Stranded in Auckland: How two Malaysians got caught in the New Zealand lockdown

Auckland at night, before the lockdown. — Picture by CK Lim
Auckland at night, before the lockdown. — Picture by CK Lim

AUCKLAND, March 24 — In less than 36 hours, New Zealand goes into a lockdown and my partner and I might not have a place to stay. And no way to get home to Malaysia.

This is the story of how we got here.

On Monday, March 23, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country had entered level 3 of the Covid-19 threat alert system; level 4 would commence at 11.59pm on Wednesday.

This meant New Zealand would be in lockdown. For four weeks.

But what did this mean for visitors and tourists? Get out. And get home fast.

As it is, with mass cancellations by airlines worldwide, there were fewer and fewer flights available. 

Other tourists we encountered at the airport and travel centres were told that economy class seats were mostly or all taken; more often than not, only premium economy or business class seats are left.

Left with no choice, they could either max out their credit cards or risk being stranded in New Zealand during the lockdown.

All we need is a roof over our heads in New Zealand during the four weeks of level 4 lockdown. — Picture by CK Lim
All we need is a roof over our heads in New Zealand during the four weeks of level 4 lockdown. — Picture by CK Lim

Sometimes, there isn’t a choice at all.

We were supposed to fly back to KL on Tuesday via a transit in Singapore; even during alert levels 3 and 4, foreign tourists and visitors are allowed to fly out, provided they can get on a flight.

On Sunday, the Singapore government announced they were effectively closing their borders; no short-term visitors can enter or transit through Singapore.

Basically, we would not even be allowed to board our flight home.

Thus began the mad scramble to find an alternative way back to Malaysia.

The next available direct flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur wouldn’t be till April 7 according to the Malaysia Airlines website; as of the time writing this, that flight no longer appears on the site, either full or cancelled, like so many others.

Why not just transit? Ah, but where? Singapore was no longer an option, nor is Australia which has similarly closed its borders to foreign nationals.

The whole world is locking down, it seems, and while that is a terrifying prospect, it might be what is needed to save as many lives as possible.

New Zealanders are heeding the call to isolate within their ‘bubble’ e.g. spouse and family members during the Covid-19 pandemic. — Picture by CK Lim
New Zealanders are heeding the call to isolate within their ‘bubble’ e.g. spouse and family members during the Covid-19 pandemic. — Picture by CK Lim

I know, like us, there are many other Malaysians, Singaporeans, New Zealanders and other nationals who are stranded and fearful.

We are not unique but we do need help. And we do need to be rescued.

I called the High Commission of Malaysia in Wellington. I spoke to an Encik R on Sunday, explaining my situation. He advised me to contact Malaysia Airlines; they’ll definitely get us home, he said.

He sounded more confident than I felt; perhaps because I had spent some time on the Malaysia Airlines hotline. Which, to be fair, is pretty much the same experience on the hotline or chatbot messenger service of any airline right now: it’s all congested.

With no good news on Monday, we found a travel centre in Auckland. Explaining our situation, the agent helped book us on a flight from Auckland to Taipei, then onwards to KL.

These poor agents have been inundated with harried customers trying to get home within the ever narrowing “window of opportunity.”

They remained calm throughout and determined to help. The incredible Kiwi spirit. 

Back to the hotel to pack again. Then we find out that Taiwan has also closed its borders. Everything changes so fast, by the hour, by the minute almost, that it’s near impossible to keep track.

No transit via Taipei then.

We rushed back to the travel centre. They were swamped and signalled for us to go have some coffee at the café across the road first.

My first inkling that something was wrong came when the barista informed me they could only do takeaway coffees.

I checked my phone. Googled. New Zealand had entered alert level 3.

By the time we returned to the travel centre, they were shuttering, only allowing us in because we were existing customers. Refunded us our money, for which we are grateful.

Many travellers have maxed out their credit cards and severely strained their resources in such situations. Most airlines offer no refunds; only travel vouchers for use within a year. We’re seeing in real time the world trying to survive and not bleed dry. It’s humbling.

I called the High Commission of Malaysia in Wellington again. This time, Encik A took my call. 

He noted our situation, reassured me that they were looking into it and asked me to email them our details (names, passport numbers, contact information, flight itinerary). They were tabulating the number of Malaysians stranded in New Zealand and our whereabouts.

Did this change our situation in reality? Not immediately, perhaps. But Encik A’s tone was committed. He actually listened. And that makes a difference during a crisis.

Come Tuesday morning, no answers still. Worse, it wasn’t very clear if our hotel would even continue to operate during the lockdown. 

Alternative lodgings appeared to be running out amid reports of price gouging. Owners are understandably leery of the additional cost of having to disinfect their properties before and after renting them out.

Third call to the High Commission of Malaysia in three days. This time Puan H answered. She told me to email them about the accommodation issue and the right person would attend to it.

But who is the right person?

When I tried to impress upon her the severity and urgency of the problem, she told me she was sure Malaysia Airlines would send a flight over to get us like they did for Malaysians stranded in Iran. Not today, of course; flights are getting cancelled left and right.

No, we don’t expect to be rescued today. But what happens when the hotel we’re staying at has to cease operations and close its doors?

Queue outside Countdown Auckland Victoria Street West: customers stocking up for the impending level 4 period. — Picture by CK Lim
Queue outside Countdown Auckland Victoria Street West: customers stocking up for the impending level 4 period. — Picture by CK Lim

New Zealand is a beautiful country; that’s why tourism flourishes here. And it’s a well-run country, with no fears of food shortages thanks to its status as a producer.

But there’s no place like home. There’s no place like Malaysia.

And while we wait on the streets of Auckland, perhaps with other fellow Malaysians who are similarly stranded, keeping a social distance of at least two metres, when will that MH flight come to take us home?

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