There is fear. There are tears. There is disappointment and there is relief. There is joy.
Never is there a hint of anger at Rarotonga airport, as dozens of airport, Air New Zealand and New Zealand High Commission staff work frenetically to get as many tourists on the only flight out.
Margaret is there from Nautilus; Matariki Wilson and Robert Skews are there from Turama; countless staff from Air NZ. Some already know there is no longer a job for them – but nothing will stop them doing that job as best they can, as long as they can …
So often, flight disruptions can provoke furious outbursts – but every tourist here stays calm, collected, knowing that all the Cook Islands staff are working their hearts out to get them home to their families.
From before dawn, they queue at check-in for flight NZ19, due to depart at 8am. Most are New Zealand Cook Islanders, returning to Auckland or Wellington. A few are flying further, to Australia.
Local mama Mata Kelly’s family had come from far and wide for Teresa Kelly’s 50th birthday, and Daniel Kelly’s 21st. Some had planned to stay for a month – but they were forced to cut it short.
“We were meant to be here until April 7,” says Teresa, “but in order to get back to Aussie it’s been an ultra-short holiday.
“We’ve had to make the call to jump on this flight.”
They pose for photos for Cook Islands News. Hands up who’s leaving? More than a dozen hands go up in the air. Who’s staying? Another dozen hands …
Teresa and seven others are flying to Perth, West Australia. Six more are flying to Auckland. Others are hunkering down here in Raro.
Donna says she had tried to persuade Mama Mata, 74, to fly out to New Zealand I but the lady’s not for moving.
Tanned and cut as if they’ve stepped from out of a tourism photo shoot are Maxwell Griffin and Emily-Rose Mallaby. And it’s because they have stepped from a photo shoot: the two are Instagrammers, social influencers who have been visiting Aitutaki as guests of Pacific Lagoon Resort.
They took the vaka cruise on the lagoon, a cooked lunch and live music on the boat, One Foot Island – it was bliss.
They are flying home to quarantine in Perth. Their first Instagram post from Aitutaki has already garnered countless likes and comments. Most express delight at the location; some express concern for their wellbeing in this era of Covid-19.
Among the travellers are also a large number of European and South American tourists: five Swiss, three Swedes, five Germans, two Austrians, four Argentines, five British … And in the dark before dawn, DMCK’s Matariki Wilson moves quietly up and down the queue, breaking the bad news: for now, they are not allowed to board.
The New Zealand border is closed to all but New Zealanders and, for a 72-hour window, transiting Australians.
And so they wait. And in the office behind the check-in counters, Air New Zealand and New Zealand High Commission staff work the phones to embassies, consulates, governments, airlines and airport authorities around the world.
It’s past 8am, and still they wait. The big Air NZ jet sits on the tarmac. The New Zealand and Australian passport holders wait on the other side of security, in the gate lounge.
They Europeans are calm. Martin Stetka’s black Jeep comes screeching to a halt outside, with its familiar numberplate, “CZECH”. Three young Czech men leap out and come running into check-in.
Martin had got word that there was a chance some Europeans might be allowed to leave, and had woken them up. Socks spill from hastily-stuffed suitcases as they rush to the back of the queue.
But one by one, embassies around the world come back with the all-clear. First to get her boarding pass is a young Swiss woman. She runs for the security check. One, two more Swiss, and a Swede. It seems neutrality still counts for something, even in a war against a coronavirus.
Eventually, they all get on. They grin, punch the air as they march towards the x-ray machines, boarding passes and red passports clutched in their hands.
Almost all. At the end, there are just two people left. Andy and Angela Ramsey, from Warrington in the UK. The travel route required to get them home through half a dozen transit lounges was just too complicated.
The plane takes off at 10.20am – more than two hours late. It’s not as if there’s a queue of other planes waiting for its departure slot. All the Air Raro planes are parked on the tarmac.
Britain is perhaps paying the price for Brexit, and straining its diplomatic ties with half the world.
Wearily, the Ramseys return to their accommodation. There will be another flight out on Monday – but Tuesday is cancelled, and so too Thursday. Flights out are becoming scarcer and scarcer …
Those who are left here – like the remaining Kelly family – are settling in for a long stay.