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Omaha Magazine

Their Own Private Isle: David and Sarah Harding's 165-Day Month in New Zealand

Apr 29, 2021 03:44PM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
David Harding and Sarah Newman in doorway

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

David Harding and his wife, Sarah Newman, traveled to New Zealand last March. They flew into the country’s largest city—Auckland, population 1.67 million—and then went to Nelson, population 52,000, to stay with the two people they knew in New Zealand. 

After driving for a couple of days with their friends, Harding and Newman began their own adventure, driving around the south island. They drove to Te Anau, and went to Doubtful Sound, where they took an overnight tour of this area. They noted, however, that the boat was only about half full, and March is in the back end of the tourist season for New Zealand.

The couple drove back to Te Anau in mid-March 2020 to discover Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared the borders of the country shut. COVID-19 was making its way across the world, and New Zealand had an aggressive plan of attack that included closing their borders. This border closure remains in place to date.

They returned to their rooms at Te Anau Lodge, and the owner told the couple that within the last hour or two, he had lost all his reservations. Harding and Newman watched the news closely, wondering whether to fly home to the U.S. or stay in New Zealand.

Their flight was about two weeks away on April 2, and they, like everyone else, were unsure how the disease would affect people from day to day, let alone from one week to the next.

They chose to stay instead of trying to get a flight out. The couple drove to the south end of the south island and found their motel. The manager said “something big was coming down.” Rather than stay in the small town where they had just arrived, Harding and Newman dashed to Christchurch and rented an Airbnb on March 24, the day before Ardern announced a lockdown of the country.

Thus began 33 days in Christchurch. In between cooking meals, drinking New Zealand wine, and relaxing in the hot tub, the couple took walks.

“The whole place was deserted, like ghost town,” Harding said. “We were close to the downtown area, and there are buildings downtown that have a lot of rubble…they had an earthquake about 10 years ago there. It added to the atmosphere of ghost town.”

According to government statistics, New Zealand welcomes more than 240,000 tourists in a normal March. The government declared Alert Level 3 on April 27, which allowed people to move outside their cities. Harding and Newman traveled about an hour and a half from Christchurch to Akaroa on Banks Peninsula, as they wanted to get out in nature. 

The couple still found themselves two of the few people there, but that suited them. They stayed there for two weeks in May. 

Akaroa was the only French settlement in New Zealand, and thus is a huge tourist destination, with French colonial architecture and fine food.

“It was completely empty when we were there,” Newman said. “It was like being in northern California without the people.”

During that time, New Zealand declared no new cases of COVID-19, and on May 13, New Zealand shifted to Alert Level 2, effectively reopening businesses. People could gather in groups of 100 or fewer with masks and remaining at least 2 metres (6.5 feet) apart.

The couple were two of about a dozen people who took the first nature boat tour that day. The boat normally holds about 25 people.

“There’s this placid water in Caldera, and when we went onto the ocean, the boat was swarmed with Hector’s Dolphins!” Newman said, referring to the smallest, rarest marine dolphin in the world. They had not seen any boat activity for eight weeks, and they were curious where all the people had gone. 

Harding and Newman were encouraged by family to stay in New Zealand, where, by June 8, the ministry of health reported no more active cases of COVID-19 in the country. New Zealand went to alert level one at that time, which meant they could fly home. Their adult children, however, strongly suggested their parents stay in the country.

“Some of the regular tourist things were shut,” Harding said. “We wish we could have seen more of the north island. There was one place—Stewart Island—that we didn’t get to.”

Harding and Newman saw New Zealand in a way they never will again. On the advice of friends from home, they went to Hobbiton in Matamata. The couple were somewhat lukewarm on this site, thinking they were walking into Disneyland, but decided to enjoy the adventure. They were two of about 20 tourists that day. On a normal day, Hobbiton welcomes about four busloads of people each hour.

“It was the most enchanting place,” Newman said. “It was a family-owned sheep farm. The [film crew] rented the place and built Hobbiton out of styrofoam. A couple of years after the movie came out, the farmer called the director and said ‘people are showing up wanting to see Hobbiton.’” A business opportunity was born.

They also encountered stretches of empty beaches with seal colonies on them and birds that were so unafraid of people they almost walked beside the couple.

Their visa was up in September. So, in August, the pair returned to their home. Harding and Newman have returned to their normal lives, as much as anyone’s life is normal these days. Their time in New Zealand is still a topic of conversation with friends, and it’s a topic they’ll gladly share with people.  

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.