March 29, 2020 – West Bend, WI – Alex and Emily Leitheiser are on quite an adventure. The couple from West Bend left for a hiking vacation in New Zealand in early March and now they’re having some challenges getting back home. The pair are safe on the South Island in Queenstown, NZ and Congressman Glenn Grothman has been contacted and he’s trying to help navigate their return. Below is an interview with Emily about how they’re faring, some of the stresses, what the weather is like in New Zealand and the various lock-down measures they’ve been experiencing.
We left the US on March 13 and arrived in New Zealand on March 15. Leading up to our departure, I had been reading news articles about the possibility of border closures, mandatory quarantine for international travelers, etc, but at the time we left that was only for travelers from China and Iran.
When we landed in Auckland, the man sitting behind us on the plane checked his phone and saw that all passengers arriving after midnight would face mandatory quarantine. We didn’t know if that meant midnight Saturday night (7 hours before we arrived) or midnight that night. We nervously went through customs and were surprised to breeze through. We made it in with 17 hours to spare.
The first week of our trip was fairly normal. We stayed in Queenstown for a few nights, then left on the first of two Great Walks. We spent 4 days and 3 nights hiking the Routeburn Track hiking trail, sleeping in back-country huts with 20-30 people in bunk rooms. Not exactly the accommodations you would want during a pandemic, but everything seemed fine. We did not have access to the internet during this time so we did not know how rapidly the situation was changing around the world, apart from a comment from the hut warden on the final night that “borders were closed.”
We arrived back in Queenstown from our long hike on March 21, and very quickly found out how quickly things had changed while we were out. As you could imagine this was very overwhelming. We found out about the State Department’s warning to return home asap or be stuck indefinitely. We strongly considered trying to return home early, but after thinking it over and consulting with family we decided to stay out our trip. At this time there were only a handful of cases in NZ and things still seemed relatively normal.
That afternoon we drove down to Te Anau, where our second Great Walk, the Kepler Track, would start. We went straight to the DOC visitor center (national park visitor center) to pick up our tickets. We walked in and found a row of folding tables blocking the reception desk. There we were informed that we would not be able to go on our hike, as we had arrived in the last 14 days.
We again were faced with the question of whether we should return home early. We decided to try to come home and spent about an hour on hold with our airline to find out that they would call us back in a day or two with our options. Not what you want to hear when you need to come home asap, but there was nothing more we could do at that point.
We were supposed to spend the next three nights on the Kepler Track, so we now were without a place to stay. We quickly decided to find a place in Queenstown, and booked an Airbnb for the next three nights, after which we had plans to spend the remaining five nights in the nearby city of Wanaka.
Sunday March 22 was a fairly normal day. We went on a nice long day hike and then drove back to Queenstown and found our place for the next three nights.
March 23 was Alex’s birthday. Started fairly normally with a long run for Alex and hike for Emily in the morning. That afternoon we received a strange message from our Airbnb host in Wanaka, asking if we were still coming in light of the lock down. We quickly checked the news and found that NZ was moving to “Alert Level 4” within 48 hours.
Everything aside from the most basic services (grocery stores and healthcare facilities) would be shutting down after midnight on Wednesday March 25. People were asked to shelter in place, and to not leave aside from fresh air/exercise or to get groceries or to go to their essential jobs.
Within hours of the announcement almost all restaurants and retail stores were closed. Fearing further travel restrictions, we cancelled our stay in Wanaka and extended our place in Queenstown. This proved to be a wise decision as we very soon found out we would need to return our rental car by Wednesday, meaning we’d be stuck where we are after that. That night we finally heard back from our airline. They let us know that our flight home on March 30 was cancelled, but they could get us on the March 29 flight home. So, we’d lose out on one day of our trip, but again not so bad considering the circumstances.
We made the most of our last few days in NZ, getting out for fresh air in the form of hikes and trail runs.
Saturday March 28, we packed up our things and prepared to return home the next day. We went out for a walk after dinner that evening and returned to an email from our airline stating we would be unable to fly from Queenstown to Auckland to make our international flight because all domestic air travel was banned except for essential workers such as doctors. This travel ban has us completely stranded as there is no way to get from the South Island of NZ, where we are, to the North Island with air travel banned and with the ferry service being for cargo only.
We contacted the embassy to see if there was any way that they could help. They had no immediate plans for assistance as there still are flights traveling from NZ to the US. However, these flights are only accessible if you are currently in Auckland.
Then yesterday, March 29, we received an email from the embassy.
To Mr. Alex Leitheiser,
We acknowledge the travel document that you are presenting to your airline is a U.S. passport and therefore you are a U.S Citizen who is traveling domestically through New Zealand to connect to an international fight in order to get home.
As the United States government, we are advocating at the highest levels in order to ease restrictions on domestic transit.
American Citizen Services
U.S. Consulate General Auckland
Level 3, Citigroup Building, 23 Customs St East, Auckland 1010
We had heard of this type of message allowing Australian citizens to board domestic flights in NZ to return home, so we decided to head to the airport and give it a shot. They turned us away, but we met a few other Americans in a similar situation. One is doing a bit of organizing, and asked us to reach out to our congressman to see if they could lobby the embassy for us.
We’ve since received a message from the embassy that they are working with the NZ government to allow US citizens stuck on the South Island to travel on to Auckland so they can return home. No timeline at this point but we are hopeful it will be within the next week, but at the same time prepared to stay for weeks if necessary.