Trapped abroad: Zimbali family’s global travel plans cut short by Covid-19

2020 was meant to be the year that Zimbali resident Yugeshree Naidoo and her family saw the world.

Yugeshree, along with husband Ingo and their 10-year-old son Mirco, planned to spend most of this year on a world cruise.

“We had already heard about Covid-19 in December, but no one really knew what it would become back then,” said Yugeshree.

Their cruise ship, the MV Artania, left Hamburg, Germany, on December 21 with 1 072 passengers and after stops in Durban in January, and throughout Southeast Asia, the ship made its way to Australia.

Mirco and Yugeshree standing in front of the MV Artania at their first stop in Lisbon, Portugal.

The family arrived in Sydney on March 14, well aware of the virus by this point but feeling relatively safe because it was out at sea.

“We had new passengers joining and passengers leaving throughout, but were assured that everything was done with the utmost safety,” she said.

It was at this point in the journey that decisions were being made for them, as the ports ahead were locking down and they could no longer complete the cruise.

The final part of the family’s journey aboard the ship was from Sydney to Fremantle, where the MV Artania docked offshore due to Covid-19 concerns.

“We found out during this crossing that we had people on board who had tested positive and it sent shockwaves through the ship.”

A few passengers were evacuated, and three later died in hospitals around Western Australia.

The family were given the option to fly back to Germany or stay on the ship as it made a non-stop voyage back to Hamburg.

“We were not sure what to do, because my husband and son have German passports but I was travelling on a Schengen visa and we did not know if this would be valid, even though it was not expired.”

They could not find out through the travel company, and consulates in both countries were inundated with queries from around the world.

The family decided to fly, as Yugeshree is the mother of a European Union child and they thought she would be allowed in under the circumstances.

Following a 21 hour repatriation flight, the family’s worst fears were realised as Ingo and Mirco were allowed into Germany but Yugeshree was not.

“It was the beginning of the worst 24 hours of my life. I was not allowed in and could not travel back to South Africa because the borders were closed.”

The family was not going to be broken up, and found a transit hotel in the airport to spend the night.

They had to appear at the airport police station every 6 hours to prove she had not fled. 

“It felt like prison,” said Yugeshree.

After much lobbying, the authorities relented and the family were allowed to enter Germany. 

“It was a massive feeling of relief, because the German police do not usually revoke decisions,” she laughed.

The family traveled to their second home in Wössingen as they tried to adjust to the new normal. 

Mirco getting his daily temperature check on board.

Mirco attends Crawford North Coast which had online learning available, so he was able to keep up with schoolwork.

Just when they started feeling settled, all three developed symptoms of Covid-19.

“I think we must have caught it in the airport because there were so many people who were stuck and waiting on news.”

Ingo and Mirco both had to be hospitalised and took 7 and 4 days to recover.

This left Yugeshree alone and unable to speak German as she tried to navigate the healthcare system.

The family were finally healthy and safe by the end of April, and stayed in Germany watching the lockdown levels in South Africa.

“It was a strange experience watching from afar as it felt like our country was changing without us.”

Germany did have Covid-19 measures in place, which included social distancing and the wearing of masks, but almost all businesses were trading as normal by the middle of April in Wössingen.

As soon as the borders reopened, they looked for flights as both Ingo and Yugeshree needed to return to work.

Ingo is the managing director of the North Global Group property development company, which is a large employer on the North Coast, and it was crucial that he was able to reenter the country.

Yugeshree is a physiotherapist with a practice at Elaleni Coastal Forest Estate.

After almost 10 months away from home – barring the 1 night stop in Durban – the family arrived back on October 11.

“It has been a unique year for us, but we have learnt to be so appreciative of everything that we have. We are so grateful to be back home.”