New Zealand / Comment & Analysis

Coronavirus: Kiwi backpacker races border closures to get home

10:31 am on 19 March 2020

By Jonathan McLeod*

First Person - Kiwi Jonathan McLeod has been backpacking through Europe for the past few months, outrunning coronavirus and border restrictions. Now, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade urges New Zealanders travelling overseas to consider returning home as soon as possible, he's worried whether he'll be able to make it.

Jonathan McLeod on his travels in Europe. Photo: Supplied

One week ago. We will not let Covid-19 stop us

Arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria, from Catania, it is cold and grey. There's not enough blue ballpoint pens to go around. "Where will you be located for the next 14 days? And how will we be able to contact you?" I take my hat off. A masked health officer fires a thermometer gun at my temple and I'm free to go. No harm done.

The news that evening tells me that Italy is in lockdown and all borders, in and out, are closed. In the nick of time I have escaped Italy and outrun Covid-19, leaving backpackers who were intending to move on to Malta or return to their homes in Barcelona in my dust.

The next day, Tom (whom I had met in Porto a few weeks earlier) and I are hiking in Vitosha on the outskirts of the city. We are breathing fresh Balkan air, striding through recent snow and crossing fallen trees over flowing rivers. We plunge our feet through the snow and into the water - all we can do is laugh it off and carry on with sodden feet because things could be a lot worse. We're about 1500m above Sofia and feeling a million miles from viruses and hysteria.

A couple of days later, we have an awkward moment with Miha, our walking tour guide, as he goes for the handshake and we go for the fist bump. Miha is amused and returns the bump.

According to Tom, the handshake dates to 5th century B.C. Greece and was a symbol of peace - a demonstration that no one was carrying a weapon. We tell him that our hostel is closed and has been abandoned with the two of us as the only inhabitants because of coronavirus.

In the face of Kosovo and Serbia restricting travel and closing borders, we instead point our compass south to Ohrid in optimism. By the end of the week we will bunker down on a beach in Greece or Turkey to ride the whole mess out.

"Details are changing by the hour", McLeod says. Photo: Supplied

One day ago. We will outrun Covid-19

We are now in Macedonia. Details are changing daily. There is no central repository for information and everyone has heard a different rumour of this or that border being closed. Every single restaurant and cafe in Ohrid is shut. No more coffee, no more kebapi. Those people who are outside walk somewhat aimlessly through the quiet streets.

As you climb the hills surrounding Ohrid you pass a church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, you start to hear snow crush and squeak underneath your sneakers, you can turn around and see the lake with its ripples reflecting the sun in a thousand directions and on the other side of that lake you can see mountains that belong to Albania - mountains you cannot reach. This is a good place to make decisions because it is calm and you are content and your phone isn't buzzing with regular updates of an escalating situation. You are grateful that you are not alone.

There's plan A, which is to take the 19-hour bus across Macedonia and through Bulgaria and into Turkey all the way to Istanbul. There's plan B, which is to make it to the Macedonian capital Skopje and then catch a direct flight to Istanbul. There's even plan C, which is to hang around and hitch a ride with the hostel manager who is driving to Istanbul at the end of the week. We will book as soon as we can - we are only taking 'wins' the rest of the way!

Except, there's an Austrian girl who just got turned back at the Serbian border, an English guy got turned around at the Greek border, a German girl has had her flight cancelled at the airport. Oh, and Turkey is restricting anyone who has visited Italy in the last 14 days from entering the country. My best laid plans are getting thrown out the window, and then getting run-over.

Details are changing by the hour. Borders closed. Some planes, fewer trains, no automobiles. High-risk visitors, low-risk visitors, no more visitors.

This morning. We will succumb to Covid-19

You know that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when the floor and ceiling with spikes are slowly closing in on Indy and Short Round? Time is running out. And Willie can't bring herself to shove her hand in through all the giant bugs to find the lever which will stop our heroes being crushed? I feel like Jones and Willie simultaneously.

All land borders of Macedonia are officially closed. The Skopje airport will be shuttered within 48 hours. Airlines are slashing flights. Prices are rising every five minutes.

Everyone is booking a flight out. Wherever, I don't think they care. Some are going home. Some are just getting out. We don't know what date midnight counts as.

I don't want to abandon the trip. I am anxious of getting stuck in this small landlocked country. When would I be able to get out? I feel like a coward for giving up. My mind is telling me that it's not so bad. Just wait it out. Money down the drain.

The adrenaline is wearing off. Now I'm crashing. Whatever I do, it will feel like the wrong decision. Stand pat? Uncertainty. Indecision. Crippling.

Click. Booked. Coming home. Cop out. Rational decision.

I'm flying Macedonia -Serbia - Abu Dhabi - Brisbane - Auckland.

I wait to understand the ambiguity of "airport closes at midnight 18 March".

*Jonathan McLeod is a government worker based in Wellington.