| SHIP OF DEATH |





NEW ZEALAND



TRAVELLED MARCH 2020



WRITTEN BY CHRIS GILL


It was our trip of a lifetime, we’d previously spent several weeks in Australia, popping over to Tasmania, now we were back using Sydney as a stepping stone. We are sat overlooking the harbour watching the boats ferry passengers away from the shadow of the Harbour Bridge and the iconic Opera House. Australians young and old filter past on a warm Sunday night.






SYDNEY COVE


Fast forward 24 hours and we are on board Ruby Princess, sailing gently beyond the bridge and out towards the open sea - destination New Zealand. It’s show time, happy days, dancing girls and boys, in dining rooms folk making new friends for a fortnight or maybe more… Little did we know then that weeks later we would be tracked down from half way across the world by Australian police wanting to know exactly what was going on around the vessel that ultimately became a ship of death.






AUCKLAND


Two hot sunny days at sea was just what we needed, good food, great company, fabulous entertainment, we’d been on many cruises and this was up to standard. Eventually the dot on the horizon emerged into Kerikeri on the Bay of Islands in the north, the weather was blissfully perfect as we gorged on the highlights, topped by an amazing waterfall and afternoon tea, but there was so much to see, and what a beautiful terrain. In contrast the next stop was Auckland, a population of 1.65m, overlooked by Mount Eden which provided marginally less spectacular views than the Sky Tower sited deep in the city centre. We loved Auckland, bustling, yet just a short distance away you could be isolated.






THE SKY TOWER AUCKLAND


It may also house one of the few McDonald’s in the world that sells pies - aye they like their pastries in New Zealand. They love their fish and chips too, so having toured the compulsory Maori battlegrounds in Tauranga and enjoyed the fascinating history and tour of the kiwi fruit farm, no prizes for guessing what was on the menu.

It was devoured al fresco on the dockside next to the trawler that caught the fish earlier that day. Meanwhile at sea the music continued on board Ruby Princess, no hint of problems that lay ahead over the next month. Was it already too late to prevent the catastrophe that lay ahead? We were on a run of ports and we enjoyed the vintage bus tour of the art deco city of Napier, its beautiful beaches and the obligatory visit to an Irish pub for lunch.






NAPIER


We sailed on, and as we hit Wellington we emerged from the cable car into heavy rain but not before we had eyed Mount Victoria, Parliament buildings and the rest of the city. No one had really mentioned the emerging Covid 19 virus, it was now early March and beginning to get a grip on Europe. Fewer people were into using the swimming pools or jacuzzis but social distancing was far from many minds as the Lido deck overflowed with late night revellers.

Bizarrely, while we were able to watch UK tv channels in our cabins and saw that the virus was ramping up elsewhere we felt very safe on board. No suggestion of things that come.The following day we hit the cooler South island and Akaroa but were again blessed with stifling heat as we enjoyed a visit to a traditional sheep farm, coupled with afternoon tea laid on by the lady of the house, an expat from Garstang in Lancashire.






TRADITIONAL SHEEP FARM


By the time we slipped into our last stop of Dunedin - famed for its beautiful beaches, architecturally awesome railway station and Baldwin Street - the steepest in the world - it became apparent the use of sanitizers to clean hands had become more important. People were being hailed back by staff if they should wander into a buffet or restaurant without doing so.

But suddenly we found the atmosphere at mealtimes had chilled slightly. We had initially raised the issue of how long our food was taking to reach us but now our four courses were coming thick and fast and the push to sell alcohol til the last bite had stopped. The bonhommie from our servers was beginning to evaporate at a point where it usually got better in pursuit of extra gratuities.

Prior to that the Commodore’s cocktail party was attended by hundreds of Princess Cruises’ high-tier guests, many had also previously enjoyed the captain’s packed gala night, both came with copious free drinks. We were now just three days from berthing back at Circular Quay in Sydney, and our last focal point was cruising in the Fjordlands national park, a Unesco World heritage site and for good reason.






FJORDLANDS NATIONAL PARK






WATERFALLS IN FJORDLANDS


Words fail me to describe the spectacular granite mountains, rapid flowing waterfalls and peaks and you wonder how the 110,000 tonnes ship is able to navigate the narrow passages.. Back at food time we noticed the dining room had become less populated, for whatever reason, and the late theatre show had considerably more empty seats.We put it down to choice.

And so we rolled home, choppy seas and indifferent weather put the dampener on the two day sail home and fewer people were about.The pools were also closed. Then the moment came. On our last evening we were waiting for the show to begin and detected there was an issue (technical they announced) when it was delayed.

The impasse was broken by an announcement from the Bridge.. We were informed Public Health Australia had contacted the ship and before any disembarkation could take place all passengers needed to participate in a health survey subject to further medical checks in the morning.






EMPTY SUN BEDS ON DECK


We were told to return to our cabins and, within 90 minutes, fill in questionnaires (they got them out very quickly considering they’d just been informed) and return them to reception. It was querying symptoms you may have had during the cruise, but the form itself was enough cause for more than frowns on foreheads.There was now deep concern.

In the morning the atmosphere was tense, we had a tour and beach visit planned which ended with us and our luggage at the airport. But like everyone else we just wanted to get off and go home. I was told health officials monitored the conditions of 500 people, with swabs, temperature checks being key. One person, an elderly lady, was led away to an ambulance while we awaited our fate.






BONDI BEACH


We were horrified at the thought of being quarantined on board For weeks like those cruisers on another Princess Cruises ship, Diamond. You could cut the tension as the hours ticked by, until, eventually there was movement on the dockside and passengers’ luggage was finally being removed - so quickly, some of it fell into the sea -  and we knew we were getting off. The quayside was jammed as folk flocked to get their transport while others expecting to get on board for the next cruise added to the throng. It was mayhem.

Hours later we were on our way to London via Doha when the Ruby set sail again… What happened on that curtailed cruise and had been kept from us during our vacation was staggering. We picked our cruise date well… had we opted for the next sailing we could have been among the 20 odd people who died from the virus or 600 who contracted, suffered the disease and fought it off.

Shockingly it is claimed there were more than 100 sick people on OUR cruise but it was never made public until Australian authorities demanded to see logs and insisted on hearIng conversations made to and from the bridge. Clearly the disease was prevalent, and possibly among crew, but the ship sailed on. Princess Cruises is currently subject to various writs alleging corporate negligence and corporate gross negligence, alleging the ship sailed on March 8 knowing that there was a huge risk of putting their passengers exposed to COVID-19.

And so this week my inbox pinged with an email from New South Wales, Australia police asking me to answer a number of questions relating to our trip which ended on March 8. It is now a criminal investigation and some people may have a lot to answer for. For us, our dream trip ended when a nightmare began for others.




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©NICHOLAS EDWARD GILL 2019