Getting to New Zealand was a goal – and we made it! After our couple days in Auckland, we headed back to the airport for a flight to the South Island town of Queenstown. Check-out time in the apartment was 10am and our flight wasn’t until 2:30, so we had some time to kill. As parents interested in the intellectual health of our boys, we gently suggested they do some schoolwork. The boys immediately and thoroughly dismissed this proposal, and we had to come up with some other way to pass the time. Some consultation with Google Maps revealed that there was a mini-golf course within walking distance of the Auckland airport. What luck! Off we went.
The mini-golf course was pirate-themed, with a striking resemblance to the Pirates Cove chain of courses we’re familiar with in the states. There were sunken ships, cannon, treasure chests, and plaques describing the exploits of famous pirates. We played an entertaining 18 holes with only minimal sibling rivalry. We didn’t keep score, but as is tradition Lauren out-putted the rest of us by a comfortable margin. I had the only hole-in-one though. Ha! When we returned to the clubhouse we mentioned the pirate theme to the proprietor. He told us that when building a course, picking a theme is a make-or-break decision. Pick the wrong theme, and your course won’t be successful. Pirates are a sure bet, which is why so many mini-golf courses involve pirates.
The day got even better (for the boys) when they discovered a Subway sandwich shop within walking distance of the golf course. For reasons I do not understand, they love Subway. At least they ask for vegetables on their sandwiches when we eat there. Dessert came from the Dunkin’ Donuts next door.
We strolled back to the airport and boarded our nearly-full flight to Queenstown. There was plenty of hand sanitizer around, but there was no curb on domestic travel. Yet. During the 2-hour flight I marveled at the scenery as we flew over the aptly-named Southern Alps. The view out the window reminded me of Patagonia, with long turquoise lakes nestled at the feet of snow-capped mountains. Like Patagonia, it’s stunning. The plane had to thread its way through the mountains as it descended into Queenstown, which must be one of the most scenic airports in the world.
Queenstown bills itself as the adventure capital of the world, and we saw evidence of this as soon as we landed. There was a row of skydiving planes lined up on the ramp, and you can rent a mountain bike right at the airport. We’re not quite that adventurous (and don’t have panniers) so we picked up a rental car and headed to the nearby apartment. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this apartment would be our new home for many weeks.
We arrived in Queenstown at the end of the summer, and were able to get a good deal on a spacious apartment overlooking Lake Wakatipu. The large, lightning-bolt-shaped lake is surrounded by mountains. On one side are The Remarkables, a range of mountains whose sharp, jagged peaks earn the name. The plan was that this setting would be our base for 10 days of exploring the area, including the fabled fjords, rain forests, and waterfalls of Milford Sound. While we wouldn’t go parasailing or bungee jumping, we’d try to do plenty of hiking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities.
One day we took a cruise on the TSS Earnslaw, a coal-fired steamship that’s plied the waters of Lake Wakatipu for more than 100 years. I love boats in general and steamboats in particular, and this was perfect. Stunning scenery, an onboard bar, and a pair of coal-fired triple-expansion steam engines – can a day get any better?
That night we learned that the New Zealand government would require anyone arriving to the country to “self-isolate” for 14 days in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country. At this point there were 6 confirmed cases in the country, all brought in from abroad. The Prime Minister, whom we would come to deeply respect, explained “I make no apologies. This is an unprecedented time.” At the time, these were among the strictest virus-related immigration restrictions in the world.
During self-isolation, people aren’t supposed to have contact with others. This prevents transmission while contagious. Though we arrived in New Zealand well before the restrictions went in place, and were asymptomatic, we decided that we had a moral obligation to observe the 14-day isolation period anyway. Self-isolating wasn’t a huge change for us. We’re fairly self-sufficient, and unless on a tour or at a restaurant we don’t have all that much contact with others. We stocked up on food and settled down at our apartment. The boys watched too much Youtube, Lauren watched just the right amount of Bravo on TV, and I got to do things I enjoy like grill dinner and gaze at the mountains. We fit in a few afternoon hikes as well. This is an absolutely marvelous corner of the world and hiking is one of the best ways to see it. One one hike, Lauren pointed out we could see 3 different kinds of mountains at once: the tree-covered peaks of Vermont, the heath-covered ranges of Scotland, and the rocky, craggy peaks of Switzerland. All this above a brilliant lake whose colors range from a playful turquoise to a dark, moody gray depending on the weather and sun.
