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I’ve been watching the news quite a bit recently – I know, but I’m political junkie and I need my fix, even if it’s low-grade churnalism! And during my binge I noticed a recurring nightmare amongst the tales of local flash floodings, pandas born in zoos and whatever the hell is going on in America. The nightmare in question is the absolute state of Australian airports right now. Look, I know that flying is a pain in the ass at the best of times, let alone during the Christmas season, but the current situation in Australia is somehow even more awful. Good luck making it through without dealing with some sort of major delay, cancellation or strike grounding you at the last minute. I’m always fascinated by the throngs of travellers, suitcases stacked taller than them, every breath accompanied by a curse because everybody had the same idea to check in four hours earlier than normal to beat the rush, only to become the rush. You can see etched on their faces the concern of not flying due to aforementioned situations – until that plane is off the ground, your flight is a sitting duck.

And I find myself wondering if they wished that the airport was empty, just so they could breeze through all the clearances and checkpoints without crying babies or that guy who has a very poor grasp of English but decides to go ahead and debate aviation security laws with airport staff. But in my experience, it’s not as cracked up as you’d think…

This would be the dream…right?

I snibbed the door to room in my Dunedin flat, shutting it behind me for the last time. It was about 8.00AM and I had been awake since 6.00AM. I did all my packing the night before, so the morning was spent double-triple-quadruple checking that I didn’t leave anything behind. Satisfied that I had everything with me, I waited for the airport shuttle to pick me up. I’m lucky I got a flight at all; I had booked flights to Christchurch and then to Melbourne months in advance. Nevertheless, Air New Zealand decided to axe thousands of flights a few days prior, including mine. Just goes to show anything can happen while travelling! Now, only one flight a day was heading towards Melbourne, and it was going through Auckland, which at the time was being treated like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone since COVID was still all the rage in Aotearoa New Zealand (one case in Auckland and they shut down the entire country with the highest restrictions in place everywhere – even the Kiwis thought it was a bit much!). But if that was my only choice, so be it. I endured being on hold with customer service for exactly three hours (Fun fact: The Titanic sunk in two hours forty minutes, and drowning in the North Atlantic would be more fun than listening to bit-crushed ‘easy’ listening) and got everything sorted. And so I waited outside, grateful that I averted complete disaster.

The shuttle driver arrived and didn’t look too impressed with me; I had accumulated so much junk (read: books) during my time in Aotearoa New Zealand and I didn’t want to part with it all. So all the clothes I couldn’t fit in my bags I piled onto my body. It was something like four shirts, two long-sleeved shirts, three jackets, a rainjacket and, on top of it all, an oodie that was definitely a sweatshop knockoff. I resembled an obese rainbow Paddle Pop, had difficulty manoeuvring my arms to lift up my stupidly heavy suitcases and was boiling to death in my own sweat despite the mercury barely scratching 15oc. Strangely enough, I was hardly the most memorable passenger on that shuttle – the driver had a ‘lovely conversation’ with one of the passengers because she gave him the wrong pickup address and started ‘treating him with nothing but respect’ when he got frustrated at her. That was a wild bus ride.

The infamous McDonalds that triggers my brother, located right next to the exit I wasn’t allowed to use.

Anyway, I got to Dunedin Airport okay, unscathed by the strange looks I received from government officials and flight staff. I waddled my way through the checkpoints, answering questions and dripping with sweat, before finally catching the first flight to Christchurch. So far, so good. At Christchurch, my next flight took off in half an hour so time was tight, but by the time the border control people finished asking me every single question that popped into their head (seriously, I couldn’t fathom how half of them were relevant at all!), I had five minutes to get through the x-ray machines. That doesn’t sound so bad until you remember I was wearing double-digit layers, the first four completely soaked through with sweat. I nearly missed the flight, but I secured my spot in line before the gate closed – others were not so lucky. Thus I was on my way to Auckland, which is not the capital of Aotearoa New Zealand – that would be Wellington.

Touchdown in Auckland. One of my bags doesn’t appear on the bag line. I’m told they didn’t let it fly and I’m baffled as to why. Auckland Airport doesn’t know either. Okay then. The time was now 3.30PM, I had been awake since 6.00AM. I only had one more flight to catch. However, the next flight home was in seventeen hours. Covid rules stated if you were spending more than twenty-four hours in Auckland, you needed to go into quarantine. Thank God I didn’t have to do that – I’ve already had a quarantine nightmare which I’m not keen to ever relive – and I got the go-ahead to wait inside the terminal overnight. However, there was one stipulation: I could not leave the building, otherwise I would not be allowed back in. I’ll be fine, I thought to myself. All I needed to do was read (no shortage of material!), maybe watch some YouTube on the airport wifi and go to sleep early – check-in was at 4.00AM, so if I went to sleep at 8.00PM, I’d be well-rested and only needed to entertain myself for four hours. Simple, right?

