Home at last — after 80 days at sea

HOMEWARD BOUND: Some of the cruise ship crew in the Manila harbour in the Philippines. Police escorted the crew to the airport Image: Supplied

After 80 days of floating aimlessly aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Manila in the Philippines, a Port Elizabeth couple has finally set foot on land.

Full-time musicians Megan du Toit, 33, and Hugo Kleinhans, 34, of well-known band Big Man and Bear arrived in Johannesburg on May 31 where they were in quarantine until Thursday when they were tested.

The couple arrived home in Port Elizabeth on Thursday night and will self-isolate for a few days just to be safe.

The couple had been working on cruise ships for the past three years but just before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, they were contracted as the acoustic duo performing on board a ship based in Australia.

“Our contracts are usually four to five months that we live and work on the ship,” Du Toit said.

But cabin fever became very real for the couple when the cruise came to a grinding halt and they were stuck aboard a ship not knowing when and how they would return home.

“On  March 14, just as a new cruise was about to begin, the captain announced that due to the Covid-19 virus becoming an increasing risk, the cruise ship company company P & O Australia had taken the decision to pause all cruising.

“Passengers disembarked and it was only the crew left.

“We initially thought that cruises would resume again soon and so we would remain on board until then.

“But as the situation evolved, the company announced that cruises would be paused until later in the year and the priority was to repatriate crew to their home countries,” Du Toit said.

“I felt quite anxious about the uncertainty of the situation and having zero control and a bit scared that we were just going to be floating around indefinitely.

“It was quite unsettling. I felt quite panicked and trapped initially. I was already feeling cabin feverish because I hadn’t been off the ship the whole previous cruise,” she said.

Hugo Kleinhans leaves the cruise ship on a tender (a small boat that is onboard a cruise ship) to get to the Manila harbour
ALL ABOARD: Hugo Kleinhans leaves the cruise ship on a tender (a small boat that is onboard a cruise ship) to get to the Manila harbour Image: Supplied

“We were also worried about our families and friends back home.

“Everything on the news is just about the coronavirus.

“And we were scared that maybe a family member gets sick and we have no way of getting home,” she said.

Kleinhans said it was an eerie feeling once all the guests had left and it was just the crew on board this massive ship.

“It was a strange feeling. There was nervousness in the air along with uncertainty, but at the same time I felt lucky to have Megan with me and to be on a Covid-19-free ship.

“The duo started off in Brisbane, Australia, then they sailed to Manila Bay in the Philippines where they were anchored for majority of the time.

But Du Toit said they were in the same boat as a lot of other crew members on different ships.

“A few weeks aboard the ship, Australia ordered all cruise ships to leave its waters.

“At first it felt like we were just sailing aimlessly into international waters. And the possibility of flying home from Australia was no longer an option.

“Then we ended up sailing to the Philippines to drop off all the Filipinos crew. We were anchored there for almost two months not knowing how we would get home.

“There were many cruise ships that all ended up there, with 28 at one stage, all in the same situation where no country wanted them in their waters, all with the same plan to repatriate Filipinos crew.

“Filipinos make up a large percentage of crew on most cruise ships,” she said.

Some would think being stuck on a cruise liner while the world battles an pandemic would be great but for the couple it was not all fun and games. Du Toit said.

“It’s a strange bubble to exist in. We felt quite cut off from the rest of the world floating out at sea.

“And the internet was slow, so it made it difficult to have contact with family and friends back home. I also just missed solid ground and grass and trees.

“But in many ways we were fortunate as well. There were no Covid-19 cases on-board and so we felt quite safe in that respect.

Megan du Toit on the bus taking them to the airport in Manila, the Philippines
SAFETY FIRST: Megan du Toit on the bus taking them to the airport in Manila, the Philippines Image: Supplied

“Fortunately because we were a ‘green’ ship ( no Covid cases), we didn’t have to stay in cabin quarantine.

“We could wonder around the ship and use certain facilities and venues usually reserved only for guests,” she said.

Kleinhans described a typical day on the ship saying: “Every day started with temperature checks, followed by coffee and a walk outside.

“We got to perform for the crew occasionally in the beginning, but most days were spent following the news, reading, working on music and photography, playing table tennis.

“It’s extremely easy to get bored in this situation and keeping my mind busy felt important to me.”

The couple hit an all-time low when they heard they could get a flight home but it was cancelled.

“We were on our way towards land in a tender boat to finally get to an airport and go home, and were told to turn back as the flight just been cancelled,” Kleinhans said.

However, after a few months stuck in international waters, the couple heard good news.

“Our company co-ordinated with the South African government and the ambassador in the Philippines.

“They were fantastic. It was really tricky because there were no commercial flights to SA,” Du Toit said.

“Eventually a charter plane was arranged using an Air Zimbabwe plane. The whole process was a huge logistical effort.

“They had to co-ordinate with the Philippines government and coast guards. Then getting crew from multiple cruise ships to shore and onto sanitised buses to the airport,” she said.

The couple almost kissed the ground when they landed in SA. Now they just want to see their families.

“I hope we can arrange to see our families. Depending on the rules we may not be able to visit them just yet. But even just to see them would be amazing.

“And, of course, Hugo and I will celebrate our return home with a lekker braai,” she said.

Du Toit’s sister in Port Elizabeth, Ingrid Ahfeldt, said she was very excited to see the couple again.

“When Megan and Hugo told us that the cruises were cancelled but they had to stay on the ship we had no idea when and how they would come home.

“It was a bizarre situation.

“All along we had little information about how they would be repatriated.

“We were so thankful they were safe and looked after,” she said.

“I am very excited to see them.”

By Catherine Richards – HeraldLIVE


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