When Wānaka mountain guide Mal Haskins left Ushuaia (Argentina) on the Oceanwide ship Plancius, bound for the Antarctic Peninsula, he could never have known he would return two weeks later to a changing world.
Haskins, along with Twizel guide Dave McKinley, was employed by Oceanwide to take the ship's passengers mountaineering and glacier walking on the peninsula. This was to be his fourth trip down to Antarctica for the summer and due to be his last.
The Plancius left Ushuaia for the peninsula late February. What was going on in China and Italy was happening before they left, Haskin said. So the crew had vetted passengers for coronavirus before they embarked, taking temperatures and checking where they had travelled.
"There was a rumour that there had been a case of covid in Ushuaia when we left. Then as we sailed, news started coming in on what was happening around the world. I felt a little bit wary- but was still comfortable we could complete the trip, and everything would be ok.
"We started the trip and got a couple of days across the Drake Passage when we started to get the news that countries were closing their borders. As soon as I heard this, I felt worried and thought everything was going to happen.
"We were in our own bubble, but I could see how the NZ was reacting- you could see the government was stepping up."
Then a whole lot of other things began to evolve. Haskins said, including Argentina closing down all domestic travel.
Other ships ahead of the Plancius were able to get their passengers off at Ushuaia and back to the Northern Hemisphere.
"The positive we thought we had was that we all left from Argentina and none of the passengers had travelled through the most hazardous countries. We still hoped we would be able to get off in Ushuaia as ships ahead of us were disembarking there," Haskins said
But just before the Plancius left the Antarctic Peninsula, the Argentinian government closed down the port.
Heading for Ushuaia was no longer an option, Haskins said, so the ship headed for Buenos Aries. The passengers and crew were told they could disembark there if they had a valid airline ticket to leave Argentina that day. However, there were riots at the Buenos Aries airport and crowds stopping planes from arriving. Haskins said they heard the same thing was happening in Chile
"The NZ embassy started to fire through information, and so did our insurance group. And then the Argentinian authorities said "nope, you aren't coming to Argentina" and that's when we decided to head for Montevideo, Uruguay as a last-ditch effort to get off the ship and home.
"On the morning of March 24, we arrived in Montevideo. At that point, Argentina and Chile had closed their borders completely. Uruguay and Brazil were still open."
“We discovered we weren't able to fly from Uruguay to Buenos Aries but could fly to Santiago (Chile).”
The Uruguayan authority’s protocol for getting people off the ship was called the "passage sanitary," Haskins said.
Passengers were taken off the ship in lots of 20 persons. They were dressed in masks and gloves and bused through the city to the airport with a police cavalcade. We travelled at 80kms straight through the city, Haskins said.
“We were dropped at the airport, and that’s where Dave and I thought we would get caught in Uruguay because one of the things you need when you get off a ship is a letter from an agent to say this is arranged and you are not jumping ship.
“We didn't have this and immigration said they couldn't let us leave. We wouldn't have been able to go back on the ship because it was now in quarantine. Thankfully, in the end, we got the document from the agent, and we got on the flight with about two minutes to spare.”
From Santiago, Haskins and McKinley caught a flight to Auckland. It was full of Kiwis, many of whom seemed to think this was a “great end to a holiday” and that they would get to Auckland and be able to head to their homes, Haskins said.
“At Auckland airport immigration checked us for symptoms, what countries we had been in, and what our plans were for isolation. We were packaged through domestic all ready to fly to Queenstown when immigration called us back. We got bused into Auckland and located in the Medura Hotel.”
Haskins will be at the Medura for two weeks. He said he is very tired and happy to rest up.
“We are allowed out to exercise, but not for long,” he said. “There are police at the front door and Ministry of Health officials downstairs. There is a meal plan with multiple options. At the end of the 14 days, they might look at getting us home. I hope so.”