BING-BONG: Kia Ora passengers! Just a reminder to not leave your baggage unattended. Also…

I began my journey as a discount Viktor Navorski by setting up a ‘camp’ of sorts amongst the rows of seats, devoid of weary travellers and parents too exhausted to reprimand their screaming children. I looked around and saw nobody else. All the shops were shuttered and all kiosks unmanned – seeing the McDonalds I had visited years prior with my brother not in operation was quite absurd to me. I sent a picture of it to my brother, to which he regaled me with the story of the worst burger he’s ever had which was from that very McDonalds, as if I wasn’t there when he ate it and complained about it. Anyway, adhering to the advice of the disembodied voice that echoed through the desolate terminal every ten minutes, I stuck to my camp, reading Of Mice and Men but not quite finishing it (I got to the part where Lennie makes a big mistake with Curley’s wife). My eyes were reading the same line over and over, so I put the book down and checked the time: 7.30PM. Eh, screw it, might as well go to sleep, right? So I lay down on my makeshift rainbow mattress, tore off some of my extra layers and bundled them into a pillow, kicked off my shoes and closed my eyes.

BING-BONG: Kia Ora passengers! Just a reminder to not leave your baggage unattended. Also…

BING-BONG: Kia Ora passengers! Just a reminder to not leave your baggage unattended. Also…

BING-BONG: Kia Ora passengers! Just a reminder to not leave your baggage unattended. Also…

Whenever I began drifting off, that announcement would pierce my eardrums and snap me right back to full alertness. After thirty-ish minutes of this, I sat up and was blinded by the brilliant artificial light reflecting off the airport floors. I dared to wander off, much to the dismay of the ever-interrupting voice, and explored a magazine rack for anything interesting, my definition thereof being whether it had a map or was written in another language. With these criteria, I found plenty to keep me entertained:

  • Tiny villages famous for their wines with a grand total of two roads, invariably listing the supermarket as a ‘Point of interest’
  • A full map of New Zealand in Chinese, allowing me to read the names and giggle at the literal translations of names (New Zealand is 新西兰 (Xīn xīlán), which literally means “New West Orchid”, and Stewart Island is 斯图尔特岛 (sītú’ěrtè dǎo), which I guess would be “Such picture, that unique island”!)
  • Some prohibited item lists printed in languages like te reo Māori, Hindi and Samoan, which I immediately indulged my linguistic nerdiness and compared them (Funnily enough, I found more similarities with Māori and Samoan than I did with Hindi)
  • A children’s entertainment pamphlet, which I completed in like two minutes and felt super smug afterwards
My hobo camp, complete with my ridiculous oodie.

But that material ran dry. And as interesting as languages are, you can only get so far when you don’t speak a lick of it. The maps and pamphlets were complementary, so I decided to take them back to my camp.

BING-BONG: Kia Ora passengers! Just a reminder to not leave your baggage unattended. Also…

Looking around for something to do, I noticed the escalators behind me. I had very obediently stayed with my luggage, but this point I was curious and bored (there’s really not much difference between the two). So, I decided to go upstairs. There was a plane suspended from the ceiling that belonged to Jean Batten, the Southern Hemisphere’s answer to Amelia Earhart; she completed the first England to New Zealand solo flight in 1936 and didn’t die on an island in the middle of nowhere. This plane she used is a tin can compared to the technological marvels that grace our airports today. I was the only person up here to witness the empty KFC and closed souvenir stores in my socked feet. Well, I wasn’t completely alone: I did discover a man who found himself a hidden albeit uncomfortable nook to sleep in upstairs, but that was only after plenty of exploration upstairs. I walked down the escalators at the opposite end of the atrium and I was greeted by the perplexed look of an airport worker. The conversation went something like this:

“Uh, how did you get in here?”
“I was let in by security.”
“Oh. Well, don’t leave your luggage unattended – someone might go through your stuff.”

To which I would do a very long survey of the empty queues and the complete absence of life in the terminal and reply with a chuckle, “Sure.”

BING-BONG: Kia Ora passengers! Just a reminder to not leave your baggage unattended. Also…

The plane that aviatrix Jean Batten owned. My hobo camp is visible below.

It was now 12:00AM and I had been awake since 6.00AM.

I was becoming restless the longer I stayed awake. I tried in vain to go to sleep, but Mr. Bing-Bong wasn’t sure I heard him the first fifty times. The gates opened for a single flight to Singapore, but nobody approached any booths. I began to be driven insane by the awful wifi, meaning YouTube played ten seconds and buffered for ten minutes. Without that to tide me over, I went loopy. I laughed at the absurdity of a 24-hour convenience store that was closed. I began doing laps, starting at my camp and going through the upstairs atrium and back again, every time running into a completely different employee at the bottom of the escalators and exchanging the same words as the previous worker I ran into. I began dancing in the middle of the terminal, manically jiving to the clunking of escalator steps and my new favourite jam, Bing-Bong-Kia-Ora-Passengers. But even that grew tiresome. I returned to my camp to sleep. That didn’t work. I attempted once more to read, but the words may as well have been black smears of ink – completely unintelligible to my tired brain. I lied down, mindlessly playing with my phone and sending unhinged messages to my family and friends in the vain hope I could just talk to someone and the response wouldn’t be just another reminder to not leave my bag unattended.

