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COVID-19: Catching the last flight home

By Danijela Schubert 8 min read
Thursday, April 16, 2020

An earthquake. A phone call in the middle of the night. A four-hour drive through snow-covered roads. A plane ticket she didn’t even know if she had. Could she make it home?

It was Sunday, March 22. I woke up because an earthquake was shaking my bed. It was a start to a week I will never forget. Two days earlier, Australia had ramped up its preventative measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic and one of those measures was to close its borders to all non-residents and non-Australian citizens.

Leading up to that, flights in and out of Australia were already becoming scarce as travel restrictions were put in place worldwide. Airlines were starting to cut down on the number of flights and would eventually be suspending international services.

That day, after several unsuccessful attempts to change my flight back home to Sydney to an earlier date, I finally got a breakthrough. I would be flying home on Wednesday from Zagreb, Croatia—some 300 kilometres from where I currently was—via Dubai. This change cost me only $A225 and I was happy with that.

Just over a week earlier, I had urgently flown to Pula, Croatia, as my mum’s health was deteriorating. Sadly, she passed away an hour after I arrived, which meant my time in Croatia was spent making funeral arrangements and cleaning out Mum’s apartment with my sister instead.

My initial plan was to fly back to Sydney on April 6, but with countries closing their doors and rules of who could go where changing constantly due to the coronavirus pandemic, I was eager to bring my flight home forward.

Just before going to bed on Monday night, I received an SMS message informing me my flight has been cancelled. I was stunned. As it was late, my sister and I decided not to tell anyone that my plans had now changed: We were not going to my sister’s home in Osijek (some six to seven hours' drive away) the next day since I would not be flying out on Wednesday. Instead, we would both stay in Pula and continue cleaning up Mum’s apartment until I figured out when I would be able to leave. We were in bed by about midnight.

Relevant: My brush with COVID-19

We both plugged our phones in to charge in another room and as usual, I had my phone on silent mode. However, at two in the morning, I heard the phone ring loudly, which surprised me since it was meant to be on silent. I was not interested in getting up and so by the time I did, it had stopped ringing. I saw that it was my husband calling.

Doesn’t he know that it’s the middle of the night? Why is he calling me now?

I was surprised and a little annoyed. I was about to return the call when my sister’s phone rang. It was cold and I didn’t want my sister to get up from bed, so I answered the call. I was shocked to see who the caller was: It was Younis, my adopted son. And it turned out he wanted to talk to me!

He quickly explained the situation: Both he and my husband had learned that my flight was cancelled and they were organising a ticket for me to get home. If I didn’t take this flight, I might have to stay in Croatia until July. The catch? The flight I had to be on was leaving from Zagreb (some three to four hours' drive away) at 8.30 that very morning and I needed to drive to the airport as well as pack my bag. Would I be able to make it?

By my calculations, in order to be ready, I needed at least another four hours' sleep, time to pack my bag, as well as to drop my sister off at home in Osijek.

“Can I take the same flight but a day later, on Wednesday?” I told my son I’d call him back.

I then called my husband who told me it was not a time to be choosy—it’s evacuation time. As to the lack of sleep, he said adrenaline would kick in and I would be fine.

By now, I was shivering from cold, so I jumped back into bed. I talked with my sister and explained the situation. We prayed and asked God for guidance. She reasoned that I should go, considering no flights would be available until July.

I rang Younis who advised me the flight would take me from Zagreb to Amsterdam, then Tokyo, Brisbane and finally Sydney. I was to get going and he would organise the ticket.

I decided to go.

I don’t know if I was shaking from the lack of sleep, cold, excitement of this sudden change of plans, or perhaps all three. I had problems dressing and packing. I simply threw things in hoping to somehow close the suitcase. From the corner of my eye, I saw that my sister was also up and doing something—preparing a food parcel for me. My sister and I had our final hug, kiss and a prayer in the apartment.

By 3am, I was starting the cold car, having ran down four floors (there was no lift) with my suitcase, hand luggage and food bag. By the time I descended those stairs, I was in desperate need for water, which I had failed to pack. I was tempted to go back up the stairs, but decided against it. I was go glad to find water in the food bag my sister had given me! (Thanks, Sis! You’re wonderful!)

Three hours earlier, new travel restrictions had come into effect in Croatia: People needed clearance to leave their place of residence. I was stopped in Pula at the exit. The policeman asked me if I had permission to leave. I told him I was on the way to the airport to catch a flight to go back to Australia. He asked for my ID and I gave him my Australian passport. He looked at it. He asked about the car. I replied it was a rental car and I was planning to return it at the airport. He bade me farewell and I was off.

