Travel in the time of a global pandemic
For the past six weeks, a British travel writer has been exploring the remote islands of the South Pacific. Then, COVID-19 went global. Here, she describes what the virus means for the world’s most isolated populations.
As I write this, millions of Britons are preparing for quarantine and self-isolation. The coronavirus pandemic has reached over 240,000 cases world-wide, including an estimated 3,200 cases in the UK. Over 10,000 people have died. Country borders are closing. Planes are grounded. National exams are cancelled. We keep being told these are “extraordinary” times; that this is an “unprecedented” situation.
And it is, one that’s changing faster than we can keep up.
As you read this, those numbers will have risen, and those extraordinary measures will have amplified. Everyone, everywhere, is affected. Even, I discovered last month, in the world’s furthest corners.
It is early February, which already feels like a small lifetime ago, rather than just six weeks ago. As news of COVID-19 begins to take over the global news, I fly from a job in Antarctica to Easter Island in the South Pacific to report on an annual cultural festival called Tapati. Located 2,300 miles from mainland Chile, this volcanic outcrop is home to an 8,000-strong population. Then, when Tapati starts, the island welcomes an extra 20,000 tourists.
I spend most days people-watching from the restaurants along the main street where a show is held each afternoon. Wearing traditional costumes – tree-bark skirts and a shell bra for the ladies, groin sheaths for the men – people of all ages come together to show off their unique ancient Polynesian culture. With their arms wrapped around each other, they dance and sing into the night.
“We are celebrating the passing of our traditions to the new generation,” one dancer tells me as we pause to enjoy a thirst-quenching pineapple on a stick. “But it is also a chance for us – mostly tour guides, shop owners and restaurants – to make a sufficient income to last the year.”
On the odd occasion when I find a good WiFi connection, I read about the growing concerns from China and Southeast Asia. It seems so far away. “The virus will be contained soon,” I naively assume. There isn’t a face mask in sight. Nor would one fit in with the mass love-in spirit here.
Upon leaving Easter Island, I join a small, 300-passenger cruise ship for a journey across the Pacific. Pitcairn Island is my next stop. Located nearly 3,500 miles from South America and 1,300 miles from Tahiti, Pitcairn is one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands. I arrive on a beautiful sunny morning in late February by Zodiac, a small rubber tender only available on expedition-style cruise ships.
The island is wild in appearance: sheer rock faces ascend high into the cloudless sky with a dense vegetation of mostly Norfolk Island Pines covering the interior. It is the sanctuary that Fletcher Christian, the infamous instigator of the Mutiny of the Bounty, chose for his fellow mutineers after ousting ship Captain William Bligh in 1789. Today, the only way to reach the 47-strong community is by boat.
In Adamstown, the island’s epicentre, the market is in full swing. Residents tell stories of their mutineer ancestors as they sell homemade honey, wood carvings, T‑shirts and fridge magnets. The “C” word – or the “V” word – doesn’t even get a mention. Across the road Olive, the head cook at Christian’s Café, prepares a lunch buffet of fish and chips and fresh salad. Afterwards, we sit together on a communal table and gorge on tropical delights like papaya, banana and chilled watermelon.
As the European deaths in first Italy and then Spain start ratcheting up, coronavirus feels a million miles away. Social distancing? Impossible on a tiny island thousands of miles from anywhere.
A week later, reality hits, even in this farthest-flung corner of the globe: Pitcairn closes to the outside world.
Faraway neighbour Tahiti has reported its first case of Corona: a resident returning from France who tested positive. As a result the capital Papeete, a vital supply port, has closed its borders. “You were lucky to make it [to Pitcairn],” resident Bren emails me as our ship sails on towards Tonga. “We have no more passenger ships coming in. We just hope our supply ship can get to us soon.”
Being isolated isn’t the problem here – this community is used to that – but inaccessibility is a different story when your outside resources are also at risk of being entirely cut off.
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A few days later I hear Easter Island has also stopped all access. The peak tourist season is forced to end early. There are no cases of coronavirus and the plan is to keep it that way. “No one wants to be the person to bring the virus home,” fellow passenger Alexandra tells me as we discuss how she is now unable to get home to her family on the island. “People like my dad are high risk and could really suffer if he got sick. I don’t want that.”
The next day, I hear more troubling news. Tonga, Samoa and New Caledonia have closed their ports, while the Cook Islands are also refusing entry to tourists. Despite being thousands of miles away from the nearest case, the Pacific islands are one-by-one succumbing to the effects of COVID-19.
With our Tonga call cancelled, and our next scheduled port at the Cook Islands also withdrawn, we head further east towards the Vanuatu archipelago. There, tiny Pentecost Island is soldiering on despite the threat. Locals are preparing for their first land-diving ceremony of the spring – a ritual that sees men and boys, generally aged between eight and 30 – leap head-first from a wooden platform, wearing nothing but a manhood cover-sheath and a vine attached to each ankle. It is, then, the original bungee jump.
This tradition is an important part of Pentecost culture, not only marking the beginning of the yam harvest but also a coming of age ceremony. Nowadays, it also tends to draw in some culture-hungry travellers, like us.
The ceremony takes place between late March and May and the villagers spend months preparing. Specific vines are plucked and cut to match the height and weight of the men jumping. The wooden platforms – ranging from 10 to 30 metres in height – are built using local materials. The women and children create wood carvings and handicrafts to sell to any visitors, and fresh coconuts are macheted down from the palms for quenching weary travellers’ thirst.
In short, a lot of effort goes into this.
But the government is worried. Vanuatu doesn’t have a strong enough healthcare system to deal with an outbreak, especially on the outlying islands. If an infected tourist passes on the virus to the community, the consequences could be dire. Still, the villagers decide to go ahead.
“This income is critical to them,” a tour agent tells me. Then, just three days after we leave, Vanuatu’s ports close indefinitely. The government has deemed it too risky. Another isolated land suffers the effects of corona.
As we head towards our final port of Sydney, we receive the news we were dreading. The Australian government will close their ports to all cruise ships in less than 36 hours. We are due to arrive in 48. I feel a bubbling anxiety building up inside. As someone who loves to travel and does so for a living, I have never been nervous about being far away from home. In facing the possibility I may not get home to my parents in the UK, that changes.
The captain announces we will still head to Sydney, in the hope the authorities make an exception for us. Our route for the last month has taken us to islands where no cases have been identified and no one is sick onboard. We are COVID-19 free, as far as we know, but is that enough?
In Sydney, we sit at anchor looking at the Opera House and Harbour Bridge for two days. There is a backlog of ships to be processed and no one can be sure if and when we can disembark. People would pay a fortune for this view, and here I am desperate to leave. There’s nothing to do but wait for an answer. Travel restrictions are changing by the hour and I try not to think about this when booking a flight home for day three.
After nearly 48 hours waiting offshore we’re granted permission to dock. As the gangway comes down, I’m packed and ready. I head straight to Sydney airport’s domestic terminal. I manage to get on the first flight to Perth in Western Australia, where I add myself to the standby list for a direct flight to London. The universe is on my side, and cancellations mean I make it onto the otherwise full flight.
As the plane lifts up off the runway, my mind returns to the remote South Pacific communities who have just shown me – an outsider, a foreigner, a visitor – such warmth and hospitality. When you’re globally-distanced, social distancing didn’t make any sense.