The tumult endured by 112 Australian passengers on the Greg Mortimer cruise ship ended on Sunday morning after nearly four weeks at sea, when they arrived in Melbourne.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said “a significant number” had tested positive for COVID-19. Two have remained in Montevideo due to ill health.
Their voyage to Antarctica “In Shackleton’s Footsteps” departed on March 15, a few days before the Australian government closed its borders, and was pounded by setbacks after it was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
They were turned away from the Falkland Islands where they had been planning to dock. They were barred from joining a charter flight with passengers from the Ocean Atlantic due to fever on board. They were trolled on social media. They learned last week that nearly 60 per cent of them (128 out of 217) had tested positive to coronavirus, though most of those who received positive results – including Mr Arnold – were asymptomatic. Some passengers, including an Australian man in his 60s, had to be taken to hospital after their health deteriorated.
Bad weather postponed their evacuation plans and forced the ship’s captain to turn off the water purification system, which meant they had to limit their showers until it could be safely delivered.
Rowena Hamilton, also from Newcastle, who pleaded with the Australian government for repatriation on behalf of the passengers, said at times it felt like they were all “collateral damage”.
The most touching part for those who felt most keenly the rejection from ports, the trolling and a lack of support from the government, was the goodwill extended to them by the people of Uruguay.
“They were treated very nicely on the boat and much better by the Uruguay authorities than the Australian ones,” said Margaret Zacharin, whose husband, John Clifford, was on the ship.
When they finally disembarked the Greg Mortimer about 10.30pm on Saturday, they were escorted to the airport by police and people lined the streets to wish them well.
“They actually came out of their houses and waved towels and it was absolutely unbelievable,” Mr Arnold said.
“Maybe they were happy to see us leave.” He laughed. “A lot of people on our flight were saying we want to go back to Uruguay to show our appreciation.”
Mr Arnold, 75, said the couple kept their sense of humour throughout the ordeal and it helped that the cruise operator Aurora Expeditions continued to provide five-star service and regular updates, even if it was only to say there was no new information. Aurora also covered the cost of their charter flight home and has offered a free expedition after the pandemic has passed.
But Mrs Arnold, 74, said she sometimes became tearful when she missed her children.
“When we landed we all cheered and I cried,” she said. “It’s really all the things that have happened to us have never happened before. It’s surreal.”
Harriet Alexander is a reporter for the Herald.