saviour in this moment was that I’d packed two toddler backpacks with dog-leads strapped on, so I could stop them running in opposite directions.

Image: Supplied. 

We lined up in the eerily quiet customs line. For the first time – not the last – I sensed fear.  It became a constant companion, pervading the flight, my experience of the other side and our stay in quarantine.

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People from all over the world waited on the other side of security.  Where had they come from? Did they have COVID? What had they touched? Had they left droplets in the air? Bobby and Eve scrambled in different directions while I yelled, “Don’t touch anything!”

Almost everything was shut inside the terminal. The Duty-Free shop was behind iron roller doors; every other shop was dark and empty like they’d all been robbed. There was a food court where three vendors sold pre-packaged rolls and yoghurts. Are the servers all wearing masks? Could they have picked up the virus from a traveller? Had they coughed over the food?

My stomach was awash with anxiety as we boarded the plane. I’d read how COVID droplets spread across seats on public transport. Would we have anyone behind us? I stepped inside with Bobby running in front as Eve, behind, pole-vaulted with her hands on every seat handle. I reached for the sanitiser.  

In front of us someone coughed. I flinched backwards and glimpsed alarm in Rod’s eyes too. “Eve, move”, I shouted as she came face-to-face with a boy of around the same age.

Then an American accent said something... an American accent!  My risk calculator overloaded.  I grabbed both kids, one arm each and stumbled down the aisle to our seat. There was just a scattering of other passengers.

The flight itself was uneventful. The flight attendants were noticeably less chatty than usual as they served drinks and food from behind surgical face coverings. They must feel afraid of us too, I thought. I felt an edge of fear at using the toilet and constantly wiped everyone’s hands.

We decided to disembark after everyone else and waited for a while after landing. 

Our first surprise outside the aircraft was a posse of three police officers. As we continued along the gangway, it became clear that one of the officers was allocated specifically to us, because we were last. It was her job to make sure everyone off the plane exited through the correct channels.

The first stop we came to was a health check. We lined up behind other passengers before entering a bay with two nurses who checked our temperatures and asked us if we’d had a COVID test before. We then lined up again for immigration and again for customs.

I’d read a lot of New Zealand news about controls at ‘The Border’. I’d heard the Army and the Air Force had been brought in to ensure the country’s security and I’d built up a vague impression of what it might be like. 

I’d imagined ‘The Border’ as a machine, a government-run force. I hadn’t visualised it, so when a friendly face in a beige uniform shot a giant smile to Bobby I had to look twice. He stood straight, but his eyes were warm and welcoming. That’s when I realised the border isn’t a machine – it’s a collection of humans.  

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We were ushered onto a bus, guided kindly but firmly by a team of police officers. 

By then it was dark, and we had no idea where we were going.  

“Kind of like a mystery weekend”, I joked to Rod. An announcement came over the loud-speaker that we were headed to a hotel called the M-Social in central Auckland. Phew. 

Thirty minutes later we pulled up in front of the hotel and a jolly woman jumped onboard.

“My name is Nicole”, she said from behind a blue mask. “I’m from the Ministry of Health and I’m in charge of your arrival tonight. You guys are seriously lucky - this is one of the best hotels in Auckland. It’s five-star and the food is amazing!”  She laughed. I looked around to see if anyone would join me in a “woohoo”. Silence. 

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We were then escorted through a sequence of checks. The next stop was a nurse’s station where we had to hold open our passports, have our temperatures taken again and answer a barrage of questions.  

“Are you on any medication?  Do you have enough to last the two weeks?” The station was sectioned off by two large transparent pieces of plastic. 

Rod, at this moment was fumbling in his backpack for passports he’d accidentally left in a suitcase. There – it was being unloaded from the bus by gloved, masked army officers. Behind us were police, in front of us army.  

The nurse continued: “Are you experiencing any stressful life events?”

“Um….”  I sat splay-legged on the floor.

“Moving countries during a global pandemic. These children.”

She smiled. “Otherwise, you’re OK.”

I nodded. 

