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Stranded in NZ – it could be worse

Andy Coman and Millie Fawcett continue their tour of NZ at Franz Josef Glacier. Photo: Supplied.

Thousands of travellers have found themselves grounded in New Zealand throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, watching on from afar as their respective nations suffered differing fortunes.

Luckily for those marooned explorers, including many based in the Bay of Plenty, Aotearoa has happily pulled in a few ringers from around the globe to join the team of five million.                              

In March last year, as the pandemic picked up momentum, British couple Andy Coman and Millie Fawcett made a decision. They hurriedly packed their bags and flew from Thailand to New Zealand, heading to the final destination of a backpacking adventure earlier than anticipated.

“We got here just about in time,” Andy admits. “Very, very lucky.”

Andy and Millie spent the first lockdown with relatives in the South Island. With schools closed, the two teachers helped home school children within their bubble.

The pair went on to embrace the tourism sector in the country at a time when it desperately needed a boost, travelling around the ‘relentlessly stunning’ roads of both the North and South.

Since September 2020, they have called the Bay of Plenty ‘home’, straddling residences with friends in both Mount Maunganui and Aongatete. Life has been relatively normal for them since, compared to the multiple lockdowns, furlough schemes, and death toll in the UK.

“Being in a country where things are basically normal and got back to normal so quickly you have to remind yourself sometimes of the absolute chaos in the rest of the world,” Andy ruminates. “Especially back home. We have just been phenomenally lucky.”

At Mount Backpackers hostel on Maunganui Road, the common room is still a sea of accents. British, Irish, German, Brazilian and many more varying inflections permeate.

Miguel Franco, from Spain, arrived in October 2019. He has travelled across the country visiting ‘impressive’ Milford Sound, Abel Tasman and Wellington. He also spent a month with a family in Rotorua perfecting his English.

Mount Maunganui has been his home for nearly a year now. He spent lockdown last March in the hostel with 37 other guests although insists everyone kept their sanity. Miguel now works at the hostel, putting his lengthy experience as a guest to good use.

Like the United Kingdom, Miguel’s homeland has been ravaged by Covid in a way New Zealanders can only dread. Therefore, it is not lost on Miguel how fortunate he has been.

“I think it is so lucky. Always I say the same that I am so lucky to be here because in Spain the situation is so bad.”

The Mount has become like a second home for Miguel, the cooling breeze reminding him of his native Zaragoza.

“To live life in the Mount is perfect. The location, two minutes to the beach, all the bars here, it is perfect.”

Miguel will be leaving at the end of the month, heading back to Spain via a trip to Seattle, USA, to visit relatives. He admits trepidation at the prospect of leaving the relative safety of these shores.

“In Europe it is like a second wave. It is a bit scary now.”

Miguel had hoped to ride out the global health crisis in New Zealand, whilst continuing to work and enjoy life in the Bay. The longevity of Covid’s grip on his homeland, and most of Europe, has been a shock. 

“I have to come back to Spain. My idea was to stay here until the situation was better. But now I don’t know how it is going to be when I go back.”

Whilst happy being stranded in the relative normalcy of New Zealand, Andy and Millie are also planning on heading home in February.

“Even though it is so chaotic at home, it is still home,” says Andy.

But what New Zealand has offered is not lost on these halted globe-trotters.

“The culture here, the ethos, is to be nice and be welcoming which has helped us get through a fairly chaotic time,” Andy stated.

“Even without Covid, we have been lucky to spend a year in New Zealand, it is a wonderful thing. It felt like a nice version of home. Friendly, beautiful,” “warmer,” Millie interjects.

She then makes one thought abundantly clear. “We are so grateful to New Zealand and to Kiwis.”

The gratitude is clear to see. No doubt those who have taken safe haven in Aotearoa during these unprecedented times will be welcomed back with typical Kiwi hospitality in the future.

Reporter Mathew Nash is from the UK and is himself in New Zealand on a working holiday.

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