By Jessica Anstice
Just as time was running out for a group of Australians who were stranded overseas, a local Federal politician came to the rescue.
After holidaying in Dubai, the parents of Pakenham woman, Sarah Hocking, boarded a Norwegian Spirit cruise in Abu Dhabi at the beginning of March.
The global coronavirus pandemic was announced while the happy couple, David and Sharon Anderson, were at sea.
David and Sharon, along with the other cruise passengers, were eventually evacuated off the ship – in the middle of the night – at a port in Cape Town.
“Unfortunately every port that they arrived at as part of their cruise refused entry,” Ms Hocking explained.
Before they were then flown to Gatwick in London, they were forced to stay inside a bus for two hours at a Cape Town airport while their luggage was thrown into wheelie bins and shuffled onto a plane.
“My parents just said it was very surreal – dad said he had never seen anything like it,” she said.
“They had handwritten bag tags and wheelie bins for their bags on the tarmac because they were not allowed inside the airport as they had just been on a cruise.”
After three different flights from Gatwick to Melbourne were subsequently cancelled, the couple started wondering if they would make it home.
“My dad is the calmest man in the world and he said to me ‘Sar, there’s been some really tense moments’,” she recalled.
“He said he’d been sitting in stairwells making calls to travel agents, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and whoever else – partially to shield my mum from seeing the stress.
“They have travelled extensively. It’s not like they’re rookies. They’re well organised, careful travellers.”
In a single day, Ms Hocking spent more than 12 hours on the phone to DFAT, Qantas and her parent’s travel agent – all in a bid to get her parents home as soon as possible.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was just slumped in my office chair,” she said.
“I needed to get them back home. They’re always the first to put their hand up and do anything for anyone else.”
When nothing positive came from the numerous phone calls, she resorted to calling La Trobe MP and Customers, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs Minister Jason Wood – who in the end, rescued her parents.
Immediately, Minister Wood managed to put David and Sharon, along with four other fellow Aussie cruise passengers who were stuck in London, on a Qantas flight to Melbourne.
“I was able to FaceTime them for the first time properly after I spoke to Jason and when I did, other Australians they met on the cruise were in the same hotel room in London with them,” she explained.
“It was the middle of the night in London when I called and they were all having a glass of wine together, trying to guess what would happen.
“Then all of a sudden, one of the guys yelled out with joy ‘check in is open!’”.
Minister Wood said the couple was lucky because England is an “easy and friendly” country to deal with – hence why there was such a quick turn around.
“From last week, we’ve had over 800,000 Australians overseas trying to get home,” Minister Wood said.
“We’ve had some winners like Sarah’s parents but it is very stressful. It is my job to help them out in a time of need like this.
“The government has worked well with Qantas to keep fights going from Los Angeles, Heathrow and New Zealand and we have a briefing with the Prime Minister every second day.”
Ms Hocking says she, and her family, are extremely grateful for Minister Wood’s help.
David and Sharon boarded a flight from London on Thursday 26 March and were due back home to Clyde North on Friday 27 March.
Ms Hocking hopes they will be out of isolation in time for Easter and their granddaughters fifth birthday.