New Zealand travel bubble: First passenger flight takes off for Auckland

Every passenger occupying one of the 176 seats aboard the JQ201 service between Sydney and Auckland which was due to depart at the ungodly hour of 6.15am has their own travel story.

But, aboard this morning's historic first flight of the trans-Tasman bubble, perhaps few will be more poignant than that of Lisa Te Tai and her 16-month-old granddaughter, Manaia Taalili.

Beyond the obvious tourism benefits of the long-awaited quarantine-free travel bridge, first mooted over a year ago, are tales of separation, longing and loss. If ever there was a case of two countries being so close and yet so far, this is it.

Mrs Te Tai, who lives in Hinchinbrook in south-west Sydney, is making her first visit to her native New Zealand in two-and-a-half years (if not for the pandemic she would have returned in the past 12 months).

She's conscious of the risks, described as "flyer beware" by Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak on either or both slides of the Tasman, costly quarantine may be ordered by the New Zealand and Australian governments.

And the flight was not without early hiccups. It was slightly delayed after some passengers forgot to complete the mandatory New Zealand travel declaration and thanks to a fault with an aerobridge.

Whatever transpires, once the Jetstar flight lands in Auckland (initially due at 11.20am New Zealand time), it will signify the first successful major travel bubble during the pandemic with the only other one being between a COVID-sage Taiwan and tiny Palau, a Pacific island nation with a population of less than 20,000 (Qatar claims another one between it and the Maldives).

The first flight from Sydney is one of 13 departing to four New Zealand airports today from Sydney International Airport with another eight set to take off from Melbourne International Airport. For both facilities, today will be one of the busiest days for months, at least in the international terminals, now long shadows of their former selves.

On the opposite side of the Tasman, Auckland International Airport, which has been drastically modified to separate quarantine passengers to and from Australia and those returning from elsewhere, is expecting a total of 32 movements to and from Australia with flights operated by three carriers, Air New Zealand, Qantas and Jetstar.

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A "hooray for bubbles" sign greeted departing passengers at Sydney and, judging by the accents in the departure lounge, the flight is full of expat Kiwis crossing the Tasman to reunite with loved ones

Mrs Te Tai is among them. She is expecting an emotional welcome when the automatic arrival hall doors part after three hours and five minutes in the air to reveal her waiting loved ones (she says Maori New Zealanders are known on such occasions to burst not only into song but also into the ceremonial haka ritual).

The 43-year-old grandmother's journey is tinged with additional meaning. Not only is the trip the first opportunity for her relatives, including son Marcelle, 27, to meet Manaia, it will also be a chance to grieve together with them.

Mrs Te Tai is mourning the death of a favourite uncle, whose funeral in New Zealand she was forced to miss last Thursday.

"Even though we missed the service last week we're super excited that we're going to be able to finally see my son and our other relatives," says Mrs Tetai, who has lived in Australia for 24 years. "Before the pandemic we used to see each as often as six times a year."

The family had to rise at 2.30am to make the flight. "I wasn't daunted by the early start because I just wanted to be on that first flight. The bubble was taking so long to happen. I can't wait for other borders to open now so I can visit other places like Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. It's really beautiful there," she said.

"But for me this first trip back to New Zealand for such a long time this morning is really all about visiting my son and his little family and to also say my final farewell to my uncle in Northland [the northernmost region of the North Island]."

Mrs Te Tai's Maori heritage has imbued today's homecoming with added cultural significance. In New Zealand Maori culture, there is a practice known as "whenua" which involves the burying of the placenta after a child's birth. Mrs Te Tai intends to return the placenta from daughter Tamzin's birth to Manaia to the earth in Aotearoa the Maori name for New Zealand.

For Mrs Te Tai, there will be another reunion on Friday when husband Jim and Tamzin arrive in Auckland from Sydney to join her and Manaia. With a modicum of luck, and no COVID-19 outbreak, the Te Tais and their extended New Zealand kin may be able to resume those half-dozen shuttles back and forth across the Tasman.

National Travel Editor Anthony Dennis and photographer Nick Moir flew to New Zealand courtesy of Jetstar.

See also: Flights, hotel bookings surge as Aussies prepare for NZ travel

See also: Bubble loophole means Australians can travel to other countries via NZ

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