We reached the check-in desk and were handed key cards. An officer helped us up a lift to our rooms. where a white envelope on the desk contained the terms of our stay.  These included:

  • We’d be isolated for exactly 336 hours (14 days) from the time our plane touched the ground in Auckland (5.05pm Saturday).
  • We must wear Ministry of Health supplied masks (not our own) whenever we answered our door and any time outside of our room.
  • Breakfast, lunch and dinner would be provided to our room daily. Additional room service was available at cost.
  • We were able to order from the local Countdown supermarket or pharmacy (although we discovered that Countdown took three days to deliver).
  • Alcohol was allowed but any orders were monitored, and the staggered delivery controlled by reception.
  • Laundry bags were collected on Tuesdays and linen on Fridays.
  • No house-keeping service but cleaning products and a vacuum cleaner were available on request. 
  • An exercise area was open between 8.30am and 4pm each day (see security in the lobby).
  • There was a designated smoking area on the ground floor terrace.
  • Guests were to only use hotel reception in an emergency. Only one ‘bubble’ (family) in the lift at a time. No loitering anywhere outside the rooms. We had to stay at least 2 metres from any guests outside our bubble. If we came into contact with another guest, and that guest turned out to have COVID, then we would have to stay in isolation for another 14 days. 
  • We’d receive COVID tests on Day 3 and Day 12 of our stay. 

Image: Supplied. 

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The next morning, we emerged after a good sleep and tucked into a delicious breakfast left at our front door by a masked deliverer who didn’t wait to be thanked.  

We admired the beautiful Auckland Harbour view and the kids discovered that couches make excellent trampolines and the bed sheets turn into tents. 

A nurse and an army officer appeared at our door just after ten to take our temperatures.  “Has anyone had a runny nose, cough, unexplained fatigue…?”, they asked.   

Anyone displaying symptoms, we learned, would be transferred along with family to a Quarantine Facility which didn’t sound appealing.  

“No, we’re all good”, said Rod.

An hour later we masked-up and ventured downstairs to find the exercise area.   

I’d imagined an outside terrace, maybe a few treadmills or bike machines, somewhere for the kids to play. A woman and a man in Air Force uniforms greeted us at the bottom of the lift and showed us out to the door of a carpark and opened the gate.

This is where the reality of isolation set in. The ‘exercise area’ was one floor of a dark underground carpark with a roof so low you could bump your head by jumping.  A row of socially distanced people in masks walked around the short square perimeter in circles.

Image: Supplied. 

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I looked at Rod: “Is this it?”  He cast his eyes around the four corners of the carpark, back to the security guard and sighed.

The second morning was dull and grey outside. Bobby stood at the hotel room door optimistically saying “Park”.  

By the time the nurse and Air Force arrived at our door we were all feeling blue.

“I’ve got a runny nose”, Eve piped up from the back.  

I shook my head: “No you don’t.”

“I do,” she said, blowing fragments of snot from her flared nostrils.

“She really doesn’t,” I assured the nurse.

Afterwards we sat with Eve in the bedroom. “Why did you say that honey?” I asked.

She looked at the floor, mouth pouted. “Do they send you home if you’re sick?”

Rod and I looked at each other, our hearts hurting. “No, they don’t send you home,” I said.

“But I want to see my friends.”

It’s the human side of isolation that’s so difficult. I feel guilty for putting my children through two weeks without sunlight, too much fancy food and way too much screen-time. I’m scared whenever I leave the room. What will the kids touch?  

But, now we’re at Day 10, I’m happy to report that we’ve found our rhythm, and again, it’s the human experience that changed everything. 

It’s the cook ‘Mai’ at our hotel who goes out of her way to call me each morning and check meal preferences, even drawing a little love heart on the meal pack she made with soft veggies when I had a sore tooth.  

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Image: Supplied. 

It’s Lisa the Air Force officer who along with Susan the nurse takes our temperatures each morning. “I’d usually be fixing helicopters”, she said.  "I volunteered to do this.  I wanted to help."

Bobby and Eve have adapted too. We’re enjoying lots of family dance time and this morning we even found an optimistic Bobby waiting at the door saying: “Carpark?”

But as lovely as everyone here has been to us, we’re counting down to 5.05pm on Saturday.

Two months ago, when we planned this trip, New Zealand seemed so close – just a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Sydney. While virtual communication during COVID has brought the world closer, the travel restrictions and social distancing measures have also left us more isolated. 

Our journey to New Zealand has been emotional. I’ve felt afraid, ashamed of my fear and more on edge than ever.  

I’ve learnt to accept all of these feelings and step through this time in our lives day by day with empathy for myself, a recognition that everyone else is going through similar challenges and by reaching out to make human connection wherever I can.

This post has been republished with full permission. For more from Rebekah Campbell, you can find her here.

Feature Image: Supplied.


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