While the weeks-long chapter was physically and mentally draining, there were few complaints from the evacuees who spoke to The Age about their experiences on Christmas Island.
Adults praised the Australian government’s preparation and the accommodation, while children compared the experience to a two-week school camp.
Julia, 11, remembered long days playing outdoors with other children, unencumbered by the regular strictures of home life. Julia’s only gripe was that she had to wear a mask whenever she interacted with children from other families.
“It was really fun,” she explained. “I thought it would be like a cage, but it was actually fun.
“I made new friends. It was so funny. There was one called Daniel, and one called Kathy, and she had a little sister, and they went back to Sydney.”
On the island, evacuees celebrated Chinese New Year, played video games and played an impromptu soccer match. Two evacuees complained about poor internet connection and food quality.
More than 200 people returned from Christmas Island, about 2000 kilometres from the Australian mainland, to Australian capital cities on Monday night.
Three flights arrived in cities including Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Sydney. The flight that arrived in Melbourne made a stopover in Adelaide, where it dropped off about 30 South Australian residents.
In Melbourne, evacuees were greeted at Terminal Four by family of passengers, representatives of the Chinese community and Australia’s only Chinese-born federal parliamentarian, Gladys Liu.
Adrian Liu (not related to the politician) was one of the estimated 100,000 students enrolled in Australian universities who were in China celebrating the Lunar New Year when the outbreak intensified.
When the University of Melbourne student arrived in Melbourne on Monday, it was the first time he had seen his mother Shirley in months.
Adrian’s mother said, despite some worries, she always felt her son was safe on Christmas Island. She said she was comforted by the lack of fear he expressed when speaking to her over the past two weeks.
Mr Liu said he feared being trapped in Wuhan before the Australian government rescue mission, but his anxiety soon faded.
“On Christmas Island, it was like a hotel really – just without great food,” he said.
“Now I’ve got lectures tomorrow, so I need to go back to school and catch up on everything.”
Song Xiao praised the hospitality of the Australian government on the island, describing the food and accommodation as “awesome.”
“The government organised it very well. We are all so deeply appreciative … the soldiers treated us so well,” he said.
Mr Xiao hadn’t seen his wife and young son in 32 days. “I missed them every day,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to having a deep sleep and a long shower.
“There’s only one problem – they didn’t give us a tour around Christmas Island … lots of people say it’s amazing, the scuba diving and things. Maybe next time.”
Earlier on Monday, evacuees on Christmas Island pleaded with the Australian government to send a final evacuation flight to China to rescue those still stranded in Wuhan.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the evacuees expressed gratitude to the government for getting them out of Hubei, where at least 1690 people have died and more than 58,100 cases have been confirmed.
“You helped us at a very difficult time, overcame all kinds of difficulties during our return to Australia, and gave us greatest possible care and help,” the letter said.
“However, there is still a flaw in this wonderful story, that is, there are still [more than 100] Australian nationals and PRs (permanent residents) who failed to return to Australia.
The Morrison government has maintained there are no plans to send a third rescue mission to Wuhan.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.