BACK at Budgeree near Mirboo North, Chris Sikkema has the shed stocked with firewood and the solid-fuel heater stoked up for the return of his partner, Kelly Van Den Berg.
Well known across Gippsland for helping to organise the response for horse owners caught up in the East Gippsland bushfires, Kelly has become entangled in a crisis of her own.
Overseas on the ‘trip of a lifetime’ with sister, Tracey Lewis of Korumburra, Kelly found herself marooned in Morocco for more than a month, admittedly in the delightful seaside resort town of Essaouira when the Moroccan government unexpectedly closed its borders on March 20.
Thankfully, though, the pair are presently winging their way home after gaining the final seats on a Canadian-British last mercy flight out of Casablanca, with a little bit of help from the Australian Embassy.
The sisters arrived in London on Friday, stayed at a budget-priced airport hotel overnight and left for Doha the next morning.
They are due to board a flight back to Melbourne on Sunday night and will arrive there on Monday, headed for 14-days quarantine.
It’s a huge relief, according to Chris, back in the splendid isolation of rural Budgeree.
“The wood’s up but I better get the house cleaned up as well I guess,” he said.
Chris said the pair travelled the four hours from Essaouira to the Casablanca airport in a small minibus with a car from the Australian Embassy clearing the way through military roadblocks.
“The Embassy even set up a table with hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes and made point of coming up to Kelly to ask if everything was OK.
“It’s the advantage of being the squeaky wheel I guess.”
Kelly has been championing the cause of Aussie stranded overseas, and her own particular predicament, with the Australian Government back home with the likes of Russell Broadbent and Senator Penny Wong making representations to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on their behalf.
It was back on March 13 that the Prime Minister advised people not to travel overseas and then on March 17 boosted that advisory for Aussies overseas to come home.
Kelly and Tracey responded, changing plans to go back to Spain after visiting Morocco early in March but decided against taking a flight to London when offered due to reports of crowding and fighting at the Casablanca airport. However, they then missed departure by a matter of hours at Marrakesh sometime later.
Essaouira, with its nice beaches and holiday atmosphere looked a good place “to wait it out” until strict lock-down rules came in on March 20.
After that you needed a permit to go out for the weekly shop, such is the concern about the impact of rising virus numbers on an inadequate health system.
Morocco has made wearing masks mandatory, with those who fail to do so at risk of being fined or jailed.
Why not here?
The pair have gained some notoriety via their regular reports on Facebook, including “cooking in isolation” videos, and subsequent interviews on Channel 9 and ABC Radio, as well as in the local press.
A ‘Go Fund Me’ page set up by Tracey’s daughter, Kiara, has attracted more than $3000 to go towards their expenses.
No doubt though, they’ll both be happy to slide back into peaceful anominity back home in South Gippsland when all this is over.
They’re not the only family members and friends who’ve been trapped overseas by the COVID-19 pandemic with reports some have paid as much $15,000 to board rescue flights from South America in the past week.
Let’s hope they all get home safely to what appears to be one of the safest places on earth at the moment.
No cause for complacency though.