The plane flew in an elegant arc silhouetted against the sunset far above some lazily circling eagles, a victory lap around the purple hills of the Kathmandu Valley before heading southeast. Who would have thought a single Nepal Airlines wheels-up could be such a triumph, but in the empty skies over a locked down South Asia, this take-off was something truly exceptional.
After days of frenetic work and delicate negotiations, the Australian Embassy team in Kathmandu had achieved a commercial charter to repatriate stranded tourists back home. The infinitely complex exercise involved the governments of Nepal, Australia and New Zealand at a time when travel restrictions were becoming ever more stringent in an effort to halt the coronavirus’ gallop around the globe. Considering there was so little air traffic anywhere, it was all excessively complicated.
Summoned by government advisories, many Aussies and Kiwis returned home before the ban, but those remaining emerged from the mountains, meditation and yoga retreats, family visits, or simply had left it too late to leave. For the trapped tourists clinging to the Australian Embassy lifeline, hopes were raised then dashed.
Since the surprise suspension of international flights, angst-ridden rumours ricocheted around ‘Stranded-in-Nepal’ online chats and Facebook chronicled the roller-coaster dynamics. Qatar Airways morphed into Nepal Airlines as the carrier, and Brisbane replaced Sydney as the destination when it was deemed that quarantine facilities were already full.
Never before has Nepal Airlines flown to Australia, so this was in effect its inaugural flight down under. Permissions had to be sought to overfly eight countries between Kathmandu and Brisbane, exemptions were required even to transit Australian airports, and connections had to be guaranteed with the ever dwindling trans-Tasman flight options – Air New Zealand obligingly adjusted their departure time by several hours to suit us.
Decisions, revisions, changes and adjustments became highly political under the escalating epidemic, allegedly needing sign off by cabinet members and prime ministers. Every passenger would be subject to 14 days isolation at their destination, to slow the spread and flatten the curve. Decision makers were jittery from failures in other cooperative evacuations: in Peru last week a bunch of aggressively disappointed New Zealanders had been off-loaded from an Australian flight.
Such were the ever-evolving uncertainties and behind-the-scenes diplomacies, that it was not until Monday that all the pieces were in place for the New Zealand government to announce that the Wednesday flight was viable with permissions and connections to get Kiwis back home to Auckland from Nepal. Final landing permission was only granted from Canberra on the morning of departure, which was just as well as by then 250 excited passengers had confirmed and paid, 27 of them New Zealanders.
Each person had a story. It had been a fraught week tracking tourists and trekkers, and reassuring frantic families, themselves isolated at home. A crisis helpline in Wellington supported desperate travellers marooned around the world. I talked to one couple who even considered marriage to enable their evacuation, but border security solved their predicament by expediting the additional paperwork required by the COVID-19 crisis at exemplary speed.
As the shuttle buses disgorged passengers loaded with backpacks and baggage, relief, stress and excitement reverberated around the deserted Kathmandu airport. Face masks were distributed, temperatures checked, and notices reminded us to remain one metre social distanced.
Check-in was not without its drama. Some couples were not seated together who wanted to be, and some were seated together who did not want to be. A lost phone was found and a lost passport was not, resulting in some high-level fancy footwork resolved only at the very last minute. The one shop open in the terminal made a killing in overpriced chocolate and fizzy drinks. “Sorry, no cappuccinos only black coffee. The cows are on lockdown.”
Photos and selfies were snapped, and the Nepali flight crew politely posed in their distinctive uniforms and Sherpa-striped aprons. The Australian Ambassador was ubiquitous in his dark suit and reassuring smile, chatting with families and fielding calls from the foreign minister. The rest of us workers rushed around, distinctive in lurid yellow official vests with high-vis silver strips, attempting to smooth the airport processing. Most were grateful and gracious, only a handful still grumpy and unsettled by such unprecedented events.
For the last two days tickets had been issued and payments collected amidst the sunny flowerbeds, friendly dogs and shady trees of the embassy gardens in Bansbari. With a boarding pass in hand and the new RA airbus in sight on the tarmac, I watched the strain and confusion of the past week begin to evaporate, tensions to relax, anxiety levels to ease, and new friendships to coalesce.
Once the 250 had made their laborious way through immigration, security and into the departure lounge, festooned with hand bags, day packs and children, I started to think that this Anzac flight might actually happen.
Thanks to meticulous pre-planning by the Aussies and our New Zealand team based in Delhi, plus the coordinated efforts of Nepal Airlines, Bon Travel, Nepal Police, airport authorities, health, immigration, security and many others, the assault course of bureaucratic hurdles had apparently been successfully navigated. The experienced New Zealand High Commissioner in Delhi was monitoring by WhatsApp: ‘I’ll only believe it when the plane is off the ground.’
With the last of the check-ins complete, I was making my way upstairs when a familiar voice stopped me in my tracks. “Hey Lisa, this is my first visit to Australia, what a thrill, please say something for my blog.” It took me some moments to recognise Captain Vijay Lama of Nepal Airlines obscured by a stylish black face mask under a braided cap, wielding his iPhone in record mode, and burdened with a collection of travel cases.
His thick hair was greyer than when we served together as judges for Miss Nepal 2004, but Vijay’s energy and charm was undiminished. “The closest I came was acting in EVEREST, the Hollywood movie about New Zealand mountaineers! I’d love to meet the Australian Ambassador who has accomplished this historic maiden flight.”
Basking in Vijay’s charismatic wake, we sped through security and strode into the departure lounge. A frisson of recognition swept through the cavernous hall as every local spotted the celebrity pilot, actor, singer and television presenter – a good proportion of the flight were Australians of Nepali origin and Nepalis with permanent residency.
The Ambassador finished addressing his departing throng, emphasising the unique circumstances that surrounded the national flag carrier’s first ever flight to Australia. Cameras clicked as I introduced him to the superstar captain, his smile dazzling: “Now I know that today our Anzacs are homeward bound in the very best of hands.”