I have spent the last fourteen weeks since our little school closed, wondering if it would be possible to get out of India. India’s borders closed and so did Australia’s at almost the same moment in late March. Australia has a very small population and a very low covid 19 tally, so it was never going to be easy and it became virtually impossible up until May 25th as all Indian domestic airlines were shut down.
We are six hours drive away from the closest domestic airport and to then travel on to a major city like Mumbai or Delhi, where all rescue/repatriation flights were departing from, just wasn’t going to happen. It would be a two or three day drive and all borders in between required e-passes. The Australian embassy would provide these, but we knew the local law enforcement people could prove very difficult. To hire a vehicle was also prohibitively expensive, although some people did so.
When domestic airlines did reopen, I held my breath. Yes, flights were taking off, in fact more flights were soon added, so then getting out became a possibility. The government airline put on lots of flights to countries and continents with large populations, like the USA and Europe. But to tiny little Australia (population wise), just a handful. Within five minutes of releasing tickets, the website crashed or announced that no more tickets were available. It became a nightmare. I joined several “Aussies stuck in India” facebook groups and a couple of Whatsapp groups, so I knew my pain was being shared by others. All flights were costing four times a normal ticket, but these are extraordinary circumstances. Were the skies going to open up to commercial flights in July or August, before our visas ran out?
On Friday evening of 19th June, a guy advertised a Singapore Airlines charter repatriation flight on a facebook group, that would fly into Mumbai on 26th June. Bookings were going to open in four hours. If enough bookings were confirmed, it would happen. The flight had got the necessary approval from both India and Australia. I just knew this was the chance we had to take, so I went online and booked two tickets. Five minutes later, I got an emailed confirmation.
There is only one daily flight from our nearest airport to Mumbai; we are as far east in India as we can be and Mumbai is on the west coast. It’s a three hour plane flight. I booked our flight for Thursday 25th. Because of the current lockdown situation, domestic flights may be cancelled without warning, but this was the only flight to such a major city and it was a return flight, so seemed more likely to actually take off.
Now we just had to get to the airport. We used our vehicle to get to the border of our state. We had a pass to drive to the airport, but our friend who was driving, would then have to go back and spend 14 days in quarantine, in the local government hospital, where they provide no food, no support and because of the virus fears, might not even allow anyone to deliver food to him. That wasn’t going to happen!
So another friend organised a taxi driver to pick us up at the Assam border and drop us at the airport. First leg of the mission accomplished! We’ve just heard that this state has gone into total lockdown since Monday because of new cases, so it will now be very difficult to cross.
We were six hours ahead of our flight, but that didn’t matter. We made it! We sat outside the airport under a giant fan for almost four hours, then had our bags sprayed with disinfectant and went in (yes, we had masks on, mandatory in airports and most other places). To get in we had to hold up our ID and tickets, we even had to print out our baggage tags (turned out to be unnecessary) to eliminate any physical contact.
The flight took off as scheduled and landed in Mumbai at 10 pm. Our next flight was at 1.15 pm the following day. We thought there might be some comfortable chairs somewhere in this vast deserted terminal, but there weren’t. We resorted to laying out coats, a pillow and a small blanket on a granite floor. It was definitely better than nothing and there were toilets close by and a power point to recharge phones.
We survived a few jumbled hours of dozing and maybe a fraction of sleep until about 5 in the morning. I watched tropical fish gliding lazily up and down the aquarium wall of an airport hotel. Possibly the only time I’ve ever envied a fish in its natural habitat.
From 8 am onwards we were occupied with queuing, checking in and waiting for the flight. Everything went very smoothly in the ghostly eerie emptiness of what would normally be one of the busiest airports in the world.
Fourteen hours later after a stop to refuel in Singapore we landed in Adelaide, South Australia. We made the headlines of the local news. Police and security guarded us every step of the way, but were friendly, cheerful and welcoming. We are now in an amazing hotel at the government’s expense for fourteen days. We’ve had our first covid test which was negative for us. Three people returned a positive reading out of 260 passengers. We’ll have another on the twelfth day.
We have a balcony and a wonderful view. There are police on every floor. We can only step outside the door to pick up our meals, delivered in paper bags. The overall sensation is still…. can this really be happening?
Our balcony view by day and by night. Perfect winter weather right now.