Relevant: How to stay positive during lockdown

I was speeding a bit at first, as I knew that while the weather was good then, snow was predicted for later. There were no other vehicles on the road and I knew there were also roadworks later, where I would not be able to go fast. I rationalised that I had to make the most of what time was available.

Sure enough, after an hour's drive, it started snowing, more and more. There were gusts of wind and snow and I had to slow down considerably and even put the car’s blinkers on as the visibility was very low. I must have been driving no more than 40km/h in some parts, which usually have a 130km/h speed limit.

I also needed to go to the toilet, but I pushed through until almost an hour later. It was bitterly cold. Wind. Snow. Brrr. In some parts of the trip, it was -5 degrees celsius.

At almost seven, I finally arrived at the airport. I threw all my things in my carry-on bag, checked the glove box, collected all my belongings and started walking. So cold. Snow on the path. Melting snow too. I needed to be careful not to slip.

The place where I was to return my rental car was locked. I was returning the car early without advising them, what did I expect? I went into the airport building. Nobody there. I will sort this out later, after I’m checked in. For all I knew, they might have cancelled flights due to bad weather and I might still need the car. Looking for the departure area, I realised it was on the second floor and the lift was outside the building. Brrr again. At check-in, the lady was able to check me through to Sydney. Phew!

That was when I realised I was finding out for the first time whether I actually had a ticket and which airline I would be flying with. Younis had organised all of that. I still did not know times for the connecting flights, nor that it would be 46 hours later before I would arrive home. I had never been in a situation like this, nor such expensive one—A$4000 one way, economy class!

After checking in, I wrote an email to the car rental agent. I said that I’d be leaving the car papers on the desk. I had reached above the front desk and tucked the papers and car key behind, hoping nobody would take it. Somebody could have easily stolen the car right then.

After clearing security, I found a spot to sit down. The seats were cold, so I took off my little jacket that I love and had been using a lot, to cover the seat. I told my family I was booked in. Then I started writing to my sister and crying.

I felt so bad for leaving in such a hurry and especially because she was now stuck in Pula alone. With no public transport available, she couldn't return to Osijek. I regretted not going to Osijek the previous day, which we had discussed. My sister would have been with her family now after spending four months looking after our mum.

When my husband called and asked how I was, I started crying even more, managing to admit I wasn’t OK. I was exhausted physically and emotionally. He was there, just listening, saying it’s hard, but the only real option we had to take.

Soon enough, it was time to board the flight. I stood up, didn’t check to see if I had left anything behind and you guessed it, left my jacket behind. I would have much preferred if I had left it to my sister. She liked it too.

Once I had boarded, I talked with my family a bit more and sent a photo of the plane about to leave, with plenty of snow outside. I decided to use the available internet to update my phone, which turned out to be a good decision—the phone was fully updated while we waited for the wings to be sprayed with antifreeze.

View of snow out an aeroplane window

The runway was covered in a thick layer of snow.

Due to the coronavirus restrictions, there was no food service on board. I was so glad my sister had prepared and packed some nice sandwiches for me. Very very grateful.

As so many countries were closing their borders, I hoped that the ones I was going through would remain open while I was in the air and that I would be able to reach Sydney soon. It was a nail-biting wait for those in Australia who followed my journey, watching live reports about planes I was on.

Flight tracker view

Danijela's family tracking her flight home

Now, as I write this, I’m still self-isolating at home, as it’s been less than 14 days since I’ve been back. My sister is still not back with her family. There is no public transport available at this time. As a family, they have decided she will stay on in Mum’s apartment, slowly clearing it until public transport is available, even though we don’t know when the travel restrictions will be lifted in Croatia.

I talk with her almost daily, and she is in good spirits. She is an amazingly spiritual person who takes everything in her stride, relying on God.

The world is a different place now due to coronavirus. Time will tell how much it will affect people and their behaviour in the future, how much it will affect the economy of the world, and each person individually. How much it will bring people to God or alienate them from Him. My family will acknowledge God and keep trusting in Him when this chapter is over.

When I found out how expensive my one-way ticket was, I wondered why my husband would be willing to pay that much to bring me home. It was a powerful expression of his love and a metaphor of God’s: Each one of us is extremely valuable to God and He paid the most expensive ticket for each one of us to get to heaven—the sacrifice and death of Jesus, His only Son. So why not decide to accept this most precious gift and get on with your journey!

Danijela with cat on lap

Danijela isolating at home with her cat.


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Dr Danijela Schubert has been a lecturer and church administrator. She has a passion for seeing young women succeed and is most recently in charge of leading women in ministry for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific.