After over a year of separation and aching heartache, Monday, April 19 2021, will be remembered as the historic day when Kiwis and Australians were once again allowed to travel and reunite across the Tasman. Karryon founder Matt Leedham hopped onboard the first Qantas flight from Sydney to Auckland to experience the occasion first hand.
It was only a fortnight ago that we were all nervously biting our fingernails while awaiting New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement as to when the long-awaited trans-Tasman bubble would finally begin.
The end of April? That’d be amazing. By June? Still ok, I suppose. Not until September? Oh, please, no.
Thankfully, the remarkable news was that we would be able to cross the Tasman again both ways and not have to quarantine on arrival in just two weeks time. How good?
It was, of course, a monumental moment for separated Australians and Kiwis and brought a collective sigh of relief from Avalon to Auckland and the travel industry at large.
Fast forward two weeks to Monday, April 19, and I’m sitting in an Uber at 5.30 am heading out to Sydney International Airport in the dark to jump on the first Qantas flight over to Auckland. This will be my first visit to Aotearoa for 18 months, and I still can’t believe that It’s really happening.
The headline news comes on over the radio “the first flights have left for New Zealand.” I feel teary. This is immense. I think of those on board who are already on their way to reunite with loved ones and can only imagine how much they must be bursting with excitement.
When we pull up at International departures (which is a trip down memory lane in itself), the airport is buzzing with more elated travellers wheeling trolleys to check-in and media paparazzi everywhere capturing the occasion.
There’s an entrance of yellow and green and black and white balloons and lots of families with toddlers and babies strapped to them, many of whom are wearing black – always a dead giveaway as a salute to the national sporting colour of New Zealand.
A 20-plus group of intrepid retirees excitedly pose for a group photo in front of the departure sign. You’d think they were celebrities or a professional sporting team, given the amount of attention the paps are giving them. Good on them for not waiting to get going I think to myself.
Meanwhile, down at the Qantas check-in, Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce and Jetstar Group Chief Gareth Evans echo how much this day means for the airlines with media interviews and live crosses for breakfast TV. The famous mango pavlova, which Qantas sent in return to Air NZ’s famous kiwi fruit version, gets a run out in the pics.
It feels both odd and familiar to be back. “Hooray for bubbles,” says the sign. I check for my passport. Phew. I did remember it. Going through passport control is just the same as before, only quieter and quicker, which is a welcome bonus thanks to fewer travellers. The X-ray is a timely reminder to ditch any water you have and remove your toiletries. Ah yes, that’s right. I remember now.
A Kiwi lady I speak to in the X-ray queue is from Auckland and hasn’t seen her mum since before the borders closed. Her voice cracks as she tells me how much this means to be able to see her again.
Duty-free is back open for business and as colourful and in your face as ever with plenty of welcome back deals on offer while most of the high-end brand stores remain closed and empty – for now at least.
This is still day one of the ‘new term’, after all.
I’m fortunate to have a lounge pass and enter the hallowed halls of the Qantas First Lounge which is humming on its first day back with Business and Gold members also lapping up the high-flying experience and free-flowing French bubbles on offer as part of Qantas’s Arrival Revival.
Meanwhile, out in the main terminal at our gate, there’s a sweet live duo playing Crowded House’s “Better be home soon” and other heart-stirring trans-Tasman favourites.
Anzac biscuits, glasses of bubbles and muffins are being handed out and already It’s a homecoming royale and like nothing I’ve ever experienced for a departing flight.
“How much longer until we get to see nan, dad?” Says one kid. Everyone is just itching to get going now.
We’re on flight QF143 on a shiny Airbus A330-300 over to Auckland and to add to the milestone moment, the weather gods are smiling down on us. It’s a perfect day to fly with dazzling sunshine and a clear blue sky in our honour to carry us across the Tasman.
As we depart the gate and begin to slowly taxi, we pass a crowd of waving planespotters beyond the fence while a TV helicopter hovers overhead filming the event.
We reach the end of the runway, before turning around and setting off on our way to a crescendo of whooping and clapping in the cabin as Sydney shrinks ever smaller below us.
Dianne, one of our very friendly cabin crew excitedly tells me she’s been waiting for this day for months. “It’s just wonderful to be back flying again,” She says.
I’m seated in economy and lunch is a tasty braised wagyu beef, mushroom and onion dish with mash, but no trays or bread rolls exist anymore in this new era of flying. The meal now comes in a heatproof box. Regardless, I still manage to spill some on my shirt. Some travel habits never change.
After the meal service, Lindt balls are handed out, as are fresh face masks, which are to be changed every two hours of flying. There are no in-flight magazines anymore, and hanging out in the galley is now a no go, but other than that, the Qantas in-flight experience is refreshingly the same.
Soon the clouds part out of the window, and the stunning rugged West Coast of New Zealand and Piha’s Lion Rock comes into view as we descend towards Auckland. It really is happening now, and it feels so, so good.
“Cabin crew, prepare the cabin for landing.”
We circle Auckland’s CBD taking in stunning views of Rangitoto and Waiheke Islands before the Qantas wheels touch the New Zealand tarmac again for the first time in over a year. There are cheers and tears throughout the plane as reality sinks in. We’re finally here.
Aside from answering a few automated COVID questions at the immigration Smartgate, the new green lane ‘bubble’ process of going through passport control feels no different to before. It’s quick and efficient, and there are plenty of smiles and Kia Ora’s from the New Zealand border force.
I collect my bags and walk out into the arrival hall to face a crowd of loved ones eagerly waiting to greet their Whānau (extended family). But It’s much quieter noise-wise than I’d expected, with a lot less rara and more of a peaceful memorial feel to mark this extra special day of reunions.
A band soulfully sings New Zealand icon Dave Dobbin’s ‘Nau Mai Rā’ or ‘Welcome Home‘ as people exit the arrivals doors and run towards each other to finally be together again.
Young and old tearfully embrace. Burly men, babies, banners and blubbering epitomise the relief and joy. After the year we’ve all had to endure, It’s a beautiful sight to behold.
There’s joy and sorrow as cherished grandkids are seen for the first time, sorely missed sons, daughters, lovers, and spouses can hold each other again, and the grieving can finally begin for those who have lost loved ones since the pandemic began.
These are the precious moments of human connection where time stands still, and nothing else matters.
I watch on from afar, sobbing at the poignant displays of true love and feel repulsed at the idea of joining the mainstream media scrum getting in peoples faces with cameras. It just doesn’t feel right.
Above all else, I feel so privileged to be in New Zealand again. COVID-19 may have dampened the ‘where, when and how’ travel process somewhat over the last year or so, but it’ll never fade our desire for exploring and connecting with other souls old and new the planet over.
Based on this seamless day one travel bubble experience, I think the journey ahead and taste for reciprocal trans-Tasman travel will only strengthen in the coming weeks and months as traveller confidence builds, which after a year of so much pain for the travel industry, is such welcome news.
Thinking about booking a trip over to New Zealand but still not sure?
My advice would be to plan a trip soon because right now, fewer people are travelling, airfares are keenly priced, and you’ll have the place to yourselves with the pick of activities and the friendliest of haere mai’s (welcomes), minus any other international tourists.
But get a move on, because word is already out.
The pandemic has dealt us so many lessons both painful and positive, but the stand out for me is the notion that time is truly all we have in life.
New Zealand, I will be back again soon.
Matt flew as a guest of Qantas to Auckland.
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