“We were all in shock,” says Highland Park resident Natasha Thanawalla, when they were informed on Friday they would be airlifted home.
The very next day they were returning home to Auckland on a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules, a military cargo aircraft carrying vital supplies including satellite phones and chainsaw kits for cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu and a helicopter.
Having been told a number of times that they would soon be put on a flight back home from Vanuatu, the volunteers stranded in the Pacific Island country couldn’t believe they would be boarding a Hercules, since all commercial flights were cancelled.
“We weren’t sure until we boarded the flight at 7pm, Vanuatu time. There were around 50 of us including tourists and aircraft engineers who had flown in from New Zealand to assemble a privately-owned Robinson R66 helicopter (to be used for relief medical work) in 5-6 hours. The engineers had earlier deconstructed the helicopter in Blenheim, South Island, and fitted it in the Hercules. But none of the crew were allowed to step out of the airport into the capital city.”
Natasha says that though the military aircraft “didn’t have proper seats and it was quite loud, it was a very comfortable flight and they fed us a lot of food”.
Like every 21-year-old looking for a bit of adventure, when the former Pakuranga College student – who had won an award for community service – registered for Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) she never imaging they would be struck by natural disasters starting with an earthquake followed by a devastating cyclone, topped by the Coronavirus Covid-19 outbreak.
It was more adventurous than Natasha had ever hoped for.
Last week when the Times first contacted Natasha in Vanuatu, she was both anxious and grateful that the programme manager of VSA had safely moved them to the capital Port Vila just before category 5 monster Cyclone Harold hit Santos, the island where she was working at the health clinic.
Out of the 23 volunteers who had arrived in February, Natasha was the last of the few stranded on the island.
“The volunteers who were more vulnerable were given high priority to fly out of the country,” she says.
Natasha and six other volunteers who were left behind were in for disappointed when the flight to Auckland that they were to meant to board on March 26 was cancelled.
“It was an emotional moment since I had told Mum and Dad I was arriving home and then I had to call them and break the news that I had no idea when I’d return. My parents were very worried,” she says.
“The government of Vanuatu was making sure that by sealing their borders well in advance, the locals would be safe. And it worked very well for them. As of today, there is not a single case of Covid-19 there. In February itself they had banned entry from four Asian countries into Vanuatu.
“Being the youngest volunteer, I was very fortunate that Jonathan Schwass, High Commissioner of New Zealand in Vanuatu, and his wife Ann offered both Helena Ireland (a 22-year-old volunteer) and me shelter in their home.
“We felt very safe and secure staying with them as they worked day and night to find flights for us back home. We know how hard they worked as they relentlessly negotiated to ensure that we would all reach home safely.”
However, despite all the efforts the diplomat and the programme manager put in, after a while, the girls realised it was no use getting their hopes up since things didn’t always go to plan
“We were told that it could be anything from 6 to 16 months before the government of Vanuatu opened up its borders. They couldn’t risk it as they just don’t have the kind of healthcare system to look after the locals.”
Last night a much-relieved Natasha spoke to the Times from the Ibis Hotel where she is now in quarantine for the next two weeks before she finally heads home.
She says it’s been a big roller-coaster ride.
“I have mixed feelings,” she admits. “While I am really glad that we arrived safely back home in a military cargo aircraft, I am sad that my volunteering service which was meant to be 10 months was cut short. The programme was withdrawn as VSA wanted all the volunteers to return home.
“I’m sorry that we had barely finished our cultural orientation and just as we were beginning to enjoy our work there, it all came to a sudden halt!
But she is determined to go back to volunteer in Vanuatu someday.
“Maybe, sometime next year,” she says as she describes it as “undoubtedly the best experience of my life”.