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New Zealand - British Hiker's Lockdown Surprise

A British hiker emerged from five days alone in the mountains of New Zealand to find that the country had unexpectedly shut down in his absence. James Johnston, 27, who is based in Wellington, had set off to walk the Five Passes route on South Island, with no idea that a nationwide lockdown was imminent.

Enjoying the solitude on the Five Passes walk  © James Johnston
Enjoying the solitude on the Five Passes walk
© James Johnston

"When I flew from Wellington to Queenstown, there were no official restrictions in place" he told us.

"It was around two hours after I had landed that the Prime Minister announced the "Levels" system, and that the country was at Level 2 (reduce contact) until further notice. I barely registered this as I was almost in the bush by then. It's easy at this point to say that it was a bad decision to go, but there were few signs at the time that the government's response would escalate as quickly as it did."

James, who has been doing a lot of solo 'tramping' over the last six months, was soon off grid in the bush.

"There were a reasonable number of people at the beginning, since the Five Passes route follows the Routeburn Track for about 500m. After that, I didn't see anyone for five days."

"It was brilliant" he says.

"The route up Beans Burn is a long slog, but you can sleep in a cave at the end of it which is fun. Part of the route goes through the Olivine Wilderness which is pretty much untouched, and there is a lot of great birdlife around. The passes themselves have spectacular views, especially Fiery Col."

Would he have been as laid back if he'd known?  © James Johnston
Would he have been as laid back if he'd known?
© James Johnston

With no mobile phone reception, he was oblivious to the news unfolding in the outside world.

Only on re-emerging at a trail head for the Routeburn Track did he get the first hint that anything was wrong. As one of the most popular of New Zealand's 'Great Walks', the Routeburn is usually extremely busy. But now the place was strangely deserted.

"At first I was gutted" he says.

"I'd just finished a difficult multi-day tramp and the last thing I wanted to do was walk 25km along a road in the rain to the next village. After a few minutes this was replaced by a feeling of uneasiness - where was everyone?"

As he pondered his options, a group of trail workers arrived in a vehicle. Sporting face masks, they filled James in on what he'd missed: Over the last few days the entire country had been placed in full lockdown, with domestic travel banned and people confined to their homes.

"They were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. They had been tasked with driving to all the local road-ends and out-of-the-way campsites to check for anyone who wasn't aware of the lockdown, and I was the only person they had found."

Now safe at home in Wellington, does he find himself wishing he were still out in the bush in blissful ignorance?

"Part of me misses the backcountry already, but I love my creature comforts and it's good to be home..."


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