A desperately sick daughter compelled a Paphos couple to attempt a long journey to Australia at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. It turned into a disaster
Sitting in my villa on March 24 in sunny Cyprus, high in the Akamas national park in isolation and reading an article about air travel and coronavirus, I commented to the wife that people must be mad to get on a plane at this point in history. Just how mad, I was about to learn.
The following day we got a tearful call from our son-in-law in Australia. Our daughter and only child had collapsed at home and gone into a fit. Taken by ambulance to Brisbane hospital, unconscious, she had been diagnosed with a brain aneurism. We were stunned; our daughter was in her early 40s and a doctor and CEO in Queensland. She had been hard-pressed, working long days through Queensland’s drought, fires, flash floods and then Covid. Panicked and feeling helpless, I just understood that we needed to be there as soon as possible.
The airports in Cyprus were closing in two days, but through a travel agent we managed to get two single tickets to Brisbane for nearly £4,000, way above the true costs, but I was in no position to barter.
Both my wife and I are pushing 70 years, both with underlying health problems. I’d just experienced a bout of pneumonia, and the wife is diabetic. Further news followed that the daughter had been placed in an induced coma as she was displaying symptoms of Covid. Her husband had been sent away to self-isolate. We just prayed she would live, but even so we didn’t know the long-term damage.
That evening I walked around my villa to say goodbye. I gave our three dogs a hug. Last time I recall being so low was aged nine, the evening before I was sent off to boarding school.
We left the villa, leaving the dogs in the care of neighbours. I was looking brave for the wife but underneath there was sheer panic.
The following day we flew to Munich to get out of Cyprus before the airports shut, only to find that the hotel we had booked for an overnight stay was closed. We slept in the transit lounge for 14 hours with gloves and facemask.
Our onward flight to Abu Dhabi went without problem; there was only a short stopover before the third and final leg to Brisbane. But as our flight was called, we were stopped at the gate and moved aside. We had no idea why. We showed our passports and visas for Australia but no one explained. My wife was in tears. Eventually we were told that our permission to enter Australia had been rescinded. Permission to enter Australia would only now be given in special circumstances, such as ‘compassionate grounds’ but permission had to be received before we were allowed to continue with the journey. A member of Etihad helped me apply, and we were sure they would give us the go-ahead we needed. But this was Saturday evening and the embassy would not open until Monday morning. The flight left without us.
We were told we could catch the next flight in 24 hours, so we sat in the transit lounge for the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday with facemasks and gloves. The next flight on Sunday evening to Brisbane came and left without us, despite our best efforts to sneak on board.
We were returned to the transit lounge to wait another 24 hours. Eventually we were given a room at an airport hotel for four hours so we could shower and get some sleep. Sleeping in a bed in a horizontal position never felt so great. And sleeping without a mask even better.
We were then called back to the airline transit lounge and given an ultimatum: the airline wanted us gone and permission had still not been received. As British passport holders we could be repatriated to the UK, there was a flight going at 2am or the airline would wash their hands of us.
I pleaded that we were still waiting on a reply from the Australian embassy which I was sure would grant us access, but we were told this was a take it or leave it offer. I explained we left the UK 18 years ago without any address there, we lived permanently in Cyprus and I had Cypriot nationality, if we could just hold on for another day?
But seriously worried about my wife and having spent three days in gloves and facemask I reluctantly took the offer, and we boarded the flight to Manchester, half the distance that I had paid the airline to carry us. I was told there was no refund or credit so my £4k had gone. Whilst we were in the air, permission came for us to enter Australia, but we were going in the wrong direction.
Arriving in Manchester we found an empty rental house: no furniture, bed or white goods. Good news arrived from the hospital. The daughter’s test for Covid was negative. There was nothing else we could do but try to get back to Cyprus once the airports opened.
I hired a vehicle; at least we could visit friends and family and do some shopping to make the best of a bad situation. We bought some food, soap and an airbed, but the following day the UK went into lock-down and my use of the hire vehicle was now illegal. We were stuck in an empty house.
We went to buy a garden table and two chairs to give us somewhere to sit and eat, only the shop was not allowed to sell it to us. Only essential items we were told. Essential I said? So if you have a plate of food where would you sit to eat it? Cross legged on the floor? Pointing out with our prosthetic knees and hips neither of us would ever get up again. I had entered kill mode. Eventually after some pleading I was allowed to buy a table and two garden chairs. But one shop assistant informed me in front of all the customers. “If you’ve just arrived by plane you shouldn’t be out. You should be self isolating.”
Self-isolate we did. The next six weeks were spent with no furniture, no carpets, no internet and no TV. Into the second week we did manage to borrow a laptop from the sister-in-law on which we watched some DVDs. And we had minimal clothes, just one case between us. We sat in the chairs until we had enough, as the wicker pattern cut into us, then we lay on our airbed staring at the ceiling.
Time was spent with me telling the wife about my childhood, born on the slopes of Kilimanjaro in a village called Moshi (Swahili for smoke), how one day one of the workers saw a leopard sleeping in the banana plantation. My older sister suggested to my brother and me that we capture and train our leopard to do tricks. A good idea at the time. So armed with a length of rope we set off only to find the leopard had moved. Just as well as I think the first trick would have been how to eat three young children in one sitting. Of the royalty and famous actors who stayed at our home. In the 1950s there weren’t the hotels or safari lodges, so film stars often stayed at our house. I recall my father was rather smitten with Rita Heyworth.
Then good news, our sister-in-law had our names on 2Cyprus.com. We were close to Manchester airport and managed to get a repatriation flight to Larnaca.
As we stood in the queue at the airport, us ‘oldies’ surrounded by students returning to Cyprus, I saw the difference between the British and the Cypriot youth. In the UK the elderly are regarded as a problem and this showed. Youngsters in the street even cough over us deliberately as a game. But at the airport and in Cyprus students offered to help with our luggage. It made me proud to be back.
We spent another two weeks in isolation in a hotel in Paphos and then came back to the villa we had left eight weeks previously. The grass had grown waist height, the weeds were everywhere, but the dogs were ecstatic.
Our daughter in the meantime has coped without us. After several weeks in hospital, her recovery has been good. The part of her skull that was removed for the operation has now been fixed back in place with small plates into the hairline. The dreadful haircut she had on one side is growing out. She appears to have lost none of her cognitive reasoning and continues to work on various government boards for Queensland. Thankfully we have Skype and can catch up every weekend.
And, I’m back home in Cyprus. I never want to leave again