BING-BONG: Kia Ora passengers! Just a reminder to not leave your baggage unattended. Also…

BING-BONG: Kia Ora passengers! Just a reminder to not leave your baggage unattended. Also…

BING-BONG: Kia Ora passengers! The check-in for flights to Melbourne, Sydney, Los Angeles and Taipei are now open.

I bolted upright. 4.00AM already? I could hardly believe it, but I packed up my camp, put my oodie on and shoved my makeshift pillow into the oversized front pocket. Now resembling a heavily-pregnant rainbow, I dragged my weary self to the check-in desk and shocked the attendant with what I assume was my dishevelled appearance. I headed to the security section as other passengers began to trickle in from outside, appearing suddenly as the doors opened and welcomed them in from the darkness. I got randomly selected (as per usual), went through the rigmarole of security checks and finally got my hands on that sweet, sweet duty-free alcohol for the folks back home, nearly knocking over an entire stand of whiskey in the process. Not that I would’ve mourned the whiskey – I can’t stand the stuff – but I sure as hell didn’t want to pay for it!

But seriously, empty airports are actually pretty potent nightmare fuel.

As I plonked myself down in an uncomfortable chair in the gate area, I noticed I had been awake for precisely twenty-four hours. I didn’t mean for that to happen, but cool. My flight was in about three hours, meaning I had a good two hours to maybe get some rest. Cue the detached mother with the inconsolable baby and the cast of Lord of the Flies appearing out of nowhere and refusing to be quiet, their caretakers nowhere in sight. After about two hours of this I just laughed, bought an energy drink and decided to tough it out – I could fall asleep in Melbourne.

The time between then and landing in Melbourne is a bit of a blur. I wasn’t able to move about in this tiny space and certainly couldn’t explore anymore, so I pretty much glued myself to my phone, too tired to care about crappy wifi. The caffeine, the narcoleptic panacea, just made me shake nervously. The plane soared across the Ditch and while I occupied a window seat, there wasn’t much to see amongst the dull grey clouds. I do remember seeing the Victorian Alps, however, and pinpointing from above where the main character in my book When the War is Over lived (shameless? yes. relevant? Then, all of a sudden I’m in a long queue showing documents and certificates and Lord knows what else, being barked at by frustrated security workers. But that didn’t matter much; I was nearly out of there.

BING-BONG: Could Jacob Hill please come to the service desk? Thank you.

How many other lies have I been told by the Council?

I trundled my way out of line to find out what was going on. My irritation was dampened by my ridiculous appearance as I asked the service lady what she wanted in a grumpier way than I intended. She had the pleasure of informing me about why exactly my bag was not on board my flights. See, I had used that bag on my Rakiura Slog and didn’t use it since (I would have done more trips using it, but New Zealand covid-zero lockdowns prevented that from happening). So it sat there untouched for several months, with nothing taken out. I had all sorts of stuff in there – first aid kit, a trowel, sleeping bag, gloves, spare batteries for my torch…

Yep, it was the batteries. And I had to isolate for three days once I got home, so I couldn’t just come back the next day. With that headache now tormenting me, I tried to get back into the queue, which was a headache because they took my pass already and refused to let me in until one of the security bros recognised me and said I was cool. Except I wasn’t cool at all, because it was 30 odd degrees outside and I couldn’t have put on more atrociously inappropriate clothing if I had tried. And thus began the excruciating two hour taxi ride home, more sweat than man as I deliriously told the driver of that hotbox he was going the wrong way on several occasions.

By the time I got home, I was so exhausted that I actually felt alert and awake. I ripped all my clothes off and dived right into the shower, observing in the mirror my wrinkled eyes accentuated with bags darker than my sense of humour. It was now 4.00PM, 6.00PM NZ time, and I had been awake for thirty-six hours. I would have gone to sleep there and then, but the rest of my household returned and, for some reason, wanted to see me, the guy who had been away for several months. I was also starving, so dinner took priority over rest. I passed out at around 8.00PM, meaning I was awake for forty hours straight. Not bad for someone not strung out on meth, bonus points on it being unintentional. My verdict? I don’t recommend it! It’s like being hungover but without the benefit of getting wasted first.

*                           *                           *

BING-BONG: Kia Ora travellers! Just a reminder to like and share if you enjoyed reading my post! Also, be sure to keep an eye out for stuff on YouTube – I’ll be uploading some stuff there soon! Thanks!

– Jacob

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