As part of self-isolation we canceled our excursion to Milford Sound and extended our apartment stay by another week. A few days later, the government extended the self-isolation guidelines to people who arrived before the rule went into place. We were now officially required to self-isolate, but our 14 days since departing Singapore were almost done. We watched with smug amusement the news stories of travelers who were busted by police after flouting the new restrictions. During one of the daily press conferences about the government’s response to the virus, the health minister explained, “There has been the odd person who has come through and perhaps expressed the view they weren’t going to self-isolate, and they’ve been spoken to and convinced that it is the right thing to do.” A handful of more-stubborn (or clueless?) individuals got themselves deported. One group of especially ignorant tourists hired a private helicopter tour upon arrival into the country. The pilot, upon learning they had chosen to disregard the self-isolation rules, flew them to a nearby police station.
Eventually our 14 days of self-isolation were up, so for a change of pace we drove out to the small town of Arrowtown. During the drive there we saw our first sheep. We’d been starting to think that the narrative about New Zealand being full of sheep was a hoax, so we were relieved to see our first flock.
Arrowtown looks like a gold rush town from the American West, or perhaps something out of Frontierland at Disney World. It was indeed a gold rush town in the 1800’s, and is now a tourist town. Signs had started to appear in stores asking people to be clean and to respect the self-isolation guidelines. I felt compelled to tell shopkeepers that we’d done our self-isolation already – we weren’t rule-breakers! The shopkeepers depend on tourism and were happy for the business.
From Arrowtown we took a short walk to find one of the filming locations for the Lord of the Rings movies. The epic films used more than 150 different locations in New Zealand, many of them in this part of the South Island. The spot we visited was used in a scene as Ford of Bruinen, the site of a confrontation that featured a flash flood conjured up by magic. There was no flood for our visit, just a shallow stream happily rippling over a pebbly bed.
Around this time the government announced a 4-level alert system describing the country’s response to the virus. The country would begin at level 2, which called for border restrictions and increased measures among the population. Shortly thereafter community transmission of the virus was discovered, and through her daily press conference the Prime Minister announced that the country would be moving to alert level 3, then quickly to alert level 4 – full lockdown. The goal of level 4 is to eliminate the virus, and virtually everything is shut down. Even online stores and takeout restaurants are closed. It’s one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Not technically a quarantine, but close.
It’s worth a note about New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Still in her 30s, she is young for a world leader. She is a masterful communicator, and I expect her daily press conferences about the virus will be used as case studies in schools for years to come. She is calm, clear, and firm as she explains well-reasoned decisions that are grounded in fact and science. There are no lies, tantrums, or bullshit. Led by Ms Ardern, New Zealand’s response is a stark contrast to the malicious incompetence we’ve see from the US federal government (and some state governments), and so far it’s working well. This is what leadership looks like.
COVID-19 Alert Level 4 meant all our future plans were now on hold, or cancelled. We discussed our options, and made the choice to stay put in New Zealand rather than try to get back to the US. We had a couple options for places to stay in the US, but didn’t want to put ourselves or others at risk by traveling. Furthermore we had access to plenty of food and fresh air, and a capable health system. We bet that the government’s strong response would keep things sane here. And, we knew that there would continue to be flights back to the US if we really needed them. Had we been somewhere else – South America, for example – we would have made a different decision. We felt comfortable with our choice.
Then, on the morning of March 27, we learned that domestic flights could no longer be used to connect to international flights. This meant we couldn’t get back to Auckland for a flight back to the US. We couldn’t even drive the 900+ miles to Auckland: the ferry to the North Island was closed. We were really and truly stuck here!